Tag: finance

Artist Financial Profile: loadbang

An instrumental ensemble of 4 Caucasian men
A discussion with Executive Director Andy Kozar

In 2007, four friends at Manhattan School of Music—Andrew Kozar, Jeffery Gavett, Philip Everall*, and William Lang—were spending significant amounts of time together talking about new music at school, and also at the bar. Realizing they could be performing new music with each other instead of just talking, they began rehearsals for what would become a concert series in an abandoned library at MSM called “Will and Andy’s Power Concerts.” These concerts were only 20-minutes long and, “just like a power nap,” they were all you needed to freshen up your day. Since these friends represented trumpet, baritone voice, clarinet, and trombone, repertoire was lacking. Their first concert program included performances of an Earl Brown graphic notation score, a few barbershop quartets (yes, they sung them), and a piece Jeff wrote for the group.

Fast forward 12 years and these four friends had become loadbang, a “formidable new music force” in the new music scene. I had the pleasure of speaking with their executive director and trumpet player, Andy Kozar, over the phone. Andy was gracious enough to tell me more about how the ensemble started, the history of their finances, a bit about their individual lifestyles, and the ins and outs of how loadbang operates as an integral piece of each members’ musical and financial activity. If you are looking to start an ensemble, I hope this article will offer you a sample working model for best practices.

Non-profit financials

Before we dig into loadbang’s financials, it’s important to note that the financials of any nonprofit are accessible to the public. Every non-profit is required to annually file a Form 990 and many can be accessed through Guidestar.org. The IRS website states:

Forms 990 and 990-EZ are used by tax-exempt organizations, nonexempt charitable trusts, and section 527 political organizations to provide the IRS with the information required by section 6033.

and continues with:

Some members of the public rely on Form 990 or Form 990-EZ as their primary or sole source of information about a particular organization. How the public perceives an organization in such cases can be determined by information presented on its return.

In short, a 990 does not always provide a clear picture, but the form can give the overall details of the financial health of an organization, primary activities and how much was spent on them, the names of the board of directors, and the compensation of the highest-paid officials in the organization. For the real tax nerds wondering what section 6033 is, here you go.

Before I called Andy, I pulled loadbang’s most recent 990 filed in 2018, from the 2017/2018 concert season (their fiscal year runs July to the end of June).

Andy Kozar

Andy Kozar

Revenue

With all the success that loadbang has achieved, some may be surprised that this ensemble is only a portion of each of the members’ incomes. This is why many musicians belong to several performing groups, in addition to their own freelance and teaching or composing work. Looking at the Form 990, the 2018 revenue amounted to $66,319.94 for the season. Expenses totaled $68,958.12, resulting in an organizational deficit of ($2,638.18) for the year. The revenue alone is not enough for any one of the loadbang members to comfortably live in New York City, yet loadbang is a very well managed organization and has set a great trajectory.

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Their 990 reveals that $47,233.33 of the revenue is from “program service revenue.” Essentially this is ticket sales and artist fees, making up 71% of the gross revenue. The other 29% is from “contributions, gifts, and grants” and “gross profit (or loss) from sales of inventory”. This information reveals that loadbang is funded primarily through performance activity. Andy mentioned that loadbang had 38 performances during the 2017/2018 concert season.

The other significant part of loadbang’s revenue is in the “contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts received.” This amount adds up to $18,750, approximately 28% of the organization’s total revenue. This money was most likely from received grants for concert and recording projects from organizations listed in the support section of their website. For those who noticed, the missing 1%, or $337, was profit from CD sales.

Talking with Andy, over the years that loadbang has been an ensemble, revenue has grown every year through increases in activity, and the ensemble developed a simple way to put money back into the business: since there are four members, loadbang divides the revenue—after deducting travel expenses—into five parts: a piece for each member to sustain their living, with the fifth part going back into the organization. They did this from the very beginning, allowing their nonprofit to grow the money they need to develop projects and offset occasional deficits like they saw in 2018. Even nonprofits have to put money back into the business to maximize potential and fund their own growth.

Expenses

Some readers may be wondering, “If they had an overall deficit in 2018, how did they make any money?” The members of loadbang paid themselves first. This is represented in line 13 of the 990 “Professional fees and other payments to independent contractors” of $50,047.15. A couple things to unpack here: this amount was probably not just paid to the quartet, as there could be other composers, sound engineers, and artists at large who are part of the loadbang economic activity. The other thing to note is that loadbang has decided to pay themselves as independent contractors, which is a non-employee status that allows organizations to pay performers and other contractual employees without paying payroll taxes or being responsible for their contractors’ owed income taxes. This is the most common way for musicians, composers, and other creatives to be paid. It is also reflective of the way the members and collaborators of loadbang make their other incomes—through gigging.

Other expenses listed on the 990 are printing, publication, postage, shipping ($987), occupancy—rent for concert space rental for self-produced concerts ($1,683), and “other expenses” of $16,000 that ends up being “travel expenses” as outlined by Schedule O. All of these expenses result in a deficit for the year of $2,638. Because loadbang reliably allocates funds as part of its annual budget to build the organization, a net loss for the 2018 year is not a big deal.

I asked Andy about recordings, because everyone wonders: do you make any money from the CD sales?

His response:

No, not at all. It’s a huge money pit. We don’t look at the records as a money-making thing. They are kind of the business card—you show people what you can do at the highest level—and it sets loadbang apart from new music organizations because all of the rep exists only for us. We have a responsibility to record the pieces. As long as the record is good, it can raise our profile in interesting ways.

Loadbang’s discography is impressive. With 12 albums to their name, they are cementing their impact on new music into history, while simultaneously making it easy for booking agents and institutions to hear examples of their programming. So like many arts projects, the CDs aim to pay for themselves but aren’t necessarily an important part of their profit creation, though Andy did say they occasionally get small royalty checks.

Lifestyle

With any talk about income, lifestyle discussions are often omitted but are very important to understand the nature of the business and how that plays out in the day-to-day existence of a performer. Andy was very candid during our discussions about lifestyle and was willing to share a bit about his own life, his other places of work, and the general performing activity of the other loadbang members. The intention of loadbang was never to go full time, as the loadbang members enjoy the variety of activities they participate in across different groups or solo performing, teaching, composing, and general freelancing. As Andy said about his work with loadbang, “It’s a piece of the puzzle—at this point I like all of the pieces of my puzzle… they all bring different benefits”

Andy is both the executive director of loadbang and their trumpet player. Looking at page two of their Form 990, it looks like Andy makes a little bit more than his ensemble members due to his leadership position, but he is not pulling a sizeable income from that activity. Andy also teaches at Longy School of Music at Bard College, in Cambridge, Boston. There, he is the chair of the Winds and Brass Department, co-director of Ensemble Uncaged, and the co-director of the Divergent Studio at Longy. Andy also freelances regularly in New York City, and composes and records quite often. To throw another complication into the mix, Andy’s wife, Corrine, is a tenure-track professor of voice at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. They have a townhome in Pennsylvania, but he spends part of the week in Boston and New York City. His schedule for a “normal” week looks like this:

Sunday-Tuesday:       Longy School of Music, Boston
Tuesday-Saturday:     Go back to NYC or Pennsylvania, or back and forth

But normal weeks are actually not the norm. Andy explains, “Normal is usually getting on a plane and going somewhere. Somehow it feels that’s impossible to be normal.” For now, the thriving music careers of Andy and his wife work well. They have to spend regular time coordinating schedules so they can be in the same places at the same time, but so far, their 2.5 years of marriage has been working out great.

For the rest of loadbang, the guys are more or less in New York City freelancing or on faculty at the Longy School of Music. I asked how they all ended up as faculty at Longy, and Andy told a quick story of how he started there four years ago and all of a sudden there were faculty openings for voice, clarinet, and trombone. His supervisor bounced the idea of the rest of loadbang coming on board, especially for their summer contemporary music program, Divergent Studio. It seemed to just work out from there!

So you want to start an ensemble?

Imagine you have a few friends who want to start a chamber group and have visions of becoming the next Kronos Quartet, Eight Blackbird, or Imani Winds. Although it is an excellent goal, be realistic about how an ensemble fits into your financial picture. Many ensembles start with nothing and have to put money back into their ensemble just to get it off the ground. Sometimes artistic fees barely cover travel and rehearsal costs, but you do the gig anyway to start to make a name for yourself (something you may do in your own career, but which can carry extra challenges in a group context). Realize that even the most successful ensembles are often just a piece of their founders’ incomes. As Andy put it:

I don’t mean to sound like a grumpy old man (I’m only 34), but sometimes there’s an expectation that comes from naiveté, that if you finish school and start a group and you’re doing cool things then you should be getting cool gigs….No one owes you anything—you don’t deserve a gig necessarily.

The best groups put the insane hours in following other ensembles, tracking down opportunities, and cold calling for the next gig. After speaking with Andy, I combined some of his sage advice into a shortlist of tips to get your ensemble going:

1. Play the gigs!

Don’t be too proud to take a gig. Gigs come from the hard work of networking, building relationships, and mimicking the groups you want to be like. If you can be willing to work, you will be more receptive to opportunities.

2. Send proposals out like your batting average relies on it.

It’s rare that someone will hand you a great gig. The more proposals you send out, the higher your chances of getting a contract. Your batting average increases. In our conversations, Andy said that 85-90% of the work loadbang gets is from reaching out to people and sending them proposals. The longer you do something in new music, the larger your network becomes. Only recently has loadbang seen an uptick in times they are approached to do a gig. For reference, early on, when loadbang would send out 100 proposals, they would only get seven to eight responses.

3. You may as well ask.

Even if you think a project or an idea is a long shot, it never hurts to ask—the worst someone can say is “no.” Early on loadbang thought it would be cool to get a commissioned piece from a skilled composer who they really loved, who just happened to be Charles Wuorinen. So they asked Wuorinen, thinking it would be a long shot. Apparently it wasn’t, and Wuorinen’s piece is featured on this CD.

4. Believe in your project.

Performers don’t start ensembles to become rich. They start groups out of passion and creative desire. This passion is also observed by your audience, collaborators, and funders, etc. As Andy put it:

If you’re really excited and believe in the project you’re doing, that reads. And if the product you have is good, you’re more likely to, over time, have some sort of modicum of success (however you define it)—it can be infectious.

Having passion from all members of your performing group so important. It communicates to your followers. It motivates you when keeping the ensemble going is a struggle. It keeps you honest about why you are pursuing the work.

5. Align your goals with your finances.

As an observer, I added this myself, after poring over my notes from my conversation with Andy. When anyone is seriously pursuing a project, they align their finances with their goals. Early on, loadbang put money back into the organization. This is the same for any small business. Sometimes you have to put more dollars in than you want to, but if you are serious about longevity and financial stability, it is important to organize your finances from the very beginning.

For performers and composers looking to start an ensemble, I hope this article was insightful. Do not forget that you have a plethora of amazing examples in the new music industry from which to draw knowledge. Success is not always left to the fates—you can steer your own ship in the direction of your choosing. Andrew Kozar also told me that you are welcome to reach out to him if our NewMusicBox readers have any questions, by emailing him at loadbang @ loadbangmusic.com.


*The bass clarinet position at loadbang has switched a few times, from Philip to Carlos Cordeiro, and since interviewing Andy, loadbang recently announced that Adrian Sandi is now on the roster.

Roundtable: Facing the Hard Questions

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

Lisa Bielawa

Lisa Bielawa
Photo by Phil Mansfield

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

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

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

Cash Week - sm

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

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

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

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

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

Not really 🙂

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

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

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

Roundtable: The Bonnie Jones Grant

Bonnie Jones

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

Bonnie Jones

Bonnie Jones

A few months back, my friend and fellow Baltimore composer Alex Gardner invited me to sit on a panel she was moderating, “Artists Outside Academia,” which was part of the 2016 New Music Gathering at the Peabody Institute. The artists included were those of us in Baltimore who did not primarily make their living as fulltime professors and were therefore outside of the typical presentation opportunities, support networks, and technical resources that university faculty often enjoy—not to mention the full time salaries.

The discussion centered on the various activities, priorities, and lives of the local artists on the panel and how we each, in our own ways, have gone off script in creating personal lives that sustain our creative work. Certainly for me, choosing to live and work in Baltimore was already a conscious choice made for my art practice—relying on the freedom afforded by relatively lower housing costs compared to cities like Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, etc. Other negotiations of time, space, and finances that came up included taking on the role of primary childcare provider, taking on additional training and classes for skills used to piece together side jobs, working seasonally, or making sacrifices in healthcare or housing to balance paying bills with insecure incomes.

For those of us working for our art practice without significant financial support other than what our own bodies and minds can generate, all these negotiations are probably familiar. We always have to consider FOOD/SHELTER against how ambitious a project we can undertake, how quickly we’ll be able to complete that project, and how much energy and self we can pour into that project. All these things change the rhythm of our creative minds and shape what our ART (not the work per se, but the practice), situated inside of our very real LIVES, will have.

My own path for making a living while making art was something that during the panel I referred to as the Bonnie Jones Grant. This “grant” was all the various web-related freelance and fulltime jobs I’ve held during my 17 years in Baltimore, which directly funded my volunteer non-profit, curatorial work, and art practice. In other words, I had a lot of regular jobs, but I thought of them as very much a part of my creative practice because they sustained that practice. I came to music later than most, having in my twenties focused on poetry and performance. Once my focus turned to music, the stuff I was interested in making was often challenging and abstract, produced with cracked and circuit bent electronic instruments. While the international community of noise and improvisation is incredibly stimulating intellectually and aesthetically, the financial sustainability is tenuous at best. So I realized early on that the music and writing I was drawn to might never be able to generate enough income to support my FOOD/SHELTER needs. So I got a job, a job job as artists sometimes call it, or job jobs in my case.

So the other day while working on this blog post, I took a break and watched a documentary called The Wrecking Crew about a prolific group of studio musicians who were responsible for thousands of Top 10 recorded hits from the 1960s and 1970s. You may have never heard their names, but you’ve certainly heard their music. This crew recorded The Beach Boys’s “Good Vibrations,” the Mamas and Papas’s “California Dreamin,’” the Righteous Brothers’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The discography is mind-blowing.

Money was on my mind, so it was refreshing to hear these musicians talk about their art WORK. They spoke honestly about their modest or sometimes impoverished childhoods, the hustle of their early years when they were making their names, the sacrifices in parenting they made to support their families (studio gigs would sometimes keep musicians out for 20-hour days), their struggles with addiction and mental health issues as a result of the demands of their jobs and the insecurity of their incomes. They had no pretensions about how their art and their jobs were, by necessity, collaborative and entwined.

Percussionist Earl Palmer (who played on recordings of Richie Valens’s “La Bamba” and Jan and Dean’s “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena”) freely admitted that he didn’t care much for rock and roll, his heart was in jazz, but that to make a living off of rock and roll, he needed to play it like it was his favorite music. There was a general acknowledgement from the musicians that ALL the work you did was the REAL work of being an artist. Palmer’s judicious comment about playing music he wasn’t all that into: “It’s not beneath you if it’s supporting you.”

So why then, does it still seem novel when artists talk transparently about the money they make from art or other jobs? I wonder if talking about the very unsexy ways we make a living threatens some myth of the serious artist? The serious artist doesn’t sell out. The serious artist only cares about the art and everything else is false. The serious artist never compromises their authenticity for money. The serious artist never considers themselves part of the nasty capitalist game where many fight for what few resources are available. The serious artist’s success is based on a meritocracy. Who can actually live like this? Where did this myth come from? Did capitalism create the myth and ultimately make fools of us all?

Cash Week - sm

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

These days funding and jobs for working musicians are fewer and further between—the recording industry is collapsing, arts funding is choked off so orchestras are folding and commissions are disappearing. Even within the world of artists making objects, painters and sculptors are constantly working for free—their work appearing in major cultural institutions with no compensation unless they become one of the few who enter into the art economy as commodity. I think most of us agree that solely making money off your art is becoming a very rare condition.

The WORK part of a working artist’s career has expanded into a variety of industries and jobs that don’t utilize our artistic skills directly. The education industry has probably become the leading source of jobs for artists, while of course generating significant income off of those same folks in the form of MFA, DMA, and Ph.D. programs. This in theory sounds great, until the jobs are all taken and the universities keep creating masters and doctors of art who have student debt but no job prospects. So most artists are still spending lots of time stringing together a lot of different sources of income. Though I think it’s important to note, a lot of them really aren’t at all. A lot of highly visible and successful artists are such because they have financial support from family, partners, or other places not directly related to their art practice and in many cases they’ve always had that. And I think it’s fair to say that that does make an enormous difference in the shape of an artist’s life.

Which brings me to my current fear about the future of art in America. What happens if young artists starting out, with little or no financial support outside themselves, just stop making art and trying to put it out there because they need to take care of FOOD/SHELTER. What if only rich folks can make a successful living off of making art? What if we’re deprived of the benefits of having access to art made from a huge range of human experiences and backgrounds? Or maybe this kind of fear is completely out of touch with how art will be made and distributed in the future? Maybe we’re just witnessing a transition phase?

A side note about my own privileges. I was adopted from Korea and raised in a modest but middle class Caucasian farm family. I had all my basics covered as a child and, with family support, attended a great (cheap) public university that led to some solid job prospects, which led to a secure income working for an internet company, which I was able to parlay into a subcontracting position, which allowed me to go to and pay for my MFA, and which today allows me to work and make money on projects and then take off for months at a time to work on art and touring. Some years I make well above the poverty line and others not as much, but the work is fairly reliable and if the worst were to happen—cancer, psychiatric crisis, car accident, house fire, etc.—I have a stable relationship with my family that I know I could rely on. All of these things I recognize as enormous privileges. 

OK, so for those of us who decide to keep producing anyways, because we just can’t stop, because it’s an essential part of who we are, because we’d lose our minds if we didn’t: Sometimes I wonder, is it all on us to just get our shit together and make it work? Does the working artist these days just need to become a better administrative assistant, giving themselves over to the business of art? Or is there a collective issue here that we can examine?

Raise your hand: who has been asked by an institution (typically a large one—university, museum, etc.) to present your work for little or no money for the “prestige”? For “the love of the work”? To build your resume? Who has agreed to $250 honorariums for two days of studio visits and presentations? Who has decided not to apply for a grant because the application or requirements are labyrinthine and exhausting and you just can’t fit the work into your schedule? Who has noticed that funding is often reliant on having gotten funding in the past, on proving yourself in a certain way—often outside of art itself—which means that grants often go to folks who already are receiving the large majority of available grants?

In 1973, avant-garde filmmaker, photographer, writer/theoretician Hollis Frampton wrote this letter to the Museum of Modern Art on the invitation to present a retrospective of his work. MoMA was hoping to circumvent the rental fees from the distribution company by having Frampton bring his prints and appear for free. The question this letter so succinctly articulates is: why do museums and major institutions prioritize their incomes for everything but the art and artists? This question becomes even more pressing for time-based artists (filmmakers, poets, musicians, performers) who don’t produce objects or straightforward commodities. The NYC-based organization W.A.G.E., which hosts the copy of this letter that I linked to above, takes up that issue by placing the responsibility on institutions to sustain artists and their work by—well, paying them.

On that note, I’ll leave off with a mini manifesto, because writing this post made me realize that I have a lot on my mind these days about art and money and privilege and power…and I could probably keep on writing, but this after all is a blog post likely being read on a phone, so I’m going to leave it at this:

We must question the value system of capital “A” art and how it designates what is important to the market and therefore to artists and institutions.

For sure we must place institutions that profit from artists at the center of the critique and put our minds towards creating more institutions that don’t profit from artists but still believe in what art accomplishes socially and culturally and who are willing to take some risks in supporting work that might question capital “A” art values.

Without a doubt, we must be honest with young artists and students about what the life of the working artist (bills, jobs, tenuous housing, lack of healthcare, lack of access to materials) looks like, vs. the life of the artist who has more financial freedom from the start (plenty of access to materials, ability to present and create work for free, stable housing and quicker financial recovery from health problems).

I consider myself an artist. I’ve been working to make art for the majority of my 38 years. To be sure I’ve had many successes and recognitions of my work over the years, but few of those have paid the bills. And I’m OK with this, for now. But to a certain extent, I have no idea what the next 38 years will look like, and whether the sacrifices one makes for a life of making art might actually have to be the art itself.

***
Bonnie Jones is a Korean-American writer, improvising musician, and performer working primarily with electronic music and text. Born in 1977 in South Korea, she was raised on a dairy farm in New Jersey and currently resides in Baltimore, Maryland. Bonnie creates improvised and composed text-sound performances that explore the fluidity and function of electronic noise (field recordings, circuit bending) and text (poetry, found, spoken, visual). She is interested in how people perceive, “read,” and interact with these sounds and texts given our current technological moment. Jones has received commissions from the London ICA and has presented her work in the US, Europe, and Asia and collaborates frequently with writers and musicians. She received her MFA at the Milton Avery School of the Arts at Bard College.

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.

Who Counts as an Expert?

When you read about music industry issues in the news, does it feel like it’s connected to your life? Do you see yourself reflected or hear your concerns included? These questions were on my mind most recently last week, as rapper Jay Z was joined by a crowded stage of pop superstars to roll out the music streaming service Tidal. It’s something I think about every time a big music news story bubbles up.

Tidal

Among the general population, there seems to be a sustained level of interest in the business of making music that extends beyond our appetite to understand other industries. It’s regrettably difficult to find news coverage about the people who grow our tomatoes, sew our clothes, or assemble our smartphones, but people are still uniquely fascinated with the people who make the music they enjoy.

And yet much of the public conversation about important issues in the music business seems light in nutritional value, or narrowly focused on the concerns and actions of a handful of superstars. If you’re working in a genre or music subculture that isn’t based around mass-market assumptions, your concerns may be absent. We can all read dozens of hot-takes on the latest celebrity copyright kerfuffle, but how many of them examine whether a young composer whose work has been infringed has any meaningful recourse, if she can’t afford expensive legal representation?

One reason for this dynamic is that journalism has been going through many of the same upheavals as other creative industries. Few publications have dedicated reporters assigned to the music industry beat anymore, let alone with a labor emphasis—such topics get passed on to arts critics, or business and technology writers. I’ve only ever really worked in music, so no one would expect me to be able to explain subprime lending or email encryption. But business and technology journalists are often tasked with explaining complicated systems and revenue models, without any specialized training or background.

While some have taken on this challenge and done an admirable job, it’s not surprising that others end up making basic errors—confusing record labels with publishers, or compositions with sound recordings, for example.

FMC Chart: money flow-radio

Infographic from Future of Music Coalition’s “Music and How the Money Flows

There’s also a reliance on faulty conventional wisdom; Future of Music Coalition has published research that squarely debunks common myths, like “musicians make all their money from touring,” but I could spend my entire work week trying to correct these myths every time they appear in popular media and I wouldn’t make much of a dent. Plus click-driven revenue models often incentivize writers to prioritize celebrity controversies over an examination of how non-superstar musicians (the vast majority of us) are impacted.

A parallel factor may be the trend towards “explainer journalism” sites, which “have built their core identity around explaining complicated issues or situations to a well-informed general public” as Henry Farrell, um, explains. The inherent claim to expertise in this mode of writing doesn’t exactly encourage intellectual humility or the weighing of different theories, but encourages boldly assertive claims as an exercise in self-branding and generating traffic.

This is an era that rewards simple explanations: TED Talks that prescribe neat solutions, the ability to learn “everything you need to know about X in one chart.” It’s nice when such things exist, but it’s easy to lapse into a preference for falsely totalizing narratives, and “expertise” is awarded on the basis of whether you can offer such a narrative (bonus points awarded if you can work in an affirmation of entrepreneurial progress that’s basically compatible with our prevailing neoliberal power structures).

But artists know that things are more complicated. You might even argue that making a life as a musician or composer is partly about getting comfortable with constantly navigating that complexity. We know that an approach that works for one kind of musician is not necessarily going to work for peers working in different genres, or different roles with different assumptions about scale. Strategies or business models that might work perfectly well for a chamber music ensemble may not suit a composer who doesn’t perform. We know that rather than the conventional story of an old model of the music business being replaced by a new one, there’s always been a range of many different models, and we choose the models that align with our abilities, skills, interests, and available resources.

But while adopting “it’s more complicated than that” as a default epistemological position will help you understand what’s going on, it can be challenging to find ways to tell these more complex stories. Not long ago, I was speaking to a TV journalist who wanted to know whether or not our copyright laws were “antiquated.” Now, it should be clear that this is kind of an absurd question to pose as a binary either/or. US copyright laws amount to hundreds of pages, assembled over decades, revised over and over again. I explained that while some current provisions might be due for revision, many others continue to provide important protections for creators and for the public interest. Alas, the journalist really wanted a yes-or-no answer, and when I was unable to give her one, she ended up not quoting me on that issue. It was hard to blame her—she only was allotted two and a half minutes.

Another example: the popular sci-fi novelist and tech blogger Cory Doctorow in his mostly un-recommendable new book Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free suggests an axiom for aspiring artists: “Fame won’t make you rich, but you can’t get paid without it,” a variation on the “obscurity is the real problem” adage we heard endlessly during the file-sharing battles a decade ago. This is, of course, demonstrably false: most working musicians and composers have always been obscure by the standards of mass culture. In fact, there are thousands of professional musicians who will always remain ultimately anonymous to many of the consumers who enjoy their work: touring sidemen, session players, etc. Obscurity alone isn’t so much of an issue if obscure musicians and composers are able to obtain a fair price for their obscure labors, whether from the open market, from grants and commissions, or other revenue structures. But Doctorow’s willingness to speak in such sweeping generalities about an industry he’s never worked in hasn’t been a barrier to his self-positioning as an expert on the music business. It may have worked to his advantage, actually.

This leads me to another observation about perceived expertise: working at the intersection of music, technology, and policy means reckoning with the fact that each of these three arenas carries its own ongoing battles with sexism and racism. What this means for me as a white, college-educated man is my opinions are immediately given an assumed legitimacy in many forums. I can opine about technological issues in music and policy and no one will patronizingly ask me whether I know how to code, to borrow an example from Astra Taylor and Joanne McNeil. I may not be able to oversimplify complex dynamics, but at least I look like an “expert.”

If this all sounds rather disheartening, I do see opportunities to push back. Musicians and composers are always the best experts about their lives and livelihoods, and they seem to be more and more willing to tell their stories. As busy, frazzled, and overextended as journalists and editors often are, my experience has been that most genuinely want to get it right and like hearing the thoughtful, factually grounded perspectives of artists of diverse backgrounds, including the kinds of people who will never be invited to stand on stage next to Jay Z.

The need to hear those perspectives is also a reason why sites like NewMusicBox and others that allow creative workers to speak for themselves are so fundamentally important, and I’m delighted to be contributing this month.

***
Kevin Erickson is communications and outreach manager for Future of Music Coalition, a non-profit research, advocacy, and education group based in Washington, D.C. With roots in the Pacific Northwest indie-punk tradition, his experience spans many facets of the music ecosystem, including all-ages music advocacy, alternative interdisciplinary arts spaces, community radio, and brick and mortar independent music retail management. He remains active as a musician, producer, and engineer at Swim-Two-Birds recording studio.

Income, Expenses, and Mileage, Oh My! The Musician’s Guide to Reaching Organizational Nirvana In the New Year

White office shelves with folders and different stationery, clos

Well, the “Winter Wonderland” outside has turned into a grayish-blackish-slushy mess and the drug store down the street just swapped out its window display of snowmen and Santas for pink hearts and Hershey’s kisses. Yep, it appears that you’ve survived yet another holiday season and 2015 is officially here!

Now that you’ve recovered from your annual sugar binge and January 1 hangover, it’s time to start making New Year’s resolutions! I’m not talking about the typical resolutions–anyone can resolve to get fit, eat better, or quit smoking. I’m here to address the kind of resolutions that apply to our special breed of self-employed musicians and composers. I’m talking finances, people. It’s time to get real and get organized. Because I know what you all are thinking: This year, I swear I’m going to keep better track of my receipts. I’m totally going to keep a mileage log when I travel to gigs. I’m going to put money aside for taxes. I’m going to organize my income before my 17 different 1099-MISCs come in the mail.

As a Type A, anal-retentive, self-employed cellist, I’m here to help. Hopefully by the end of this little guide, you’ll have the tools you need to get organized to the point that when tax season rolls around, you’ve got a neat and tidy pile of documents to either hand over to your accountant or to help you face those IRS forms on your own. So open up Excel and brace yourself to become a happier, healthier, more on top of it artiste!

Spreadsheet #1: The bacon you bring home, also known as INCOME.

If you’re like me, your professional life can be neatly divided into two categories: a wee smidge of W-2 work, for which your taxes are withheld, and a much larger, more nebulous smattering of “other” work, some of which is reported to the IRS and some that is not. (Helpful tidbit: Even though you think you might be able to get away with only reporting some of your income, doing this is a little sketchy–and by sketchy I mean technically illegal. But look on the bright side: it’s actually in your best interest to report all of the income from both of these categories, because while you might not think you will ever move out of that 200-square foot studio apartment, you might change your mind one day and decide to invest in a chunk of real estate, at which point the more income you can prove you have, the better your chances of appeasing the mortgage gods.) Whenever you deposit a check or receive a direct deposit pay stub, mark it down and file it away.

Income sheet

Most of Sample Sheet A is self-explanatory, but a couple of notes: I like to keep track of both my pre-tax and post-tax income. This way I know exactly how much I’ve made during the year, but I also know how much to set aside (or how much has already been set aside for me) to pay my quarterly taxes. In other words, the pre-tax column is what I earned, but the post-tax column is what I know is in my bank account for real. In the post-tax category, you may have also noticed that some numbers are lighter than others. Any gig that withholds taxes for me gets written in black. The others, written in pink, are just my own arbitrary post-tax estimate (85% of the check). You also might be noticing the other color on this sheet: any non-W-2 income I mark down gets highlighted in yellow. That makes it easier to see all the stuff I have to enter into the ever-confusing self-employment section of Turbo Tax when the time comes.

Are you still with me? If I haven’t scared you away with color-coded spreadsheets yet, then you’ve proven yourself worthy of and ready for…

Spreadsheet #2: So a guy walks into a bar…and calls it a BUSINESS EXPENSE.

Ah, the dreaded RECEIPTS. You know what I’m talking about–even if you are organized enough to save them, chances are you stockpile them in a box and don’t deal with them until April 14 when you have to file an extension on your taxes because going through all the receipts actually took the entire time you allotted yourself to get your taxes done.

As heinous a task as keeping track of all these receipts is, business expenses are your FRIEND. Seriously, they’re like your BFF. The better you keep track of them, the smaller the check you have to send to the IRS. I like to separate my expenses into these five categories:

Travel: Flights to auditions, train fare to gigs, tolls on the interstate, parking fees, etc. The only thing I don’t include here is gas, but we’ll get to that in Spreadsheet #3.

Meals/Entertainment: Any time you eat out with a bunch of colleagues, save that receipt. Also be sure to check out the government’s per diem rate if you go out of town for a gig so you can claim ALL THE MEALS. And as for entertainment, save those ticket stubs every time you go to a friend’s show–you’re networking, so it totally counts as a biz expense.

Repairs/Maintenance: Instrument repairs, private lessons, or anything that you need to repair or maintain!

Supplies: Manuscript paper, reed-making tools, concert clothes, or whatever objects it takes for you to be able to do your job.

Home Office: Application fees, postage, photocopies, or membership dues. Basically anything that involves a computer, printer, or stamp!

You might decide to nix or to add another category–hey, whatever works for you. Just make sure that whatever you include as a business-related expense is actually something you use exclusively for business purposes. Just by existing as self-employed artists, we are basically asking for the IRS to audit us, so tread carefully.

As you can see below in Sample Sheet B, I also like to color-code each category. The pastel color scheme makes opening this spreadsheet reminiscent of going on an Easter egg hunt, but it also serves the slightly-more-helpful purpose of making it easy to group all expenses of a certain color together at the end of the year.

Business Expenses

Even more important than the glorious color-coding of the spreadsheet, however, is to keep your receipts from piling up. Make yourself adhere to a deadline for entering in expenses–it can be once a week, once a month, once you get to ten receipts, or every single time you make a new business-related purchase–but don’t let yourself file those receipts away until they’ve been logged. You know why it’s worth doing it this way? Because once the info is in the spreadsheet, you never have to set eyes on the receipts again–unless you get audited of course, at which point you can dazzle the IRS officer with the beauteous gem that is your Expense Sheet.

Spreadsheet #3: Oh, the places you’ll gig! MILEAGE.

At this point, you’re thinking: “Okay okay, nice colors. But what about the hundreds of dollars I pay at the pump to get to my rehearsals, concerts, lessons, and meetings? Shouldn’t I be saving those receipts too?” Well, you could. But when it comes to doing your taxes, it’s actually simpler to keep track of the miles rather than the gas. In fact, submitting your mileage, more than any of the other expense categories, can make the most difference in saving you some moolah, especially if you’re a super commuter like me. If you’re a transit rider, feel free to bypass this section and create your own system for keeping track of the number of train rides you take for professional purposes each month. For the rest of us gas guzzlers, here goes.

Mileage

This one doesn’t require too much explaining–just add up all the numbers in column two at the end of the year and voila! A nice easy number to impress your friends with: Dude, I drove 21,547 miles this year! If you’re like me and drive most of the time but occasionally take the train, just mark an X in the Mileage column and add the train fare to your Business Expense spreadsheet. Also, a little pro tip: You might think it’s crazy to remember every single place you went every single day. But that’s the beauty of keeping a calendar! If a month goes by without you logging your mileage entries, just flip through the past month on your calendar and retroactively enter in the miles. Easy peasy! Oh, and by the way, if you play gigs or accept work that does give you a travel stipend, don’t add those miles to the spreadsheet–no matter how gung ho you are about data entry, that could look a bit shady if you get audited.

So there you have it: three spreadsheets, three steps towards a more organized you! I won’t pretend to be the first person out there to suggest a method for artists to keep track of their finances. (Though mine is probably the prettiest. Just sayin’.) In Alex Gardner’s piece last year, she recommended this resource for organizing income and expenses. And if you google “musician tax worksheets,” you’ll find a myriad of organizational methods all over the interwebs. My main piece of advice, though, and my #1 suggested New Year’s resolution for every kind of artist, is to stay on top of it throughout the year so that tax season doesn’t have to get in the way of your performing or your composing. We’ve all got way more important things to do in March and April than stare at a pile of receipts. So good luck, Happy New Year, and Happy Organizing!