A Question As Old As Time

How do we make a living as musicians? Jon Silpayamanant poses the question "What is a 'full-time musician' anyway?" after reading a little blog skimmed from an innocent Quora question "What Kind of Stress do Full-Time Composers Experience." The writer, Andrew Watts, focused on stresses that, to me, were pretty generic--nothing he wrote isn't experienced in many other jobs. I came up with my own list, which I'll post later, but let's just say that my answers fed less into stereotypes ("why don't people understand me or my music?") and more into realities unique to the situation.

But that's not the point of this post. This relates to another series I started last week with a question posed to everyone in this discussion of current trends in post-secondary music education: what do those two words being tossed around so carelessly actually mean. You know the two; entrepreneurship and sustainability.

This post is about the first, and ties directly into the idea of a "full-time musician."

Over at Mae Mai, Jon's blog, I wrote the following long answer, copied here for ease. 

Some of the interesting questions I think also need approached include: Is this really a new problem? What have musicians done historically "to make ends meet" while still feeling artistically fulfilled? What do universities need to adopt to help musicians succeed at their chosen endeavors?

One argument I've seen (and that I'm prone to as well) has to do with the challenges of the literature. For instance, let's say you wanted to have an Apocalyptica type career. All the cellist in the group (not sure about the drummer) are classically trained first. Having been to their shows, I can say pretty confidently that their arrangements and originals aren't going to match the level of difficulty of, say, Shosti's cello concerto No. 1. From a performance standpoint, then, do we teach the most technically difficult literature, or what the students want to learn? Or vice versa?

Or is the answer, as it so often lays, in the middle (sometimes I sound like a centrist. I'm really not)? I think the programs like Alternate Strings are fantastic, and it should be part of a universities job to get students to experience as many different styles as possible. With our good ole alma mater, this doesn't just me "world," "pop," or "outsider" styles, but also modern styles (as I said before, we didn't even have a new music group when I was in school, something that at the time I didn't think was odd, but now after 7 more years in academia, I can see makes absolutely no sense). 

I think the idea of a "full-time musician" or "composer" is definitely misleading. There are very few times, historically, when musicians can claim to have a single job. Bach wrote music, was the organist, and taught lessons. Mozart performed extensively, conducted his own operas, taught lessons (rather poorly and infrequently) while begging for money from his father between commissions. Haydn was under the employ of the Esterhauzy's, composed, led the orchestra, and taught lessons. Beethoven (more in his youth), performed extensively, was a concert promoter (he staged many works by Mozart and Haydn), and taught lessons. 
The question is are university preparing us even for these "traditional" roles? 

 I think these are pretty important questions to think about. What has a "full-time musician" ever just had a single job? In all of the historical study we go through as classical musicians, not until the 19th century do we even start to see musicians really making it in one specific job. Listz, after all, was a performer and composer, as adept at improvisation and on the fly transcriptions as he was orchestrating (ok, that's debatable, but I think he was a fine orchestrator. Maybe not on the level of his improvisation though). Paganini wrote etudes (which sell quite well). Brahms led a girls choir.

What am I getting at? Historically, there weren't many people doing just "one job" as a musician. There were few "full-time composers," and that's a trend that remains to this day. Those that are the closest are film composers, for instance Hans Zimmer...Of course, Zimmer is as adept in a studio as he is in front of music (maybe more so, considering he reportedly used over 1000 tracks in Cubase for Inception). John Williams also tours as a conductor...Well, seems I'm blowing holes in that idea.

It's important to realize that musicians have always had multifarious roles. The roles haven't really changed, but the implementation has. Even the more "traditional" full time roles, such as orchestral performer, have become just one of several performance jobs (orchestra, and if it's not a major one, two or more orchestras, chamber groups, teaching). On top of that, the rise of technology makes it easier for groups to disperse their work, which has led to a huge growth in the recording industry, outside the major companies. Small studios are popping up everywhere, and recording programs are becoming big money-makers for universities.

Every musician is now able to put up a website relatively pain-free thanks to engines such as Wordpress. Music can be shared via Soundcloud, Bandcamp, YouTube, and Vimeo. Technology is everywhere, aiding young musicians in creating their own personalized careers. And, yet, are we always taught these skills?

Writing music is way many have expanded their roles, be it in the "classical" world or any other. And yet there are schools that don't teach composition to everyone outside of basic part-writing exercises. There are reasons the Beatles sold billions while Chumbawumba was a one-hit wonder, just as there's something to learn from Monteverdi, Telemann, Boccherini, and Bruckner, names that were important in their day, and in some circles forgotten (Singers remember their Monteverdi, but can all instrumentalists say the same? What of Telemann outside flute players, and trombonists looking to steal some more literature? Boccherini outside string players? And Bruckner as anything other than a footnote to Wagner, and the "loser" of the battle with Brahms? and what of Gin Blossoms, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Dishwalla vs. Nirvana?). There are skills involved, as well as innovation.

I, again, have no answers, just some food for thought. We first need to divorce ourselves from the idea that we are facing a unique problem. There's nothing unique about being an entrepreneur as a musician. It's a tale as old as time. But we do need to see how the industry has changed, and make an active effort to help teach students the skills needed.

I will say that I fall into the trap talking about the "degradation of composition" very quickly. However, I feel my arguments usually have to do with a combination of craft and aesthetics--there are lots of lazy, unskilled composers. And there is music I do not like. I do not like a great deal of post-minimalist music these days. Most of it just sounds incredibly uninnovative, rehashing the same ideas as the "greats." However, I can still appreciate excellent craft when I hear it. It's when I'm presented with art that isn't crafted well, without thought or care, that I have an issue.

It's like the scene in (Untitled) when they go to the studio of the bright new artist, and one of the pieces is a sticky note on a wall. Another is a blinking light-bulb. It was hailed as "innovative and different." But, just like with entrepreneurship, this is just a collective forgetting of history. Is a sticky note innovative post Duchamp?

That's the other big side of being an entrepreneur--being innovative. Black House and the Kansas City Electronic Music and Arts Alliance did that when we presented six brand new chamber operas, all with electronic components. Was a night of chamber operas new? No--I was a part of Remarkable Theater Brigades first run of Opera Shorts back in '09, a series that's a mainstay at Carnegie Hall now. Were the operas all groundbreaking in their music? Mine definitely wasn't.

But, for where we were (Kansas City), this hadn't been done. Producing new operas was a rare thing. And producing operas with electronics is still very niche within niche within niche. For our place, in our time, it was innovative. It sold out. The same types of experiences can be produced anywhere, but ardent artists.

But that night couldn't have been pulled off without supreme talent and practice--we had musicians that, mostly, had advanced degrees and lots of work in the area, musicians that had experience in pits, playing new music, singing large scale operatic roles, designing and costuming operas, and directing. We had a large cohort of people working to create as professional an experience as possible. If the quality had been poor, it would not have "succeeded" just because it was innovative.

It's all about that balance--what do musicians need to know to succeed as an independent musician as far as business sense, marketing, etc., and what do they need to succeed as far as skills as a musician? The best musicians sell some records, but not the most. Innovative musicians that lack skills sell some records, but not the most.

Then there's Radiohead, who is considered innovative in the pop world (arguable, of course), and have great skills as musicians, amazing marketing skills, and know how to work the business end. Or Phillip Glass. or Yo Yo Ma.

So, colleges, ask the question: how do we balance all these skills in a single degree? And can we?

Yo Yo Ma and Radiohead (formed in 1985...think about that) were not made overnight, or even after 4 years. And while students should have the skills to start on a career after undergrad, to expect a 4 year degree to prepare you to be an entrepreneur is fallacy.

However, we can do a much better job.


silpayamanant said...

Going back to your John Williams comments--Could John Williams have focused solely on his composition career rather than a multi-faceted career in composing, conducting, classical guitar performing? He likely could, but maybe he doesn't want to do that and it's rewarding for him to do all the other musical activities. Hell, he could probably sit on the royalities for his film scores alone if he really wanted too--why bother composing non-film score music, right?

I think the fact that he can and does do other things gets hidden behind his level of fame (e.g. "He only gets asked to do these other things because everyone knows who John Freaking Williams is") and helps us to forget that networking is the single most useful skill you can develop as an entrepreneur for opening up opportunities!

Sure, he's famous, but part of that fame and success was built on the networking he did early in his career as with anyone else. You don't get gigs of any sort if no one knows you or what you can do!

John Chittum said...

entirely true--my use of John Williams was a bit off. He could, probably, live off one income. However, it's also important to note that Williams conducted the orchestra during the recording process for Star Wars and his other film scores.

It'd be interesting to see if he would have gotten those early gigs if he couldn't work in those other areas.

And it's definitely a lot about networking and jumping on opportunities. Williams, and many film (and video game) composers are amazing at this aspect. I did a blog about the importance of getting out and making these contacts


silpayamanant said...

That's an important point and something that would make a composer more marketable--being able to conduct your own works, especially in a studio situation, could mean the difference between getting the composing gig and not!

Eventually, getting your name out there isn't just a matter of what you primarily do, but what folks know you do. I can't count the number of times I've spoken to folks about being a cellist and having them discover the other things I do in the conversation which they actually had a need for.

Same for folks who know me and are aware of the other musical activities I do--they almost never have anything to do with my being a cellist.

Networking is probably the single most important thing anyone can do to get work.