Lisa Bielawa

Roundtable: Facing the Hard Questions

Commissions are not always the best funding model. Some projects are more like entrepreneurial ventures, and as such, they require financial risk-taking and the willingness to take on fiscal as well as artistic accountability.

Written By

Lisa Bielawa

[Ed. Note: In the spirit of conversation and story sharing, we reached out to music makers and asked them to let us know what was on their minds when it came to cash and creativity and what lessons from their own careers they might share. Some answered questions we posed directly, others were inspired to take the topic somewhere else. Each provided something illuminating, and we hope you’ll jump in and share your own experiences in the comments. –MS]

Lisa Bielawa

Lisa Bielawa
Photo by Phil Mansfield

Is commissioning the best way for you to make new work? Are other models “better”? In what ways?

For me, because I tend to concoct musical scenarios, presentations, and experiences that are—for one reason or another—not within the parameters of existing organizations’ initiatives, I would not say that commissioning is the best way to make this kind of work. The large-scale projects I have launched in the last few years—especially Airfield Broadcasts, involving 250 musicians in Berlin and 800 musicians in San Francisco, both spatially mapped on historic airfields that are now public parks; or Vireo, the opera that is being created in 12 episodes for broadcast and streaming media—have required me to build a kind of institutional structure expressly for the project, and then seek partners that can participate in various aspects of the creation of the project. These kinds of projects are more like entrepreneurial ventures, and as such, they require financial risk-taking and the willingness to take on fiscal as well as artistic accountability.

When creating large-scale projects, we are also creating communities around the work. In order for these communities to function as viable systems—and that includes financial viability—we need to know what each participant hopes to gain through their involvement. It is rare that true entrepreneurial partnerships—in artistic endeavors or otherwise—will draw partners to it that have merely mercenary interests. Each partner needs to have its/his/her own relationship to risk and investment within the project. I am always seeking partners (collaborators, musicians, organizations) who see a meaningful benefit beyond just money in the project itself. That benefit can include longer-term financial stability (through increased visibility, connections with the other partners involved, etc.) as well as other less quantifiable value.

Cash Week - sm

Read more new music and money coverage all this week on NewMusicBox.

And lastly, I always make sure I honor all collaborators and partners as professionals. We all need to be paid—it can be a special arrangement, perhaps, and all agreements can contain other elements besides money. But I do not generally feel comfortable with favors and trades. I have had to design a life that is self-sustaining, and I treat others as if this is also true for them. We must do what we can to make our field as sustainable as possible for each other!

What is the most difficult piece of the financial side of your career, eg. applying for grants, negotiating commissions, budgeting, balancing non-related work, etc.?

There are two major challenges to making work in this way. One of them is that fundraising and partnership building do require some of the same kinds of creativity and vitality that creative work requires. So it is incredibly important for me to be good at managing my own time, staying well physically and mentally so that I can handle the stress of greater responsibility, including responsibility to many, many others involved in the project. I’ve gotten better and better at managing all of this, but it is still sometimes overwhelming. The other big challenge is simple scheduling. In order to make a living, while also sustaining projects whose budgets are many times the size of my own income, it sometimes feels like I need to clone myself. But I just plan my travel and my expenditures—personal and project-related—very carefully. It takes great organizational skills.

Do you worry about the stability of your income in the short term/long term?

Not really 🙂

I probably should! But life is short. And the risk is worth it. I don’t recommend the entrepreneurial approach for those who are happiest with more of a work-life balance. It is an entire lifestyle. I have no family, no regular schedule, no fixed place of work. I am on the road over 30 weeks a year, sometimes earning income as a performer or lecturer or conductor or panelist, and sometimes in connection with my own compositional work. This lifestyle works for me, but this is because of my temperament. I would not be happier with a steady, fixed income, or with a more traditional domestic life. But I absolutely respect that these are needs that many have, and I don’t think any one lifestyle is superior for creative work than another. I’m just so glad I’ve found the right one for me!

Composer-vocalist Lisa Bielawa is a 2009 Rome Prize winner in musical composition. She takes inspiration for her work from literary sources and close artistic collaborations. In 1997 she co-founded the MATA Festival, which celebrates the work of young composers. Bielawa was appointed artistic director of the acclaimed San Francisco Girls Chorus in 2013 and is an artist-in-residence at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California.

Bielawa’s music is frequently performed throughout the US and Europe by top ensembles such as The Knights, American Composers Orchestra, Akademen, Brooklyn Rider, BMOP, and more at venues such as Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Whitney Museum. Bielawa’s latest work for performance in public places is Airfield Broadcasts, a work for hundreds of musicians that premiered on the tarmac of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin in May 2013 and at Crissy Field in San Francisco in October 2013. Bielawa is currently at work on Vireo, a new opera created for episodic release. Her latest album, The Lay of the Love, was released on Innova in June 2015.