Tag: the economics of music

Composer Commission Pay in the United States

A chart showing the range of composer commissioning fees.

By David E. Farrell and Loretta K. Notareschi

This article is an introduction to a research report on the Composer Commission Pay Survey conducted in Fall 2019 by David E. Farrell and Loretta K. Notareschi. To read the complete report, visit www.composerpaysurvey.com.

How much should composers get paid for commissions?

This is a question most composers have. As composers ourselves, we recently set out to find the answer. We were motivated not only by our curiosity, but also by our desire to know what is fair and equitable. When approached by an individual or ensemble for a commission, we have had a perplexing variety of experiences. Everything from being told, “I will pay whatever you charge” to “We know this isn’t enough, but here’s what’s possible in our budget.” We have been paid on occasion what seemed like a generous amount; we have also done work for no financial compensation at all.

Informal discussions about commission fees with fellow composers did not help broaden our understanding. These conversations were frequently beset with embarrassment, defensiveness, and long-winded explanations of why the composers accepted fees that did not match their expectations. This kind of dialogue was, however, preferable to another common response: silence and unwillingness to mention numbers. Different as they may be, both reactions gave the same impression: composers were unsure what a fair commission fee would be. They didn’t know how much to ask for.

Some composers wonder why they’re not being paid more. Some are surprised by the amounts they have been paid.

The reality is that many questions surround composer pay. Some people wonder why they’re not being paid more. Some people are surprised by the amounts they have been paid. Some people worry they should have gotten more, but weren’t bold enough to ask for it. Some composers get asked to name their number. Others are told, “this is the budget.” Some of us are making a living from our commissions. Some of us have other jobs that help pay the bills. Many of us are jealous of people who do something different than we do and whom, we suspect, are getting paid more. The questions, to put it bluntly, are fraught.

How do people in other professions deal with such consternation? They look to labor statistics. We consulted several resources in our research looking for such statistics. The “Commissioning Fees Calculator” on NewMusicBox is a well-known resource that suggests fees for composers. But the origin of these numbers is unclear, and anecdotal experience points to them being higher than what many people actually encounter. The American Composers Forum gives some numbers in their “Commissioning by Individuals” guide, but the numbers vary widely and are again not sourced. The US government collects pay data for many professions, but the category in which composers are included also includes many other kinds of musicians, making the data not helpful in answering our question. Joan Jeffri’s Taking Note: A Study of Composers and New Music Activity in the U.S. is a 2008 study including data on  composer income. While it gives good numbers about overall income, its broad numbers didn’t give us the answers we wanted about individual commission fees. Sound and Music in the United Kingdom in collaboration with the Australian Music Centre presented a model we found most useful–their 2015 Composer Commissioning Survey Report asked about individual commission fees and primarily reported on those in the U.K. and Australia. Finally, in late 2020, we learned about another U.S. commission pay survey, conducted by Fahad Siadat. Dr. Siadat’s report is forthcoming, and we are interested to see its results.

Considering how much composers should be paid is even more difficult if we don’t know what composers are being paid.

After considering this existing body of work, we found ourselves with more questions. Considering how much composers should be paid is even more difficult if we don’t know what composers are being paid. Thus, we decided to create a survey to ask composers to name their commission fees.  We focused on what we most wanted to know: How much do composers get paid for commissions? What are the musical characteristics, including instrumentation, genre, and duration, of commissions of different amounts? What are the demographic characteristics, such as career stage, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, etc., of highly-paid, modestly-paid, and unpaid composers? Then we developed a series of detailed questions for the survey regarding these topics and others. We chose to survey composers whose commissions resulted in concert performances of live music, and we also chose to focus on commission income only. In fall 2019, we launched the survey and received data from over 200 composers, reflecting information on 871 commissions from 2017 and 2018.

Commission Pay, Genre, and Instrumentation

Our first question was the simplest–how much did composers get paid for commissions in 2017-2018? The range of responses went from nothing–37% of the 871 commissions reported on were done for no fee–to an opera commission for $300,000, an impressive outlier from our dataset. The median commission fee of $1,500 ($150 per minute) best represents “central tendency” (a statistics term meaning the center of a dataset) from the data collected. The chart in Figure 1 excludes the $300,000 outlier and the unpaid commissions to show how fees were spread across various commissions.

Fig. 1

A chart showing the range of composer commissioning fees.

While commission activity was clustered below $5,000, there were a good number of fees above that. A similar diagram (Fig. 2) shows commission fees at and below $9,000, excluding a large number of outliers (as defined by the interquartile method) and focusing on the area where most fees exist.

Fig. 2

A chart showing commissioning fees at or below $9000.

While the overall median gives a good sense of the big picture, we can look at instrumentation and genre to get a sense of how these affect commission fees as well. As can be seen in Figure 3 our responses were heavily weighted towards classical works, but the instrumentations varied widely.

Fig. 3

Figure 4 shows a comparative chart of median fees, both per commission and per minute of music, along with the percentage of paid commissions for each instrumentation type. The “n” value is the number of components in a dataset. In this chart and others shown below, the per-commission and per-minute medians leave out unpaid commissions, thus the “n” values are different there than for the percentage of paid commissions.

Fig. 4 Median Fees and Percentage of Paid Commissions by Instrumentation

Soloist with Large Ensemble$2,750.00$171.81493%15

Per Commission FeePer Minute FeeNPercentage PaidN
Full Data Set Medians$1,500$15053363%871
Ensemble of 5-9$1,500.00$133.338258%141
Chamber Chorus (10-22)$500.00$125.003176%41
Small Wind or Jazz Band (10-22)$375.00$73.801056%18
Chamber Orchestra (10-22)$2,500.00$142.861750%34
Chorus (over 22)$3,100.00$612.508087%92
String Orchestra (over 22)$300.00$75.00586%7
Wind Band (over 22)$3,500.00$427.503077%39
Full Orchestra (over 22)$5,000.00$375.003174%46
Full Orchestra with Chorus$7,000.00$424.841080%15

In general, larger ensembles received paid commissions at a higher rate than solo works or small ensembles, and those commissions tended to be for larger amounts. Interestingly, the highest paid instrumentation per minute of music was large chorus. Large choruses were also the second most likely to pay their composers, with a paid rate of 87% (higher than large chorus was the instrumentation of soloist + large ensemble, at 93%).

In general, larger ensembles paid at a higher rate than solo works or small ensembles


Composer Characteristics

Besides information on their compositions, we also queried the composers in our study about their personal characteristics, such as career stage, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, etc. We used a range of questions to ascertain the career stage of our respondents (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5

We can see the correlation of career stage and commission income data in Figure 6. The n values here are the number of people in each category.

Fig. 6 Career Stage and Commission Income

Total FeesPer Commission FeePer Minute FeeNNumber of CommissionsPercentage Commissions PaidN
Full Data Set Medians$3,000$1,500$150179466%240
Most advanced music degree
Artist’s Diploma$14,000.00$2,500.00$226.902865%2
Date of most recent music degree
pre 1980$4,250.00$1,541.67$369.0582100%10
Date of first commission income
pre 1980$30,250.00$5,756.94$572.92103.5100%11
Percentage of successive years with commission income
0 – 25 percent$1,000.00$500.00$65.7049240%77
25 – 50 percent$2,500.00$1,250.00$118.1639265%44
50 – 75 percent$3,350.00$1,500.00$127.7829366%31
75 – 100 percent$12,750.00$2,916.67$264.14555100%57


Across measurements, greater experience was generally reflected in higher commission fees.

Greater experience was generally reflected in higher commission fees.

We also asked our survey respondents for data about their demographic identities. The pie charts in Figure 7 show the breakdowns in gender, sexual orientation, age, region, population, religion, and race/ethnicity. The regional areas are defined by the U.S. Census.

Fig. 7

The respondents to our survey tended to be white, heterosexual males from large home communities. Age, religion, and region of residence varied more widely among our respondents. We considered fee information from all these demographic categories; selected results are presented in Figures 8 and 9. The n values are, again, the number of people in each category.


Fig. 8 Selected Demographic Data and Commission Income

Total FeesPer Commission FeePer Minute FeeNNumber of CommissionsPercentage of Commissions PaidN
Full Data Set Medians$3,000$1,500$150179466%240
Sexual Orientation
18 – 29$1,200$470.08$63.1528354%32
30 – 39$3,850$1,460.00$139.2753480%61
40 – 49$1,500$1,000.00$105.9537366%41
50 -59$3,750$1,854.17$195.1424350%32
Christian (not catholic)$1,500$690.00$78.3338355%47
Prefer not to answer$2,000$1,000.00$96.4319366%23
Race / ethnicity
White Non Hispanic$3,000$1,300.00$121.62151366%182


Fig. 9 Selected Geographical Data and Commission Income

Total FeesPer Commission FeePer Minute FeeNNumber of CommissionsPercentage of Commissions PaidN
Full Data Set Medians$3,000$1,500$150179466%240
Size of home community
More than 50000$3,450$1,500.00$128.46126366%155
2500 – 50000$1,330$1,000.00$107.1443366%49
Pacific West$5,750$2,583.33$217.1126467%32
Mountain West$2,550$725.00$75.0022370%24
West North Central$2,850$1,350.00$127.7813365%15
West South Central$1,350$875.00$79.1712268%15
East North Central$2,500$1,250.00$100.0029359%34
East South Central$8,650$2,912.50$318.402483%2
South Atlantic$2,150$879.17$97.4020449%27
Middle Atlantic$3,500$1,500.00$196.2134372%38
New England$3,500$1,250.00$198.4117345%24


Who gets paid the most?

We wanted to know more about our outliers–the composers who received the largest commissions. We used a common test–the interquartile range method–to determine what commissions were outliers, and then we looked at the demographic information of the 30 composers who received these commissions. In many ways they were similar to our entire dataset, but some qualities stood out. “High earners” are more likely to have composition agents representing them. They were more likely to be over 60 years of age, or to be in their 30s. They were more likely to live in the Pacific West region. And they were much more likely to be regularly commissioned. Figure 10 shows data from the group of high earners.

Fig. 10 High Earner Characteristics


The major conclusions we were able to draw from our study are as follows:

  • The median commission fee for all compositions was $1500, or $150 per minute.
  • While commission fees were generally under $10,000, there was a sizable portion of outliers – around 11 percent of works – whose fees were between $10,000 and $50,000, or sometimes even greater.
  • Commissions for small groups or soloists were more likely to be unpaid, or for small fees. Commissions for large ensembles were more likely to be paid, and to command larger fees. Most outlier fees were for large ensemble commissions. The best paying large ensemble was the large choir.
  • Composers with more experience tended to receive higher fees.
  • Without taking into consideration factors such as experience level, female composers had a higher per-minute pay rate than males, and white composers had a higher per minute pay than non-white composers (as a group).


More data is needed.

The results and conclusions of the Composer Commission Pay Survey should not be considered comprehensive nor final.

The results and conclusions of the Composer Commission Pay Survey should not be considered comprehensive nor final. While over 400 composers began our survey, just over 200 completed it, and they presented information on 871 commissions that occurred within 2017-2018. This is just a snapshot of data over a limited period of time. Regular surveys of commission pay would provide a clearer picture of the economic situation for today’s composer. Further research, supported by composer advocacy groups and professional organizations, is necessary to obtain data that will empower composers in making informed professional decisions.


More sophisticated analysis of data is needed.

Beyond more data collection, we would also like to invite future researchers to collaborate with us to conduct more sophisticated statistical analyses of the data from this study. It is important to note that when looking at the “conclusions” that women are paid more than men and whites more than non-whites, we have not yet answered questions that would consider data variables in combination and find out what the factors are that may contribute to these pay anomalies. For example, we don’t know if the women or white people in our sample were more likely to have higher degrees, or more years of experience, or some combination of factors that would have made their higher pay unexceptional; or, controlling for all these factors, whether their higher pay was indeed unaccounted for by anything other than gender or race.


More research on unpaid commissions is needed.

After launching our survey, we heard from one successful composer who refused to participate because we decided to include unpaid commissions. This composer insisted that “in the real world,” professional composers never take unpaid commissions. We disagree, having found in our survey (and in our own lived experiences), that many professional composers, at all levels of experience, take a mix of paid and unpaid commissions. We should not ignore this reality of many in our field.

Many professional composers, at all levels of experience, take a mix of paid and unpaid commissions.

37% of the 871 commissions in our survey were unpaid. Around half of all chamber music was unpaid. These are significant numbers. What factors influence this reality? How can the new music community do better in compensating all composers? These are important questions.


Conversation about pay should be normalized.

Finally, our call for action is for members of our profession–composers, performers, and commissioners–to talk about the economic issues raised by our study. The recent trend toward open discussion of pay needs to come to the field of composition, too. We look forward to a time when discussions about money among new music constituents are not beset with shame, fear, or silence. We want to empower composers and commissioners to have frank conversations about what pay is fair. To do so would shed light on a difficult topic and free us all to work toward improving the new music economy.

We look forward to a time when discussions about money among new music constituents are not beset with shame, fear, or silence.

For a more comprehensive look at the Composer Commission Pay Survey, its methods, limitations, results, and conclusions, we invite readers to visit www.composerpaysurvey.com to read our complete research report (complete with footnotes!). We also welcome correspondence at [email protected] and [email protected]

The Composer Commission Pay Survey was planned, created, and reported on with the help of many individuals, whose assistance we gratefully acknowledge here. For help in envisioning and designing the survey, we thank Ed Harsh, Frank J. Oteri, Scott Winship, Alex Shapiro, Jazmin Muro, Christopher Roberts, Kala Pierson, and Iddo Aharony. For help with analysis, we thank Tim Trenary, Kristofor Voss, and Kris Nadler Dean. For help with editing the final report, we thank Natalie Kirschstein, Carla Aguilar, Kevin Garlow, and John Pippen. Finally, we thank all of the respondents to the survey for their generous time in recording responses.”

Newly Launched Composer Subscription Service Offers Alternative Publishing Model

ScoreStreet, a new website offering automated dissemination, promotion, and payment for self-published classical, jazz, and theatrical composers, launched today. While full file-protected scores and audio clips are available on the site for visitors to look at and listen to freely, performance materials are available for purchase (downloadable PDF or print-on-demand scores and parts, rental of parts for large ensemble works). In addition, permission to use any material on the site for synchronization (e.g. film, TV, advertising), mechanical (e.g. commercial CD recordings), derivative works (e.g. arrangements, samples), or grand rights purposes (e.g. operas, musicals, or ballets) can also be negotiated directly online through automated licenses. Composers who offer their music through ScoreStreet pay a monthly subscription fee but retain full ownership of all of their materials and have the ability to opt out at any time.
Like traditional publishers, ScoreStreet will actively promote its service to customers such as orchestras, opera and dance companies, festivals, conservatories, educators, performers, and music supervisors. Through its ScoreSearch™ interface, ScoreStreet helps users find the works they want and then, by filling out a questionnaire, customers obtain all the rights they need.

Unlike traditional publishing arrangements—in which composers assign part or all of their copyright to a publisher in exchange for the printing and promotion of their music and income from the composer’s music is then divided between the composer and the publisher—ScoreStreet will pay 100% of all net royalty income directly to composers on a quarterly basis and composers do not relinquish any copyrights. The sole expense for composers who choose to be included on the site is a monthly charge of $29.95.

Composers based anywhere in the world are eligible. A few brief online forms are provided for composers to fill out from which personalized landing pages, biographies, works lists, discographies, performance calendars, and news and reviews pages are generated. For each work included on the site, composers can enter descriptions and upload performance materials as well as audio clips, if available. ScoreStreet sets the prices for materials featured on the site and also automates the registration of works with performing rights organizations. For additional fees, composers may also obtain editorial and promotional services, as well as assistance with negotiating commissioning and collaboration agreements on an as-needed basis.

According to ScoreStreet’s CEO Marc D. Ostrow (himself a composer as well as an intellectual property rights attorney who was formerly a senior attorney with BMI and the general manager of the New York office of the publisher Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.), the goal behind creating such a platform for new music is to eliminate the gate-keepers and put composers and consumers directly in control. “ScoreStreet levels the playing field by providing more composers worldwide with professional music publishing services and by giving customers instant access to a varied and growing catalog of cutting-edge new music.”

If and when composers decide they no longer want to be affiliated with the site, they are able to take all of their works with them. If composers cease paying the subscription fee, all of their materials are automatically taken down from the site after a grace period. Currently composers can sign up for a free 30-day trial subscription. Members of ASCAP and the American Composers Forum will receive a 10% discount off their monthly fee and these discounts are combined for members of both organizations.
ScoreStreet was developed and is owned and run by Ostrow; Stephen Culbertson, president of Subito Music Publishing and chairman of ASCAP’s Special Classification Committee; and Stephen Rauch, a former senior executive at the Hal Leonard Corporation. Their developer partner is Greg Williams, CEO of Engage Connective Technologies. (Ed Note: NMBx’s FJO was a beta-tester for the site.)

(—from the press release)

Business As Usual

The words “happy new year” have been on the lips of many folks over the last two weeks. People the world over are apparently habituated to wishing others better luck during the next circumduction of the terrestrial orb we inhabit, ostensibly to counterbalance feelings of disconsolation about the previous one. I’ve never thought much about this time of year, other than whether or not to pursue working on December 31; but, since I found myself composing this column on January 2 (and into January 3), I felt compelled to probe into the question of why January 1 is the circumscribed default reset for so many aspects of our lives. To be circumspect, the results of my reconnaissance have given me an understanding of the painful historical circumstance behind the circumvection of our circumundulating wishes circumvallating the date. Although it’s merely a matter of tradition and ritual, as a practitioner of American improvised music, I might switch my personal reset date to March 25.
A personal tradition of mine is to reflect on previous posts on NMBx (especially my own) to circumstantiate the discussion of a current topic. I would like to repeat the ritual by referring to David Liebman’s eulogy of drummer-composer-lawyer Pete “La Roca” Simms from November 30. In that post, I made note of how Liebman hadn’t examined La Roca’s track record in the world of law. He did, however, scrutinize an important and on-going development in the American music industry: the shift of jazz pedagogy from its traditional paradigm of mentor-apprentice in a subaltern community to one of affiliation with a mainstream academic institution. Although the traditional relationship is still in play, it now is ever-increasingly inclusive of an educational institution regularly employing the mentor. While this development has good and bad sides—intensive and comprehensive study of canon (“good”) versus lack of analysis of canon suited to individual strengths and tastes (“bad”), I’d like to look at a few ways the paradigm shift brings the two cultures of the jazz community and the jazz academy into conflict and, hopefully, resolution. I’ll start by describing an example of cross-disciplinary conflict from (1) inside the music’s pedagogical milieu and (2) one from outside of it.

(1) A few months ago, an enterprising student of jazz studies posted on a message board what was intended as helpful advice to other students for researching movies and television shows that impact their analyses of soundtracks and how jazz musicians are portrayed visually, since not all graduate students, especially those working nights, have the time or resources to go to movies or record television shows. The student found an app which allows one to watch, but not download, them for free and on demand over the internet. (I’ve tried it and, although it’s not perfect, it works.) But another student took umbrage with the idea of not paying a fee for access to cable TV or going to a movie, insisting that denying profit to their distribution network is tantamount to bootlegging. There was a rather heated exchange that lasted several weeks and attracted protracted arguments from other students that included rather personal slights on the character of the student making the original post. Fortunately, the inappropriateness of the extreme invective was eloquently addressed by its recipient and the thread died out. I assume that a professor also dealt with the matter during a classroom lecture.

(2) I recently performed with pianist Sarah Jane Cion, which was mentioned in a previous post. (In response to one comment: it was a success, although the turnout could have been better.) Cion is married to one of today’s finest bassists, Phil Palombi (I’m pretty sure I’m his sub), and her music is particularly challenging for the bass, so rehearsal is a necessity. One of the cool things about rehearsing with Sarah is that I get to hang out with her kids (who are gangs of fun) and Phil. We rehearsed twice: on the Monday before and the afternoon of the concert. At the first rehearsal, Phil told me he was going to be performing with pianist Don Friedman at the Miami Jazz Festival and we naturally expressed our mutual regret that we’d miss each other’s performances. At the second rehearsal, during a break for coffee and magic tricks (their daughter is prestidigitating these days), a fellow who had been raking leaves in their back yard came into the kitchen. When he pulled back his hoodie, I saw that it was Phil. Thinking that he was going to change and go to the airport, I started to ask, “Did you guys drive back here when you saw the sign marked ‘Washington, D.C.’?” But he beat me to the punch and told me that the festival had been cancelled on 36 hours notice and now he was doing baby-sitter duties. It seems that the presenter of the concert hadn’t seen enough advance ticket sales and pulled the plug on the event. Of course, there would be lots of haggling to pay the contracted artists pennies-on-the-dollar while, in the meantime, sidemen like Phil would have to wait for the money they planned to bring home.

The most obvious conflict is in example (1): that watching videos posted on the internet is not illegal, while the so-called “unauthorized” downloading of them (which is considered a form of bootlegging) is. I used quotation marks because the internet has rendered the concept of authority somewhat ambiguous. Once upon a time, the publisher of sheet music was the authority. Later it was the company that recorded and distributed the music. Authority is now shifting to whoever can stream a sound file, but rarely were, and are, these concerns inclusive of the artists’ wishes. (More than once I have unsuccessfully tried to get YouTube videos that include my image-and-likeness and that I never “authorized” taken off of their website.) Another aspect of conflict arose when a student posted how fortunate it is that “successful” artists, like one whose performances are readily available for free on YouTube, get enough money from sales to act philanthropically toward Hurricane Sandy relief (a reference which didn’t include anyone performing at the Jazz for Hurricane Sandy Relief concert), yet watching free videos on the internet fosters trickle-down opportunism that exacerbates the suffering of humanity. I was reminded of my NewMusicBox debut in an issue examining the topic of major vs. independent labels. In that edition, pianist-composer-educator-mentor-producer-presenter Connie Crothers took off the emperor’s clothes of CD sales in the music industry.

When considering whether to record for a commercial record company or form your own, any musician might consider that any commercial release is paid for entirely by the musician. As good as it gets is an advance on royalties. Then, after the record company has recouped its production costs, the musician can receive, perhaps, 10% of any money that comes in from sales, providing that the company is honest. Besides that, unless you lease your music, the record company owns it. They can take it out of print. They can refuse to release it at all. When you own your own production, you have creative control, and you can get 100% of the money that comes in. The major problem, of course, is distribution.

An essential element in the distribution of cultural artifacts like movies and CDs is advertising. In When the Music Stops (a. k. a. Who Killed Classical Music), Norman Lebrecht describes how the Franz Liszt mythos was promulgated by an advance-man who arrived in a city days or weeks before Liszt to tell anyone he would meet about the pianistic phenomenon’s impending performance. (It’s no news that Richard Wagner shared his father-in-law’s propensity for shameless self-promotion.) Today, an effective way to promote one’s work is to make some of your music available for free. This practice has heavily impacted how American music is disseminated along the information highway as artists use the internet as the advance-man. Saxophonist-composer-educator-philosopher-producer-independent scholar Steve Coleman has been doing this for decades (in fact, most of Coleman’s listed self-produced output is available for free), while drummer-composer-educator-philosopher-mentor Marvin “Bugalu” Smith takes the approach to another level: he and his entourage of students will bring a mobile recording unit (24-track with video) to wherever he performs, record it, and then put it up on YouTube. Occasionally a problem can arise with unsuspecting sidemen, as in the case when I hadn’t been informed of Bugalu’s methodology beforehand and blocked the recording. (The music was so powerful, though, that I wish I hadn’t.) While this practice might seem intuitively counterproductive from the point of view of a paradigm that places ultimate value on profit margins, it is important to state that music and the creation of artifact are practices that predate the concept of profit and that their intrinsic value is found in their reception.
This modern concept of profit created the conflict of example (2) when the presenter eschewed the burden of risk that is a traditional part of the entrepreneurial role. According to one source, the presenter’s trepidation was due to his own bad planning. Instead of choosing a modest venue that could be sold out, one was chosen that seated almost 20 times the advance sales, which were low due to inadequate publicity. Another factor is that the festival would have arrived on the heels of the controversial Miami Nice Jazz Festival held at the end of October. Although I don’t know what the costs of the hall associated with the defunct festival were, I know the artists are demanding their fees and are prepared to take him to court to get them. There was a possibility that the advance ticket sales would have been matched at the door and that the artists might have returned some of their fees in support of the “failed” event (I’m thinking that an event that happens hasn’t really failed) and that the losses would have been nominal. But even if the artists settled for pennies on the dollar and the money saved from the rental of the venue and whatever airline tickets had yet to be booked balance out the deposit on the venue, the idea of another Miami Jazz Festival has been tainted. Hopefully lessons were learned and next year’s Miami Jazz Festival won’t fail, but the cross-disciplinary conflict between presenter and artist, one that would deny the artist his or her promised income and the presenter with reasonably cut losses, is a tradition of the American music-industry paradigm and one that has made it difficult, if not impossible, for an artist to succeed based on his or her talent alone. The culture of adversarialism that has become rooted in our culture to the point that embezzling the retirement accounts of the elderly has become honorable has infected the music industry in ways that are legendary. The nearly ubiquitous practice of misappropriating the authorship of music is the tip of a gargantuan music-culture iceberg.

I believe that reception is at the heart of the issue of these examples. How audiences receive a movie or a musical performance is an expression of cultural stratification. Whether or not we feel that direct sales of their works is more ethical than viewing them second-hand for little or no cash outlay has a lot to do with how we’re raised. My own experience was of a middle-class (as defined in the 1960s) upbringing that, due to an automobile accident, changed to living on the government dole in the ‘70s. During that time, I went from movies and concerts and nights-on-the-town to food stamps and Medicaid and scheduled trips to soup kitchens. I find nothing wrong with getting one’s music wherever, whenever, and however one can, as long as the primary concern is to hear the music. It’s when the primary goal is to be cheap about it that one suffers. One must prioritize whether or not one pays market price according to one’s station. The philosophy goes to making music as well. If one has the resources to pay top dollar for a custom-made instrument, one should. But great, important, and lasting music has been made on machine-made instruments that were not acquired at their full retail price. (Bird didn’t play a Mauriat!)

Just in the next few days I’ll be performing in settings where the artist takes all the risk for presenting their music as well as some that don’t. This Sunday, I’ll be leading a band featuring virtuoso trumpeters Herb Robertson and Lex Samu, trombonist David Taylor, and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock at the COMA series at ABC No Rio, a Spartan pass-the-hat venue that has been in business for decades in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. On Saturday, I’ll be performing in vocalist-poet Fay Victor’s “Herbie Nichols Sung” project (fitting as I’m writing this on Thursday, Herbie Nichols’s birthday) with saxophonist Michael Attias, pianist Anthony Coleman, and drummer Rudy Royston at iBeam in Brooklyn. At this venue the artist rents the space. (Victor is presenting a series of events there this month.) However, tonight (Friday) I will be performing with pianist David Lopato and drummer Tyshawn Sorey at the Kitano jazz club. This venue, like Studio 100, where I perform regularly with vocalist Melissa Hamilton, actually pays the artist a modest stipend. The difference here is that ABC NoRio and iBeam are run by musicians and Kitano and Studio 100 are corporately sponsored venues. Interestingly, it’s the artist-presented venues that, in the long run, offer more financial security to the artists who perform there. By allowing the artist to retain all of the cover charges (called donations) and record their music for their own use, the margin of profit can tip in the artists’ favor. Management allows artists to perform based on its assessment of their artistic merit while the fixed-wage paradigm of the corporate sponsored venues demand that money is the deciding factor and, therefore, the fixed-wage is always on the low side.

It’s hard to say whether or not this is where the element of risk should reside. It seems that the nature of the business is that risk alternates between the artist and presenter. Of course, there are collectives, like New Artists, that pool the resources of their artists to better promote their work, and there are networking festivals, like MIDEM, that ostensibly exist to benefit the industry as a whole. But, paradoxically, it seems that as long as the primary focus is to present the music, and not to rake in the money, it’s music business as usual. When it’s the other way around, though, and people get greedy that the bottom falls out and things fail.