Author: Ian David Moss

Art and Democracy: The NEA, Kickstarter, and Creativity in America

two roadsEvery once in a blue moon, an arts policy story breaks into the mainstream media—and as with most poorly understood subjects, it’s usually for some profoundly stupid reason. The news that the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter anticipates distributing more money this year than the National Endowment for the Arts was no exception.[1] The story, prompted by a February 24 interview of Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler by Talking Points Memo’s Carl Franzen, led to a flurry of content-free online chatter on well-trafficked channels with frothy headlines like “Could Kickstarter Replace the NEA?” and “Kickstarter Kicks the NEA’s Butt in Arts Funding.”

It’s worth noting that neither Strickler himself nor Franzen’s analysis suggested that Kickstarter was somehow in opposition to the NEA—indeed, Strickler went out of his way to emphasize that he has mixed feelings about the growth of his startup relative to the nation’s second-largest arts funder.[2] But not surprisingly, that was the direction the conversation immediately went. In a way, I can sympathize with the enthusiasm for this easy, attention-grabbing narrative: Kickstarter, after all, has been extraordinarily successful in positioning itself as the hot new tech tool that everyone’s talking about, the creative entrepreneur’s best friend, in more or less direct contrast to the NEA’s comparatively stodgy, bureaucratic image. The comparison, furthermore, is like catnip to conservative and libertarian opponents of federal arts funding, who see the numbers as justification for the argument that their taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to support art that they don’t directly endorse. Just as inexperienced artists sometimes mistakenly believe that Kickstarter is going to solve all of their fundraising problems with nary a lifted finger in sight, commentators who have more interest than background in the arts can easily fall into the trap of seeing Kickstarter as “the answer” to United States arts policy.

Seductive as it is, that narrative ignores a number of pertinent facts about the nature of both Kickstarter itself and the arts funding ecosystem in our country. Crucially, it misses the forest for the trees by incorrectly assuming that the NEA is one of the primary means by which our country funds the nonprofit arts sector, following the model embraced by governments in Europe and elsewhere. In reality, Kickstarter and the NEA combined comprise less than 0.5% of the total dollars arts organizations raise and spend annually. The NEA isn’t even the largest line item in the federal budget devoted to arts and culture—that honor goes to the Smithsonian Institution, with an appropriation from Uncle Sam exceeding that of the NEA’s by a factor of five. Instead, nonprofit arts organizations raise nearly half of their revenue from earned sources such as ticket sales and tuition fees, with the bulk of the remainder coming from individual donations (yes, people gave money to the arts before Kickstarter) and foundation grants.

Graph from the NEA's "How the United States Funds the Arts" report

Graph from the NEA’s “How the United States Funds the Arts” report

Moreover, as author and technologist Clay Johnson points out, the NEA and Kickstarter are fundamentally different beasts: the NEA is a mission-centric public agency intentionally focusing its resources in certain directions to attain specific goals, whereas the strings-attached donations that take place on Kickstarter arguably have more in common with purchases of goods and services than with grants. A solid quarter of Kickstarter’s distributions to date have gone toward projects that fall outside of the scope of what the NEA has traditionally supported, such as new product design and commercial entertainment (high-profile projects have included an iPhone dock, an iPod Nano watch, and a movie by Tom Hanks’s son). Indeed, to say that Kickstarter “funds” the arts at all seems an exaggeration; Kickstarter is a for-profit technology platform that takes a 8-10% cut (counting credit card and transaction fees) from the donations that come through its system, money that is currently being used to grow the company and will one day undoubtedly make its founders very, very rich. Saying that Kickstarter should replace the NEA is rather like saying we don’t need libraries anymore because we have


It’s interesting to me that, in contrast to the apparently exciting (for some) notion of Kickstarter supplanting the NEA, no one has called for the reverse—that is, for the NEA to replace Kickstarter, or at least for Kickstarter to become more like the NEA. That suggests the NEA has a bit of an image problem relative to the darlings of the crowdfunding world. Why might that be? I suspect a big reason is the complex role the NEA plays in United States arts policy, one that is frequently at odds with the expectations placed upon it by liberals and conservatives alike.

Following the first meeting of the National Council on the Arts (the body that oversees the National Endowment for the Arts) in 1965, the Council released a statement that read, in part, “…The Council cannot create artists, but it is passionately dedicated to creating a climate in which art and the artist shall flourish.” That sentence neatly encapsulates the indirect role that the NEA must play in our cultural ecosystem due to its small size. United States citizens can be forgiven, I suppose, for thinking that the role of a federal agency called the “National Endowment for the Arts” is to support artists directly in the creation and production of art. But these days, aside from a handful of literature fellowships, it’s not—any more than the role of the Federal Highway Administration is to make and drive cars. Rather, the function of both agencies is to create and maintain a strong infrastructure to serve their respective constituencies.

Money Trees

One could make an argument that the NEA isn’t so different from Kickstarter in one key respect: neither entity really gives away its own money. In the NEA’s case, that money is ours, the taxpayers’, and just like Kickstarter it takes a cut of the pie for itself: more than 20% of the budget goes toward operating expenses or program support efforts rather than grants. But taxpayers get at least two things for their overhead dollars that their Kickstarter patron and customer counterparts don’t: curation[3] and leadership. The first is becoming increasingly central for the arts field as a whole, as the number of new and growing creative enterprises threatens to overwhelm an already crowded market. Rather than allocate its dollars to grant applicants via some automated process, the NEA invests considerable time in assembling peer review panels to assess each project’s merits and goals in relation to its strategic objectives (creating excellent art, engaging the public, and promoting public knowledge and understanding about the arts). Importantly, as a government entity with no obligation to consider the commercial potential of the projects it supports, the NEA is free to prioritize art that would otherwise fall through the cracks—either because of what it is, who’s making it, or where it’s happening. This freedom is what allows the NEA and other mission-oriented funders to create a subsidy-driven artistic marketplace to serve alongside the profit-driven commercial marketplace.

In short, by making strong, centralized, and values-based curatorial choices, the NEA has the capacity to exercise leadership. And leadership is the means by which the NEA can be relevant despite its modest budget as the most visible national government body supporting the arts. The Endowment has focused a singular attention during Chairman Rocco Landesman’s tenure on setting national priorities and forming partnerships and coalitions around them, resulting most obviously in a raft of new creative placemaking initiatives casting the arts as engines of economic redevelopment in urban and rural centers across the United States. The NEA has also put new energy and resources into its research activities, using its power as a convener to standardize and update methodologies and form liaisons with other branches of government.

Finally, there is one important respect in which the NEA leads by…well…following. Forty percent of the Endowment’s grant dollars go not to organizations or artists directly, but to arts councils via state and local partnerships. This arrangement is part of a decentralization strategy that is aimed at getting national dollars for arts access to every corner of the country. While some commentators feel that the NEA could do more to support arts access in rural areas and away from the coasts, the Endowment is without question a bigger boon to these regions than Kickstarter, whose marketplace-based model (mirroring the economy more generally) inherently privileges geographic clusters.


Right now, it’s not clear that Kickstarter is doing much more than offering a streamlined process for donations that would probably have happened anyway. Aside from a handful of lucky campaigns that “go viral,” anecdotal reports suggest that the vast majority of donors to a typical project are previously known to the recipient. That means that whatever biases and privileges exist in the real world also exist on Kickstarter. Artist-entrepreneurs who have either ready access to networks of family and friends with money or an already-existing fan base will have a noticeable leg up on those who are just starting out or paid their own way in college. In fact, Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing campaign model may exacerbate these inequities, by increasing the risk that those who begin with less will lose the benefits of all their hard work—a fate that befell more than half of all campaigns launched on the site last year.

Given all the above, it may seem ironic that it is Kickstarter that has seized the mantle of democratizing access to the arts in the public imagination, rather than the NEA. A closer examination, however, quickly reveals why. In recent years, the NEA has focused on arts access from the perspective of the audience, particularly through geographic reach. The Endowment publishes national studies on arts participation twice a decade, supports touring programs through its network of regional partners, and frequently supports established organizations that are capable of bringing in large crowds consistently. But these measures are often not so friendly to the creator. The NEA’s focus on pre-existing institutions, its requirement that applicants hold tax-exempt status, and its extensive application requirements and lengthy review process all erect barriers to participation no less formidable than those that face artist-entrepreneurs who come to Kickstarter without access to a video camera. The NEA is simply not set up to provide seed funding of any kind, relying on partners, grantees, and the private sector to fulfill that function instead. By contrast, Kickstarter allows pretty much anyone to sign up and start soliciting in a jiffy, and campaign timelines are purposefully kept short to allow for nearly immediate results. In short, if one fits the profile of an ideal Kickstarter project, that platform offers an infinitely more attractive vehicle for obtaining funding than the NEA.


Precisely because the marketplace for individual giving is so much larger than the capacity for government support, Kickstarter has the potential to deliver a transformative impact on the arts sector by cultivating more and better donors to the arts. (Kickstarter isn’t the only platform of its kind, of course, nor is it even the first. My employer, Fractured Atlas, partners with two of Kickstarter’s competitors, IndieGoGo and RocketHub, and many other online fundraising platforms cover the arts and beyond, including USA Projects, Power2Give, and ArtSpire. But Kickstarter’s large customer base and obvious cachet with the technology community currently put it in the best position to achieve what I suggest here.) Kickstarter has already taken a number of steps to encourage “browsers”—people who donate to projects to which they have no personal connection. The company offers a weekly newsletter featuring projects that catch the program team’s eye, and regularly highlights selected campaigns on its blog and other social media. A “Discover Great Projects” section of the website offers staff picks, and curated pages increase the number of voices in the mix. Strickler’s comments on a year-in-review thread from earlier this year also indicate that Kickstarter is working on ways to make it easier to find projects in close geographic proximity to you.

concert crowd

But Kickstarter could do more. For as much time as it puts into selecting projects to highlight, many, many more will pass unnoticed, a trend that will only worsen as the platform becomes more popular.  By engaging its audience directly in the curation of its projects, perhaps through some kind of guided crowdsourcing process, Kickstarter would expose more of the “long tail” of its project pool to potential review by strangers. That would allow projects that originate from underserved communities and don’t already come in with strong connections to donors a more realistic shot at reaching their campaign goals. Kickstarter’s broad conception of creativity, one that reaches beyond the arts to video games, product design, and even social innovation, holds enormous promise for encouraging the cross-pollination of donors across various fields, perhaps even training a new generation of tech-savvy arts patrons and board members. A robust recommendation engine and more project discovery tools will likely be needed, however, to turn all of those one-time supporters doing a friend a favor into ongoing mini-Medicis (or should we say Bloombergs?) providing a regular stream of dollars to projects and artists they discover for the first time through Kickstarter. Were that vision realized, the notion of Kickstarter as a “funder” of the arts would not seem nearly so far-fetched.


I’ve been pretty harsh on the “could Kickstarter replace the NEA” meme, on the logic that (a) it’s not going to happen and (b) even if it did, it would have little practical impact because of the relatively small dollar amounts involved. Yet the NEA/Kickstarter cage-match narrative compels because it gets at a central debate in American society: the value of shaping markets through planning and policy versus letting them run free. While Kickstarter does not prioritize, and therefore is less successful at, distributing its funds in a way that acknowledges historical inequities and the biases of capitalism, in other respects it does represent a more accessible vision of the arts in America consistent with the Pro-Am Revolution. It is this commitment to lowering the barriers to entry that has made Kickstarter so popular with the media and, in particular, with the innovation-obsessed technology community. And though the NEA theoretically should be able to democratize access to the arts more effectively than a for-profit entity like Kickstarter, for creators, accessing the Endowment—with all of its rules and structure—simply requires a different kind of privilege.

For these reasons, it’s not that hard to imagine Kickstarter and the NEA learning from each other. Though Kickstarter’s mission is not to serve the arts community per se, it would be a shame to see it pass up the huge opportunity in front of it to do just that by flexing more curatorial leadership and empowering its audience to do the same. Meanwhile, crowdfunding’s open-access, instant-gratification model offers an important challenge to the Endowment as it continues to wrestle with how it can best do its job on pennies per capita. If democratizing access to the arts means anything at all, it must include not just who gets to see the artist but also who gets to be the artist. And on that last score, both institutions have a ways yet to go.


1. I’m not going to waste time crafting the world’s seven gazillionth article describing Kickstarter here. If you’re not familiar with it, Anastasia Tsioulcas’s blog post offers a good introduction from a classical music perspective.

2. Depending on the definition used, the NEA is either neck-and-neck with or far behind the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in money provided to the arts annually.

3. Kickstarter does “curate” its projects in the sense that they must meet basic eligibility requirements in order to get listed, but the review and due diligence process is far less extensive than the NEA’s.


Ian Moss
As research director for Fractured Atlas, Ian David Moss helps funders, government agencies, and others support the field more effectively by harnessing the power of data to drive informed decision-making. Ian designed and leads implementation of Fractured Atlas’s pioneering cultural asset mapping software, Archipelago, which aggregates and visualizes information about creative activities in a particular geography in order to better illuminate who’s making art, who’s engaging with it, where it’s happening, and how it’s made possible. Since 2007, he has also been editor of Createquity, a highly acclaimed arts policy blog read regularly by more than 2,000 arts managers and enthusiasts around the world. Previously, he was development manager for the American Music Center and founded two first-of-their-kind performing ensembles: a hybrid electric chamber group/experimental rock band and a choral collective devoted to the music of the past 25 years. He holds BA and MBA degrees from Yale University.

Composing a Life, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dollar

Three years ago, I left my job at the American Music Center, New York City, and the two new music ensembles I had founded in order to begin a full-time MBA at the Yale School of Management. My friends at the time were thrown for a loop. A few clearly thought I was selling out, and many more were simply surprised that I would go to grad school to study something other than music composition, on which I had focused so much of my energies up to that point. In truth, I came to business school with the full intention of returning to the arts after graduation, and thankfully I’ve been able to keep that promise. I even chose Yale SOM in part because its liberal electives policy meant that I could almost have earned a shadow music degree during my time there, if the School of Music had been willing to play along. Yet after a year’s worth of required lectures and seminars in everything but music, it was clear that I had found a new calling. For better or for worse, business school transformed me into a different person.

What changed me the most was the exposure to an endless panoply of other areas of human life beyond contemporary classical music. Sure, I learned about assets and liabilities and how to read a cash flow statement, but I also learned about the auction for 3G wireless ranges, competition between Target and Wal-Mart, why Turkey is an emerging power player in the Middle East, and how colleges and foundations manage their endowments. We heard speeches from the president of the Ford Foundation, the former United States Ambassador to the UN, the CEO of Newsweek, the founder of an IT consulting firm that crashed and burned with the last recession and then rose from the ashes. I became a sponge for statistics, ideas, publications, whole disciplines that I hadn’t even known to exist until that point.

In the course of this sudden immersion into what the rest of the world thinks about and does on a daily basis, I came to realize that my former existence had been focused like a laser on about 0.00001% of everything that matters. It was like the veil had been lifted on my life: the choices I faced when I voted in an election or needed to buy produce or searched for an apartment to rent or, yes, chose a graduate school had all been determined by somebody, or more often a collection of somebodies acting in somewhat predictable ways. It became clear to me that I was never going to have control over my own destiny unless I had the capacity to see and understand the external forces that were influencing my circumstances. And if that’s true for me, it’s true for you, too. So here are a couple of vignettes from my own journey into the belly of the capitalist beast, which I offer in the hopes of connecting my experiences (and perhaps some of yours) to the bigger picture. After all, we are just variations on a theme.

The Pro-Am Shuffle

Back when I was playing bandleader in the middle part of the last decade, I had a six-piece electric chamber ensemble featuring some killer musicians who performed my compositions. Since they were professionals, I paid them for every gig—and if the money from the door wasn’t enough to make for a halfway decent payout for each, as it often wasn’t, I had to make up the difference from my own pocket. (This was on top of rehearsal space rental fees, recording costs, etc.) It wasn’t exactly a recipe for quick cash; my profit margins in 2005 were about -1000%. The low point was when I decided to take the band on “tour” to Philadelphia, driving half of them there in my car with their equipment while the others took a bus or otherwise got there on their own dime. Despite a prime Saturday night slot at a popular hangout with a well-known local band as the headliner, hardly anyone came. At the end of the night, the soundman came up and informed me I had a $10 bill to split up among the performers.

I was very serious about my work as a composer in those days, but the financial return I earned from that work was negligible, if not downright negative. I was not alone. Less than 10% of the 1347 composers who responded in 2008 to the American Music Center and American Composers Forum’s joint survey of composers, Taking Note, indicated that composing represents their primary income; even relatively wealthy composers who considered themselves professionals earned an average of only one-fifth of their income directly from composition-related activities.

Download the report

Researchers Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller (no, not that Paul Miller) came up with a term for these sorts of people in their 2004 monograph for the British think tank DEMOS, The Pro-Am Revolution. Defined as those who “have a strong sense of vocation; use recognized public standards to assess performance; …[and] produce non-commodity products and services” while “spend[ing] a large share of their disposable income supporting their pastimes,” Pro-Ams are seemingly becoming a more and more prominent feature of developed-society life as leisure time becomes a reality for a larger portion of the population and higher education becomes an increasingly attainable goal.

Needless to say, it’s wonderful that more people are interested in creative activities. But that trend has its downsides for composers who harbor ambitions of making a living through music, particularly when combined with the proliferation of technologies that make music easier to produce and distribute to a mass audience than ever before. It creates a new kind of hypercompetition in which composers are not only jostling for attention with greater numbers of their peers than at any time in history—upload a piece to the AMC Online Library, for example, and anyone in the world can hear it, that is if they choose it from among the 4,613 audio samples already available there—they are also competing with every composer who ever lived whose work survived to the present day. (Unfortunately, composers cannot similarly count on dead audience members to be a part of their fan base.)

Making matters worse, composition suffers from the same long-term structural economic challenges that affect the rest of the performing arts (as well as other sectors such as health care and education). As Matthew Guerrieri defined Baumol’s cost disease for NewMusicBox three years ago, “labor costs in the performing arts will always inexorably rise, and at a faster rate than other industries.” Put simply, new compositions are labor-intensive for creator and audience alike at a point in history when everybody’s time is becoming more and more precious. While innovations such as notation software and MIDI renderings can help us increase our productivity as composers somewhat, the productivity increase doesn’t help that much if there isn’t a clear demand for the extra music it makes possible, and even these tools can’t erase the need for countless hours of training and perfecting necessary to meet most composers’ standards of quality.

From an economic standpoint, then, assuming composers don’t want to compromise on the type of music they write, they would do well to live in the cheapest circumstances possible, learn as much of their technique as they can on their own, and look for ways to make their creative process more efficient so that they can use the rest of their time to support themselves with unrelated work. Instead, you’ll often see composers clustering in major urban centers with high costs of living and earning a succession of expensive graduate degrees in order to set themselves apart. Indeed, according to the National Arts Index, the number of visual and performing arts degrees awarded in this country rose an astonishing 51% between 1998 and 2007.

The Grad School Racket

As I mentioned, my friends were confused that I chose to go to business school instead of music school. In fact, I almost did go to music school—in 2003. A year out of college, I applied to six master’s-degree-level programs in composition and didn’t get into any of them. It was the best misfortune that’s ever befallen me.

My top choice that year was New England Conservatory. At last check, tuition and fees for the master of music program at NEC run nearly $50,000 per year. My conversations with the financial aid office in 2002-03 made clear that scholarships were not to be counted upon, so in all likelihood the only way I could have afforded my education would have been to take out loans. Ironically, my loan burden probably would have been far more intense for NEC than will turn out to be the case for my pricier business degree, because my business school offers a loan forgiveness program that reimburses up to 100% of the need-based portion of my loans in exchange for working in the nonprofit sector after graduation. No such program could ever exist at a music school. There isn’t a fresh stable each year of investment bankers, consultants, and marketers going out and making six figures after graduation whose fees can cross-subsidize the minority of us who take less in order to do good work for the world. At music school, nonprofit is a way of life.

Well, it is for most. Some lucky stars in the piano, string, voice, or conducting programs might go on to extremely lucrative solo careers. A few composers might score some film gigs in Hollywood and make a pretty penny. But for the rest, life after graduation and financial prosperity don’t often mix. The best one can hope for, economically speaking, is a stable but obscure home in academia—yet the competition for even third-tier positions is notoriously fierce. Those trying to make it on the DIY circuit in an expensive city like New York or San Francisco frequently find that while opportunities for artistic collaboration are plentiful, a day job (or a trust fund) is essential.

Regardless of outside employment (or lack thereof), nearly half of respondents to Taking Note reported a total annual income before taxes of less than $40,000 over the previous three years. Composers are not a wealthy bunch, at least as measured by their take-home pay. And if you have a heavy sack of graduate school loans weighing you down, that investment in your education could realistically be forcing tough decisions decades later.

This is not a theoretical matter. A landmark study of graduates of arts training programs found that only 37% felt that their schools had given them adequate leadership training, and just 3% felt that they had been well prepared in financial matters. Fully half indicated that their student debt burden had influenced their career choices.

That bit of inconvenient truth is the sort of thing one wishes academic institutions would communicate to prospective students before they make what is likely to be the second-most significant financial commitment of their lives. But it’s not in the interests of those institutions to be giving potential customers (because that is what composition students are, whether they think of themselves that way or not) second thoughts about purchasing their product. After all, the more students there are, the more money there is for faculty positions, which of course represent one of the few oases of job security for the composition field in general. Yet no one seems to talk about the fact that a typical composition department might send three or four newly minted Ph.D.s or DMAs out on the job market each year, but only hire a new professor into its own ranks a couple of times a decade. The viability of the academic job track assumes a continual and improbable expansion of composition programs at every university.

Perhaps all that wouldn’t be so bad if conservatories and music departments were proactive about giving students tools to succeed outside of the academy. A few have taken some admirable steps in this direction in the past decade; Eastman School of Music, for example, established an Institute for Music Leadership during the tenure of former Dean and AMC Board Chair James Undercofler in 2001, and the Manhattan School of Music just announced a new Center for Music Entrepreneurship to begin this fall. So far, though, these initiatives appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Where are the conservatory classes and workshops on writing grant applications? Doing your taxes? Copyright and intellectual property? Marketing and promotion? Time management skills from which any freelance professional can benefit? Like it or not, most composers graduating from these programs who are serious about their careers will need to be entrepreneurs and arts administration professionals of a sort. They should be trained appropriately.

The Social Stratification Blues

Download the complete survey

Some of you may be thinking to yourselves at this point, “So, you’re arguing that composers can’t make any money doing new music, and grad degrees are expensive. What else is new? And why should we care?” The major problem is that when success requires not only a daunting investment of financial resources to buy the right kind of training, the right kind of connections, high-quality recordings of one’s work, etc., but also thousands of hours of time not spent earning a living so that one can create and promote one’s own work, that field is not likely to have much in the way of socioeconomic diversity. Arts philanthropists consider lack of diversity in the face of changing demographics one of the biggest crises (perhaps the biggest of all) in the arts today. According to the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, African Americans and Hispanics are between one-third to half as likely to attend a classical music event as whites and Asians, and people who make over $100,000 a year are more than three times as likely to attend as people who make less than $40,000. These broad contours hold true for most other disciplines as well. All told, traditional participants (i.e., ticket buyers) in traditional art forms represent a tiny, exclusive slice of the American public—in the case of classical music, a predominantly white, affluent, and highly educated 9.3% of adults. Meanwhile, the United States is projecting to be a majority-minority country by 2042, and California and Texas (among several other states) already hold that status. When philanthropists and politicians consider how they can best serve the public through the arts—and increasingly, whether they can serve the public through the arts—classical music is going to appear less and less compelling to them unless its artists and institutions, reversing a decades-long trend, can be more successful in reaching the other 91.7%. And make no mistake: those decisions WILL trickle down and influence the choices and opportunities you have to pursue your artistic ambitions. Are you going to be part of the solution?

Classical music is not alone in facing these dilemmas. Indeed, in some ways composers have it pretty good, relatively speaking of course. According to the NEA, the unemployment rate for actors in 2009 was a shocking 37%, far higher than for any other artistic profession. And in virtually every survey of artists’ incomes I’ve ever seen, dancers and choreographers come out looking like absolute martyrs compared to musicians.

Moreover, the technological changes sweeping industrialized society are affecting creators of all stripes, not just composers. The explosion of free content and the hypercompetition it foments is creating problems for journalists, movie studios, karaoke machine manufactures—even the porn industry! Whatever challenges our brave new world will throw our way, we can be sure that we won’t be the only ones who have to meet them.

The Composer as Citizen

Despite the doom and gloom that pervades the previous paragraphs, composers have the ability and the prerogative to take their situations into their own hands. But we will need to take several proactive steps to ensure that the 21st century does not pass us by:

    • Broaden the focus. As mentioned above, other arts disciplines and creative industries are dealing with many of the same challenges that face composers. You’ll notice that at a number of points in this article I have switched from talking about “composers” or “classical music” to “the arts.” That’s because, in many more ways than not, the arts are all in the same boat. Accordingly, the bulk of the most relevant and important conversations for composers to take part in today have a much broader focus than one obscure subgenre within a small niche of a single discipline. Did you know that the National Endowment for the Arts along with a number of major national arts funders have begun to focus their resources on urban revitalization through the arts? Did you know that many of the country’s local arts councils, including perhaps your own, have engaged in cultural planning efforts over the past decade? Do you attend conferences or networking events or professional development workshops that don’t have “music” in the title?



  • Get involved. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had about the future of the arts in the past couple of years in which no actual working artists have taken part. Sometimes the absence is noted, but more often it isn’t, and one is left to conclude that the health of the field is something that only arts administrators care to talk about. (Perhaps that explains why only 11% of the money funneled through nonprofit arts organizations in this country actually goes toward paying artists.) For whatever reason, musicians—composers included—seem particularly removed from these discussions. For example, the Great Recession has put pressure on a lot of states to gut their arts council budgets, and there have been a number of frantic advocacy campaigns in the past 18 months—including particularly high-profile ones in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and New York State—to stave off drastic reductions in funding. I regularly read about such campaigns on theater- and visual art-focused blogs, but saw nary a peep on any online music publication. People need to know you exist if you expect them to care about your livelihood. Lack of attendance at national conferences is understandable—travel expenses can add up – but these days, thanks to live streaming, blogs, Twitter, etc., it’s often perfectly possible to be part of the conversation without being there in person. Meanwhile, there are probably numerous local panels, lectures, and networking opportunities at your disposal—and if there aren’t, what’s stopping you from organizing one yourself?

So seek out, show up, absorb, interact, speak up! None of the above advice will, on its own, guarantee either artistic or financial success. But I am a firm believer that knowledge is power, and power is not something that composers have historically enjoyed. If you want to be in control of your circumstances instead of letting your circumstances control you, it might well be time for a different kind of education.


Ian David Moss
Ian David Moss

Ian David Moss is Research Director at Fractured Atlas, primarily responsible for the development of the Bay Area Cultural Asset Map (BACAM), a new tool enabling better understanding of the arts ecosystem through the integration of multiple data streams. Moss graduated with an MBA in nonprofit management and strategy from the Yale School of Management. While there, he founded Createquity, a highly acclaimed arts policy blog, and completed an internship with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for which he developed the original blueprint for BACAM and co-created the Foundation’s first logic model for the performing arts. A composer since the age of 12, he was previously development manager for the American Music Center and founded two first-of-their-kind performing ensembles: a hybrid electric chamber group/experimental rock band and a choral collective devoted to the music of the past 25 years.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Today is my 28th birthday. And as often happens as one approaches this age, I’ve found myself inexorably turning into an Adult. Adults, it turns out, lead rather boring lives. Instead of whooping and hollering at concerts and happenings, we stand around at conferences and talk about solutions and best practices. Instead of snuggling together with friends on the bus, we shake hands and keep our distance. We get married. We have kids. We get wrapped up in our own concerns. Gone are the days when I would stay up all night to see an entire new music marathon (despite not one, but two opportunities to do so this spring) or spend five intense weeks with the same group of 60 people singing and making music with them across an entire continent.

So when I found myself here in Denver on Wednesday morning, I felt like I was at work. I was ostensibly present as a composer, but I knew that my other life as a business school student and an aspiring professional in arts philanthropy would dictate much of my activity for the week. I was ready to roll up my sleeves and confront the hard issues facing the performing arts in the United States. But be inspired? Not so much.

During AMC’s joint opening meeting with the American Composers Forum and Meet The Composer for the composers at the conference that morning, the microphone was opened up for questions and comments from the floor. Several attendees obliged and offered feedback and advice for the crowd. But one participant had a different kind of contribution to make. Noting the large conglomeration of musicians in the room, in a moment of spontaneity she stood up and offered to sing for those assembled.

There was an awkward pause. I have to admit that my skepticism was winning out. Sing for us? At a question and answer session? Are you kidding me? Who does that? Well. It turns out that she was going to improvise over a drone, but there were no instruments in the room. That is, except for our voices. So she asked for an F# and someone gave it to her, and for the next several minutes we hummed in static octaves while she wove a rapturous melody around our ears.

This sounds a bit trite in the re-telling, perhaps, but I can assure you that at the time it was not. Singing is a huge part of my life. I’ve sung in choruses since my senior year of high school, and in the shower for a long time before that. Singing is pretty much the reason I’m a musician at all. Singing that one note, breathing in and singing again, over and over, turned that morning’s session from work into play.

I’ve felt for a while that the greatest beneficiaries of the arts are not necessarily the audience members, but the participants. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard to make the case for supporting the arts to people who are not themselves artists. Sure, you can talk about the arts as a driver for urban and regional economic development or their effect on kids’ math and science scores, but it’s impossible to communicate to someone who hasn’t experienced it the feeling that one gets from participating in genuine artistic creation. It’s a feeling that you’re alive again somehow, and a feeling of connection with the people around you on an almost physical dimension. It’s something rather foreign to Adult life.

I once had a conversation with a family member (also in business school) in which I really pushed the economic arguments for arts support mentioned above. I was throwing land values, crime reduction, tourism, the whole kitchen sink at him. Just as he was starting to get interested, I said, “but that’s a reason that the arts should be funded. I would never say that it’s the reason.” “So what’s the reason?” he asked. “Because they’re great,” I answered. Blank stare.

I did not come to Denver to be a member of Nirmala Rajasekar’s backing band, but I’m glad that’s the way things worked out. We all have to remind ourselves, each in our own way, what brought us here in the first place.

Hustling For Attention: Future of Music Coalition’s 5th Annual Policy Summit

simulacrum of the set
Ian Moss

Earlier this month, several hundred musicians, industry representatives, and lawyers descended upon George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium for the Future of Music Coalition’s 5th Annual Policy Summit. FMC was founded by rocker Jenny Toomey in 2000 as an advocacy organization purporting to represent artists’ interests in the face of the rapid evolution of digital technology and the laws and policies governing intellectual property. Not surprisingly, those issues dominated the three-day conference, which featured appearances by FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, RIAA Chairman and CEO Mitch Bainwol, founder Derek Sivers, REM bassist Mike Mills, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Public Enemy co-founder Hank Shocklee, and legendary funkmaster George Clinton, among many others.

Here’s a quick summary of impressions from this composer who was in attendance:

  • While even the RIAA’s Mitch Bainwol acknowledged that piracy on peer-to-peer networks is never going to go away, there does seem to be a definite trend toward “legitimizing” digital downloads, spearheaded by the success of the iTunes Music Store and affirmed by the recent 9-0 Supreme Court decision in the so-called “Grokster case.” The current intellectual property battles center around three issues: 1) how best to monetize the existing avenues for distributing music online and what the appropriate price point should be; 2) whether digital downloads qualify as a “performance” and are thus subject to licensing by performing rights organizations, particularly in the context of podcasts; 3) whether there should be a compulsory performance license for sampling purposes, the same way that there is for recordings.
  • Did you know that classical is the third-best selling genre on iTunes? This tidbit came form Magnatune founder John Buckman, whose own small online record label features classical as the number-one selling genre. (Of course, in the case of Magnatune, “classical” means mostly Renaissance- and baroque-era music on period instruments, but we’ll take what we can get.)
  • One issue that came up but was never really thoroughly discussed was the subject of how the current system of collecting fees for intellectual property can be a burden on musical genres and communities that do not enjoy mass-market appeal. An afternoon session on how best to utilize the PROs (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC) quickly turned into a referendum on this very topic, with an attendee from the Folk Alliance claiming that several well-respected venues were recently forced to shut down in part because they could not afford the appropriate licensing fees. It raises the question of how artists, composers, and PROs can do more to be sensitive to the larger ecology of niche music markets. 
  • A recurring theme throughout the conference was that there is simply not much money to be made in selling CDs, even for big-name artists. Most musicians make their living from their live shows and their merchandise. That’s news to me, as a composer/musician who has routinely taken in $20 or less from the door at gigs that were better attended than some of the shows I see in New York, but I guess I’ll take their word for it. One avenue for substantial income that many composers may not have considered is licensing one’s existing music for use in films and television programs.
  • The final panel, “The ‘Unheard’ Music,” was of most direct interest to the new music community, with representation from pianist Matthew Shipp as well as Meet The Composer head honcho Heather Hitchens and IAJE President Suzan Jenkins. It was an interesting gambit on the part of the FMC organizers to pair the abovementioned three panelists with representatives from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, (a site focusing on electronica artists), Just Plain Folks, and XM Satellite Radio’s “Unsigned” channel. The implication, of course, was that all genres of music marginalized within the industry are essentially in the same boat, a concept that I think is very important for the classical and jazz communities to embrace. Case in point: Billy Zero, program director of XM’s “Unsigned,” reported that he receives approximately 350 CDs a week, of which 80-90 percent qualify as some variety of indie rock. Yet Zero claims that he is open to playing any genre of music, including classical, if the opportunity were to present itself. A quick browse through the “classical” section of indie music darling (also known as the most-visited website in the galaxy) turns up major-label artists Kronos Quartet and Hilary Hahn, a small handful of under-30 composers, and a whole bunch of classical guitarists. Composers would do well to become hip to the methods that unsigned rock bands and underground rappers, among others, are using to level the playing field and hustle for attention. I suspect we may find the mainstream more accepting of what we have to offer than we might expect.

Kudos to the kind folks at Future of Music Coalition for confronting these issues head-on and for reaching out to the classical and jazz communities for inclusion in these events. Hopefully classical and jazz musicians will reach back and attend next year’s policy summit, ’cause they sure were few and far between at this one! Luckily, you can go back in time and relive some of the highlights by visiting the summit’s website–click on the “Audio” or “Video” buttons to experience the discussions firsthand.

Recommended viewing/listening:

Brother, Can You Spare $500: A Guide to Individual Fundraising for Composers

Ian Moss
Photo by Randy Nordschow

So here’s the deal: Let’s say you’re what they call an “emerging composer,” which is to say a composer that nobody has ever heard of. You’ve been through school, maybe have a few live recordings of your music, but presenters aren’t exactly knocking down your door yet begging to program it. Wouldn’t it be great if you had a high-quality demo CD of all your pieces? Or maybe if you got together with some other composers and put on a concert with professional musicians? Or what if you went the Philip Glass/Steve Reich route and formed an ensemble dedicated to playing your own music? It does sound great, but all of it requires money, potentially a lot of money—money that you don’t have because, guess what, you’re an “emerging composer”! You’d like to apply for some of these grant opportunities you see listed everywhere, but the requirements seem too specific, the competition too fierce, and half the time you’re not even eligible.

This was exactly the situation I found myself in shortly after moving to New York, when Frank J. Oteri offered to include my music on his monthly 21st Century Schizoid Music series at the Cornelia Street Café. “Great,” I said, “what do you need, like one, two pieces?”

“No, no,” Frank corrected me, “you get the whole evening to yourself. Two sets.”

“Uh…okay,” I stammered, taken aback, “about how much music are we talking about, exactly?”

“Well, let’s say forty-five minutes per set. Does that work?”

“Sure, sure,” I said, conveniently neglecting to mention that, excluding orchestra pieces and other works that would be inappropriate for the venue, I had written about forty-five minutes of music in my life up to that point. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before I was hatching grand visions for this concert in my head. Not only would it feature the world premieres of the five or so pieces that I would need to write to fill out the evening, but the performers would include a 13-voice pick-up chorus and the debut of my electric new-music ensemble, Capital M. In recognition of the unusual opportunity and the fact that I had relied on the generosity of performers playing for free in the past, I wanted to pay each of the 24 performers on the concert. But where was the money going to come from? As an individual composer trying to put on a concert, there weren’t many funding programs I was eligible for, and I had already missed most of the relevant deadlines anyway.

Luckily, I had a secret weapon in my experience as a fundraiser for nonprofit institutions, most recently the American Music Center. With a little help from my boss at AMC, I was able to construct a letter campaign that raised more than $3,000 for the concert, 50 percent more than my initial goal. The money not only helped me pay the performers, but paid for rehearsal space, purchased necessary equipment, and gave me a launching pad for subsequent musical activities. What’s more, many of the smiling faces who were in attendance that night at the club were people who had supported me and wanted to see the fruits of their contributions. It was one of the musical highlights of my life, and it all became possible with an investment of $51 and about a week of my spare time.

Wondering how individual fundraising might work for you? Here’s a step-by-step guide to making it happen.


Choose your battles wisely. Anytime you approach a potential funder, there should be a clear rationale for doing so. How important is this project to you? Could its success have a substantial positive effect on your career? Will it provide you with new connections, a document of your work, a quote in the local paper? It’s important to gauge the maximum benefit that this opportunity could realistically provide you, and proceed accordingly. In addition, be sure that you are ready to take on the project for which you are seeking funds, on both logistical and artistic levels. There is no surer way to alienate first-time donors than to present them with a poorly executed realization of your proposal, or worse yet, to have the project never reach fruition at all. Remember that even though it’s not your own money, a fundraising campaign still represents an investment. It’s an investment of your time, your energy, and most importantly, your reputation and your name. Especially if this is the first time you’ve reached out to your prospects, you will want to choose a project and a goal that you can stand behind with pride and without reservation.

Identify your prospects. Most early-stage individual fundraising campaigns start with people that the fundraiser already knows quite well. This means family and friends (and—don’t overlook this one—friends of the family). Did you recently graduate from high school or college? Did people give you money as a graduation present? Who gave you the most, and did anyone surprise you with their generosity? Are there any music-lovers among your acquaintances who are well-off enough to help you out substantially? These are good people to start with. Don’t end with them, though: once you get them on board with your artistic goals, some will likely be more than willing to introduce you to others who could potentially contribute their resources. Remember, this is a networking process, and people tend to socialize with members of the same socio-economic class.

There are two components to determining the value of a donor prospect: their ability to help; and their willingness to help. The former you do not have control over, the latter you do. Keeping this in mind, you are best served by first identifying prospects who score high in their ability to help—in other words, people who are rich. Especially for a cause like ours which does not have the universal appeal of breast cancer research or world hunger relief, a single donation from a well-heeled individual can have an exponentially greater impact than several smaller donations from your musician buddies. This is not to say that you shouldn’t approach your musician buddies, but pure common sense dictates concentrating the bulk of your efforts on the people who have the resources to help you the most.

Finally, depending on the nature of your project, you may be able to tap some unusual funding sources with a little creative thinking and a lot of chutzpah. Do you think a local winery would donate the beverages for your post-concert reception? You won’t know unless you ask. Guggenheim-winning composer and former AMC staffer Yotam Haber was able to raise about $10,000 for a performance of his chamber opera in part by approaching local restaurants and offering them product placement in the piece (the subject of the opera was food). When you believe in your work, all manner of crazy things become possible.

Develop realistic expectations. Before you talk to anybody, work up a detailed expense budget for the project for which you are seeking funding. It wastes everybody’s time if you start the fundraising process without a clear idea of how much you’re going to need. Then, consider your list of prospects and guesstimate how much you might expect from each of them. Throw in ticket sales, CD orders, and other “earned revenue” as appropriate. Does it all add up? If not, you might need to reevaluate your budgetary demands or look into additional funding sources, or be prepared to pony up some of the money yourself.

You should know that unless your proposal is on behalf of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, your donors’ gifts to you will not be tax-deductible. If you want your donors to be able to take a tax deduction for their contribution, and you don’t have the time or inclination to apply for nonprofit certification yourself, you should apply to an organization that helps individual artists and/or emerging organizations by providing fiscal sponsorship. Once you have an arrangement with a fiscal sponsor, donors can contribute to the sponsoring organization, making their gifts tax-deductible. There is typically a fee (usually 7-10 percent of contributions to your project) for administrative expenses. Organizations that have fiscal sponsorship programs include The American Music Center, The Field, Fractured Atlas, Harvestworks and The New York Foundation for the Arts. Each organization has different guidelines and pricing structures which can make them more or less suitable depending on the nature of your campaign.


Okay, you’ve chosen your project, you’ve identified your prospects, and you’re ready to get started. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume that you’re using a letter campaign for your approach. A basic letter campaign consists of up to five components: the letter itself, an insert or flier giving more detailed information about your project, a pledge card, a return envelope, and an outer envelope. Presumably you’ve received a few solicitation letters from arts organizations in the past—take a look at a few of these to get an idea of what’s standard.

Gather your materials. Most arts organizations spend thousands of dollars printing the materials that you receive in the mail, but thanks to the magic of 21st century technology, you can create a simple but attractive package for a pittance. Head down to your local stationery store and pick up some resume paper, matching envelopes, some cardstock in the same color (for the pledge card), and some smaller envelopes that you could use for RSVP purposes. Make sure the sizes are such that the different pieces will fit in their respective envelopes with minimal folding.

Each of your documents can be created without the benefit of expensive software; Microsoft Word or a similar product is all you’ll need. The actual process by which one creates the pledge card, envelopes, and so on is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but here are a few tips to get you started:

  • You can create a simple letterhead for yourself by using Word’s Header and Footer option from the View menu before you start writing your letter.
  • The flier can give the reader information about the project that might not fit into your fundraising letter, or you could use the space to insert an existing brochure about your ensemble, season, record label, etc.
  • Don’t overlook the power of Word’s extremely nifty Mail Merge function for printing envelopes and dealing with personalized form letters.
  • If your envelopes are not plain white and you don’t have a printer capable of printing directly on them, you can get clear labels which actually look quite classy.
  • Make up different names for different giving levels on your pledge card, such as “Patron,” “Donor,” “Benefactor,” etc. You can also provide a “shopping list” of sorts that corresponds with the nature of your project. When I was putting together the pledge card for my debut concert in New York, I assigned meaningful terms to the lower categories such as “sponsor a musician” and “sponsor a world premiere.” I was surprised by how many $50 and $100 donations I received as a result of using these terms.

Write the letter. The fundraising letter is the meat of your campaign. It is here that you will do most of your convincing. While it is very simple to write a passable fundraising letter (all you are doing is asking for money), it won’t get anyone on your side who wasn’t already there in the first place. A truly well-written and well-thought-out letter can make all the difference, not only for this campaign, but also for the purpose of establishing your long-term reputation as someone whose work is worth supporting.

Before you start writing, think about the larger picture with regard to your work and the project at hand. What is it that’s unique about what you’re doing, musically or otherwise? What aspects of your proposal will benefit other people besides yourself? What successes have you had in the past that show your worth or potential as an artist?

Any good proposal has to have some sort of statement of need. Otherwise, why are you asking for money? However, the key here, and this is a classic rookie mistake, is not to focus too heavily on your own need for the funds (though this is important too), but rather on the larger need for your project and projects like it. Taking the former approach all too often makes your letter read like a sob story: “with rising costs of living, it’s all I can do to stay afloat…your contribution would give me the peace of mind I need to continue going about my work.” Donors generally do not respond well to this type of approach because it’s too negative and sounds unprofessional. Instead, focus on the positive: talk about what the success of the project would mean to you; about how it fits into your larger goals as a musician; about how their contribution is going to serve a larger purpose. Try to frame the discussion from the angle that highlights the project’s greatest impact, whether that impact is artistic, educational, social (community-based), economic, political, or some combination thereof.

You’ll also need to discuss some specifics in your letter in order to assure people that you actually know what you’re doing. No need to get into the numbers beyond a mention of your overall campaign goal, but do provide a summary of your plan. How will the money be used? Over what time period will the project take place? What will be the final result? How will you get there? The point is to answer any obvious questions your prospects may have so that no one will doubt your ability to carry out your proposal. Through it all, keep your message short and sweet. One page is standard for a fundraising letter—more than that and you will risk losing your prospects’ attention.

Most of all, dig deep and ask yourself why it is that you want to do this, what makes you so excited about the possibilities offered by your project or your work. If you’re devoting your life to this difficult, unglamorous field, chances are you have a pretty good reason. The degree to which you can articulate your passion will have a huge effect on your donors.

Everybody likes attention. In my experience, one of the most effective ways to increase donor return is to make each donor feel like it means a lot to you if they contribute to your cause. If your list is small enough, it’s a great idea to include a personal, handwritten note with each letter in some form, whether it’s a separate card or written directly onto the letter itself. It not only frames the formal letter (which is by nature an impersonal document) within the context of your personal relationship with the donor, it also gives you an opportunity to highlight aspects of your project or your history with the donor that may seem especially compelling to that person. Make sure you place the note in such a way so that the recipient will see it!

If there’s someone on your list who you don’t know that well, but a friend or associate of yours does, consider asking your friend to serve as a go-between by delivering your letter to the prospect or bringing it up in conversation. That way you can still enjoy the benefits of a personal approach even without a strong personal relationship with that prospect.


Now it’s time to sit back and watch the money roll in! As exciting as this stage can be, the process of cultivating donors does not stop once the cash is sitting in your bank account. The people who contribute to your campaign are not check-writing machines who only exist when you need them. They supported you because they care about you and what you’re doing. It’s not only to your advantage but a matter of common courtesy that you follow up with them and involve them in what you’re doing.

Acknowledge your donors. Everyone who contributes to your campaign should receive an individual acknowledgement letter that mentions the date and amount of his or her gift. Send these as soon as the check is cashed. The acknowledgement letter doesn’t have to be complicated; just reaffirm what the money is for and how it will help you achieve your goal. If your organization is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, be sure to put language in the letter to the effect that “no goods or services have been provided in exchange for this contribution.” If your list is small enough, consider handwriting the notes for greater effect.

Your donors also need to be thanked in your concert program, CD booklet, website, or whatever forum is most appropriate for your project. A simple “thanks to…” list can suffice or, if you like, you can break down the donors into categories according to who has supported you the most. Look at the acknowledgements page in the program at the next concert you attend for ideas on how to go about this.

Maintain the campaign. What happens when the money doesn’t come in as expected? In general, it’s best to be patient with donors who pledge to give money—they usually come through eventually. Some people, however, can use a little nudging here and there. If you were really counting on someone’s support and they are dragging their feet, by all means feel free to ask politely if they have had a chance to read and think about your proposal. Sometimes a single email or phone call can help you avoid last-minute scrambling to find alternate means of support.

When your project has reached completion, make sure that you offer your donors an opportunity (at no charge) to experience the direct, tangible results of your work. This could mean sending them a copy of the CD you just recorded, giving them free tickets to your concert, inviting them to sit in on a workshop that you’ve organized—whatever you need to do to give them an opportunity to see their money in action. If someone has provided truly major support or footed the entire bill for one of your activities, it’s also a good idea to supply them with a brief (1-2 page) report showing how the money was used, how the final expenses compared with the original projections, and what has resulted from your efforts.

Keep in touch. Individual fundraising, at its core, is about relationship-building. They call the process “cultivation” for a reason. It requires nurturing, knowledgeable care, and regular maintenance. Remember this: anyone who makes a contribution to your campaign, or gives you any kind of positive response at all, has expressed interest in what you’re doing. They are reaching out to you, and it’s up to you to repay that interest with interest of your own. Put them on your email list, give them special discounts on your CDs, give them “backstage passes” or a chance to meet some of your collaborators, take them out to dinner to talk about your future plans. Make them feel special and involved in your work. Obviously, you don’t want to involve people so much that it becomes a problem (whether because of issues of artistic control, administrative overload, conflict-of-interest concerns, or anything else), but there are plenty of ways to show your appreciation to your supporters without compromising your integrity—and if they are true supporters, that’s what they’ll want as well.

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of fundraising. No matter how noble or high-minded your purpose is, the feeling is that every time you ask for money, you are violating subtle social codes ingrained from birth governing privacy, self-sufficiency, and open admissions of need. I’ll be honest—when I first started out in arts administration, I didn’t want to touch fundraising with a 10-foot pole. I personally hated being asked for money and fundraising was hopelessly wrapped up in my mind with shameless guilt-trips, teary-eyed begging, and all manner of other coercive tactics.

The turning point for me came when my former roommate and one of my closest friends in Philadelphia each sent me solicitations within a couple of months of each other for various “Walk for Hunger”-style fundraising campaigns. They each wrote a nice personal note along with the card. Suddenly, the cause itself didn’t really matter so much—these were people who were important to me and I wanted to support them. In the case of my former roommate, she knew that I didn’t have a lot of money to spare (and said so in her note to me), but I sent her a donation anyway at the lowest rung. Sure enough, she appreciated the gesture and contributed much more substantially to my own campaign when the time came. I realized that fundraising doesn’t have to be about twisting arms and getting results at any cost, including the cost of friendships. I also realized that while I may be as cheap a bastard as they come, not everybody is like that. Some people genuinely enjoy the thought of their money being used for a noble purpose. Some people have more money than they really know what to do with, and would rather see it in action than have it sitting in a bank account somewhere. Some people used to be young artists or musicians themselves, and relish the opportunity to be directly involved with the ongoing development of the scene even though their current lives have led them elsewhere. Some people were never artists or musicians, but find the whole concept so impressive that they can’t help but want to support it. Some people, for whatever reason, would love nothing better than to give money to someone like you. It’s your job to figure out who these people are and help them understand why you are that person. Good luck, and save some for the rest of us!

File Under: Ambiguous

Ian Moss

A few years ago, as part of a senior seminar on the subject of “Concert Music Since 1970,” I gave my fellow classmates an unusual listening quiz comprised of (among other things) 45-second snippets of obscure electroacoustic chamber works and random bits of forlorn art-rock suites. The only assignment that afternoon was to identify the “tradition-stream” of music that the sample came from: “classical” or “popular.” Never mind the vast oversimplifications and distortions that such a binary worldview entails; the point of this exercise was to ask, “when the chips are down, can you guess based on sonic content alone whether this music came from someone identified with the Western art-music tradition or not?”

I came up with this “Family Feud“-esque exercise because, let’s face it, for all the genre-bashing and boundary-breaking that has been taking place in new music over the past 40 years or so, the fact is that the mainstream dialogue in this country still makes a very clear and final distinction between “classical music” and “everything else,” forcing people outside of our little community to apply these rigid black-and-white categories to our ostensibly category-less music. After all, it’s really hard to talk about communication between two genres when the local record store routinely banishes one of them to a hermetically sealed soundproofed room with an entirely different staff and browsing etiquette.

Anyway, my classmates did pretty well for a while. The first excerpt, Allemande from the Suite for Sampler and Orchestra by Heiner Goebbels, was easily pegged as a classical piece on the basis of instrumentation (despite a highly audible electric bass sound). The second selection, a portion of one of Sonic Youth‘s guitar feedback-laden SYR collaborations with DJ Olive, mystified the gathered multitudes for a while until they heard Kim Gordon wailing “I woooonnn’t biiiite you!” near the end of the chosen passage.

The one that really stumped them, though, was the opener from Nosferatu, a film soundtrack by the ever-inscrutable French avant-rock band Art Zoyd. The music features such diverse elements as slowly oscillating siren sounds, cheesy ’80s-style “orchestra hit” samples sprinkled liberally throughout the texture, and a frantic keyboard line that sounds like it was lifted straight out of a video game. The whole thing is just weird enough to suggest that there may be some larger artistic goals behind it; but if so, those goals were not immediately apparent to anyone in that room. Indeed, there was hardly any debate or discussion among the listeners—all of them, including Dr. Robert Morgan (class instructor and author of W.W. Norton’s Twentieth-Century Music textbook), just gave up without even trying to classify the music.

It used to be that instrumentation was a fairly reliable indicator. The sound of an unaccompanied orchestra or a string quartet at one time pretty much defined classical music, while electric guitars were only found in rock or jazz. But stereotypes about art music and popular music have been steadily unraveling in recent decades, from the sonic complexity and performer virtuosity that used to be native to the classical tradition, to the commercialism and strict limits on length that once upon a time set popular music apart. Today, as each new generation of composers emerges on the scene having grown up with the popular music of their time, and as the names of certain of the avant-garde elite (Cage, Stockhausen and Reich, to name a few) establish greater currency in the popular music world, we find ourselves with an interesting and increasingly complex situation in the 21st century. As musicologist Robert Fink states in his seminal essay “Elvis Everywhere“:

…we are now talking about “pop” musicians quoting “classical” composers in a context where there is little or no clear-cut sonic differentiation between the styles. One has to be able to identify the sound of dance musicians quoting the marginal bits of the avant-garde canon that already sound like dance music.

Despite all of the recent discussion in these pages and elsewhere on “the future of classical music” and related subjects, nowhere have I seen a comprehensive definition of terms drawing out the distinctions between what we refer to as “classical music” (and its contemporary outgrowths) and whatever-it-is-we’re-calling-stuff-that’s-not-classical-music.(Just to define my own terms here, let me say that I am looking at these categories from a populist point of view—that is, what they have come to mean as defined by the conventional wisdom of the day—and that I am using “classical music,” “avant-garde,” and “art music” more or less interchangeably. I am also lumping jazz in with “popular music,” simply because this seems to be the industry standard according to Amazon and its brethren.)

Maybe the combined assault of many artists upon these boundaries over the past 40+ years has had an effect after all (the effect of confusing everybody!). Yet, on a practical level, the fact is that all sorts of people—magazine critics, record store owners, arts presenters, booking agents, Internet blog authors, reviewers on—make such distinctions every day, for either their own benefit or for ours. Indeed, the Art Zoyd example notwithstanding, it actually surprised me that my classmates did as well as they did in pigeonholing the music into one category or another. Clearly most of us do have some sort of internal sense, a set of guidelines for determining how to think about music that we hear, honed and conditioned by the thousands of hours we’ve spent listening to it.

So what are these so-called “hard distinctions,” when even old standbys like complexity, virtuosity, length, and use of electric instruments are no longer helpful? I argue that there are really two sonic cues that still hold a lot of weight when it comes to categorizations. In addition, there are places where pop music still (for the most part) refuses to go, even if classical music has not similarly limited itself, and of course a number of “extra-musical” considerations, having to do with the process by which the music is created, that can help us draw distinctions between art music and vernacular music. Naturally, your results may vary—I would expect someone who grew up listening to ambient techno, jazz, or musical theater, rather than classic rock as I did, to have a very different perspective on
where the exact divisions lie.


Percussion of all kinds has a long history in classical music, but the use of drum set remains a rare device even today. Moreover, composers by and large tend to call for the percussion ensemble to emphasize accents, articulate short melodic lines, and fulfill other specific functions within localized portions of the piece. Musicians from the popular tradition, on the other hand, employ the drum set essentially throughout their songs, and for just one primary purpose: to keep the beat. In this way, the drummer essentially replaces the role of conductor in classical music ensembles. The difference, of course, is that the conductor (ideally) is inaudible, while the drums are consistently loud—extremely loud. As a result, this sound can serve as a powerful aural cue for distinguishing between contemporary classical music and a rock band or jazz ensemble—accurately, too, because many of even the most adventurous bands are loath to dispense with drums for more than a few tracks at a time. The drums do not even have to be “real” to provide such a cue, as the presence of synthetic drum pads represents a primary sonic distinction between classical computer music and techno. A few art music composers have challenged this boundary. Alfred Schnittke calls for rock-like drums in the “Credo” of his Requiem, and as expected they absolutely dominate the mix in the recording. Lois V Vierk and Glenn Branca, two composers who commonly write for multiple guitars with unusual tunings, use drums in much of their work (cf. Vierk’s Red Shift, Branca’s Symphony No. 5), as do many of the composers who write for the Bang on a Can All-Stars. However, I find that even in the aforementioned cases, the drums are often buried in the texture to an extent that most popular musicians would never allow. It is equally rare for bands to use certain percussion instruments (such as marimba) more traditionally associated with the classical repertoire, but a few, such as Tortoise, gleefully buck the trend.

The other “automatic” indicator for me with regard to popular music vs. art music concerns the use of singers. Plenty of art music composers call for singing in their pieces, be it operatic soloists, choral music, humming, or the repetition of spoken nonsense syllables in some repeated pattern. However, the presence of a prominent, continuous melodic line, with actual words, sung by one or two untrained, non-operatic voice(s), screams “pop/rock” to the listener. This effect works regardless of the character of the sonic background—even if the singing is limited to a small part of the composition, and even if the melodic line is atonal, as in some of the songs by Thinking Plague and Sonic Youth—and becomes even more amplified if the composer him- or herself is singing his or her own work. After all, this use of the human voice is the reason we use the word “song” to refer to compositions in the style of popular music—a term so ingrained that we even use it to refer to instrumentals. Moreover, none of the other vocal techniques mentioned above are commonly employed in popular music. Within the context of the pop/rock section of the record store, classical singing style remains pretty much the exclusive province of opera stars making crossover albums of popular standards, and nonsense syllables rarely appear outside of humor and novelty records. It may be argued that the harmony vocals so common to popular songs constitute a kind of choral singing, but true choral-style (or even barbershop-style) writing is quite rare. Pink Floyd‘s quasi-orchestral suite “Atom Heart Mother” from the album of the same name provides an interesting exception to several of these rules. Another intriguing counter-example is Laurie Anderson, the performance artist whose work really does defy classification. Her hit song “O Superman” employs a number of unusual vocal techniques including speaking, nonsense syllables, and electronic manipulation through vocoder, and if one tried to force it into either category the song would break the rules outlined above. (It should be noted that this distinction is under particularly recent attack, as artists such as Mikel Rouse, Phil Kline, and Corey Dargel have been gaining notoriety in new music circles with songs that rather directly challenge this categorization. It may not be much longer before I feel compelled to put this in the category of “One-Sided Boundaries.”)


Whereas the above barriers between popular music and art music arguably hold true on both sides of the classical/popular divide, there are also a few helpful distinctions when determining that something is not popular music, if not vice versa. To wit:

While much of postmodern art music has re-embraced tonality (or, at the very least, triadic harmonies), very little popular music has experimented with atonality. There are, of course, exceptions: free jazz was probably the most high-profile and widespread movement to dispense with traditional tonality, but other artists such as those associated with the Rock In Opposition movement also ventured into uncharted harmonic territory. It is also worth pointing out that certain sub-genres of popular music, including noise rock, “industrial” electronica, and hardcore rap, essentially ignore pitch as an element of music—a stance a number of avant-garde composers have taken as well. Nevertheless, the vast majority of popular musicians work with a solidly triadic harmonic language, borrowing chords and scales primarily from the jazz and blues traditions.

Twentieth-century art music bears no absolute allegiance to the notion of continuous movement; certain composers are notorious for their pointillistic scoring and pieces that actively seek to abolish any sense of rhythm or meter. This phenomenon is rarely seen in popular music; almost all songs feature a rhythmic drive, or “groove,” most often provided by the bass and/or drums. Even deliberately jerky rhythms tend to be jerky within some kind of structured, repeating pattern (usually the four-beat measure), giving the effect of syncopation rather than pointillism. Again, free jazz musicians did experiment with this technique, as well as a select few of the rock bands that they influenced, the most prominent being King Crimson (cf. “Moonchild” after 3:30, “We’ll Let You Know”). The opposite extreme, namely a sense of space created by placing rhythmic events as far apart as possible, is also much more common in 20th-century art music than in popular music—with one notable exception: writers of ambient electronica have exploited this particular practice as a defining aspect of their work. Nevertheless, the concept of “groove” remains a vital element of most popular music, and this distinction continues to set it apart from the world of art music, despite a growing number of composers who employ continuous movement in their pieces.

A related issue separating the two traditions involves the avant-garde’s penchant for musical extremes—extremes of dynamics, metric/tempo fluctuations, affect—all piled on top of one another in the same piece. As with the previous two distinctions, this characteristic certainly does not hold for all art music of our time; however, popular music seldom exploits the full range of its materials in this way, at least not within the same song. It is true that much alternative rock of the early 1990s (e.g., Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins) did feature enormous differences in dynamic and timbre between the verse and chorus sections, but this obvious contrast was valued more for its visceral effect on the listener rather than for its aesthetic ramifications. John Zorn (if one considers him part of the jazz tradition) does merit mention as an exception here: his pieces/songs oscillate wildly and rapidly between stylistic and technical extremes. The European art-rock bands—King Crimson, Henry Cow, others—were also known to employ this technique on occasion. Of course, the work of the minimalists, as well as other pieces such as Stockhausen’s Stimmung, stand out as examples of postmodern art music that maintain a consistency of aural effect throughout.

Finally, a favorite technique of 20th-century classical composers has been a reliance on theoretical, mathematical, or otherwise “rational” bases that then serve as generators of material for their pieces. The period following the 1960s brought about a revival of “intuitive composition” in art music, but theoretical constructs have never claimed a large following among popular musicians. The art-rock group Emerson, Lake, and Palmer did write a 20-minute suite called “Tarkus” which employed quartal harmonies throughout. There is a whole sub-genre of indie rock called “math rock” which is characterized by unusual and sudden rhythmic contortions based on everything from intersecting matrices to the Fibonacci sequence. For the most part, however, intuitive composition and improvisation rule the roost when it comes to popular music.


Finally, we can always (and sometimes have to) look at extra-musical factors to help us decide where to place a piece of music.

The first process-oriented distinction concerns musical notation, which for centuries embodied the act of composition in the art music world. There have been sporadic examples of non-notated concert music here and there, most often involving improvisation of some kind. The score for Steve Reich’s epic Music For 18 Musicians did not exist in written form until a graduate student transcribed the entire piece as part of his doctoral dissertation. Pieces that are wholly improvised from start to finish are exceedingly rare outside of jazz, with performance artists such as Pamela Z providing some of the only exceptions. With the exception of tape/electronic music, postmodern art music almost always relies on some kind of score—whether in the form of standard notation, graphic notation, or a set of instructions. This is one category for which the gap between art music and popular music has actually widened in recent decades, as sheet music used to play a crucial role in the dissemination of popular music in the days before recording technology became widely available. Nowadays, however, it is quite rare for popular musicians to fully notate their songs before rehearsing and performing them. (Of course, in collaborations with orchestras or like ensembles, those arrangements are thoroughly notated.) A few exceptions do exist: Mike Johnson of the art-rock group Thinking Plague has been known to write out some of his orchestrations, especially with the band’s later albums, while Dave Kerman of the 5uu‘s produces sketch-scores (rather skeletal in nature) for many of his pieces. Guitarist Mike Keneally, who earned his fame as one of Frank Zappa‘s “stunt guitarists,” claims on his website that his composition “‘I Guess I’ll Peanut,'” “…was scored out very carefully on manuscript paper, sitting at the dining room table at Chatfield Manor.” Even Captain Beefheart (real name Don Van Vliet) dictated his compositions to his drummer, who would then write out the music in standard notation.

A related issue is that musicians in the popular idiom tend to congregate in bands, whereas avant-garde composers almost exclusively work alone and write pieces for solo performers or ensembles. The concept of a composer writing a piece for someone else to play is nearly unique to the world of art music. Rockers Frank Zappa, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, and even Billy Joel have moonlighted as classical composers, writing pieces for the likes of the Ensemble Modern and the London Symphony Orchestra, but such “crossover” pieces generally fit quite clearly within the confines of the 20th-century (or earlier) art music idiom. Of course, there are professional songwriters who create material for others to sing, but this phenomenon is not exactly comparable to the art music system. The songwriter rarely exerts the kind of control over the final product that is customary to the classical composer—in this way, the position is really more akin to the screenwriter for a film. Bands do exist in the context of art music, but they are few and far between. Chamber groups such as the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Icebreaker Ensemble resemble bands in their instrumentation and in the way in which they have developed a core repertoire over a period of time, but their manner of operation (esp. commissioning and playing works by composers outside the group) fits the mold of classical ensembles more accurately. Several of the early minimalist composers (La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Philip Glass) fronted their own performing ensembles which would tour and record as a unit. However, those were situations in which one composer’s music dominated the repertoire. It is practically unheard of to see a group of art music composers operating under a fully democratic “band model”: actively collaborating with each other on the creation of new material; letting the new material evolve over time and repeated performances; and playing only (or mostly) their own original material during concerts.

Other process-based differences between the two worlds exist as well. The economic and institutional systems surrounding art music are completely different from those surrounding popular music (club vs. concert hall, for-profit vs. non-profit, etc.). So, too, is the relationship cultivated with the audience, not to mention the sizes of those audiences—though, in fairness, it must be pointed out that the commercial viability of “adventurous” popular music is not significantly higher than that of contemporary classical music.

This last category becomes more salient as we consider that non-musical elements are becoming more and more primary in recent years in determining what it means to be part of the “art music” tradition. From where I sit, the most important factors appear to be artistic intent and a certain amount of fluency in said tradition, but how to verify an artist’s sincerity or credentials in these matters? Lately, there seems to be a rise in what I call “categorization by association”—the use of non-musical traits such as a musician’s background, education, list of influences, the kind of language used in his/her bio and press materials, record label, friends, and perhaps most importantly, what others have said about them in the past (the reigning “conventional wisdom”).

I’ve encountered this myself recently as part of my occasional assignment writing short descriptions of CDs for NewMusicBox‘s SoundTracks. Recently, I decided to take a chance on Anarchestra, a project led by composer Alex Ferris who writes for homemade percussion instruments. The CD arrived with minimal packaging, graced by little more than a pixellated image of some of the instruments and a link to the band’s website on the reverse side. No track listing, no explanation, no credits, nothing. The fact is, were it not for that website link, I would have had a hell of a time trying to write about that CD. We live in an age when it is often impossible even to tell how the sounds on a given recording are generated, much less why or whether it was planned. For all I knew, the out-of-tune melodies could have reflected a terminal case of tone-deafness on the part of the composer, rather than a longstanding interest in instrument-building and the music of other cultures.

I think we need to try to understand that, as much as some of us may loathe the very idea of categories and the inherent restrictions they seem to place on our music, there is a huge demand for them on the consumer end. There is such a relentless onslaught of music out there now that nobody has heard or ever will hear—people need some way to think about your music before they hear it, so they can decide whether or not it’s something they might like. And the so-called gatekeepers in the industry—the record store owners, the journalists, the bookers, the label representatives—by and large feel a responsibility to provide this context to the consumer base. That’s no reason to feel trapped by the system, however—on the contrary, this means that as artists, we have an unprecedented opportunity to influence how our music is perceived by outside entities. In particular, artists whose music straddles disparate genres can take advantage by presenting or marketing themselves differently according to the audience at hand, without having to compromise the actual artistic product. Maybe you’re a composer of electroacoustic music to Kalvos & Damian and a chamber rock band to Northsix. By thinking about such things from the very beginning, it may well be possible to increase one’s reach rather than limit it.

One thing that has become apparent to me is that “classical music” (as distinct from popular music) is a very flexible concept—its definition changes and shifts along with the new music that claims it as its heritage. “Genre-bashing” music tends to have the effect of warping boundaries rather than breaking them. If the vast majority of musical cognoscenti were to decide (for example) that yes, free jazz is part of the Western classical music tradition, well then, it would be. Classical music is what we make it. I do not feel it is helpful, however, to speak wistfully about how categories don’t matter or smugly about how one’s own music transcends categories, without recognizing that there is a whole world of people out there who would just as soon slap a “File Under: Classical” label on your CD without giving it a second thought, or a first listen.


Ian Moss is a Brooklyn-based composer and Development & Marketing Associate for the American Music Center. In addition to his works for chorus and other acoustic forces, Ian is the leader of Capital M, a unique electric chamber ensemble that occupies the enigmatic territory between hard rock, experimental jazz, and early minimalism.