Tag: career planning

Artist Financial Profile: Dr. Lisa Neher, Composer & Performer

Lisa Neher

Preface

Since my first Artist Financial Profile featuring Tony Manfredonia, I have been receiving some wonderful messages via Twitter and Facebook responding to the article. Many people seemed relieved and/or encouraged to see a case study of a specific musician’s income—a small chapter in an evolving theoretical Guide to Musician Finances. Some people also mentioned that they have been questioning their own rat-race struggle to achieve financial security in the arts and that the first article helped them start to consider next steps.

Whatever your takeaway, these articles are meant to be helpful. As an author and interviewer, I am trying to display the incomes of these fearless people without emotion or criticism, so that we may all simply look at how they have used money to live and as nothing more than the tool it is.

Let’s break down the taboo some more. Here is Dr. Lisa Neher:

Introductions

Lisa Neher is a composer and mezzo-soprano currently based out of Portland, Oregon. She received her DMA in vocal performance and pedagogy from the University of Iowa in 2016 and has been working as an adjunct professor of voice, a private voice teacher, a composer, a performer, and a composer-performer. Originally from South Seattle, Lisa moved to Iowa City for her DMA and then to Cedar Rapids to live with her partner, prior to her most recent move to Portland.

Lisa and I spoke over a slightly troubled Skype connection and probably raised more questions than we answered about the money taboo, positioning, realistically “making it,” adjunct teaching, and the ins and outs of working with your PRO. As a “continually emerging” composer myself, I think Lisa speaks for many of us when she wonders how feasible a life as a composer-performer really is.

Lisa, like my other interviewees, has agreed to share her finances with our NewMusicBox readers. We hope that this uncommon practice is informative and valuable to the new music community as we all navigate these mysterious seas together. When I asked her how she felt about sharing her finances, Lisa was honest with her reply:

It makes me feel nervous about having a conversation in an article…but also I’m mad about that nervousness…so I’m like, “Let’s talk about it. This is dumb. It’s hurting all of us.”

The Problems of Moving

For 2018, Lisa’s income as a composer/performer/teacher was affected by her move to a new city. The move was purposeful: Lisa wanted to be in a larger music scene for her own career advancement. Her partner was the first one to get a job that initiated the move. Being a freelancer, Lisa spoke about the difficulty in making connections in a new town, without prior contacts and established support systems. As a private voice teacher, it is almost impossible to build a studio of students from the ground up without being there. Some work was done in advance, like sending introductory emails to local high school and middle school conductors at the start of the school year, but it was easier to reconstruct her private student base by actually being in Portland. Lisa felt fortunate to be sharing fiscal responsibilities with her partner, which allowed her more transition time. She explains that she “would have handled the lead up to the move differently” if she had been on her own.

As a freelancer, much of Lisa’s work and income are built from personal connections and networking face-to-face. Maintaining the normal day-to-day hustle while moving home bases is ultimately problematic. Where do you find the time to network in your new city while you finish up your work in your old town? Moving in June left the summer pretty barren. Adjunct positions for the fall had been filled, and many people do not seek out private lessons until the school year starts up again. Once the fall came around, Lisa was able to start up her studio and get on the radar of professors at Lewis & Clark College to do some temporary adjuncting and subbing for music history courses.

Lisa’s Income

Lisa’s made about $25,560 in 2018 and it breaks down like this:

$12,200 Collegiate adjunct teaching (mostly private voice, some coursework) at three different colleges and universities

$6,500 Teaching private voice lessons (only $500 of that income total was earned in the fall)

$2,160 Composing income (which includes commissioning fees, plus about $120 in ASCAP royalties and $30 from the sale of a score)

$4,700 Performance income (as a mezzo-soprano soloist or ensemble member)

The median household income for Portland is $71,931. During our discussions, Lisa suggested that $60-70k a year is her personal income goal to live comfortably. Keep in mind that Portland, Oregon, is on the high end of the national average (the median income in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is $54,465), and this income is household, which 50% of the time indicates two earners.

It is important to note that Lisa’s 2018 income could have looked much different if she had stayed in Cedar Rapids. Understanding that the bulk of her work was between January and June of 2018, with a bit of extrapolating, it is possible that Lisa’s yearly income could have been closer to $45k – $55k with the same sort of work. Moving to Portland mid-year drastically affected her teaching studio and her potential adjunct income. (She also notes that the adjunct teaching schedule in Iowa, though a great opportunity, was not sustainable for her well-being.)

This is a lesson for freelancers thinking of moving: consider the costs of starting over again. As Lisa expressed in her interview, if it were just her as a single person, she would have had to network in the new city (Portland) far more intensely and have secured an adjunct or arts administration job prior to the move to make moving fiscally possible.

Concerns of Sustainability

Lisa had a lot of concerns about the musician’s eternal hustle. Discussions in new music circles seem to focus on the abundance mindset, networking, creative productivity, and other entrepreneurial tactics. Thought leaders like Garrett Hope (Portfolio Composer), Jennifer Rosenfeld (iCadenza), Dale Trumbore, and Angela Myles Beeching paint an optimistic picture full of ways to advance one’s career. Sometimes this information can be overwhelming, and we start wondering how much one can do in a single day. Lisa is concerned about burn out and for good reason. Is this lifestyle sustainable? Can one meet their income goals without having to become famous, or without having to develop a high-end teaching system or coaching business? We want to believe it’s true, but the sheer amount of things one must do to succeed seems daunting, especially when stacked against actual income.

Freelancing as a composer and a vocalist also has its particular challenges. Lisa expressed a certain “fixed” cost for much of the work she does. Small to medium-sized choirs and ensembles that hire her as a performer only have so much wiggle room for negotiating her artist fee. When teaching private voice lessons, she can only flex rates so much depending on the going rate of the area. Many times, for gigs, she has to either accept the fee at the rate the organization offers it, or not take the gig. Lisa also found that her peers don’t like talking about those fees, maybe because they are lower than where they should be.

“With gig work, there seems to be a specialized kind of not talking about [money].”

ASCAP and Performance Royalties

For each of these financial profile articles, I am trying to find a small focus area within what are pretty natural conversations during the interviews. With Lisa, there was a lot of mystery surrounding performance royalties. As I have been writing this piece, Lisa started to get more sizeable royalty checks from her PRO. I felt that readers would benefit from learning about her experience with increased performances of her works and submitting performances to ASCAP.

As Lisa was discussing the mound of performance documentation she submits, and all of its tediousness, she was ultimately wondering if the work put into claiming performances was worth it. She speaks for us all when she says: “ASCAP royalties… I can’t predict what will get royalties and what won’t.” No matter which PRO organization we are personally affiliated with, I am sure many of us feel this way.

I myself recently submitted a ticket to ASCAP asking about how payouts worked, specifically for educational concerts, and what I learned was (quoting from the email I received): “Performances given under Educational licenses are credited or not credited according to a random sample by date used only in the Educational field. Only performances that take place on sample dates will be credited.“ Luckily, we were also able to get some clarification from ASCAP thanks to a phone call with Cia Toscanini, vice president of concert music. Here is a summary of our conversation about performance royalties for both education and professional concerts.

The email I received above is accurate. Concert programs from educational performances (at colleges, universities, schools, etc.) are collected from licensees and ASCAP members and compiled in a year-long survey. Then a sample survey is done of all concerts within a specific time range and performance royalties are paid out from those performances that fall within the sample. ASCAP samples October 1 through September 30; publisher royalties are paid out in the following March, and writer/composer royalties are paid out in April. In Lisa’s case, some of the publisher royalties were not paid because the performance was not claimed as a publisher. Don’t worry, she still has time to correct that. Toscanini stressed that everyone should register as both a writer and a publisher, and claim performances as both, to receive maximum benefit.

The census for professional concerts (non-educational) is different in that every performance is collected and paid, so long as they are claimed by an ASCAP member or submitted by a licensee and the licensee is up to date on their payments. ASCAP has primers for members that are basically an extremely thorough checklist for concert music performance claims. They can be found here. BMI offers similar resources.

Lisa was generous enough to share her ASCAP royalty activity, especially upon the good news that she received more this year. Here’s the breakdown, for those wondering how it might work out:

In 2018, I was paid $64.03 as a publisher and $64.03 as a composer = $128.08 for 1 performance of my large mixed chamber ensemble piece Twister by Durward Ensemble at Kirkwood Community College in August 2017.

Note that these payments came about three-quarters of a year later. Lisa also registered as a composer ($50 one time fee) and a publisher (another $50 one time fee), so that she received 100% of the royalties for her activity, instead of just 50%. For those wondering, Lisa only gave her publishing company a name for ASCAP (D.C. Al Platypus) and has not set up a truly separate business.

As I was writing this article, Lisa was excited to do even better this past year (2018) with her ASCAP royalties. She also was willing to share these figures:

I just got payment, in April of 2019, for two other 2017 performances, but this will go into tax year 2019 (which begs the question, what took them 18 months?)

October 2017, my marimba solo Icy Celestial Bodies was performed at Cedar Rock House in Quasqueton, Iowa; November 2017, Icy Celestial Bodies was performed at University of Northern Iowa in a faculty concert; November 2017, my marimba duo Thaw was performed at the Sacramento State Festival of New Music in California.

For these performances, I was paid $506 as a composer and $391.26 as a publisher. No idea why those numbers are different.

After speaking with Cia Toscanini, we figured out that a few things affected Lisa’s ASCAP income. First, some of the performances were not claimed as both a writer and a publisher. It is important to do both to receive 100% of the royalties. Delayed payment from the yearly schedule as previously described, usually comes from licensees not paying their fees on time, delaying the payout for the creators.

Lisa also claimed six other performances in 2017 with no royalty payouts. It is possible that these payments are still in the queue somewhere, waiting fee collection, or that they were not part of the sample survey. Only two of those were performed in an educational setting, unless the libraries and museums that were performance spaces were part of an educational institution.

ASCAP does have a messaging system built in to the member section of their website (as I am sure does BMI), and they will get back to you via email when you ask questions. It is worth asking, as performance royalties can be a great side income early on, and as your performances increase, have the potential to become a substantial part.

Continue the Discussion

If this article series speaks to you, I urge you to begin building your network of financial confidantes. Before you have to invoice someone, before you negotiate commissioning fees, before you set your rates, talk with your colleagues and mentors, if they are willing. Find like-minded individuals in similar situations and talk actual dollars. You may be surprised. You may find reassurance. Hopefully you will both be encouraged to protect your worth.

Financial knowledge and literacy doesn’t happen overnight. Tackle one thing at a time, when you can. I know my interview with Lisa has encouraged me to register with ASCAP as a publisher—I’m not sure why I was holding back! But I will save figuring out the royalty distribution formulas for another day.

Stay informed, and be an advocate for your artistic and financial worth. The next article in the series will feature the ensemble loadbang, to give us some financial insight into the nonprofit ensemble world. For all of those interested in freelance life with a performing ensemble, it should be a very interesting interview and a fun article!

The Impossible Dream: Scoring My First Documentary

A smoky, black and white perspective shot of a man in a beanie

I didn’t grow up watching movies. I never liked sitcoms or reality shows. Ever since I was little, I always had a strong aversion towards watching TV because I always felt it to be meaningless mind poison. Playing, learning, and listening to new music have always been my favorite forms of entertainment and my main sources of enjoyment. Gradually, as I continued to explore different worlds of music, I found myself more and more fascinated by soundtracks. The more I listened to them, the more intrigued I became by the story, characters, and context of the movies themselves. I needed to know what was driving all of the passion behind the scores. I gradually came to see how music has the power to transform stories and make characters feel larger than life. Since this realization, it has been my mission to create music that supports the narrative of humanity’s beautiful stories. It’s incredibly fulfilling to create music that supports a theme or character by playing up aspects of the situation or personality that might not be so obvious to the audience. It was only a few months ago when I scored music for my very first documentary, The Impossible Dream, that I realized this was my path. This was the first opportunity I had to do what I want to spend my career doing.

The Impossible Dream, directed by Javid Soriano, is a documentary that portrays creativity, poverty, and addiction in San Francisco, as experienced by Tim Blevins, a homeless opera singer and Juilliard graduate living in the Tenderloin. The film, intimately capturing Tim’s journey of survival and redemption on the streets, has received support from The Sundance Institute, the Independent Filmmaking Project (IFP), and Skywalker Sound and Music Labs, among other film institutes/foundations around the country. The moment I heard about this project, I could not contain my excitement. I, along with other third-year TAC students, had the opportunity to collaborate with the director to not only score the documentary but also to arrange, perform, and record unique accompaniments for the classical repertoire that Tim sings in the film. When I found out that we could “try out” for as many scenes as we wanted to, I immediately attempted to write for all 13 scenes in one sitting. After about an hour, I stepped back and recognized that I was only human, so I settled on focusing all my energy and efforts on a select few scenes that really spoke to me. I ended up scoring three scenes, one of them being the “Comeback Scene.”

The Comeback

In the “Comeback Scene,” Tim goes through a hero’s monologue, explaining how real heros aren’t beyond getting their asses kicked every once in a while. He describes how, when it looks like they’re at the end of their ropes, they get back up and start working harder to make a comeback. Through sweat and blood, real heroes are reborn. I felt moved by Tim’s confidence, and wanted to highlight both the struggle of Tim’s daily routine and his unyielding determination. I decided that a bouncy staccato string bed with a striving legato violin line climbing up to the highest register of the instrument would work best to play up Tim’s perseverance. The director came back and noted that he’d like to hear a tinge of darkness to emphasize the sense of painful struggle that Tim will have to endure to overcome. I agreed with him; I had made the music a bit too positive and had missed the humanizing element in the story. I then altered the harmony to better fit the spirit in his monologue and the scene was instantly brought to life.

The Finale

Another scene I scored was “The Finale.” It’s the last and one of the more emotionally intense scenes in the documentary. This one was especially unique because in the very final cue of the scene Tim goes into singing Colline’s “Coat Aria” from La Bohème. On top of composing the music to accompany Tim’s singing, the director had also asked me to write in the style of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. These tricky notes combined with the pressure of scoring the grand finale scene caused me to experience a massive mental block. After days of trying different compositional techniques for this cue, I completely ran dry of ideas. Feeling defeated, I sat down in the studio and pulled the session up on the monitors. I watched the picture playback a few times, still trying to come up with any form of solution my mind could muster up at this point. I then decided to try a different route. Instead of thinking anything at all, I let out a deep breath, closed my eyes, placed my hands on the MIDI keyboard, and let my intuition take over. I completely surrendered, leaving whatever would happen next to be purely instinctual. I felt the weight of Tim’s story and his rich voice flow through me. I felt his pain, bravery, and heroism. I felt music that represented both Tim’s charismatic nature and hardship. For the first time in my life, I composed from the heart instead of through some learned technique. The next day, the director reviewed my work and wrote back that it was “chilling at the end.”

The entire experience of composing for The Impossible Dream was a transformative one. Never had I thought that a film project could come into my life and completely change the way I think about composition. Through this process, one of the many things I learned was that sometimes thinking less and trusting more is the best way to go. I see media like TV and film in a different light now. I see it as a medium to explore the narrative of our humanity. It’s this process of sharing our stories, our lives, and our dreams that makes it so compelling, and music can participate by highlighting these aspects. Music may be just a series of tones and pitches at different intervals, but when constructed in a thoughtful way, it can evoke even the subtlest of feelings, sometimes indescribable ones. Composing music for this story confirmed that this is what I see myself doing for the rest of my life.

Artist Financial Profile: Tony Manfredonia, Game Music and Orchestral Composer

A black-and-white photo of a man with a teal tie

Let’s Talk About Money, an Introduction

You can learn just about anything on the internet. For musicians, there’s a trend in talking about, teaching, and practicing entrepreneurship—an essential skill for anyone who wants to make a life in the arts. To clarify, entrepreneurship, in the artistic sense, has evolved to encompass everything from the hard and soft business skills needed to run your career to starting your own business.

People like Angela Myles Beeching, Mark Rabideau and 21CM, Garrett Hope, David Cutler, and Andrew Hitz realized that students and professionals needed tools and discussions centered around anything but practicing for the next audition. These resources are now great and many, but they all side-step one thing: the money.

  • How do we create and advocate for sustainable, liveable wages when we are confronted by the biggest taboo of the 20th century: talking about how much you make is rude.

    Adam Schumaker
  • Tony shows up to compose every day he can, regardless of the fact that composing currently holds the title of “secondary income.” However, his commitment to his long-term goal of being a full-time composer has paid out.

    Adam Schumaker

As musicians, how much are we making? How do we negotiate for more? How do we create and advocate for sustainable, liveable wages when we are confronted by the biggest taboo of the 20th century: talking about how much you make is rude.

At some point we need to know what is reasonable, what are the lows and highs in our region, and whether or not we can live off of it. If you avoid talking about the financials of being an artist, you do a disservice to anyone who wants to come up into the trade. Falling in line with the status quo leaves the younger generations of artists clueless, all the while perpetuating the position of power held by those who control the money. The taboo of money talk stems from a complicated history, but sits with corporations trying to get the best bang for their buck out of employees, so profits can soar and owners can become rich. Yes, it’s a dramatic generalization but let’s go with it so we can inspire change.

There is no one way to make a living in music. There really are too many paths to talk about. But knowledge is power, so I have recruited three amazing musicians and one ensemble who have generously agreed to openly discuss their finances and how they make it all work. This is not intended as an instruction manual but as a way for you to learn, compare, and set your own goals—and hopefully develop your own ways of finding financial success through your art with more perspective and clarity.

For this series of articles, I will interview Tony Manfredonia, game and orchestral composer; Lisa Neher, composer and mezzo-soprano performer; Loadbang, the new music ensemble; and Pamela Z, an electronic music composer and performer.

For this installment, meet Tony!

Tony Manfredonia Talks Money & Lifestyle

Tony is two years out of his bachelor’s program at Temple University, married with no kids (at the moment), living in Petoskey, Michigan, (despite hosting the Bayview Music Festival, it’s not generally a music mecca), has no plans to pursue a graduate degree, and is making a living primarily from being a church music director and a concert and game music composer. Tony and I had a wonderful talk via Skype, and it is highlights from that discussion that will be laid out here. Tony has also allowed me to share some personal financial data with you all, so let’s all take a moment to appreciate his openness and bravery.

Last year [2018] Tony made approximately $50,000 pre-tax. For Petoskey, Michigan, this is good! The median household income is $39,690. It’s also slightly above the average male wage for the Northwest Michigan region. But dear readers: although comparing numbers is helpful to know where one sits, it doesn’t define your experience. Tony’s wonderful wife, Maria, has been working through some medical problems and many of their “extra” resources have gone to appointments with specialists and a long list of medical expenses. Thankfully, with Tony’s income, and Maria’s work (when her health allows), they get by just fine and hope to start saving for a house once the medical bills lighten up.

Here’s the breakdown of Tony’s 2018 income. Again, thank you to Tony for sharing and breaking down the taboo:

$35,000 Music directing at a Catholic church, full-time (organ, choir, planning mass)
$13,600 Game, film score, and concert music commissions
$1,400+ Composition lessons, weddings, funerals (the numbers are still coming in)

It’s also helpful to have a general idea of what Tony’s workweek is like. It is interesting and inspiring to see how he maximizes his time blocks to do various things by focusing them together. However, he only has one day off a week.

Monday:          Compose 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Lessons approx. 3-5 p.m.
Tuesday:         Compose 5-7 a.m., Church music 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Wednesday:    Repeat Tuesday
Thursday:        Composing all day
Friday:          DAY OFF – focused time with his wife Maria
Saturday:        Compose in the morning, Church (mass) in the evening
Sunday:          Church services all day

Tony hustles. Sometimes his days are long, and his “weekend” is only one day NOT on the weekend. In between all of this, he still finds time to work out and cook—two things that are very important to his and his family’s well being.

Tony's home studio setup

Tony’s home studio setup

What I also find to be inspiring is that Tony shows up to compose every day he can, regardless of the fact that composing currently holds the title of “secondary income.” However, his commitment to his long-term goal of being a full-time composer has paid out. From 2017 to 2018, his composing income has doubled. Also observe that Tony’s primary income is condensed into four days, leaving room for his craft and saving some commuting miles. His primary income also offers opportunities to increase his pay through extra wedding or funeral planning and performing. These types of situations are perfect for a music portfolio career.

Most all music careers require you to maintain a “gig mentality”: keeping your brain creatively thinking about and pursuing the next gig. It can be difficult to find the energy for this while working a full-time position, so for artists, it’s important to find work scenarios that allow a little freedom, flexibility, and autonomy. To keep the side income growing, it’s also important to be in a continuous state of networking.

Networking Strategies

These “composing” timeblocks that Tony adheres to are also peppered with very important tasks, including targeted networking. Since Tony lives in a more rural area, far from busy music scenes, he relies heavily on active networking and leveraging his contacts. During our conversation, he frequently spoke about keeping up with his contacts by scheduling time to respond to emails and keep discussions going with past and future collaborators. (Tony prefers to use Workflowy to keep his to-do list organized. I have found Google Keep to be another effective digital list-making tool.)

In my own interactions with Tony, I have always felt very comfortable communicating with him, whether it be via email, Twitter direct messages, or phone/Skype. One of the reasons I feel Tony is a strong communicator is his ability to take interest in others, and to have a great exchange. The conversation is never one-sided. Tony has taken the natural, positive approach to networking (vs. the infamous “schmoozing”) by being deeply interested in others first, and finding connection points second. This type of networking is easier on the psyche and can lead to easy collaborations. You also can realize quickly when your activities/styles/projects don’t align.

Through scheduling a to-do list of keeping up with contacts, Tony keeps himself in the forefront of his collaborators, and potential collaborators, minds. More importantly, Tony also constantly meets new members of various music communities which keeps his network fresh. This is why attending concerts and meeting people is high on Tony’s to-do list. He currently dispels the myth of the late-night composer by composing early in the day and leaving his evenings open for family, friends, and concerts. Tony makes sure to introduce himself to performers and conductors wherever he goes, keeping his ears open for potential collaborations, and following through to keep the conversations going.

At some magical point in the networking timeline, conversations turn into projects, and projects turn into viable income. But instead of an employer offering a salary up front, we composers and performers are asked to quote our rates. This causes anxiety for many, but the funny thing is, this practice is no different from any other service industry. However, most people don’t wonder why they are paying a plumber so much.

Self Worth & Fee Negotiation

Artist contracts, fees, and rates will likely always be something of a Wild West: a land full of no rules and shady propositions. But to be financially viable, everyone has to cross this territory. When speaking about fees, Tony said that he starts with the New Music USA rate calculator, but immediately noted that those rates are the ideal, and often the reality is lower. And this is the guiding principle: quote higher and negotiate to a reasonable fee.

We also spoke about the battle of having the lowest fees. To that, Tony said, “People try to grab gigs by lowering their rates” but continued with an alternative idea: “You’re going to find more gigs by raising your value.” This value isn’t about money grubbing; it’s about being an advocate for liveable wages and quoting the client your worth.

Your Worth is a culmination of what you need to live, and the time and money you have already invested into your craft and equipment. Many musicians spend 12 years studying an instrument, 4-8 more years in schooling for a degree in their craft, and countless hours practicing their craft – all for no pay. The investment is huge so you should always quote your worth to potential clients.

Tony’s approach to fees allows him to be more selective with the projects he takes on, without joining the rat race of fee lowering to get the next gig. This allows him to position himself as a serious professional, receive fees that allow him to create a liveable, and growing wage, and decide when he wants to take on a project for a friend, or for a value that is not in dollars.

To receive appropriately sized fees, it takes some negotiation skills and finesse. There’s no magic formula, but Tony has a few tips that keeps him happy with the fees he receives. 1.) Quote higher than you think, so you can be happy with a negotiated price; 2.) understand what your peers charge for like-projects, and; 3.) have a benchmark for what you want to make per hour for the project. My favorite thing that Tony said regarding fee negotiation:

There should be a part of you that feels a little uncomfortable…maybe it should feel uncomfortable because it helps you grow.

I asked Tony if he ever wrote commissioned pieces “for free.” He said he gives himself “1-2 projects a year.” He doesn’t take these pieces lightly. They are typically for friends/colleagues, fit his overall goals (concert music or game music), and have guaranteed performances, or in the case of a game, great distribution and publicity. These pieces also help Tony build his portfolio of work.

Let’s Talk More

Tony invests a lot in his self-worth—perceived and realized—and it shows with his increase in activity between 2017 and 2018. At the time of our interview, it appears that Tony is taking charge of his career path and finances through consistent networking, strategic acceptance of projects, and an already well developed and growing financial literacy.

The confidence to hold your rates at a standard, and negotiate as necessary, takes a certain comfortability with talking about money. Setting financial goals and seeing the paths to get there takes an honest awareness of your financial situation—how money comes in and how it goes out. Income generation is always important, but budgeting can help you gain control of the money flow early on. It is hard to do both of these things in a vacuum. Although society thinks talking about money is rude, being more open about our cash flows allows us to take ownership of our financial futures, see what’s ahead of us, and find ways to leverage the tool of money for our use. This is especially important for musicians in career paths that are complicated, non-linear, and have no consistent expectations.

For your financial success, here are a few tools to start budgeting:

For those who are more DIY, here’s a budget template of my own design, using Google Sheets, for personal or for business use: Make your own copy here.

You Need a Budget. Loved by many, this is an affordable budgeting software. At $83.99 a year, it’s cheaper than Netflix and pretty sophisticated.

Mint. A free app, this connects to your bank and cards and helps you track your expenses when they happen.

Personal Capital. Like Mint, but with investing options!

Artist Residencies: All Costs Considered

Perhaps the question we get most often from other artists and musicians is: “How do you make all of this financially feasible?” From our perspective, we’re more shocked so many artists and musicians make ends meet in cities where rent prices are high, and opportunities to stay out and spend money are ubiquitous. Here’s the best advice we can give on making it work: it might involve some small sacrifices along the way (translatable into a “consume less” mindset), but we’ve found our life moving from residency to residency to be inexpensive and artistically fulfilling.

We apply to all kinds of artist residencies—those that provide stipends, those that provide in-kind accommodation, and those that ask modest fees. We’re not dismissive of any of these categories of opportunities, as we take into account every aspect of the financial situation. From the cost of the residency itself, travel to the location, and the general cost of living in the country, many factors weigh in. Occasionally, we’ll run into a residency that is very expensive compared to the general cost of living in its location. As we can’t justify for ourselves those expenses, these are the only residencies that we categorically avoid.

One great resource for comparing the general cost of living for travelers is numbeo.com. The website provides continuously updated information about the cost of various items in any location, and lets you compare them to other cities. Using this, we can estimate how much we might spend on food and anything else we might need during our residency.

Perhaps we are early adopters of something that wouldn’t have been possible even a decade ago.

Several factors will increase the affordability of a residency. Longer residencies are typically more affordable, as the cost to travel to and from a location might be the most expensive piece of the puzzle. But lately we’re more focused on longer residencies also because we leave more deeply connected to the communities we were a part of.

It’s rare to find a residency that will pay for your travel; although there are plenty with stipends, we’ve only ever applied to one that provided travel. This is why planning residencies so that you’re moving the shortest distance is very advantageous. After being invited for one residency, consider applying to other interesting opportunities that are nearby, as traveling to those will be significantly cheaper. Beyond minimizing the distances, it goes without saying to consider all the travel options early in advance when prices are at their lowest.

It is worth mentioning that we don’t pay a phone bill; when we need to make a call, we use a Skype credit that’s very cheap, international, and paid per minute with no monthly obligations. In all our travels, we rely on WiFi for communication, and haven’t encountered any serious issues.

Possibly the most important factor is the time you give yourself in preparation for the residencies. If the residency is over a year away, it gives adequate time to find the cheapest travel options, to contact venues and universities for paid engagements, and to apply for grants.

There are so many parts of this equation that are specific to our situation, from starting out right after graduating school with no serious dependencies tying us to any particular place, to being a couple that can always share accommodation and support each other in the more taxing and difficult stretches of our journey. In this way, the financial side is an individualized process, that takes into consideration your own priorities and personal goals.

It seems to us that our ideas about a life spent traveling both access ideologies shared by many people in our generation, and take advantage of everything that technology and the internet has on offer in 2018. Perhaps we are early adopters of something that wouldn’t have been possible even a decade ago. Traveling has never been cheaper; it’s possible to work from anywhere in the world; and social media helps us share our music and keep in touch with others. At the same time, these choices we’re proposing address a lack of desire to own property, the unaffordability of housing, and a prioritization of sharing experiences above all.

Passepartout Duo in Germany

In this way, artist residencies represent a small sliver of things in the world that are in no way property, and are only shared. Each resident comes in with the knowledge that this place where they live will soon be passed onto another artist. Like a family home being passed from one generation to the next, layers of experiences, art, and traces left behind accumulate into a rich tapestry of culture and life.

It is a lifestyle that has led us to think about every aspect of modern living. We feel that travel proposes an alternative cartography—the map of one’s own life, that isn’t at all consistent with the map of the world. What you’ve done and where you’ve been defines you, and defines your art. At the moment, we are extremely happy to travel for music and to have met so many kind and interesting people along the way. We are lucky, and grateful for it, and hope that more people will take on opportunities of their own that help make their own worlds grow.

Burnout is a b****. Let’s avoid it.

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

I would wake up, and it was there. I went about my day, and it was there. I would let my head hit the pillow in exhaustion at the end of the day, and it was still accompanying me. This low-level, ominous feeling had been following me around for months — contaminating every loud and quiet corner of my life. I even avoided counting the number of months that I consciously knew it was there. It started out as just feeling a little “off” or a little more worn out and wearied after each day of normal life-in-music tasks. Then, that dark cloud began to make its grim presence more known. I couldn’t shut it out because it was tied to everything that I loved. That feeling whispered to me in the darkness, “You’re not enough. Nothing you do matters. But don’t tell anybody that you feel this way because they won’t trust you with their projects.” I tried to do everything I knew to recharge: I cut out drinking, worked out more often, ate tons of vegetables, actively practiced self-care, and – most importantly – doubled-down on my work. My heritage is so full of that Midwestern, Protestant work ethic that it seeps from every pore. That tradition taught me, “If you’re feeling dull or distressed, just work harder.”

I started to get nervous. It wasn’t working. That dark cloud was getting darker. The fog was creeping into my practice and performance. It was creeping into my teaching. It was making it difficult to write and to record podcasts. I went to conferences and felt elated only to come home and feel even more defeated. I had to admit it: I was in total burnout.

I felt so sure. Now I don’t know…

“I can’t be burned-out,” I cried to myself. “My identity is built around being productive. I am a person who gets shit done.” Nevertheless, I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t getting stuff done. I was not being productive. I needed to find that part of myself again. I needed to find the part of myself that created more energy by practicing, teaching, and writing. How do you create that energy? How do you reconnect with the ambition that drives you with greater productivity? Was it lost for good? Was this the moment that I begin to slip away slowly from my lifelong passion?

Getting mired in small tasks without a big vision kept me incessantly “busy” but accomplishing very little.

“I don’t know what singing even looks like in my thirties,” I confided to a friend. “I felt really sure about what it looked like in my twenties. It looked like taking every job and getting lots of experience. It looked like a perpetually full calendar.” She asked, “Well, what do you want it to look like?” I whispered, “I don’t know.” I should have realized then that this would be the key to reconnecting with my productivity. Clarity. Clarity is the key. I had stopped dreaming up my audacious goals and had gotten stuck in the minutiae of “getting things done.” Getting mired in small tasks without a big vision kept me incessantly “busy” but accomplishing very little.

Planning for a remarkable life

In an early 2017 episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, Ferriss interviewed Debbie Millman, the incredible designer and founder/host of Design Matters, who described an exercise she calls “Your Ten-Year Plan for a Remarkable Life.” Millman recalled this exercise that she completed in a very early class session with Milton Glaser and that she now teaches her own students. He asked his students to write a detailed description that lists what their life would look like ten years from now. Then, he instructed them to read their essay every year. Millman also reminisced about finding her own essay from that class many years after she wrote it while moving house. She realized just how many goals she had planned for herself in that exercise that came to fruition.

You may be thinking, “A goal-setting exercise, Megan? Really? How mind-blowing…” But, stick with me. Remember that dark ominous cloud from earlier in this post? It wasn’t the vegetables, bubble baths, or motivational Pinterest quotes that helped me escape its path and rediscover my productivity mojo. It was this.

Working backwards from your major milestones

I started teaching a goal-setting exercise in my “Make It Rain” music business workshops before I stumbled across the Debbie Millman episode. However, this exercise shares some very similar points. The most important takeaway is to, “imagine yourself in the future.” For my goal-setting exercise, we start 20 years in the future. It is, at the time of this writing, the end of 2017, and 2018 is just around the corner. Let’s imagine you’re using this goal-setting exercise as a stand-in for your run-of-the-mill New Year’s resolutions. I like to plot this out on a timeline, an example of which you can see below. But you should pick the visual representation you like best.

career milestone timeline

First, look twenty years into the future. In 2038, who do you want to be? It is time to dream big. Think about where you will be in your life and career. What are the seemingly impossible goals that you would like to have accomplished? Then, the ten-year point on the timeline is a mixture of seemingly impossible and “highlights of a career” goals. This is the part in which you think about “what kind of legacy do I want to leave in my field or for my family?” Before we get to this goal-setting exercise in my workshops, I teach participants about what I consider the four levels of a career: generalist, specialist, expert, authority. We discuss how to strategically level-up from each one of those categories. The difference between your ten-year goals and your goals twenty years in the future is the difference between your goals as an expert in your field and your goals as an authority. An expert has a solid track record in handling complex, higher risk/higher profile projects and usually works with industry-leading clients. Let this help you brainstorm goals that have to do with complex projects and industry-leading collaborators. An authority receives honors and awards by professional peers for contribution to thought leadership. This could help you brainstorm goals that would fundamentally change your industry. Experts author seminal books on industry-related topics, perform (or speak) at leading national and international festivals/conferences, and influence a large fan/supporter base. An expert is also able to pick and choose work and enjoys “celeb status.” The easiest way I find to explain this is that an expert is someone who a reporter “inside the field” turns to for their opinion. An authority is someone who a reporter “outside the field” asks to comment on their general domain. You can hear it now, “Hmmm, I want to write a piece about opera. I’ll ask Renée Fleming…”

I had begun to believe that those big goals weren’t available to me anymore.

As a personal note, when I returned to this exercise feeling utterly defeated by burn-out, this was the most difficult part of the exercise to do. I had pages of notes for things that needed to happen in the next few months. But thinking about my twenty-year goals? I was left with a big blank. I had lost sight of my biggest vision. I had lost sight of who I wanted to be in the farther future for the sake of the dopamine high of crossing off a to-do list in the now. In fact, I had begun to believe that those big goals weren’t available to me anymore. If you haven’t been in that place, I hope you never have to experience it. If you have, please take even more time to dream up the most unbelievable, extraordinary, and astounding goals for your life. I want you to skip past the step in which others would say, “Who do you think you are?!” and march right on through to the point at which they might just faint in astonishment.

The halfway point

The five-to-six-year point of the goal timeline is where we identify the halfway point to those larger goals. When I have workshop participants complete this part of the exercise, we try to pinpoint the halfway milestones to big goals. For example, I will have some students suggest that they want to win a Grammy Award in ten to twenty years. We will often discuss that it is more likely to be considered for a Grammy when you have had a decent amount of recording experience in your history. But just recording regularly doesn’t make you magically ready to take home some hardware from the ceremony. Some of the things we also discuss include: writing/playing works about which you are deeply passionate, increasing your technical skills to be recording ready, finding a recording engineer you trust, working with a label, becoming a voting member or getting sponsored by two voting members, programming with a strong vision that still falls within the guidelines, and much more.

If you aren’t clear on the reasons you want to accomplish your seemingly impossible goals, then the work on the path to reaching that goal is going to feel burdensome.

What are the halfway points to your seemingly impossible goals? Can you achieve even more clarity on the most desired aspects of those goals? What I mean here is, is it important to you to win a Grammy because you love recording music? Or, do you want to win for different reasons? If you aren’t clear on the reasons you want to accomplish your seemingly impossible goals, then the work on the path to reaching that goal is going to feel burdensome.

Two-year goal actualization

You can take as many “business of music” courses as your heart desires, but nothing will be useful to you unless you know the trajectory you want to take. That is why we start at the farther end of the goal timeline. It’s the big goals that help us plan the course along the way. Now, our two-year goals are where the “rubber meets the road,” so to speak. Your five-to-six-year goals hopefully began to look a little more realistic or timely to you. That’s a good sign.

If you’re like me, the two-year goals are where motivation starts to kick back in after I’ve scared the beejezus out of myself with the wildly ambitious goals. These begin to look like actual SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound. I had a student reveal to me that one of her big, audacious goals was to be an EGOT winner. (EGOT is an acronym for “Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony” in reference to persons who have won all four awards.) We talked about how her two-year goal actualization would be full of auditioning and gaining experience in all four of those areas. It’s a rare honor to receive all four of those awards. To do so, you need to be undeniable in all of those arenas. You can’t avoid learning about how television gets made and focus all of your energy on stage acting if your big goal is to be an EGOT winner. Take a moment, now, to outline your two-year goals in alignment with your overarching “Who do you think you are?” career-spanning goals.

Quarterly goals with metrics

Finally, we’re getting closer to the here and now. Take your journal, or piece of paper, and sketch out the quarters between this moment and your two-year goals. In each one of those quadrants, give yourself a handful of assignments that you know will help you achieve the two-year goal(s) you wrote down. Remember our students who wanted to win Grammy awards? Maybe their quarterly goals include:

  • Make a repertoire plan that will progressively work toward the type of repertoire to be recorded.
  • Do an internship in a recording studio to learn more about the process.
  • Make a professional studio recording of a specific upcoming performance/recital.
  • Network (make sure to identify a specific place, specific event, or specific people) with audio/video recording professionals to learn more about who to have on my recording team in the future.
  • Record every practice session or performance to get used to listening to myself on recordings.
  • Listen to those recordings on the first weekend of every month.
  • Make a plan to post new recordings after the listening session.
  • Sit in on an editing session with specific friends or mentors to learn the process.
  • Ask specific friends or mentors for advice on working with labels, producers, and engineers.

None of these quarterly goals seem particularly difficult or challenging when we write them out like that. But, surely, you can think back to a time when you were dragging your feet because you just didn’t know where to start on a big project or a specific action didn’t make it onto your calendar. You had the big end goal in mind, but you didn’t know how to strategically plan out the micro-actions to get yourself there.

Busyness is no longer my currency

I scroll through social media and can see that I was never alone in these challenges. I find that many of my colleagues are suffering burnout. Their dark clouds are stifling all of the positive feelings they initially brought to their music careers. The signs are jumping out at me through the screen. There are many Type-A, workaholic, checklist-or-die types in our field. We wear our “busyness” as a badge of honor. We lament our low wages, lack of sleep, and wearing of seventeen hats even as we glorify this martyrdom in ourselves and others. Achievement for the sake of achievement is a chimera. Instead of slowly drifting away from the field, I found a way to recommit to my larger vision and passion again. I hope that you’ll do this exercise many times. I hope that you’ll do this exercise to keep you clear and sane. Finally, I hope you’ll do this exercise well before you desperately need it.

Some Reflections on Transitioning Out of Being a “Young Composer”

What is the cut-off for being a “young composer”? Everyone defines that line a little differently, but I’m in my mid-30s, and in my case anyway, I certainly feel like I’ve moved onto the next thing.

This transition is more a state of mind than anything else. Over the past few years, when I’ve found myself in young composer settings, I’ve gotten that awkward feeling of being somewhere you no longer belong, like when you visit your old high school a few years into college.

Also, much to my amazement, I’ve found myself confronted on occasion by composers younger than me asking for career advice. Thinking back on the past few years, I suppose I did learn a few things that would have been useful to my 20-something self. So in the spirit of paying it forward, here are some reflections on composing after young-composer-hood.

What you did in your 20s won’t matter much

There is a cult of youth in the composition scene, just as there is with most public-facing human activities. When you’re a young composer, a lot of people are interested in what you’re doing simply because “young composers”! That’s not wrong—young people with no track record do need a way to get a leg up—but the mistake is assuming that the attention you get as a young composer somehow predicts the attention you’ll get when you’re older.

After a few years, most of the people who experienced your youthful glories will have totally forgotten that you exist, having moved on to the next round of young composers. So while you should definitely take advantage of the young composer competitions, festivals, workshops, and prizes, it’s important to realize that there’s an expiry date on their usefulness.

Composing is about who you know

Speaking of prizes and festivals and such, it turns out that winning them is much less important than the connections you make along the way.

When you’re in your 20s, the task of finding compositional opportunities mostly gets sorted out on its own: you have to write pieces for student recitals, you go to summer festivals, you get a few emerging composer commissions, etcetera. This is also, not coincidentally, the period in your life when you reach “peak friends.” Opportunities arise seemingly organically, maybe you win a few prizes, and it’s logical to assume that all this is happening because you write good music.

Yes, you do have to be a good composer—but there are a lot of good composers out there, so people tend to work with their friends.

Then a few years pass. You’re no longer in school, you’ve aged out of the young composer festivals, and—having passed peak friends—a lot of people move on and lose touch. It then becomes obvious that the main reason you’re composing for Quartet XYZ is because the cellist is a buddy of yours, not because of your skill as a composer. Yes, you do also have to be a good composer—but there are a lot of good composers out there, so people tend to work with their friends. While there are exceptions to this pattern, most of your post-20s opportunities will stem from the personal relationships you make.

When I was in grad school at UCSD, I got my fair share of those young composer commissions and prizes. Also, as a Canadian I didn’t expect to stay in the US long term, so while I did of course make friends at school, my priorities were always elsewhere. Well, here I am in San Francisco almost ten years later, married to an American. Yet few of my professional connections today stem from grad school, probably because my peers could tell I wasn’t fully invested in the community. And for all the effort, Gaudeamus and MATA and the prizes I won never created any lasting opportunities. In retrospect, back then I probably should have spent less time sending out applications and more time just hanging out with people.

A lot of your peers will stop composing

Look around: how many of the composers that you know are in their 20s? Then think about how many you know in their 30s. It’s a smaller number. Move up to 40s and it shrinks again. With each passing decade, there are fewer people who continue to compose. It’s a hard lifestyle, opportunities are not always forthcoming, and faced with the task of toiling in poverty versus getting an office job that actually pays, many people eventually choose the latter.

You need to keep proving yourself

I’m a recluse by nature—I’ve always dreaded schmoozing and networking, or really most types of group-based social activity. But in my 20s, I expected that if I stuck it out for a while, eventually my reputation would make it less necessary to do that stuff and that opportunities would come my way with increasing ease. Turns out that’s not the case. You need to make more of an effort as time goes on, not less, due to a confluence of the factors described above.

At some point in your life, while you’re busy being a young composer, you’ll suddenly realize that an active cohort of younger young composers has sprung up after you. They will be largely unaware of what you were doing in your 20s, because they were teenagers then. And just as you did before them, they’ll be busy basking in the cult of youth and hanging out in an echo chamber of people mostly their own age.

Of course, this happens at the exact same moment the more established musicians have forgotten your young composer successes—there’s a new group of up-and-comers to attend to, after all. You’ll also have fewer colleagues your own age to turn to, because of the people-dropping-out-of-music thing.

The end result is that you have to keep proving yourself, just like you did in your 20s, getting to know the younger cohort and solidifying your ties with your remaining peers and the musicians who came before you. Except now, you also need to create all of the opportunities yourself. There are no prizes or festivals or required recitals to rely on. You have to form an ensemble, or put on concerts, or pitch ideas to the groups your friends run, or otherwise use your personal network to find ways to create music.

You achieve greater success by helping others succeed

Design your activities so that they help others achieve their goals as well.

Which brings us to the next point. When you pursue projects that are exclusively about your own glory, you will have to do everything yourself and pay full price for services. People will play your gigs, but since they’re not invested in your success, it’ll just be another gig for them.

In contrast, if you design your activities so that they help others achieve their goals as well, they will want to help you succeed. You will find that you have a network of people eager to assist you with the things you care most about, and you’ll be able to mount your projects with greater ease than you could have on your own.

Making money and making music are unrelated questions

There are a lot of ways to earn a living, just as there are a lot of ways to compose music. You can follow the academic path. You can teach privately. You can conduct or take gigs as a performer. You can do a job outside of music, or as an arts administrator. Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll start an ensemble that taps into big philanthropic dollars.

There will be some overlap between the money aspect and the composing aspect, but the connection will never really be as strong as you want it to be. In my 20s, I was fairly successful as a grant writer and freelancer. I assumed that this success would continue to expand, both in terms of volume of commissions and remuneration.

What I discovered, however, is that there is an upper bound. There are only so many funders, and you can only write so much music. Therefore, as your financial needs increase—and they will, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can live like a college student indefinitely—you need to find other income streams. My income from grant writing and commissions has stayed fairly steady over the past decade, but it has become a smaller proportion of my total income.

You have to work from a place of strength

Andrew Solomon perhaps put this most poetically in his Advice for Young Writers: “To know more is simply a matter of industry; to accept what you will never know is trickier.”

When you’re young, there’s the tendency to want to do everything, learn as much as possible, conquer all challenges. I used to drill and drill and drill on ear training exercises, because as a percussionist, I felt like I had to “catch up” to the composers who grew up playing strings or singing and had an amazing sense of pitch.

I did get a lot better, but I don’t play pitched instruments every day, so those skills are just never going to be as good as someone who does, even if I did have the time to keep up the ear training drills.

So I compose from my strengths and interests, accepting that there are things others will do better than me and that there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve got the right skills for the music I want to write, and that’s what counts.

Focus on the types of activities that you’re good at and enjoy.

This principle likewise applies to the more career-centered aspects of composing. You need to focus on the types of support activities that you’re good at and enjoy, whether that means grant writing, running an ensemble, freelancing as a sound engineer, etcetera. The reason I’m sitting here writing this article is because I like to write, I’ve gotten decently good at it, and I’ve attracted a respectable audience over the years. If those things weren’t true, I would be doing something else instead.

In this respect, composers are best served by standard career planning advice, with the exception that you’re most likely to find a hodgepodge of workable if imperfect compromises as opposed to the single, Goldilocksian solution a vocational counselor might prefer.

Career counseling

You need collaborators

Find people in your life who can support your weaknesses.

Because you’re working from a place of strength and can’t do everything yourself, you need find people in your life who can support your weaknesses. This arrangement could be formal or informal. A lot of great people throughout history have had spouses or patrons that have kept them afloat, both financially or just in terms of keeping their shit together. Some composers start collectives or ensembles, or they work with dance companies or otherwise find a team of people to support them. Note that this doesn’t have to be an egotistical, “taker” kind of arrangement. In fact, it’s usually more successful if it’s reciprocal. But you need to find your complements and work with them.

You won’t go to all the concerts anymore

It’s Friday afternoon and you’ve been (working/teaching/grant writing/rehearsing) all week, haven’t seen your (spouse/kids) for more than a few minutes a day all week, had a (board meeting/fundraiser/computer meltdown) last night and have (no groceries/a piece due next week/relatives coming over tomorrow). There is a new music concert tonight featuring amazing players that you love, but they’re playing Boulez (or whoever) and you’ve just never really been that into Boulez. You will skip the concert to watch Netflix and have a beer, guilt-free. Otherwise you’ll soon burn out on all concert going, and if you don’t enjoy concerts, it’s pretty hard to stay motivated to compose. I suspect that going to boring concerts is the #2 reason why people stop composing. (#1 is, of course, the money.)

Your best artistic days are ahead of you

This article by Irish/South African composer Kevin Volans caused quite a stir recently, and there’s a lot in it I disagree with. But one thing he said that is undoubtedly true is that people become better composers over time.

Young composers, on the whole, write conservative music that lacks depth and personality. There are Mozartian exceptions, but even the best young composers tend to get better with age. You’ll write better music in your 30s, even though you’ll likely get less recognition for it, seeing as you’re not a “young composer” anymore.

You have to be O.K. with a lack of feedback

Chances are you’re no longer in a structured environment like school or the young composers summer circuit, so you won’t get a lot of feedback on your work, except for reviews of your performances here and there, or complaints from your parents who wonder, “Why can’t you just write a pretty melody for once?” (Full disclosure: my parents are actually super cool and really supportive.) You have to be O.K. with not having anyone comment on your music most of the time.

This is an especially composerly issue. Playwrights tend to work with dramaturges for this very reason, professional singers often have coaches, and there are many other parallels across the arts. But it’s hard for composers to find this kind of collaborator. It’s just going to be you most of the time.

You’ll probably be a much faster composer

The reasons why you write music will become clearer. (If they don’t, you’ll probably stop composing.) When you know the why, and you have more practice with the how, the act of composing speeds up quite a bit. That doesn’t mean you’ll never get stuck, just that the average number of hours you need to put in to create a given amount of quality music will go down.

That will give you time for other things, like hobbies or volunteering or having kids—whatever. Take advantage of those possibilities. They’ll lead to a richer life, and the best art always stems from lived experience.

***

Aaron Gervais-TracyWong

Aaron Gervais
Photo by Tracy Wong

Aaron Gervais is a freelance composer based in San Francisco. He draws upon humor, quotation, pop culture, and found materials to create work that spans the gamut from somber to slapstick, and his music has been performed across North America and Europe by leading ensembles and festivals. Check out his music and more of his writing at aarongervais.com.

Good Career Hunting: On Being a Deer Chaser

As this is my first post for NewMusicBox since my series on entrepreneurship and because this post will be tangentially related, I feel obliged to make one quick comment before beginning. After quite a bit of time and reflection, I wrote a fairly lengthy follow-up to those essays over at my website, which I titled, “Entrepreneurship, Success, and the Illusion of Narrative or How Felicia Day Taught Me That I Was Wrong About Claire Chase.” I believe it offers a more nuanced perspective than my original posts, as well as a much-needed public apology to Claire Chase.

I find it difficult to talk about the struggles I have in my musical career. Part of that is from a desire to maintain a successful public image, but another part is worrying over how it would be received. I worry about sounding whiny and ungrateful to those who are working hard just to get where I am, and I worry about sounding hopelessly naive to those further along. But recent events led me to open up and write about what’s been bothering me.

I have been having difficulty lining up gigs for next season, interest in my albums has been in a bit of decline, and, darn it, I thought there would be a bigger response to the release of my tenth album. I’m not sure what I was hoping for, exactly, but it felt like a big deal to me, and I wanted others to feel the same. I was in a real funk. Then I went to a book signing where I got to meet a woman whose work I’ve admired for years, and in the process I gained some much-need perspective.

I came away from my brief encounter with Felicia Day feeling better about my career than I had in a long time.

I came away from my brief encounter with Felicia Day feeling better about my career than I had in a long time, and I felt inspired to write about why. Here is the tl;dr.

I was one of the last people at the book signing, and as I waited in line for more than an hour, I got to see the labor that goes into such an event. To make each fan feel special in only thirty seconds, to pose for picture after picture (knowing that each will likely be shared online), and even just to sign that many books seemed exhausting. And that’s when it clicked for me. Even though she’s successfully built a company from the ground up and written a New York Times best seller, I’m certain she still has to work tirelessly to keep her career moving ahead. It was a poignant reminder that the work, the pure effort of building a career never stops, and that helped me move forward.

Andy Lee meets Felicia Day at her book signing

Andy Lee meets Felicia Day at her book signing and adjusts his perspective on career building.

So I wrote about it, and the response was incredible. I received lots of positive feedback and “you’re not alone!” comments, and I realized that many of the respondents were not in my circle of friends even a year or two ago. Moreover, I made new connections as the post got shared, notably among fans of Felicia Day who otherwise would have never encountered my music. (Shout out to Team Hooman!)

One particular response also brought to my attention a wonderful NewMusicBox article from Ingram Marshall, “The Tipping Point.” In the post, Marshall asks several prominent composers what they considered to be the tipping point for their careers. The article is well worth reading in its entirety, but I’d like to draw attention to one particular analogy he uses—the deer chaser.

A deer chaser, or shishi-odoshi, is a style of fountain used in Japanese gardens. Water flows into a piece of bamboo, causing the center of balance to shift and the water to spill out. As the bamboo returns to its resting position it typically strikes a rock, creating noise to scare away deer or other wildlife.

In his post, Marshall uses this image to describe the “near miss” of a tipping point. As he writes:

In the deer chaser model, the tipping point occurs, but it doesn’t create a steady rush, only a momentary one, and it keeps recurring at set intervals. I think a lot of composers experience this kind of tipping point, where they think they are on the verge of some kind of surge of popularity due to a big event—say a prize, a recording, a publishing contract, or maybe a big commission—but soon enough, as in the deer chaser model, they find that they have flipped back to their old position, the rush of the cascading water with its loud alarm having dissipated.

I experienced something quite similar with my album Dennis Johnson: November. It was reviewed in publications around the world, including sources such as The Wire and Gramophone, we quickly sold out of the first two pressings, and it helped me get my first gigs in London and New York. The icing on the cake was making a large number of “best of” lists that year, including the #1 classical album of 2013 in Time Out New York. That in turn landed me a big award from my alma mater and an interview with Colorado Public Radio, among other things.

Yet nothing I’ve done since has been even close to that successful, and I’ve spent many hours since wondering what I might have done differently to make that less of a deer chaser moment and more of a tipping point.

Since writing about meeting Felicia Day, however, I’ve come to think that it’s too easy to chase after tipping points and get frustrated by near misses. Instead, I’d propose thinking of the deer chaser less for its negative connotations and more for the positives the analogy holds.

The work never stops, forward momentum is rarely ceded without a fight, and chasing tipping points is a fool’s errand.

First, a deer chaser makes noise, and that’s exciting. There are a lot of things I want to do with my career, but making some noise and getting noticed seems like a good place to be. Second, all the water that pours out of the deer chaser has to go somewhere. No, we don’t always get to control where it goes, but that water still nourishes the soil and helps create new growth.

Likewise, career progress is often difficult to see. I haven’t sold any CDs as a result of that post, nor have any gig offers come my way, but I’ve expanded my new music network (to use a crass term), and I’ve gotten my foot in the door with an entirely new community. It was also a useful reminder that I enjoy writing. That’s not nothing.

I’ve also used this new mindset to help tackle mundane chores. I’ve complained about how hard it’s been to find gigs, so I’m trying to be more organized in my efforts, to make more cold contacts, and to be more forward in general. I’ve complained about the lack of attention given to my recent albums, so I’m writing about the stories behind them and trying to up my social media game (without becoming a self-promoting drone). In short, I’m trying to remember that my efforts to build a career are not in vain.

Still, while I’ve psychologically gotten over this current speed bump, I know that many more lie ahead. When the next one crosses my path, the first thing I’ll do is give myself permission to vent my frustrations. Somewhere inside my head is a little voice that believes that complaining doesn’t fix anything, but I know better. True, complaining isn’t going to get me a gig, but it may well help me become emotionally ready to press ahead once more in a career filled with rejection and disappointment. And while I’ll allow for a bit of public complaining, I’m also going to use a lifeline (and expired cultural reference) to phone a friend and have a real conversation.

The other thing I’ll do is try to remember my all-to-brief encounter with Felicia Day. Seeing a small portion of the labor that goes into her career brought me some peace about my own. It reminded me that the work never stops, that forward momentum is rarely ceded without a fight, and that chasing tipping points is a fool’s errand. So for now, I’m going to seek contentment as a deer chaser, making as much noise as I possibly can and nurturing my career bit by bit.


R. Andrew Lee

R. Andrew Lee

Pianist R. Andrew Lee is one of the foremost interpreters of minimal music. He has recorded ten solo albums with Irritable Hedgehog Music, which have made “best of” lists in The New Yorker, Time Out New York, The Wire, MOJO, and Gramophone among many others. Upcoming projects include previously unreleased piano music by William Duckworth and a 3.5 hour composition for piano and electronics by Randy Gibson, a longtime student of La Monte Young. Lee currently teaches at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, and was most recently artist-in-residence at Avila University.

William G. Baumol and You: (Broader Economic) Context Is Everything

pills and money

This is the first publication of a line of research I’ve been working on for more than a year. I’d like to thank the New Music Gathering, the San Francisco Conservatory, Peabody Conservatory, and most recently Seattle Pacific University for giving me opportunities to speak about this research. Video of my talk at Seattle Pacific is embedded below. I’d also like to thank the more than a dozen artists, administrators, and economists who’ve shared their experiences with me and helped me make sure this work isn’t only theoretically sound, but also of practical use for working artists. Last but not least, I’d like to thank NewMusicBox for helping me reach out to some of those working artists last year, as I was preparing this material for January’s New Music Gathering. I’m still at the beginning phases of this work, so if you’re curious about it, have a use for it, or want to participate, please get in touch: [email protected]

pills and money

The music industry is changing really fast. Nobody knows what’s going on, or what’s going to happen next. Nobody’s career is like anyone else’s, and we’re all making it up out on our own. But there’s this one piece of economics that can help make sense of what’s going on, help us make better decisions as artists, and even help us make long-term plans.

That piece of economics? Baumol’s Cost Disease. In the 1960s Baumol noticed that some kinds of work get more productive because of technical advances. These are things like manufacturing, calculation, and robotic factories: anything where new technology makes things faster and cheaper. For Baumol, this is the “productive sector.” Then there are categories of work where technology doesn’t make it faster. No new iPhone app is going to make it take less than four worker-hours to perform a one-hour string quartet. The usual grouping of such industries is healthcare, education, and the performing arts (us). We’re the “stagnant sector”.

As things in the productive sector get cheaper and cheaper, stuff in the stagnant sector gets more and more expensive (by comparison) to produce. So it gets harder and harder to keep paying artists, teachers, and doctors well for producing, by comparison, less and less. That’s cost disease.

In the popular arts press, cost disease usually gets invoked to justify shrinking the orchestra or firing the dancers. It’s presented as a bogeyman, a bad thing that happens to our field. But it’s actually an observation about relative productivity that touches the entire economy and has implications for everyone, both good and bad. If you’re interested, Baumol wrote a second book during the debate over Obamacare. He talks about what people have gotten wrong about his work over the years (quite a lot), and he talks about how the problem isn’t just with things getting too expensive. There’s a problem when things like guns and fossil fuels are getting cheaper, too.

He makes one brilliant argument about how the forces moving these prices all exist within the context of a single economy — the rate of inflation governing all of this is an average of all the prices. No matter how high the costs of healthcare, education, and the performing arts grow, we can afford them as a society. Maybe we can’t afford them as individual businesses, but with enough political will, we can have the things we want.

There’s one thing Baumol doesn’t do–and I haven’t seen any other economists do it either–and that’s extend this work into the realm of the individual artist. Honestly, we’re too small a segment of the economy to get that much attention.

It’s well established how cost disease forced us out of the institution and into working on our own. But once we got here, Baumol kept being useful. Because suddenly, we were like big orchestras with mixed staffs of productive office workers and stagnant musicians. As independent working artists, we’ve got our artistic practice (stagnant and not being made faster by technology), and all the extra administrative work that we didn’t have to do before, like marketing, finances, taxes, business incorporation, etc., etc. (productive and being made faster by technology).

Baumol does provide a good account of businesses like this, with mixed inputs, including orchestras and individual artists: we’re called “asymptotically stagnant.” That is, as the productive stuff gets faster and faster over time, it will shrink to practically nothing as part of our cost of doing business, and we’ll eventually become mostly about the stagnant side: in our case, the actual art.

Publishers are a great example to show how this works. Originally, publishers were important because they had the means to print paper. They owned the machine. That made them important and powerful. They also had a bit of a distribution network and a promotional system, but that was less important than the engraving and printing. Over time, the cost of printing has dropped. Now most of us can make professional-level scores ourselves, and we can play with PDFs off of tablets. But publishers are still important, although more for their distribution networks and marketing capacity than for the actual means of production. The cost of the physical printing has dropped so low that it’s a negligible fraction of the cost of running the business, or of the value publishers add; the only thing left is the human labor part: that network. It’s taken a long time, and the process isn’t finished, but it is inevitable: the part of the work that can’t be automated will be all that’s left.

Piracy in the WSJ

Sample coverage from the Wall Street Journal

It’s not just publishers, either. Most of the businesses that artists encounter as counterparties in our lives are being strongly influenced by the relative productivity changes that Baumol describes. Record labels, venues, agents, merchandise makers, PROs, orchestras: everyone’s getting their business models messed with by the same economic forces, and when one of these institutions starts to implode, as happens all too frequently, we can use cost disease to tell a quick and dirty (but very useful) story about what’s going on.

All you have to do is sort the things that institution does into two piles: stagnant and productive. Once you’ve done that, you know what’s getting cheaper and what’s getting more expensive. This can explain very dramatic changes, largely because of how powerful compound interest is. The difference between a 1% growth rate (below inflation, so getting cheaper in real dollars) and a 3% growth rate (above inflation, so getting more expensive in real dollars) can get very big in just a few years and lead to dramatic consequences. This is possibly my favorite feature of cost disease analysis: you don’t need to know what something costs, or even in most cases how fast its price is changing. You just need to know whether it’s automatable or not, and that tells you whether the price is going up or going down. That’s really all you need to know. Then you can usually tell where the pressure is coming from, and what someone’s trying to do about it. This can help you read the news, and it can help you figure out when the person you’re negotiating with has a weaker position than they’re letting on.

Individual artists are like that, too. Our artistic practice will never get more productive, but everything else can get faster and faster and faster over time thanks to technological advances. This leads to one of the first lessons of cost disease for individual artists: expect the way you do office work to change rapidly. You’re not going to find the right tool for travel booking or promotion early in your career and have it be the best tool for your whole life. We can keep our art-making habits the same, but our business habits should change.

We even know something about how they’ll change: they’ll get cheaper. Instead of buying an ad and printing signs, we can send emails and host a website on a cheap server. Instead of paying a travel agent, we can use an interlocking set of search sites and calendar applications to organize tours. And while we still might need to pay an accountant with experience in the arts to do our taxes, we can make that job faster and shorter by documenting our accounts with metadata in something like mint.com. And we can expect those things to keep getting cheaper and faster over time.

There is a part of our marketing work that won’t get faster, though. In truth, marketing and communications have components in both the “stagnant” and “productive” sectors. We still have to write the email, even though we can inexpensively send it to thousands of people. There’s a core of communication that isn’t going to get faster, even though new telecommunications technology has changed pretty much everything in the last few decades.

When we look at those non-art making tasks and see their financial costs going to zero, we can start to see what’s really important in deciding how to do these things: time. You’re not investing dollars in that new ad campaign, but the time you’re committing to it is more important, and increasingly expensive. So when you’re picking a platform to promote yourself, think about how easy it is for you emotionally to use Twitter or Tumblr or Pinterest or whatever comes next, because if you commit to a platform you hate, you’ll be wasting all that time psyching yourself up to post, instead of naturally taking an Instagram photo of your lunch without giving it a second thought.

As artists we have very unpredictable financial lives. But we know that our weeks will have the same number of hours in them for the rest of our lives. So when we make long-term plans, it’s a lot more effective to base them on the time we have than the money we hope to earn.

Most people go through their careers at regular jobs earning an average of 4% more per year over the course of their lives. That’s how our economy prices labor. That’s how much more valuable our time gets year by year, and that’s how much our pay should be growing: significantly faster than the 2% inflation target set by the Federal Reserve.

For me, that’s a strong way to advocate for the arts. I don’t like to base my arguments on increasing test scores, economic development, or personal enrichment–although those things are awesome and do come from the arts. When I’m forced to justify the arts in a narrow outcomes-based context I feel like I’ve already lost, because the reason art is so interesting is how hard it is to pin down to just one dimension.

I like to argue like this: we need to make a commitment as a society to paying health care workers, educators, and artists enough to support them as well as any typical worker in our society. Baumol’s analysis shows that we can have as much of these things as we want. We just need the will to commit to paying for them.

Is Contemporary Music Ready for a Baby Boom?

The Inevitable Result of Obamacare
My string trio—a group of three women—has long talked about what will happen, how our professional lives together will change, once we start having children. Half joking, half deadly serious, we’ve considered trying to conceive in the same month. We’ve wondered if we could save money by sharing a rehearsal babysitter. We’ve looked on happily as the Chiara Quartet toured with their babies, and nervously as other chamber musicians left their ensembles shortly after giving birth.

“No need to worry til 2014,” Sara always said, reassuring us with a date that seemed blissfully far away. “Not until Obamacare in 2014.”

She was right. Back in 2012, regardless of how married or unmarried we were, or how emotionally ready or unready we felt, none of us were considering having a child anytime soon—because we couldn’t afford to. Since we were all self-employed freelance musicians, we purchased our insurance on the individual market rather than through group plans (as an ever-shrinking number of people in the US do). Occasionally, out of curiosity, I had looked at ehealthinsurance.com to see how much a self-employed person like me would have to spend for maternity coverage. Although I was paying $250 a month for mediocre insurance for myself, at one point my search revealed that I would need to spend more than $800 a month in order to access maternity care. Even more daunting was the fact that I would have to pay this amount for a year before the insurance company would approve any related claims. In other words, I would need to spend $9600 in premiums alone before I was even allowed to get knocked up. In the early stages of developing my career as a violinist and writer, this represented about half of what I earned in a year.
It wasn’t a very good deal, and as it turns out, women’s health advocates around the country had noticed. The National Women’s Law Center reported similarly outrageous “maternity riders” around the country: in Kansas, where a best-selling plan cost around $220 a month, a maternity rider would run you $1600 a month.

The Affordable Care Act made some of its most sweeping reforms in the arenas of health care for women and health care for the self-employed. This means that female freelance musicians are among the Americans whose lives have been most deeply affected by this policy. Women can no longer be charged more than men for their policies, maternity care can no longer be excluded, and it’s easier and more affordable for self-employed artists to obtain coverage. The year that we have long anticipated has finally arrived, and one of our biggest roadblocks to procreation has been removed. You heard it here first: I predict a creative-professionals baby boom in the coming year.

Although reports vary as to whether the contemporary music audience is withering or widening, a few more small, wiggly butts in the seats won’t hurt. We could raise an army of babes who love Boustead, toddlers who love Thomas, kids who love Kirsten, adolescents who love Abrams. But is contemporary music—its career arcs, social scenes, traditions, and infrastructure—ready for a baby boom?

Just as new parents need to babyproof their homes before the precious bundle arrives, the contemporary music community needs to take a look around and see how prepared we are. Are we a family-friendly field, or are there some sharp edges that will alienate new parents? Are there any proverbial marbles we should pick up before somebody chokes? I’ve poked around in the closets and looked closely along the baseboards, and I found some areas for improvement.

Composition’s high premium on youth: The dominance of the “young composer” competition, like many of our society’s career trajectory expectations, is unfriendly to anyone who chooses to prioritize family during what is supposed to be their professional prime. If you’re busy raising children from about 29 to 39—the years when, fertility-wise, women are most likely to do just that—the “under 40” competitions are gone by the time you’re ready to refocus.

No-kids-allowed artist residencies: Retreating into creative solitude is considered an essential step for working composers, but for parents of young children, it can be hard to find an environment that allows both creative space and continued commitment to, for instance, breastfeeding. One San Francisco-based organization, recognizing this particular challenge, offers grant support exclusively to writers and visual artists who have a child under 18. I’m not aware of any musical organizations offering something similar.

The importance of being hip: In this great article about how the “having it all” debate relates (or doesn’t) to visual artists, author Katherine Gressel notes that becoming a parent can result in an unfortunate downgrade of your personal brand. Our culture doesn’t tend to perceive parenthood—and motherhood in particular—as “hip, cool and fascinatingly eccentric.” That can be a problem in a field that values both the practice and the appearance of edgy risk-taking.

The prevalence of low-paying work: It’s one thing to play a show for fifty bucks when it’s just yourself you have to feed. Once kids come into the mix, it’s hard to weigh artistic gain against the quality time, precious sleep, or childcare dollars lost. This, of course, is why so many musicians try desperately to become as established, well-known, and in-demand as they can before starting their families.

The increasing importance of late-night shows in bars: This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Baby bedtime is 7 p.m.
Have your ovaries frozen yet? Don’t worry; it’s not all gloom and doom for our boom.
Babies haven’t been alive long enough to be cultural reactionaries. In Chicago, city cultural planners are already banking on the artistic adventurousness of toddlers with their experimental art series, Juicebox. In New York, the Brooklyn stroller set enjoys the innovatively programmed “Baby Got Bach” series. Having some seriously impressionable little ears in our posse will be great.

In our field, we know about banding together—and that means childcare co-ops. “The hardest thing about parenting kids of any age is finding affordable, flexible, reliable child care,” said Erica Burtner Anderson, oboist with Quintet Attacca. “Every week in a musician’s life is full of unpredictable scheduling challenges.” Is this a problem that artists could band together to help solve? Community-building organizations like New Music Chicago and the New Music Bake Sale show that we can pool our resources for the betterment of the entire community. So whether we’re straight or gay, breeding or adopting, let’s help each other get our kids in good hands. And for the infant years, purchase an extra-large rehearsal crib.
Although unpredictable schedules can be tough, in some ways they’re ideal for new parents.” Since most musicians have time during the day, it’s great to be the parent of babies and young children,” Anderson said. “We get to see them when they are alert and then we go to work during dinner and bedtime. Unfortunately, this changes when the kids are school age, since the only time they are home is when we work.”

The costs won’t bankrupt us like they might’ve before. When I asked my friend Sara—the one from the beginning of this story—how the Affordable Care Act had changed her perspective, she was optimistic. “Raising a family will still be difficult and costly, but it is no longer impossible or unrealistic, and that gives me hope,” she said.

Parenthood is extremely cool. It’s not hard to call to mind a long, exciting list of accomplished musicians who are also parents: composers Sarah Kirkland Snider and Steven Mackey, composer/performer Shara Worden, pianist Sarah Cahill, all the Bang on a Can co-founders, and Chicago luminaries Joann Cho and Jonathon Kirk, Amy Wurtz, Connie Schoepflin Volk, Michael Hall, and Seth Brodksy. Here’s a fun list of musical moms in rock music that might inspire you. See? So many of your colleagues are rocking their careers and parenthood simultaneously, you’d be silly to lose any sleep over not being “hip” anymore. You’ll have plenty else to lose sleep over instead.