Tag: economics

Five Timely Tax Tips for Musicians

For composers, performers, and teachers of music, January is a great time to rest and recover from the holiday buzz of performances and parties.  It’s a good time to get your instruments tuned up and repaired, and to plan your music calendar for the year. And it’s a great time to get ready to file your income taxes.  You may have had several gigs during the year for which taxes weren’t deducted from your pay. Settling up your income taxes with the IRS in April can seem scary. However, as I tell my tax clients, filing your taxes doesn’t have to be horrible.  With some planning and good record keeping, tax filing can go very smoothly. And you can manage to keep a lot of the money you earned.

Here are five major tips for keeping as much of your money as possible.

1. Know Your Tax Obligations

The federal government expects you to report ALL of your income from ANY source when you file your taxes.  That includes the income from all of your gigs – if you’ve earned at least $400 in total from them – and from any “regular” job you may have.  Your state and town may or may not have similar requirements.  If you work in the gig economy—and if you’re a musician you almost certainly do—the IRS considers you to be “self-employed.” That means that the IRS considers your gig work to be a business, and there are two types of federal taxes you need to pay on the money you earn from your performances, the classes and lessons you teach, and the music and arrangements you create:

  • Income tax – that’s “The Tax” you owe on all the money you earn, depending upon your tax bracket and deductions
  • Self-Employment tax – that’s Social Security and Medicare tax. It corresponds to the FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act) deducted from employees’ payroll checks. You have to pay 15.3% of your net gig income for these. The breakdown is 12.4% for Social Security and 2.9% for Medicare. You’re obliged to pay that much because an employer would normally pay 7.65% of your earnings to the IRS on your behalf for Social Security and Medicare, and you would be responsible for another 7.65%. With gig income, you pay both the employer’s and the employee’s share of Social Security and Medicare.  Too many people get into trouble by overlooking the self-employment tax. You shouldn’t be one of them!

Here’s the big tax issue: As a musician, music teacher, or composer, you may need to put away one third to one half of your net gig income for taxes. Or as much as you can if that much isn’t possible.  Any way you look at it, it’s a substantial tax bill.  For the coming year, keep in mind that our federal tax system is set up to be pay-as-you-go, so you may need to pay estimated taxes every quarter if you expect to owe the IRS more than $1,000 at filing time.

2. Gather Your Income Records and Add Up Your Gig Income

In the next few weeks, you should receive tax forms for income you’ve earned last year. These will include any W-2s for employee jobs, and 1099-MISC forms for any gig or contract work for which you were paid over $600. The client isn’t required to send you a 1099-MISC if you were paid less than $600, though you are still required to report that income to the IRS.  You may need to remind the client to send you the forms—especially because a lot of music business is still done on a word or a handshake.

Check the forms as soon as you receive them to make sure they’re correct. Compare them to your own records of your income, if you’ve kept them. For the 1099-MISC forms, you want your income to appear in Box 7, “Nonemployee Compensation” rather than Box 3, “Other Income.” That’s because you can deduct business expenses against nonemployee compensation but not against other income.  Try to get the client to send you a corrected 1099-MISC form if the income numbers are wrong or the income is reported in the wrong box. The IRS will match the forms your client sends them against the forms you send them, so they need to match.

A handful of receipts

3. Gather Your Expense Records and Deduct Your Gig Expenses

You can and should subtract (“deduct”) normal expenses from the income you receive from your music business.  A “deduction” is an item that can be subtracted from the income you earn before you pay taxes on that income, such as the goods or services (“expenses”) you need to buy in order to run your gigs.  By deducting your gig-related expenses, you owe less tax and keep more money.  That’s why it’s important to keep track of your business expenses!

For your self-employed (gig) income, you can file an IRS form called a Schedule C–“Profit or Loss from Business” form, with your annual taxes to deduct the related expenses from your gig income and reduce the tax you owe. You’ll also need to file Schedule SE–“Self-Employment Tax”.  Schedule SE reflects the sum total profit or loss you have from all of your gigs.

You’ll file one Schedule C for each type of business, not one for each gig, so a single Schedule C should cover all of your music business. The IRS has rules about what business expenses are deductible and to what extent they’re deductible.  For example, your business meals are only 50% deductible, while the interest and fees on your business credit card–one that’s used only for business-related purchases–can be 100% deductible. The expenses you deduct must be “reasonable and normal” for the type and volume of the business.

For musicians, music teachers, and composers, you can usually deduct these types of expenses:

  • Instruments (very expensive ones may need to be depreciated instead of deducted)
  • Repairs/Maintenance on instruments
  • Sheet music and music-business books
  • Instrument consumables (drum skins and sticks, guitar strings and picks, valve oil, mutes, music stands, polishing cloths, mouthpieces, tuners, cases, straps, etc.)
  • Insurance for instruments
  • Travel to/from gigs and performances
  • Mileage between gigs at 57.5¢ per mile (keep the mileage records in your car!)
  • Meals when traveling for gigs and performances (at 50% of the cost)
  • Recording equipment (if not extravagant)
  • Promotional recordings, photos, etc.
  • Rental of performance, rehearsal or teaching spaces.
  • Subscriptions to trade magazines (such as Billboard)
  • Copyright and registration fees
  • Lessons and instructions that you take to improve your musicianship
  • Fees related to maintaining your website and e-mail for music-related activities
  • Rent for storing your gear and/or for your practice space
  • Memberships in professional organizations and unions
  • Professional fees (attorney, manager, agent, accountant, etc.)
  • Tickets/fees for cultural events (within reason!)
  • Office supplies (pens, paper, printer ink, etc.)
  • Equipment used exclusively for your business (laptop, printer, etc.)

And because you have a business, you can also deduct:

  • Half of your self-employment tax! Because businesses are allowed to deduct the Social Security and Medicare taxes they pay on behalf of their employees, you can deduct the portion of your self-employment tax that an employer would have deducted.
  • Your health insurance premiums and medical expenses, provided that you paid for them yourself and aren’t eligible for health insurance from an employer or spouse’s employer. This deduction includes dental insurance and dental expenses, too. The health insurance and the medical expenses are deducted in different ways on your tax forms. Specifically, the insurance would be deductible as an adjustment to income; your medical expenses may qualify as itemized deductions.

Subtract your total gig expenses from your total gig income to determine your net income. It’s the net income that you’ll pay the self-employment tax on. Remember that you need to have some income in order to deduct the expenses, and check with your tax advisor about specific deductions.

A calculator, a pen and a marked up list of printed numbers.

4. Be Prepared to Prove You’ve Got a Business and Not a Hobby

You’re expected to be trying to make a profit on your business, even if you don’t make a profit in a particular year. It’s important for you to know whether your music business is actually making money for you.  How do you know if you’re making a profit?  Here’s the crucial equation:

Your Income minus Your Expenses equals Your Profit (or Loss) equals Your Net Income

In other words, the money you get from each type of gig or side business, minus the costs of generating that money, equals your profit or loss. You definitely want to make a profit! Your federal taxes—and state income taxes, too—are based on your profit or loss for each type of gig you have. That profit or loss is called “net income,” and it’s your net income that you’ll pay taxes on.

The IRS has guidelines to determine whether a given activity is actually for profit (a business) or not (a hobby). You can use business losses to offset your other taxable income. You can’t use hobby losses the same way.  To distinguish a business from a hobby, the IRS will question the time and effort you put in, whether you intend to make a profit, whether you depend upon the income of the business, etc.  Keeping good records of your income and expenses is a good way to prove that your gigs should be considered a business for tax purposes.

5. File Your Taxes Even If You Don’t Owe or Aren’t Required to File

Once you start your working career, you should file your taxes every year, even after you’ve retired. If you’ve got less than $400 in net gig or self-employment income for the year, you’re not required to file an annual tax return unless you have other income which requires you to file. Let’s say that you don’t have enough income of any kind to be required to file annual taxes.

You should file your taxes anyway.

Why? For one thing, you might get a refund on any income taxes you’ve already paid, especially if you’ve also got employment income from a W-2 job. You have three years to file for that refund.  After that, you’ve lost the refund permanently. And if things go well the next year and you have a lot of gig income, you may be able to average your income to reduce your taxes.

For another thing, filing your taxes can prove that you lived in a particular place, that you owned a particular house or piece of land, that you paid a specific amount for a stock or bond, that the funds which suddenly appeared in your bank account were inherited from your great uncle and not earned illegally, and a lot of other things you may one day need to prove!

These tips should help get you through filing your 2016 taxes.  (If you’d like more detailed information and checklists on how to deal with your taxes, I’ve recently written a book that’s available for Kindle on Amazon.com.) Happy filing, and remember to start keeping good records of your gig income and expenses for 2017!

The author posing with wig and sunglasses for her alias Madison Goodwin

Madison Goodwin is the pen name of a professional tax preparer and tax hobbyist based in Brooklyn, New York.  She earned her B.A. from Barnard College and her M.B.A. from New York University.  Madison has worked in management and consulting for several major banking, investment, and insurance companies. Her new book, Hot, Sexy Taxes!: A Lighthearted, Easy Guide to Your Taxes in Today’s Freelance and Gig Economy, is available for Kindle on Amazon.com.You can reach her at [email protected].

New Music Is Not (Necessarily) Contemporary Music


In the second essay for this series, I would like to define New Music and contemporary music. These are two terms that are often viewed as equivalent, but I will argue that they have different meanings.

In my view, New Music is a term that embodies a wide variety of artistic projects, mainly focused on sonic forms—though secondarily may also be expressed through the visual, the literary, or the theatrical—which position themselves under the umbrella of modernity in a critical manner. New Music is inherently in a difficult ideological position: it is in conflict with the economic, educational, and political structures that contribute to its birth, but it must simultaneously reconcile itself to them in order to attempt to bypass the anticipated consequences that these very conditions cause. It thus problematizes this inextricable contradiction in the hopes of generating potential alternative realities; hence New Music’s non-autonomous nature, for it conceals an ultimate purpose that surpasses its most superficial formal qualities. In this regard, New Music is embedded in modernity through a number of aesthetic forms—such as some instances of 20th-century modernism—and cannot be understood as such without its necessarily redemptory allegiance to “universal ideals of progress, reason, freedom and democracy.”[1] In consequence, New Music fits Terry Eagleton’s description of modernist works: “self-divided phenomena which deny in their discursive forms their own shabby economic reality.”[2] Beyond stylistic specifics commonly associated with this type of music (e.g. musique concrète instrumentale, spectralism, New Complexity, New Conceptualism, etc.), New Music is at its core an artistic project based on critique: this is its link to modernity—what fundamentally defines its nature.

New Music questions past, dysfunctional normative models as a means to generate newer, more appropriate aesthetic fields through which another future (however one wishes to understand this term) may be built. More specifically, the avant-garde, experimental music, free improvisation…: all of these may become New Music if they recognize a connection to modernity—they are not immanent in New Music per se. For this reason, one should not make the immediate assumption that New Music is a European or, at its worst, a Eurocentric endeavor. Far from it, New Music—quite similarly to how Srnicek and Williams define modernity—“names a set of concepts that have been independently developed in numerous cultures across the world, but which took on a particular resonance in Europe.”[3] New Music does not necessarily emerge from classical European traditions only. On the contrary: one could go as far as to claim that some instances of free jazz, punk rock, hip-hop, or music with politically revolutionary lyrics may be facets of New Music. Likewise, following this logic, it would be incorrect to presume that any music that uses sounds often heard in works by Brian Ferneyhough, Gérard Grisey, or Helmut Lachenmann should be categorized as New Music. New Music is not only recognized through how it sounds, but also by its clear-cut ideological stance against the uncritical employment of conventional means of expression. By virtue of this position, New Music is an artistic project forced to challenge its necessarily required material conditions, which, unless scrutinized through internal formal strategies, will contribute to the reiteration of flawed traditionalisms; hence the exceedingly difficult and contradictory space where New Music lies (un)comfortably. Finally, New Music cannot be defined through its material conditions only. New Music is a project of potentials; it is prescriptive with regard to what is to be heard, aesthetically and beyond. New Music cannot be understood without its projection of what different futures may look like: it is modeled after potential futures.

New Music seems to be largely negligible in U.S. culture when compared to other types of music. In this country, its influence may be mainly recognized in some university departments, conservatories, a number of summer festivals (which usually have an educational side to them), and a few—often small—venues in large metropolitan areas such as New York or Chicago. There are, of course, exceptions.[4] Today one can also listen to New Music in a few festivals across the English-speaking world.[5] However, not all of the music that is performed as part of these events can be considered to be New Music. It certainly is new, since it has been created recently, but that does not intrinsically result in this music’s pursuit of the historical and aesthetic critique that New Music does. This type of new music—contemporary music[6] from now on—does not have to be in dialogue with modernity; it does not have to aim for the (future-bound) transformational imperative that New Music endeavors towards. New Music, nevertheless, can certainly be a subset of contemporary music and is often disseminated by those institutions that support the creation, performance, and discussion of contemporary music works.

Contemporary music may also be at home in situations closer to cultural imperatives explicitly designed by market forces than those associated with academia. John Adams, David Del Tredici, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Steve Reich, and the members of Bang on a Can are examples of composers who have been trained in academic institutions, have (at some point or another) participated in discussions about aesthetics, culture, and philosophy, and have eventually earned significant economic success by promoting their music through structures located outside academic environments. It would be incorrect to assume that these artists downgraded the quality of their works in order to follow marketability. There is plenty of popular music developed in the antipodes of academia that is financially successful and displays substantial quality. What places these composers under the umbrella of contemporary music—and not of popular music—is their connection to academia, without which it is unlikely they would have developed their particular aesthetic ideas. Firstly, their works generally display some relation to European traditions of classical music (even if they function as clear-cut negations of some of the basic principles of these traditions); traditions that seemed to access Anglo-American intellectual discourse primarily via academic institutions. Secondly, all of the aforementioned composers use notation in order to express their music—this is another crucial feature of European classical music. Thirdly, these composers benefited from analytical discourses that have generally taken place in Anglo-American academia; discourses that had an impact on the particular aesthetic paths that their works followed. To sum up, while some of these composers may not be active members of the academic community at the moment and may earn their living by pursuing careers outside this domain, they are participants in the field of contemporary music by virtue of their education, collaborators (individual performers, ensembles, and orchestras), analytical discourse, and general aesthetic ideas.

For the most part, contemporary music embodies pieces written by composers who have been trained in higher education institutions and write for traditional, classical music ensembles such as orchestras, wind and vocal ensembles, and string quartets. Contemporary music may also be composed for electronic or electroacoustic instruments, or generated through computer-assisted compositional means. In short, contemporary music assumes basic attributes of European classical music and builds its own ontology upon them. Whether such an ontology predominantly accepts European classical music as a positive feature or not is largely peripheral. Contemporary music may explicitly reject certain ideas associated with classical music in order to differentiate itself, but that does not make it less engaged with classical music on a conceptual basis. Nowadays, contemporary music in the U.S. exists as a conglomerate of artifacts cemented into two fundamental pillars: European classical music and academia. Consequently, contemporary music institutions appear to be prone to take an indifferent stance toward their relation to the self-critical view of history embedded in some discourses around modernity.

The next post will explore the crisis of U.S. modern music in relation to scientism and the successive defeat of New Music.

1. Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future, 71.

2. Eagleton, “Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism,” 67.

3. Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future, 71.

4. Omaha Under the Radar (Nebraska), Versipel New Music, and ANODE (New Orleans) are three recently launched small festivals that are not associated with higher education institutions and are not located in large metropolitan areas.

5. The following is a partial list of prominent contemporary music festivals and concert series across the English-speaking world not associated with universities or conservatories: MATA (New York), Bang on a Can Marathon (New York), Aldeburgh Festival (United Kingdom), Ojai Music Festival (California), Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music (Massachusetts), Ear Taxi Festival (Chicago), London Ear Festival, London Contemporary Music Festival, Sound Scotland (Aberdeen), Sonorities (Belfast), Monday Evening Concerts (Los Angeles), BIFEM (Bendigo, Victoria), the NOW now (Sydney), SoundOut (Canberra), Liquid Architecture (Australia), and Metropolis New Music Festival (Melbourne). The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, one of the leading festivals of contemporary music in the United Kingdom, has a partnership with the University of Huddersfield.

6. I would like to thank my friend and colleague Alec Hall, who brought to my attention that Michael Rebhahn has also developed a similar taxonomical divide between New Music and the oxymoronic term Contemporary Classical Music.

In The Absence of Money

Income and Music research

Affinity clustering research for this article. Colors reflect estimated % household income from music as reported by interviewees.

Why else would you come together for hours at a time for free if the goal isn’t to walk away feeling like you made something beautiful and did the best you possibly could? Why have I given years of my life to something that doesn’t pay money in a capitalist state, in which value is directly equated with money? Because the highest quality art I’ve ever made has been with some of those people. ~ Violist, NYC

When does an artist, trying to make a living, not care about being compensated? If they do stop caring, have they also stopped valuing their art’s worth?Creating art is, of course, not about making money. But one must make—or have—money to live a somewhat traditional lifestyle. ~ Cellist, Seattle

This article is about what it means to perform without pay. It’s not a discussion of when it is acceptable to make art for free; that rubric has already been discussed eloquently and exhaustively.

(To explain why artists can’t do their thing for free all the time, I’ll borrow from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” Artists who make their living from art make their living from art. Art is their only source of income. String together enough days of free performance, and you are looking back on a life without a livelihood.)

I spend much of my time observing and working with community orchestras in Seattle as director of the Live Music Project (an egalitarian platform for orchestral/chamber performance promotion and discovery), so I thought I’d explore the not-money side of the money story.

There are more than 50 orchestras in the region, many of which are made up of unpaid players. Some of these are new professional-level volunteer ensembles that are in the early stages of a growth plan that moves toward paying performers at scale; others are community orchestras made up of performers with varying levels of experience and with full-time, non-music careers as engineers, data analysts, doctors, attorneys, computer scientists, and so on.

Usually, the pros play exclusively with the pro groups, and the enthusiasts play exclusively with the community orchestras—but there’s some crossover. I’ve heard professional musicians say they practice more for paid performances, while others said they felt more committed to the community projects—not that they necessarily practiced more, but that they were more passionate about them. And so I wondered: When compensation takes the form of passion and satisfaction, instead of monetary remuneration, what is the impact on performance quality, commitment, and artistic freedom?

To find out, I interviewed 30 composers and performers—professionals and part-timers—in my home city of Seattle and across the US. Among these are artists who rely on music for their entire household income, artists who have partial non-music income, and artists whose income is completely independent of music. Their answers vary, but not along those income lines.

Money, Quality, Time

Curious about priorities, I asked: When compensation takes the form of passion and satisfaction, does quality suffer? And does it always suffer, or only if there are competing (paid) efforts to prioritize at the same time?


For most, money is not the determining factor for investment. Standards are standards, reputations are on the line, and there are other key inspiring motives for working hard: shared commitment to great artistry; rising to the level of your colleagues; opportunity for growth, satisfaction, and fulfillment; passion for a project, a charity, or fulfilling a personal favor; interest in new/difficult repertoire; need for a creative outlet; investment in future employment; chemistry/energy/connection with collaborators—these are the reasons to perform.

You can create a complete turkey on mega-resources, and pull off an instant classic on a shoestring budget. In the end, it’s all about personalities intersecting and the capacity to inspire and lead people into believing in a singular creative idea. The collective will is a mighty force and can make the seemingly impossible a memorable reality. ~ Composer/conductor, Seattle

So what does impact quality?



If I don’t have time to do everything to the very best of my preparative abilities, I prioritize whichever gig is most important to my long-term career—and that is usually also the best paying. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle

When there’s a crunch, musicians dedicate their available time to paid gigs—and that can be a paid music gig or a full-time non-music job. Preparation for other musical projects is diminished (or eliminated entirely) as a result.

Even dilemmas couched in terms of money boil down to time:

Money plays a bigger role in competing with large organizations. A smaller organization like ours [a new music focused ensemble] is hard-pressed to tell a musician to not go for the gig that pays $1500 a week. I think it’s part of the deal…it doesn’t mean that the musician doesn’t love to play new music, but they’ve got to live, and an organization like ours has to be flexible. It’s about creating a community of musicians that enjoy playing the repertoire and with one another, and supporting one another toward this artistic lifestyle. ~ Composer/conductor, Seattle

What is time but an opportunity to do work and put food on the table?

Finally, a few performers whose entire personal income comes from making music expressed a deep connection between compensation and self-worth—and, by extension, quality of performance:

I feel better about myself when I’m working for money—more successful. I take greater pride in it. I think I compose harder when there is pay. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle

The more I’m getting paid, the better I feel, the better I play. I always feel more valued when I’m getting paid. I have a better attitude about it, practice harder, and feel happier overall. ~ Violinist, Seattle

Part-time performers with non-music careers may have the luxury of measuring the value of their work in other contexts (and, as we’ll see later, they enjoy other luxuries as well).

Money and Artistic Freedom

Boundless funding can open doors for creative exploration. A hip-hop producer once told me that when he worked with Kanye West, part of the creative process was bringing in as many interesting collaborators as possible, deciding later which tracks to use. “When you know you’re going to make $50 million, you can afford to figure it out afterwards like that. But if you might make $50,000, it changes things.”

Understandably so! Risk is difficult to navigate, even/especially between close friends and colleagues.

I wondered, again, about the flip side. What if there is no money involved? Does freedom from financial obligation result in great artistic freedom?

I wished I’d asked the interviewees that question, but instead I phrased it like this, fallacy and all:

When there is no money involved, and therefore no financial risk, is there more room for artistic freedom? Do great works emerge?

I was trying to get at the idea of “playing for fun” (goofing off, jamming, the musical version of doodling—what I, a casual musician, do at my keyboard while waiting for the kettle to boil). But folks took it in a more serious direction, and they took it down two very different paths.


Funding = Rules; Money is Icky

For some, not having funding means having the freedom to collaborate more openly and explore creative limits.

For new pieces, the weirdo techniques and sounds we were making were exactly what the composer wanted because he/she came and hung out with us and players in the [community] orchestra, and the orchestra [members], having no job security and less competition to worry about, often ask questions of our collaborators and composers freely, thereby contributing to the musical and social culture of the organization. Sometimes in paid gigs, asking a question exposes a vulnerability, and I feel many orchestral musicians equate vulnerability to threatened job security, which can definitely have an adverse impact on artistry. ~ Violist, NYC

And then there’s this bit of negotiation genius:

When there is no money involved, I do get to call the shots more. When working with directors, I remind them that if I’m working for free, I’m an investor in their film or video game and get to do what I want. This generally prods them to find the money unless they are looking for true collaboration. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle

In certain cases, money can be downright harmful to the creative process:

Every time I’ve been paid an actual commission fee, I feel like it really messed with my head. I feel like those pieces were not as good as others, and many of them I’m less proud of. It’s a big part of the reason I’ve slowly stopped composing. ~ Composer, Seattle

…and even losing money can be worthwhile:

I’ve bankrolled a few workshops of my pieces, and it’s been fun, and freeing, and people got paid a bit, and I knew I was gonna lose money, but I learned a lot about the piece, which is what I wanted. I was definitely in a position of financial risk, but that intentional willingness to lose money helped me have the artistic freedom to really research the piece. It was great. ~ Composer, Seattle

And yet, whether it’s the performer, presenter, venue, patron, or audience, someone always has money in the game.

There is Always Risk

There are almost always financial obligations around making music, even if the performer does not shoulder them first-hand.

Money is like the oil that allows the old fashioned “machine” to run: for musicians, we need money first of all to get an education, and to buy and maintain an adequate instrument, and then to pay for some kind of transportation to wherever we’re called; orchestras need halls and stands and lights and chairs; conductors need musicians, who need to be paid if not in money then with some kind of prize (such as Krispy Kremes at break time or Starbucks cards or just flowers); and if we don’t play traditional classical music with free parts from IMSLP, we have to pay royalties to modern composers and rent the parts from self-promoting companies. ~ Violist, Seattle

For those making a living from music, there just isn’t a lot of time to goof off, and playing without pay can have a huge opportunity cost.

When you’re not being paid, you’re risking your finances/income/livelihood for, one hopes, some other benefit (guaranteed or unguaranteed). Once you take that free gig, a paid gig might come up, and then you’re in a difficult professional position: either you back out of your commitment to the free gig and rightly earn something for your time/talent, or you honor the commitment and basically lose money (because you COULD HAVE been playing for money). ~ Cellist, Seattle

There is certainly financial risk when no money is involved, because doing the [unpaid] work can hurt your interpersonal relationships, cause you to not seek real work, and send you into a dark artistic hole where nothing gets finished. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle

Full-time performers drove home the fact that even with money off the table, there are other risks at play, especially when commissioning new works. Unpaid ensembles without deep-pocketed (and potentially controlling) backers are still concerned about getting people in seats, and need to program around that. Performers worried about playing a difficult, exposed concert where they’d “look like an idiot on stage” won’t take the gig, even if it is paid.

And finally, we come back to time:

The financial stress associated with being in the arts is so great that it’s hard to free up space for creativity, or any “extra” projects. The reality of being a working artist is that you are most likely juggling several things such as teaching lessons, maybe a part-time but steady gig, and freelancing. And, maybe you have a side job to supplement that. So that means there are so many moving parts that it’s hard to find the right energy to really create new things. ~ Flutist, Seattle

If a project is generously funded—enough to give the musicians time enough to take a hiatus from other projects—then you will have the MOST artistically-free possible greatness of an outcome. ~ Composer/performer, Seattle

What might that look like?

Financial Stability = Freedom to Choose


Money is only one of five factors that I consider when taking a gig. The other four are time commitment, people (other players, conductor), repertoire, and potential growth as a musician. If a gig meets at least three out of the five, I’ll usually do it. ~ Flutist, Seattle

I decided it was a matter of my life, and my life’s creativity, to live in a creative space in my music work, and that meant ditching the freelance mentality and adopting the generative artist mentality. What can I make? What creative artists can I support by collaborating with them? So I do all kinds of amazing stuff that is really at the forefront of goodness in my city. I am proud of my stuff and my collaborations. But the money is small to non-existent. ~ Violist, Seattle

It’s probably time to address what one performer called “duh obvious elephant”: the privilege of choice afforded those with alternate (non-music) income, or a financially supportive spouse/family, or savings from a previous job.

This sentiment figures prominently across all income groups except the entirely volunteer bracket:

  • Income from teaching lets me be a patron and opportunity-maker in my field. ~ Singer, Chicago
  • I have invested many thousands of dollars and many more unpaid hours in my gig. Having other paying jobs is the way to feed the passion. Learning how to prioritize time and energy is the name of the game in this field, especially if you are interested in a genre that may not pay well. ~ Conductor, Seattle
  • A lifelong day job can allow you the freedom to do what you like outside of the job. ~ Composer, Michigan
  • Charles Ives was an insurance man, and he could write whatever he wanted (way out-there stuff!) ~ Performer/conductor, Seattle
  • I subsidize my creative music habit by borrowing from my freelancing/teaching to give myself a “grant.” ~ Composer/performer, Seattle
  • I like to work other jobs so that I can have more artistic autonomy and freedom. ~ Violist, NYC
  • My [day job] income is higher now, so I have a choice in whether or not to take a gig based on whether I think I’d enjoy it, not because I need the money, which is absolutely freeing! ~ Bassist, Seattle

Contrast the above with the sentiments of those who depend more on music for their income:

  • Half our household income comes from music. It can be scary, because there is no security in it. ~ Composer, Chicago
  • There are occasions where the music is quite inane, and I’m only there because I’m paid. ~ Violist, Seattle
  • All of my income comes from conducting and teaching. I make a decent wage from my five to six jobs. ~ Conductor/performer, Seattle

From this, a tricky challenge with music-independent income rears its head:

The abundance of community orchestras in Seattle creates a challenge for those of us who play for a living; people in the position to hire musicians become accustomed to getting something for free, and are less concerned with how the quality may suffer. It’s great that community orchestra players have that opportunity, but it saturates the market in a challenging way. ~ Flutist, Seattle

If this is indeed the case, what does one do about it? Is there a solution that supports both communities?

As I ponder the strangeness of a competitive field shared by artists who are all deeply rewarded by the process of making music, yet divided on the subject of volunteerism, I can’t help but think: if we could remove money from the equation by making sure artists get paid enough to do better than get by, what would that look like?

The Ideal

To be paid for expressing yourself as you see fit would be an amazing life for any creative. ~ Composer, Chicago

“I don’t care if the audience is paying or not. If I can make a living playing music, I’m happy.” ~ Violinist, Seattle

As I made my way through these interviews, I realized I’d been conflating two aspects of free performance: performing without pay, and attending without cost. For musicians whose livelihoods depend on getting paid for their performances, performing too often without pay would lead to starvation. What about providing music at no cost to the listener?

I turned back to the group with a hypothetical proposal that removed the main stressors of musical life (money, lack of autonomy) and emphasized the joys they had mentioned when talking about which gigs they do choose to play for free (playing compelling repertoire, working with inspiring creative partners, reaching for the height of one’s own creative artistry, having a chance to take risks and grow).

I asked:

Envision a scenario in which you were paid a comfortable living wage to perform (or compose) for a fixed number of hours per week. You would have the freedom to choose your schedule, the performance venues, the repertoire—you could be busking Steve Reich or playing Brahms with an orchestra, and everything in between. Between rehearsing and performing, this would be a full-time job. All of your costs would be covered, and the performances would be free to all audiences. (For composers: the scores you produce would be available to all ensembles at no cost.)

Would you do it? Why/why not?

Hell yeah.

The response was extremely positive. Performers called it “a dream come true,” “the ultimate ideal,” “the outline of reaching pinnacle of my career.” One asked for a job. Another said he’d leave his current career and take a pay cut to be employed in this way. For all types of artists, at all income levels, this sentiment rang true: “I’m not committed to paying audiences—I’m committed to getting paid.”

And then they really dug in.


Not Too Much Creative Freedom, Please

Musicians were thrilled with the prospect of full artistic control. In contrast, composers were quick to note that their creativity thrives in an environment of limitations (creative, temporal), and that having too much artistic freedom can be problematic.

Setting specific limitations helps us use our creative minds to their absolute extremes. If you have no limitations, then what are you conveying to the audience? A story cannot keep its listeners if it branches off in numerous and endless directions. The same can be said about music. I have recently worked on an opera that had specific limitations as to the ensemble’s regular audience and instrumentation, but instead of thinking of how “caged” I was in those limitations, I let my imagination take over as to how I could meld stylistic genres, and how to let certain timbres of the instrumentation mix and match so that they could help create the story, develop it, and move it forward. ~ Composer, Chicago

If I were paid just to produce music, I think that would be rather grand if I were forced to do specific things. I would really like to compose for a TV show because of those requirements. It’s hard to get work like that…Being a staff recording engineer or orchestrator would be great too, because assignments can be quite inspiring. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle

I’d likely still want to pair with specific ensembles and performers for each project, even if it wasn’t required contractually. I’m a very strong opponent of people writing pieces of their own volition and not for a specific group… I know so many composers who try to write big pieces (symphonies, operas, choral masses) and then attract ensembles to premiere them. It sometimes works, but often, the ensemble understandably wants to be part of the inception of the piece, so coming to them with an already-written piece is not as exciting for them. ~ Composer, Michigan

Intellectual Property

One composer, citing a parallel with Vivaldi, said he’d jump at the opportunity to be salaried and share his works at no cost; another said he could pass up licensing for his scores as long as he was happy with his income. But a third was more hesitant to give up the rights:

Intellectual property ownership is important. Control of my own music for the future is immensely important. If someone else wanted my IP, even if I was getting paid full-time, I’d be disinclined to do it. It would make me think there was a market opportunity I was missing, and that I’d be better off keeping control of the royalties. ~ Composer, Seattle

Value, Audience, and Choice

In a world where all performances are free, what might the impact be on the value of music—and the demonstration of that value?

  • I’d take this job as long as I don’t have to demonstrate effectiveness by the number of seats filled. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle
  • This model seems to jettison any sort of a market… how long would I be working before people stopped coming to see what I was up to? If it were free, would people still want to go? Would they value it? In a utopian world where people would just play my pieces and I could choose venues as I like: What choices would they have to either play my music or play the better music of some more worthy composer? Eventually, the market starts to creep in when more people come to some concerts than others, and people want to figure out how to attract the largest crowd so as to have the most cultural salience. ~ Composer/musician, Seattle
  • I think there would be an uptick in the work one has to do to communicate “value” around classical music performance. But, I would welcome that situation. ~ Singer, Chicago
  • Just writing the music doesn’t mean that anyone would actually play it or embrace it, even if it is available for free. And in the end that begins to take me back down the road to where I am now, which is to say that it’s really hard to write music, and feel good about it, when nobody is playing it or embracing it. ~ Composer, Seattle

They are not alone in these concerns. One music director—an exception among interviewees—explained that he doesn’t believe in free tickets. The community orchestra he leads has enough funding to perform their concerts at no cost to the audience, but the organization decided that doing so would lead audiences to take them less seriously.

Exceptions aside, most expressed an ecstatic enthusiasm for having a dependable living wage, and glee at the idea of having full creative control. Familiar themes of time, control of one’s own schedule (and geographical location), opportunities for growth, and freedom to take artistic risks emerged as well:

The thing I don’t have anymore is time, and being able to be a full-time composer and write what I want, when I want, would be amazing (mostly because there’s so much more that you need than just simply writing the notes: you need time to think, listen, revise, think, ponder, write, think, listen…) ~ Composer, Seattle

This is the scenario where you would have the opportunity to find a niche that could be innovative: new music, women composers, music with ethnic diversity, collaborations with other art forms… ~ Conductor, Seattle

Oh my gosh, talk about a dream job! Comfortable living wage and freedom to choose schedule and repertoire? To just perform all week??? That is basically the outline of reaching the pinnacle in my career. I would totally do it. ~ Singer, Chicago

The Reality

Something people always say to me when I tell them I’m a musician is “oh, that’s so great you get to do what you love for a living.” To me, that illuminates two separate but related problems: one, that statement implies someone in a more traditional profession doesn’t love what they do. Two, just because I happen to love my job, does that automatically mean I don’t deserve to get paid for it? ~ Flutist, Seattle

Trouble comes when commitment to a passion supersedes self-preservation. ~ Composer, Michigan

surrounded by Post-Its

As I write this, I am surrounded by walls draped in big sheets of craft paper dotted with clusters of Post-Its containing quotes from interviews. There’s a sheet for the question of quality, a sheet for financial risk, and a sheet for our lovely utopian world. There’s also a sparse, unlabeled sheet with a small collection of tangential comments that caught my attention as I read through interviews—little mentions that, each on its own, might sting a little.

Late the other night, coming down from the utopia of the autonomous artist, I put those final quotes together on a single page and heard their weighty, heart-rending chorus:

  • I lose 10K a year on my creative music habit.
  • I make almost as much from composing as I do from my minimum-wage job.
  • I could decide to accept a few more gigs if I decided that I was comfortable with under-performing.
  • Passion ≠ career.
  • Eight of my all-in musician friends got evicted this year.
  • Pioneering a new project that will sustain itself and the musicians is rough for me and my family. Besides the financial strain of committing all that time and practice—that’s rough for me and my family, because I am sacrificing, I’m tired—I’m also doing other paid gigs to make up for it.
  • I’m embarrassed to advertise that we don’t pay. I’d be blacklisted in NYC. We have a weak union here—I guess that means certain projects can get off the ground without fear of blacklisting. But if everyone’s doing the work for free anyway, where’s the incentive for anyone to raise or give money?
  • Most people simply want to consume Passion rather than pay Passion’s rent or help Passion repay its student loans.

The collective weight of these thoughts brought me to the floor.


All of my music-making is done out of the love and passion for doing so. ~ Violist, Seattle

Cash Week - sm

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

Money plays a role in our lives, our priorities, our decisions. The absence of money may allow (in the case of those who are part-time) or force (in the case of full-timers) musicians to prioritize along particular axes. Part-time musicians, salaried but short on time (and, perhaps, artistic outlets), put their disposable energy toward meaningful growth collaborations. Full-time artists, short on money and time to make more, ultimately choose gigs that pay.

But when I added money to the equation with the hypothetical scenario above, I found that most performers and composers from all walks of life wanted the same thing: to perform/compose as much as possible, with as much creative control as possible, for as many people as possible, and for free—as long as they can put food on the table.

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.

Spreadsheets and Skeptics: a philosophical tale of data and music

data music
data music

Image via TrekCore

On argumente mal l’honnesteté et la beauté d’une action par son utilité
A man but ill proves the honour and beauty of an action by its utility

—Michel de Montaigne, “De l’Utile et de l’Honneste”

What do you do?

How many answers are there to that question? An occupation. A pastime. A technique. A course of action. Or maybe the question itself is a concession: a rhetorical shrug of the shoulders against the possibility of an answer.

Last August, The New York Times Magazine ran an article by Steven Johnson. “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t” painted, amidst some judicious caveats, a hopeful, even rosy picture of the prospects for a musical career post-Napster, post-internet, post-streaming services. It was, in a way, an exemplar of 21st-century explanatory journalism: technologically optimistic, pleasantly contrarian—and data-driven. Very data-driven.

Both the data and the drive were concerned with that same question: what do you do? One of Johnson’s main exhibits was occupational data—that is, counting up the number of people who said that their occupation was “musician” or some equivalent. In Johnson’s analysis, that number was going up, even as digital forms of consumption seemed to be anecdotally squeezing musicians out of the marketplace. Which led to the second “what do you do?”: don’t worry (or, at least, worry less), be happy (or, at least happier).

There were problems with the article. Johnson’s data was selective and, in at least one case (which I’ll get to below), didn’t quite say what he thought it said. And his own conception of what musicians do was somewhat disconnected from the huge variety and combinations of ways musicians make a living. I certainly raised an eyebrow (as did, I would imagine, Frank) when Johnson noted that

The growth of live music isn’t great news for the Brian Wilsons of the world, artists who would prefer to cloister themselves in the studio, endlessly tinkering with the recording process in pursuit of a masterpiece

—seemingly oblivious not only to exactly how many babies he was tossing out with that achingly lovely California-sun-dappled bathwater, but how many other cloisters (schools, practice rooms, composing tables) are crucial to even the most prolifically disposable musical styles.

creative apocalypse

Plenty of critiques followed Johnson’s article—most of them negative. The Future of Music Coalition led the way, leading to a back-and-forth that mainly shored up the respective trenches. Other observers weighed in. The National Endowment for the Arts Office of Research and Analysis mined some more data, some of it provocative. (The final graph in that report, showing, via Bureau of Economic Analysis data on capital investments, the decline in real investment in new music, is like a flash-card summary of the tyranny of the back catalog.)

I don’t feel the need to sift through all that data again. But I did start thinking about the data itself, the fact of it. Maybe Johnson’s article wasn’t the bellwether for the coming of Big Data to music, but it certainly was part of the flock. Data-driven analysis has seeped into every corner of the musical ecosystem, beyond arguments for (or against) increased opportunities for individual musicians. Streaming services, online retailers, social media communities—all are crunching reams of data and creating reams more, all the time. Our relationship with data has changed profoundly. Even the word itself hints at how much: it turned from plural to singular. (As a linguistic descriptivist, I find meaning in that.) Maybe we should step back, and figure out how to deal with that going forward.

So this will be a philosophical tale about data. As befits a philosophical tale, it will also be a cautionary tale. As befits a cautionary tale, it will include visits from three ghosts. There is, unfortunately, no neat moral at the end. But there will be the start of a framework for answering the question: what do you do?


Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Engraved by C.E.Wagstaff and pu

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Engraved by C.E.Wagstaff and published in The Gallery Of Portraits With Memoirs encyclopedia, United Kingdom, 1833.

Two ghosts to start: first, Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century nobleman and bureaucrat who, in his spare time and a long retirement, pretty much invented the essay, assembling his everyday observations and close-read experiences into a volume that, upon publication, was nearly immediately recognized as a classic of humanist thought. And then, from the succeeding generation, René Descartes, the father of Western philosophy, who retreated into his own mind (cogito ergo sum, after all) to search for fundamental truths—and who thought that Montaigne’s way of thinking was intellectually irresponsible to a positively diabolical extent.

The source of Descartes’s discomfiture was Montaigne’s cheerful espousals of a very old philosophy: skepticism, in a version that went well beyond mere Devil’s advocacy (Descartes’s suspicions notwithstanding). In Montaigne’s lifetime, French intellectual life had been marked by a fashion for schools of ancient philosophy that, beyond pursuing insight, offered designs for living—Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism. The latter cultivated a habit of questioning everything, admitting nothing, subjecting even the most seemingly obvious statement to a barrage of sabotaging logic and rhetoric. Its most famous exponent, the 2nd-century thinker Sextus Empiricus, worked his way through the liberal and scientific arts, demonstrating how none of them (music included) could even be proven to exist.

It sounds like a game, a mental exercise. It is. Epokhē, the Skeptics called it, a suspension of judgement, a constant refusal to succumb to certainty. Get good enough at it, the Skeptics thought, and you could will yourself into a state of ataraxia, tranquility, mindfulness, open to experience rather than trying to frustratingly box it into categorical truths.

In Montaigne, Skepticism inspired a radical if puckish empathy. One of his more tangential but revealing enthusiasms is for stories about animals behaving in clever or vaguely human ways. Another classical Skeptic, Aenesidemus, formulated a defense of epokhē in the form of a chain of ten tropes; Montaigne seems to have especially taken to heart the first: “Different animals manifest different modes of perception.” If animals have a way of experiencing the world, an inner life, that we have so little access to, how can we possibly say that our way of experiencing the world is the only valid one? In Montaigne’s famous formulation: “When I play with my cat who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me?”

Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Engraved by W.Holl and published The

Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Engraved by W.Holl and published The Gallery Of Portraits With Memoirs encyclopedia, United Kingdom, 1833.

Skepticism drove Montaigne’s perception outward; it drove Descartes’s inward. “I think, therefore I am” was Descartes’s implicit shot across Montaigne’s ruminative bow, fencing off human reason as exceptional. He started with the same sally as Montaigne—question everything—but, where Montaigne and his classical forebears took that as an everyday attitude, Descartes took it as as a prompt to, as he was determined to do, answer everything as well. (In her excellent biography of Montaigne, How to Live, Sarah Bakewell puts it like this: “Trying to get away from Skepticism, [Descartes] stretched it to a hitherto unimaginable length, as one might pull a strand of gum stuck to one’s shoe.”)

That first answer, about thinking and being, was Descartes’s base camp. And he immediately questioned it: how do I know this to be true? Well, there was nothing inherent to I think, therefore I am that demonstrated its truth, except for the fact that it was so clearly true to Descartes. And, with that, he began climbing into thinner and thinner air:

I concluded that I could perhaps take, as a general rule, that all the things which we very clearly and distinctly conceive are true.

All the things which we very clearly and distinctly conceive are true.

Whatever happened to “show your work”?


In turning back to the data, one might well adopt Montaigne’s motto: Que sais-je? What do I know? And it doesn’t take much effort to reach a Montaigne-like conclusion, a feeling that the cat is playing with us as much as we are playing with the cat. But that’s a trap, too.

For me, the most interesting hole poked in Johnson’s article had to do with some figures Johnson gleaned from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Occupational Employment Statistics (OES), which derive from a yearly survey of some 800 occupational categories. Johnson:

According to the O.E.S., in 1999 there were nearly 53,000 Americans who considered their primary occupation to be that of a musician, a music director or a composer; in 2014, more than 60,000 people were employed writing, singing or playing music. That’s a rise of 15 percent, compared with overall job-­market growth during that period of about 6 percent.

That’s a pretty clear trend, no? But the BLS cautions against such year-to-year comparisons of OES data, and with good reason. A New Zealand statistician named Thomas Lumley poked into those figures and found that the 15 percent increase could almost entirely be attributed to an increase in the “Music Directors and Composers” category; beginning sometime around 2009, approximately 15,000 primary and secondary schoolteachers that weren’t previously being counted as music directors suddenly were. Take out that influx, and Johnson’s upswing turns into a decline.

I got curious about that tweak, so I emailed the Bureau of Labor Statistics about it. I was hoping that it was some straightforward change in methodology, one that might say something about how, at least from the standpoint of the state, the dominant idea of a “musician” was evolving. Nope—in their message back, the OES Information Desk chalked it up to the law of unintended consequences:

In particular, in 2010 and 2011, the OES program implemented the revised 2010 version of the federal Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system. As part of the 2010 SOC revision, the word “band” was added to the occupational description for music directors and composers. This revision was not intended to change the occupation’s content, since “band” was implied to be part of the previous definition for this occupation also. However, the addition of the word “band” and the inclusion of this occupation on the OES survey form sent to elementary and secondary schools may have caused a shift in the number of workers reported as music directors and composers rather than as teachers.

I love this. The addition of one innocuous word to the description managed to extend the fog forward and backward in time. There’s no way to tell how many band directors did get added, didn’t get added, should have been added, should have been in the category already. It brings us, full circle, back to Montaigne: the more you know, the less you know.

At this point, we might respond with a common trope: the data, we would say, is unreliable. But, really, the data is just the data. The BLS asked a question and got an answer; they asked a slightly different question and got a slightly different answer. They’re not pretending that it’s anything other than that; it’s why they specifically warn against making the kind of comparisons that Johnson made. But we, Cartesian children all, can’t resist. Johnson saw the pattern and judged it true. The Future of Music Coalition and Thomas Lumley saw a different pattern, and they did the same thing. Certainly, you can think that one interpretation is more plausible than the other, that one is closer to the truth. I know what I think. (I think it’s the latter.) And yet, at the same time, there’s Montaigne in my head saying, sure, that’s what you think—but what, exactly, do you know?

It’s not the data that’s unreliable; it’s the clarity. And when it comes to trying to figure out music, that’s a bit of a problem.



The problem was neatly framed by a third ghost: Louis Althusser (1918-1990), the Marxist philosopher and theorist. Althusser was a troublesome character, philosophically and otherwise. For all his insistence that he was a classical Marxist, his interpretation of Marx was rather unorthodox—and, to other scholars in the field, highly suspicious. He was unstable, going through periods of mental distress; in 1980, he killed his wife, strangling her in their apartment at the École normale supérieure in Paris, escaping prosecution by being judged to have been temporarily insane. (He described the incident with sophistic frankness in a posthumously published memoir, in which he also admitted that he hadn’t actually read all that much Marx.) His writing is pervaded by a kind of brittlely incisive gloom.

His most famous theoretical contribution—his analysis of ideology, from his essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation),” first published in 1970—is a good example of how grim his philosophy could be. Althusser presents ideology as so omnipresent in society and time, without history, pinning people into identities even before birth, as to make one wonder how any ideology could ever be subverted, or superseded, or even simply adjusted. It is almost helplessly deterministic, to the point that its relationship to actually lived life starts to seem not just counterintuitive, but disconnected.

So why bring him up? Because Althusser had a real skill, almost a sixth sense, for identifying points of tension. And the point of tension at which he builds his theory of ideology is exactly the point at which the competing priorities of data-driven analysis and music collide.

One of the big ideas in Althusser’s essay is interpellation: how ideologies call out individuals as subject to those ideologies, and how individuals respond.

[I]deology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it “recruits” subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or “transforms” the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: “Hey, you there!”

Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was “really” addressed to him, and that “it was really him who was hailed” (and not someone else).

Althusser presents his example as a sequence of events, but actually, “these things happen without any succession,” he writes. “The existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing.” So this thicket of scare quotes marks off another of Althusser’s inescapable prisons: if an ideology exists, not only will it interpellate you as subject to it, it already has.

Setting aside the turtles-all-the-way-down aspect of Althusser’s idea of ideology, interpellation is a useful way to think about the way we talk about jobs and occupations. The OES data, for instance, interpellates you, the musician, as a musician, but subject to the terms of the ideology behind the collection of OES data. The various ideologies that pervade society—free market ideologies, hangover-Calvinist ideologies, up-by-your-bootstraps-self-sufficient ideologies—are interpellating you all the time. Artists and musicians, especially in less-dominant stylistic modes, run into this all the time: think about a phrase like “doing what you love,” which so often interpellates artists. Yes, we do what we love, which, as subjects of free-market ideology, calls us out as people who shouldn’t expect to make as much money as other people who do what the free market loves. (It’s no wonder that there’s a movement in radical labor circles dedicated to “counter-interpellation,” essentially re-framing and re-naming worker-subjects in terms suited to more worker-friendly ideologies.)

But Althusser goes further. He wants to know why and how interpellation happens. So he takes a look at one of the bigger ideologies out there: Christianity. The Christian religious ideology calls out an individual, “in order to tell you that God exists and that you are answerable to Him.” The ideology is the voice by which God addresses you (through scripture and its interpretation). The ideology tells you who you are, your place in the world, your duties. Do what the ideology tells you and you will be saved. And so on.

“Now this is quite a familiar and banal discourse,” Althusser writes, “but at the same time quite a surprising one.” Why? Because the ideology is addressing individuals, interpellating individual subjects, but only “on the absolute condition that there is a Unique, Absolute, Other Subject, i.e. God.” There are big-S Subjects (ideologies) and little-s subjects (individuals), and it’s the gap between them that makes interpellation work. The big-S Subject interpellates the little-s subject such that, not only is the little-s subject inescapably linked to that identity, but the little-s subject can contemplate the big-S Subject in his or her own image, such that the ideology doesn’t seem imposed, or constructed, but just “the way things are.” Ideology ensures that, in Althusser’s words, “everything really is so, and that on condition that the subjects recognize what they are and behave accordingly, everything will be all right: Amen— ‘So be it’.”

Responding to the Future of Music Coalition’s first round of objections, Johnson left a long comment that included both of these statements:

We made a decision to focus the piece on the artists, not the ecosystem around the artists


[W]e wanted to stick with our principle of not relying on individual anecdotes, and report only broader, industry-wide data

—to which one might say, “well, which is it?” But it’s not either-or; it’s Althusser’s little-s subject and big-S Subject working in quintessential lockstep. Johnson wants to make you, the reader, feel better about the plight of individual artists in an era of technological optimism, and he wants to do it by analyzing large-scale, collective statistics. Does that work? Sure—as long as you’re convinced that the statistics reflect back the image of the individual artist. The artist is the subject. Data is the ideology.


Cash Week - sm

So what do you do? Ignore the data? That seems extreme. Data-driven analysis might be an ideology, but it’s a rationally based one. And I, for one, like rational belief systems. They tend to be more useful than the alternatives. They tend to discredit a lot of opinions and behaviors that I find offensive, or unfair, or damaging. But even a rational belief system is still a belief, a faith—something the rationality of the system tends to obfuscate. Not only does that make it easy to fall into Descartes’s clarity-equals-truth trap, it’s easy for that seeming truth to subtly shift from one category to another, to jump the tracks.

Take economics, for instance, the most data-driven of social sciences. If you ask exactly what it is economists do, the best answer might be: they try and design mathematical models that return data matching that generated by real-world situations involving money and material goods and decisions and consumer behavior. But that is not quite the same thing as describing the behavior itself—a distinction that a lot of people (economists included) fail to make a lot of the time. And the models assume a level of coherence (rational actors, rational decisions, market efficiency) only sometimes (if ever) found in the actual world.

Descartes might have thought twice about that clarity thing: after all, his first book was a survey of music theory—Musicae compendium, written in 1618, published (posthumously) in 1650. And, on the very first page, Descartes wrote this (as translated by Thomas Harper in 1653):

For songs may bee made dolefull and delightfull at once; nor is it strange that two divers effects should result from this one cause, since thus Elegiographers and Tragoedians please their Auditors so much the more, by how much the more griefe they excite in them.

Music, at its core, is not a rational art. And yet its creation now necessarily happens within systems and societal frameworks evermore marked off, framed, and otherwise governed by the self-proclaimed rationality of Big Data. Sometimes the meeting will be useful; sometimes it will not. But it will always be a meeting of two fundamentally divergent belief systems. It’s not a matter of collecting more data, or better data, or finding a more sophisticated analysis of that data. The best you can hope for is ecumenical cooperation.

Montaigne would have responded to that uncertainty the way he responded to all uncertainties:

Every one is well or ill at ease, according as he so finds himself; not he whom the world believes, but he who believes himself to be so, is content; and in this alone belief gives itself being and reality. Fortune does us neither good nor hurt; she only presents us the matter and the seed, which our soul, more powerful than she, turns and applies as she best pleases

That sort of attitude is easier said than done, even with a knack for epokhē. But it’s the start of a corrective against the anxiety of data, the illusion of and need for exact, singular answers to big questions. Data requires interpretation; so do notes. Analysis is performance; performance is analysis. The application of a musical soul can make as much sense of fortune as the sort of a spreadsheet. Sure, that’s just a belief. But that, it turns out, is what we do.

Are Unions Relevant to New Music?

Musicians at peaceful demonstration on Union Square, New York

Source: iStockphoto

Virtually all the new music musicians I know are left-leaning and pro-labor, yet much of the new music field is non-unionized. Why is that? The AFM and other unions play a significant role in the realm of larger, more traditional music making—orchestras, musicals, film recording, opera, et cetera—but they are far less visible when it comes to performances of new music. In the Bay Area, where I live, AFM local 6 lists only one new music presenter with a collective bargaining agreement.

Size is probably part of the equation, since a handful of orchestras is easier to unionize than the ever-shifting ecosystem of small chamber ensembles more typical in new music. But it goes beyond that. The AFM certainly represents chamber musicians, and it has initiatives designed specifically for smaller groups, such as its Fair Trade Music program. Yet most of the new music musicians I interviewed for this piece held a dim view of the musicians’ union, and many had experienced hostility from their AFM locals.

Clearly something is pushing us apart, and I think it boils down to conflicting agendas. Any union’s top priorities revolve around securing decent wages and working conditions for its members. Those are, without question, important considerations for musicians in any genre. But new music practitioners also have a third priority: advancing the cause. Nobody just happens to fall into new music because of all the great gigs that came their way. We choose new music despite the fact that it’s a hard slog, because we want to champion the art form. So when push comes to shove—and new technologies have created a lot of shove—we sacrifice pay or benefits.

I’d very much like to see more music unionization; both in our genre and across the board. Musicians of all stripes are facing strong downward wage pressure, and a lack of collective action is only making things worse. But for the AFM to win over the new music community, the realities of why we make music will need to be better accommodated.

What makes an occupation unionizable?

To better understand our situation, it’s useful to look at where unions enjoy the greatest successes. Most union-friendly occupations have the following characteristics:

  • Clearly defined roles
  • Static employer–employee relationships
  • Proven business models
Fast food workers strike

Fast food workers strike in Richmond, Virginia
Photo by Bernard Pollack, via Flickr

That’s why coal miners, fast-food workers, teachers, sanitation personnel, home health aides, and orchestra musicians are good candidates for unionization. If you’re a garbage truck driver, you’re unlikely to show up one day and find yourself designing a new waste treatment facility. Similarly, if you’re the principal bassoonist in an orchestra, your job is not likely to involve playing the viola part or planning the marketing strategy for the next concert season.

Now consider a profession like dentistry. Most dentists are not unionized, and that’s because the majority are self-employed or work as associates in small practices. Professional lobbies like the American Dental Association are a better fit for their needs, which typically revolve around regulatory overhaul and dealing with the insurance market more so than collective bargaining.

Still, there’s nothing intrinsic about dentistry that precludes unionization. If the growth of multi-office, corporate dentistry continues, we might expect to see more collective bargaining in that field. After all, dentists have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and the business model doesn’t change dramatically from dentist to dentist—everyone basically has the same teeth. The only missing element is an employer with multiple dentist employees. Look at the parallel world of the hospital, where healthcare personnel are increasingly classified as employees. There you’ll find increasing unionization, in contrast to the general anti-union trend in American society.

Like dentistry, music affords us many possible working arrangements. That’s why it’s not enough to say a violinist is a violinist, so you should all join the union. If you’re playing for a Broadway musical, then yeah, it makes sense: fighting for a union contract will be good for you and for all future pit musicians. But if your grad school buddy asks you to join a fledgling ensemble dedicated to promoting new music for harpsichord…well, the choice isn’t so obvious.

The “sharing economy” of new music

Musical employment tends to be piecemeal, but especially so in new music: multiple part-time ensemble gigs, some teaching, perhaps grant writing or administrative/logistical support, another music gig that’s less inspiring but pays better, and so on. Musicians often collaborate with each other on different projects, sometimes swapping roles depending on who’s leading.

Zoom in on any one new music ensemble and it might resemble a traditional employer–employee setup, but that’s misleading. If Suzie plays in Johnny’s string quartet, Johnny plays in Frederica’s Pierrot ensemble, and Frederica and Johnny both regularly perform solo sets on Suzie’s recital series, can anyone really be said to be the employer? It’s better to think of these musicians as colleagues who collaborate on whatever opportunities present themselves.

In this sense, the production of new music resembles “sharing economy” businesses like Uber and AirBnB more than it does the employer–employee world of the symphony. More specifically:

  • A need isn’t being well provided by existing institutions
  • There are people with the expertise, resources, and time to fill that need
  • The need can be filled without necessarily making it into a full-time job

Let’s compare our hypothetical harpsichord ensemble to Uber:

Uber vs Ensemble

One major difference, of course, is that Uber and AirBnB have become wildly successful on a commercial level—enough that they cause negative ripple effects. The City of San Francisco is opening an Office of Short Term Rental Administration and Enforcement to deal with the shady landlords who evict tenants to rent apartments on AirBnB. Uber is facing a class-action lawsuit as to whether its drivers should be considered employees or contractors.

It’s worth remembering, however, that those negative effects are problems of scale, not design. There’s nothing inherently evil about renting out that extra room in your apartment to a backpacking college student. It’s only when the AirBnB market gets big enough to push tenants out of their apartments that we have a problem.

We would do well to think about unionization in new music along similar lines. There may come a point when your new music ensemble becomes successful enough that it would be unethical to oppose unionization. But in the scrappy, small-scale production environment more typical of our genre, you’re not really dealing with the traditional employer–employee model of the union. It’s more like a fluid group of like-minded professionals, or an employee-owned worker cooperative.

For the love of money

None of this is to imply that, hey, you should always take the gig, because new music! There are plenty of poorly run and exploitative organizations that build their successes on the backs of overly accommodating musicians. While researching this article, I interviewed Bruce Fife, president of AFM local 99 in Portland. He had this story to share:

“…major nonprofit in Portland, advertising for live music, told musicians that as a nonprofit, they couldn’t afford to pay. As is usual, they said it would be great exposure for the musicians. This, from a nonprofit that did over $20 million in revenue, $2 million in net profits in FY14, and has $39 million in net assets.”

But on the flip side, there are also a lot of talented people out there with great ideas but little financial backing, especially among early-career, emerging musicians. The standard AFM shtick is that collective action gives musicians increased leverage against employers—which is true. A union contract would be extremely beneficial when dealing with an organization like the nonprofit Bruce described. But not every gig is like that. What happens in the more typical new music scenario where the role of employer is essentially honorific?

If we insist that every self-producing ensemble or upstart music festival provide a full union ride, it means only organizations with pre-existing financial support will be able to produce anything. True, the AFM does sometimes grant exceptions for specific use cases, but the application process is bureaucratic and requires a new petition for each project. That’s not the best use of time for emerging musicians trying to hustle together something amazing with limited resources and bandwidth. And what if your local decides not to grant your exception, or doesn’t respond in time for your production?

In actual practice, emerging musicians with an interest in new music quickly learn that the AFM has little to offer them. If they played by the union rules, there would be precious few opportunities for them to work in our genre. While they aspire to a level of career success that would command union rates, they’re not willing to stop making the music that matters to them in order to get there. Yet somehow this basic fact gets lost in recruitment appeals from the AFM.

Collective action: you’re doing it wrong

collective action megaphone

Photo by Molly Sheridan

A couple years ago, Tom Olcott of local 802 wrote a piece calling out several New York new music ensembles for not being unionized. He also listed several union members in good standing as counterexamples, including the New York Pops and the Mostly Mozart Festival. Unfortunately, his argument was apples to oranges in the extreme. Orchestral pops and the music of Mozart—these are widely known and artistically conservative genres. They appeal to a broad audience, with a market that was established long before either of those presenters came onto the scene. So while the repertoire undoubtedly has value, I’m pretty sure no one plays in the New York Pops because they feel that Rodgers and Hammerstein are underappreciated by society.

New music, on the other hand, is basically evangelical: we’re hooked on the thrill of new, unorthodox repertoire, so we toil to build awareness and expand audiences for living composers, to push the boundaries of musical experience, to make art that might someday, if we’re lucky, add something new and unique to the cultural heritage of humanity. But there’s no pre-existing market for the unknown and the unproven—by definition. So unless the American political climate becomes much more supportive of state-sponsored arts funding, new music organizations will have to continue operating on shoestring budgets, below union standards. They have no other choice.

The kind of musicians who gravitate toward new music will always choose love of the repertoire over financial considerations. But that doesn’t mean new music is anti-union. Comments like the following were typical among the musicians I interviewed for this piece:

“Organized labor is the reason that music is where it is.”
“We are 100% in support of an organized labor system that can accommodate our reality.”
“I try really hard to pay as close as I can to AFM standards.”
“Union scale is a benchmark that we quote to all presenters.”

Nor is the AFM completely unsympathetic. In my interview with Bruce Fife, I asked what he thought a group of young composers with a limited budget should do if they wanted to throw together an ad-hoc ensemble to perform or record some of their pieces:

“Anybody can approach their local board or the IEB to request waivers or considerations or promulgated agreements to make those kinds of things work so they accomplish what the goal is….To me it’s always about what’s going to happen to that music, how is it going to be utilized, and are the musicians being fairly compensated for the use.”

I think this emphasis on usage is probably the best way to bridge the gap between traditional union mandates and the needs of the new music community. Bruce described how a similarly “sideways” approach worked in Seattle, where that city’s local fought for better loading zone access at nightclubs instead of focusing solely on wage considerations.

The AFM will get more sympathy from new music if it concentrates on helping musicians and presenters develop practical usage agreements that meet the needs of all participants, instead of insisting on pension contributions, minimum scale, and secondary market considerations more applicable to the film industry. Not that wages and re-use fees aren’t important, but downward price pressure in music is a complicated and pervasive issue. When even star economist Paul Krugman admits to being confounded by the economics of music, we’re unlikely to solve the problem by towing the traditional party line.

There is a lot of useful work that can be done to strengthen the standing of musicians outside of the wage issue. This in turn will bring more musicians into the union fold and give the AFM greater lobbying clout to tackle the big economic trends. But nothing’s going to happen so long as young musicians entering new music see the AFM as an institution that is incompatible with their aspirations.

Potential solutions

Here are two ideas that would immediately improve this situation. First, I propose that the AFM abolish scale and simply provide average and median fees paid for similar engagements, in similar genres and markets, over the past five years.

The problem with something like a minimum scale is that it can be twisted into a glass ceiling. No matter how high or low you set the rate, music presenters without a collective bargaining agreement can use it as a justification to pay something lower: “Well, we’d really like to pay that rate and we’re trying hard to get there, but the economy blah blah blah, so right now the best we can do is X.”

By providing averages instead of scales, the AFM would torpedo this sleezeball approach. Employers would have to justify their offers based on what others are actually paying, giving musicians much firmer ground to stand on than some bleeding-heart appeal to fairness. “You should be paying union scale, because that’s the right thing to do” becomes “Why would I work for you at half the rate those other venues are paying?”

My second suggestion is that the AFM create genre-specific, graduated paths toward full union compliance. At some point, all musical employers of a certain size should be providing decent wages, pensions, and benefits; it’s just not always feasible for a new organization on a shoestring budget. So instead of forcing emerging musical employers to work outside the union fold until they can afford full participation, start looking at what musical organizations of a similar scope are doing, then develop best practices and a roadmap for growth. As long as the employer stays within the bounds of what’s acceptable given its mandate and stage of development, it would get the stamp of compliance from the union.

There would be a path for a string quartet playing new music, and a different path for one playing wedding gigs; a blueprint for a regional pops orchestra, and one for a film scoring orchestra. And naturally, the requirements for each group would change over time. In the beginning of an organization’s existence, obligations would be few and benefits would be many. As the organization grows, financially and otherwise, more stringent requirements would kick in. The new music ensemble that tours internationally and has steady operational funding should absolutely be held to a higher standard than a self-funded group that is putting on its first show. If the successful group can’t provide the types of benefits and support that similar groups are providing, it should rightly get heat from the union.

Naturally, there are details to work out before either of these suggestions could be put into practice, but they’re not insurmountable. I know we can do better than a system where an entire class of pro-labor musicians feel that the musician’s union doesn’t apply to their careers. None of my ideas are all that radical, nor are they meant to be a rigid, unchanging formula for all time. I’m just trying to get the ball rolling, because I want new music to have as many allies as possible. What a shame that the AFM isn’t among the most important.


Aaron Gervais

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.

Close Listening: Music and Us

headphones and the sea

As has been discussed on NewMusicBox before, the ubiquity of music—particularly in the digital age—has resulted in significant alterations to the ways in which we as a society interact with music and musicians. This ubiquity—at a time when fewer and fewer people receive any musical education at all, and thereby understand very little about how music is made and what it is that musicians do—has in many ways rendered music qua music valueless in an increasingly fraught capitalist economy. These factors have also had devastating effects on those who make music and on their freedom to do so.

Perhaps some of you remember the case of Metallica v. Napster back in 2000. Metallica, a highly successful heavy metal band, accused Napster, a rapidly growing P2P (peer-to-peer) file-sharing company, of copyright infringement. That is, people were downloading Metallica MP3s through the service without paying for them. I was 21 at the time and firmly on the side of Napster. I didn’t have much money in high school or college, and so liked the idea of free access to music; I felt it was in the spirit of the internet itself (which I’d been using since 1995) that content hosted there should be free. (Though I never did use Napster back then because of the hair-pullingly slow download speeds for large files.) Some even claimed that Napster’s users spent more on music precisely because they were able to “preview” albums before making a decision about whether or not to trade their money for the recording artist’s musical services. And I don’t think I was alone in the feeling that when I made an album purchase the majority of my money was going to record label execs and not the artists anyway, so file sharing wasn’t really hurting anyone.

It never occurred to me back then to consider why this file sharing was happening in the first place, the answer to which I believe is twofold: 1) People can be ravenous when it comes to recorded music. Our appetite for recorded music often far outstrips our “entertainment” budgets. 2) A complete disregard for, or in some cases an ignorance of, the real, hard work that goes into recording an album. This idea that music is something musicians do “for fun,” that performing music is easy for those who are gifted, and that music making is mystical in some way all render music valueless in the context of a capitalist economy. In essence, what musicians are faced with is a society that cannot get enough of our painstakingly cultivated skill set while simultaneously treating our desire to participate in the economy (namely, by trading our services for money) as unreasonable, delusional, or even despicable.

Needless to say, fifteen years later, my views as well as the music industry have changed considerably. As a recording musician, I absolutely want to be in charge of when people may download my music for free and when they must trade money for it. But to many members of society music just happens, a constant soundtrack created by an unseen hand, so the idea of paying for the musician’s services seems redundant.

Is the idea that musicians should be allowed to participate fully in our country’s economy unrealistic? I hope not; though—barring the introduction of a completely new economy that treats musicians as valuable members of society­—I believe it will require a sea change. We will need to demystify the music industry and the nitty gritty of what it means to be a professional musician. We need:

1) Data. The people over at the Future of Music Coalition are doing important work creating better data sets about how musicians earn money from their art. A different, but equally good example of data sharing is Jack Conte’s (Patreon, Pomplamoose) break down of what it cost his band to go on tour. (Though I take issue with Jack’s final line in that post; not all of us have credit cards with $17,000 limits.) The more we know about how musicians make money, the more we can think critically about how musicians participate meaningfully in our country’s economy.

2) Music critics to talk about music and music-making in more detail. I have no problem with talking about artists’ lives, their influences, and how they fit into the broader cultural story, but we also need to be willing to talk more about the sound of the music and the details of how it was made, performed, recorded, etc. Of all the writing I’ve done about music, none has generated more interaction from readers than my blog about music theory and the band Interpol. My in-depth analyses provide hard and fast proof of the real work that goes into their songwriting.

3) Musicians to give their supporters (fans) opportunities to support them. I’m thinking here, for example, of Bandcamp, YouTube, Patreon, plus the various streaming services. People are more willing to pay for music when they believe their money is going directly to the artist, so let’s give them every opportunity to validate our economic viability.

4) Lastly, we really need to do something about those streaming services, whose business models are flawed at best (check out this article from The Guardian for specific numbers on what artists earn from streaming; this article on Pandora and songwriters is also informative). Streaming is getting a modicum of revenue to musicians (and also giving access to music to those who can’t afford to buy it) but it’s still largely a story of the rich getting richer.

To render music valuable in our economy, to reverse the devastating effects on musicians that the digital age has wrought, we have to reeducate our society. We must make our voices heard, inspire a close listening, make viable the economic status of the maker of music.

Meg Wilhoite

Meg Wilhoite is an editor, writer, and musician based in New York City. She has written about music for several outlets and occasionally makes her own music. Connect with her on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and/or Soundcloud.

The Entrepreneurship of the Creative Moment

Arts entrepreneurship has received a lot of attention in recent years. Programs have popped up at numerous institutions, and the discourse of entrepreneurship is a hot topic in the circles of contemporary music. Building on my first post in this series, I’d like to examine some of the underlying assumptions and root causes of the entrepreneurship phenomena and its larger implications for composers within society.

As a student, I was told it was nearly impossible to make a living just as a composer. One then has a variety of other options: work in the very competitive commercial sphere of film, video, games, and jingles; teach (either privately or institutionally); work some other job, utilizing any number of skills, that then (hopefully) allows you to support your music and vision; or a hodgepodge of the above. All this is well and good, except what happens when composers are not so interested in being arts administrators, not so adept at social media or fundraising, not so easily assimilated in commercial industry? What of the composers who are perhaps not so inclined as performers, whose strengths do not fit the entrepreneur?

This is the ubiquitous scenario that every composer faces. Being a composer of any age today requires a lot of work, dedication, thought and inspiration. A composer also faces a variety of post-composing challenges. Composing on its own is a full-time job. Yet after you complete a piece, you now often have to see to the organization and performance of that piece yourself—finding adequate performers and venues, raising money to support the event, and managing effective promotion. You are told as a student that no one else will do it for you. However, there are some composers that still get large-scale commissions, performances, and credits in movies, so you know somewhere, someplace there are people working as composers and there is money to support them. It’s clear that these are dwindling exceptions to the norm, however, and that there is just not enough money to go around. Therefore, we are obliged to conjure both a cultural and economic space for our art after creating it. This can be compared to an architect who, upon completing delicate plans and specifications, has to build it himself, including footing the bill for materials, labor, and space to implement his vision.

Southern California Federal Music Project, WPA, ca. 1937

Southern California Federal Music Project, WPA, ca. 1937

In the past, composers were often the pet geniuses of wealthy patrons—royalty and titans of industry who took care of them and facilitated their career. An argument could be made that being a composer has never been a “real” job but a way of life—what Robert Henri called the “art spirit.” In fact, Henri wrote that he was interested in art as “a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living.” Professor Linda Essig is an outspoken advocate of arts entrepreneurship, and highlights the role of middle class artists, who are neither impoverished nor made wealthy from their art: “[Call] it arts entrepreneurship or call it artist self-management, it is part of the work-life of the artist in the US. It is these artists, the artists in the middle, who can serve the social good, create excellent work, and critique this system in a meaningful way.”

The broader economic realities of the widening wealth gap along with the systematic destruction of the middle class makes Essig’s statement to potential students a confusing mandate. My question to Linda Essig is this: how can artists serve the social good, create excellent work, and critique the system when it is the system which is actively eroding the social good and preventing them from accomplishing excellent work?

The result is not meaningful creative engagement but a scramble for survival—a blurring of vision and base opportunism. Composer Nicholas Chase cites the almighty dollar on his blog:

To paint the reality of this in dollar amounts, the 2012 National Endowment of the Arts report “How Arts Are Funded” revealed that the national budget of arts funding in the United States was $0.47 per-capita—compared to the next lowest per-capita funding of $2.98 in New Zealand. The remaining of English speaking countries surveyed revealed a shocking gap, leaping exponentially to $5.19 per capita in Canada and as high as $17.80 per capita in Wales, UK. However, the bleak picture the figures above give us isn’t merely financial or economic: it reveals the lack of incentive for artists to pursue careers in the arts, and implies the low range of pay administrators will take to foster Culture-Building…You begin to see how the question of issues is not merely mechanical or financial, but becomes a deeply social issue.

I recently had lunch with a friend and her boss, a man in his early sixties. We had a wonderful discussion about science, art, and consciousness. He was very interested in my music. I told him he could listen to my music for free by streaming it online. He insisted that he pay for it, adding that “it would help me if you gave me a price.” This was a surreal situation and I was taken aback, unprepared. I have not developed my website to include iTunes-style purchase and download capabilities, nor have I attained the support of record labels or ensembles that subsidize and distribute recordings. Why have I not developed my website? Mostly because I have been too busy honing my craft and composing. I value the quality and integrity of my work over selling it. I couldn’t argue with this patron who was sincerely interested in my music, but his appreciation was precluded by a deep ethic of transaction—that we must fix a value to a rather subjective non-fixed entity.

Poster for New York City Federal Music Project presentation of free symphony concerts at the Y.M. & Y.W.H.A.

Poster for New York City Federal Music Project presentation of free symphony concerts at the Y.M. & Y.W.H.A.

The ongoing discussions regarding the potentially unstable economics of music might do well to consider the ethic of the commons. Just as the air, land, water, and sunshine that sustains human beings is a common right and owned by everyone, so is the intellectual and creative common of society. Implicit within this paradigm, however, is a communal reciprocal relationship. Artists and musicians would create and offer their music and labor for free “consumption,” but consumers would then pay into a system that supports these artists and encourages more creative innovation and cultural enrichment. Our government could easily create such a system. The WPA Federal Music, Theater, and Writers projects during the Great Depression were a step in the right direction, as they employed thousands of artists, composers, and musicians. These projects were scuttled as the nation’s resources and energies were directed into another enterprise—war—and instead of creating art, people made bombs, and vast corporations were built to destroy cities and then build them again, making lots of money in the process.

Nicholas Chase further argues in a comment on NewMusicBox that “through a kind of social attrition, the perceived low-value of what I do has necessitated that I become an entrepreneur…which means I am playing dual, triple, quadruple roles in my field. I am the composer, often the commissioner, the producer, recently the performer…the issue we are facing today is the effectiveness of that model as it requires more and more and more attention from us as artists. It seems that the idea has become a convenient scapegoat for the handlers of Culture in the greater United States.”

If the fruits of our creative labor—our music, ideas, energies—are not considered valuable in the parameters of our society—if composing and performing music is not a worthy trade for food, shelter, and healthcare—then we must change our values as artists and either conform to the parameters and values of society or we must change the parameters and values of society. We will not solve these fundamental issues by encouraging artists to conform to the external pressures of society. Entrepreneurship, in this case, can be used as a valuable tool to redesign the social relationship of musicians and society—to encourage a complete re-evaluation.

No matter how one slices it, for me these arguments and experiences point to one singular fact: we must alter our consciousness—that is, seek to live out alternative values to what is predominant in our society every day. This could be by collectively refusing to pay the impossible debt imposed upon young creatives, who continually work and create for the benefit of society with no monetary compensation. This could be by organizing more composer groups or empowering the many national and regional groups to engage in political and economic activism, demanding from our government the resources necessary to strengthen communities through artistic vision. This could be done by further developing alternative ways of funding such as BELTA or The Impresario Society, which seek to create new means of supporting artists and converting the wealth of society into meaningful creativity. This could be by posting more and more articles to incite more discussions that penetrate down to the true roots of our frustrations and injustices, rather than just treating their symptoms. This consciousness shift is the first creative moment, the precedent for the revolutionary act. One commenter describes this change of consciousness as an acceptance of truth:

Joseph Campbell during his talks with Bill Moyers was asked about shamans. Moyers wanted to know if shamans still exist and Campbell answered that modern shamans are our artists. During the moment of true creation, a possibility presents itself that can allow a shift or change in consciousness…The more of us that experience that insight, the more the possibility of a shift. A paradigm shift is possible but only when enough of us stop thinking for a moment, to be totally aware and allow Truth to enter…we have then entered the realm of the shaman/artist. This is the creative moment.

Student Debt is a Music Policy Issue

Student Debt

Photo by Michael Fleshman, via Flickr

It’s no secret that there’s a student loan crisis in the United States. Americans now owe a full $1.2 trillion in student debt, and that number is only expected to increase.

It’s also no secret that this crisis impacts the music community. I know more than a few gifted musicians and composers who’ve had to ask themselves, “Do I keep working on music, or do I find another more lucrative kind of employment that will allow me to pay down my educational loans?”

At the same time, Future of Music Coalition’s research indicates that investment in education can have some clear benefits for careers in music. In 2012, as part of our Artist Revenue Streams research project measuring the ways that musicians and composers make a living, our research team crunched the numbers from a large-scale online survey completed by over 5,300 US-based musicians. Among our findings: conservatory and music school graduates were likely to be earning more and working more than non-music school graduates.

Music Education Survey Results

Thus, it’s important that students be given the tools to make informed choices and understand the full range of potential risks and rewards that investment in education may represent. The most responsible schools are increasingly giving students a candid assessment of what the job marketplace looks like before they get too far into their educational career, and some are working to better equip their students with entrepreneurial skills to navigate a challenging landscape.

Yet, as Ellen McSweeney points out in her excellent 2013 article about education debt for NewMusicBox, entrepreneurship itself depends on a degree of financial flexibility that many young graduates don’t have. Her article is a strong resource for thinking through the tough decisions young composers and musicians face in planning their educational and vocational paths. It’s got some hard-won advice from twenty-something musicians and composers in the process of paying off their educational debt.

It’s also likely that the current student loan crisis has other trickle-down effects for arts participation more generally, particularly on the audience spending side of the equation. Arts organizations are constantly experimenting with new initiatives to try and attract younger audiences, yet as recent graduates in all fields are more burdened with debt than ever before, they may opt for fewer, less adventurous, and less expensive entertainment options. Even sharply discounted symphony tickets can feel like an indulgence that’s hard to justify when you’ve got a $500 monthly student loan bill.

So regardless of whether they’re personally saddled with debt, this is an issue that could impact all musicians and composers. Thus, it’s worth keeping track of some things that have been happening in the broader policy conversation around student debt.

The Debt Collective, an activist group that began as an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, has been taking a unique approach to the issue. By buying up aggregated educational debt from lenders for pennies on the dollar, then abolishing the debt rather than collecting it, they’ve drawn attention to the incoherence of the present state of affairs. More recently, they’ve organized a group of more than 100 students who attended the for-profit Corinthian Colleges or their subsidiaries and who have refused to pay their federal loans in protest of predatory practices, asking the Department of Education to discharge their loans.

For-profit schools have been targeted because they account for a disproportionate amount of defaulting borrowers, and often have poor retention rates and high debt loads; the worst are accused of predatory lending practices and deliberately recruiting vulnerable low-income students. Indeed, earlier this month, the Department of Education fined Corinthian Colleges $30 million for misrepresenting job placement rates to current and prospective students, among other misdeeds, and today the company will shut down its remaining campuses.

For-profit schools are certainly part of the picture in music, too. Full Sail University, a for-profit school that’s certainly no stranger to controversy, is even sponsoring a stage at the popular Warped Tour summer music festival, targeting the next generation of aspiring rockers for their pricey music and recording classes. To be fair, for the right student in the right program at the right school, a for-profit school could end up being the right choice. But the problem of student debt extends far beyond that part of the sector.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen some modest but meaningful reforms and increased federal oversight. Borrowers can now choose repayment plans that take current levels of income into account when assessing monthly loan payment amounts. For those enrolled in these “income-driven repayment plans,” if their income is low enough, they could have a monthly payment of $0 and still be considered current on their loan payments. (For full-time employees of non-profit organizations, the entire federal loan can even be forgiven after ten years.) Yet while the Obama administration has expanded access to these plans, enrollment is still low, and these plans can’t do anything to address private student loans, which can have the worst interest rates. Senator Elizabeth Warren has again introduced legislation allowing borrowers to refinance older loans at current lower rates.

But why not think bigger—like encouraging state reinvestment in higher education with a goal of making college much more affordable and decreasing reliance on loans? With the 2016 elections on the horizon, it’s a good time to speak up about these issues and make sure that they’re on the table for consideration.

The T.A.R.D.I.S. of Opulence

Lincoln Center

Every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom / Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room. We don’t care; we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.—Lorde, “Royals

Lorde gets that, despite our most vivid imaginative efforts, most of us “will never be royals.” Her 2013 hit anthem (written by the artist and Joel Little) speaks to a public whose music represents a distant life of luxury and apathy, a public that uses its cultural products as a way to envision economic escape.

I’d like to ask to what degree those of us who participate as audience members in other registers of American culture are encouraged to use our musical experiences to imagine ourselves as royalty of a different era.
Unlike Lorde, I’m less concerned with how “every song” conjures this imaginative exercise and more concerned with the role of venues in this conjuring. While we hear music in a variety of contexts, live presentation continues to affect our experience of music and—even more so—of communities and their collective culture. When we listen together, the space in which we convene affects our impression not only of the sound but of ourselves.

I suspect that readers experience musical liveness most often by purchasing tickets to events wherein they sit or stand as a group for two to three hours focused on a sonic focal point.(Don’t worry: I will address other contexts for listening in later posts.)
This kind of event has its roots in court spectacle. The earliest public concerts were presented in spaces which were themselves established as cosmopolitan translations of royal theaters—in Paris, Berlin, London, New York, Boston, and the rest. One of Liszt’s notable early concerts in 1838, for instance, was at La Scala in Milan, a place built to accommodate its royal patrons and originally called “Regio Ducal Teatro alla Scala” (The Royal Ducal Theater [at the site of the former church, Sancta Maria della] Scala), and whose red and gold sparkling interior is now a yardstick for modern nostalgic opulence. Going back further, Paris’s first concert series, the Concert spirituel (1725-1790), was presented at the Opéra, a court-turned-public space originally built for lavish royal entertainment in the city. Though it burnt down later in the century, we can presume that its shimmering decor and lush furnishings rivaled the best of Versailles. According to one contemporary observer, it was “one of the most royal and commodious” venues in France.

The list (and a more complex history) could go on. Nearly every European and American city of note in the 19th century built such a theater. Why? Many reasons: inter-city competition, demonstration of wealth and prosperity, investment in municipal and cultural infrastructure, a desire to capitalize on the affluence generated by new industries, and a push to support the booming noisily-wrapped-candy industry. (Almost) all of these can be boiled down to this: in the same way that court concerts and theatrical events served a dual purpose of entertainment and self-aggrandizement, reflecting the wealth and grandeur of the sponsor back to her and out to her peers and rivals,these new spaces for public concerts provided a space for music while simultaneously connecting their audiences to the imagined luxury of the past. They were designed to augment their public’s sense of self-worth, historically and financially.

Recall the crystal chandeliers, lush carpets, and enormous Chagalls of Lincoln Center. Its fountain seems lifted from Versailles. Or picture the Kennedy Center’s mid-century monumental marriage of marble modernism with the ceilings of an airplane hanger. I know that these iconic places are merely one type—one extreme type—of venue for musical entertainment. But these are the public icons for the arts, places we have all been (or at least can recognize)—places that, no matter whether we believe in their viability and worth or not, we hope to attend at least once in our lives as a kind of rite of passage into a community of listeners and patrons.
Add to that experience of wealth and grandeur the fact that most music we hear in these venues is old—beyond ancient, in the parlance of 18th-century citizens, for whom music from a previous a generation had the stink of Camembert gone bad—and you’ve got quite a potent cocktail: music that transports us to the past in a vessel that communicates how rich we should like to be when we get there.

Taken as a whole, these kinds of events are to music what the big white wedding is to love and commitment: whether you participate or not, the dress, décor, and behavior of that kind of event are the standards for public expression in our cultural imagination. For merely the price of a concert ticket, you can spend two hours feeling like you really are that prosperous and enlightened. Instead of driving a Cadillac in your dreams, you’re sponsoring your own orchestra.

What is gained and lost in each of these kinds of spaces? What kinds of musics are designed for an experience outside of the T.A.R.D.I.S. of opulence? Is there even a way to listen to this music collectively without being transported to a different time and place—and class? In the next posts, I’ll explore a wider variety of spaces, some at the opposite end of the spectrum—think CCR’s “Down on the Corner” rather than Lorde’s “Royals”—the music of those spaces, and their effect on our economic self-conception as audience members. Some musical experiences are presented as fleeting, others as permanent, some as intimate, others as grandiose. The underlying goal is to take as many contexts for listening as seriously as possible, including those not designed for serious listening.


Emily H. Green

Emily H. Green is an assistant professor of musicology at George Mason University. Her thoughts on the social function of music and its print culture appear in a number of places, including most recently as a short story here. She is also active as a performer on historical and modern keyboards.