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Why Musicians Aren’t Paid More Fairly

music vs. latte meme

Periodically I see these memes on Facebook: “If surgeons were paid like musicians…,” or “Hire a plumber for the same service and we’ll play for half that.” I sympathize, but this is the wrong approach. Moral finger-wagging has never won any argument, ever, and if it were to work in music it would have decades ago. So how do we actually solve this problem of musicians’ lack of economic clout?

First, we need to understand what’s actually going on. The moralists cling to the delusion that it’s just a matter of education, but even musicians can’t decide what fair compensation is: I’ve had the exact same budget called “extravagant” by one jury panel and “overly ambitious” by another. And to throw salt on the wound, moralizing also hurts our collective bargaining power. Take the common story of the lowballing nightclub owner who gets chewed out by an indignant jobbing musician. The lecture doesn’t make the owner any less likely to lowball the next musician. In fact, it’s the opposite: you’ve just shown him that he has all the power in the relationship. Read more ›

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Most Artists Don’t Really Get Creativity

Too many artists embrace a mystical, new-agey approach to creativity that is completely counterproductive. There’s nothing magical about being creative; it’s just something you train your brain to do through practice. It’s part biology and part routine, and Chuck Close perhaps sums it up most eloquently when he says, “Just show up and get to work.” The way I write music is not mathematical by any stretch of the imagination, and I rely heavily on intuition, but fairytales are not required.

I wonder sometimes if new-agey, feel-good attitudes in the arts are simply the unfortunate byproduct of an artistic temperament: a sort of mental ground hum that comes from plugging the creative mind into the same neurons that power other human emotions. Maybe so, but when I read something like Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, it becomes very clear that the world’s great artists are overwhelmingly immune to any such interference. They have strongly engrained routines, yes, and they may guard those to the point of superstition. They may also lead highly religious or mystical lives outside of art. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the creative act itself, great artists are extremely down to earth. Read more ›

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Classical isn’t dead and stop comparing it to pop already

Slate’s Mark Vanhoenacker published a statistics-laden (and admittedly sympathetic) “requiem” on the death of classical music last week. True, if you look at classical music through the lens of pop music, you might be forgiven for seeing a ER patient gasping for breath on a Beyonce-embossed hospital bed. But it’s been a long time since classical and pop music have competed for the same prizes, and that’s the problem with his argument: Vanhoenacker fundamentally misunderstands what classical music is about in the 21st century. Classical isn’t the same cultural beast as pop—not anymore anyway. It might not ever be again, and that doesn’t matter in the least for its survival. Read more ›

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Why do the Rich Support the Arts?

Why exactly do rich people give money to the arts? If you think about it, the two are strange bedfellows: wealth usually begets conservatism while the arts tilt overwhelmingly liberal. Granted, there are certainly rich liberals, but I think there’s more to it than that—after all, some of the biggest arts donors in the USA are also some of the biggest backers of the Tea Party, and red states are significantly more philanthropic than blue ones. Why would conservatives give money to liberal causes like art?

You could simply say that rich conservatives support art because some of them enjoy art. Or, that since the rich have the most money, donors will by definition come from that group. But that’s an incomplete answer, and it doesn’t match what we see in philanthropy statistics. Among high net worth donors, the arts is the #3 most widespread category in terms of charitable giving, just after education and basic needs—but ahead of health and religion. For non-wealthy donors, religion is the #1 most common recipient and art doesn’t make it into the rankings. Read more ›

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Form in Music: Composer Interviews

Music on Main composer-in-residence Jocelyn Morlock recently interviewed me and a series of other composers, ranging from Louis Andriessen to David Lang, Gary Kulesha, and Kaija Saariaho. The result is her fascinating Compendium of Ideas About Form in Music, which I would encourage you to read in full.

In Morlock’s words:

I asked some of the leading composers of our time to tell us their thoughts on form in music: what form means to them, how they structure their music, if/how they make formal plans, thoughts on repetition, audible structure from the listener’s viewpoint, and how their ideas on form have changed over the course of their careers.

Her narrative weaves together bits and pieces of the composers’ responses. She also includes the full responses at the end, though they’re a little hard to navigate, so I’ve reprinted my answers here as well: Read more ›

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Entrepreneurship Can’t Save Art

Business presentation with powerpoint and pie graph

We live at a time that prizes entre­pre­neur­ship above all else, and this is bad for art. Not that entre­pre­neurs are out to destroy the arts, it’s just that artistic and business innovation are fundamentally antagonistic. Yes, entrepreneurs have unquestionably created value for the arts, but the actual business is always one step removed from the actual art. At best, entrepreneurship provides stuff for artists to sell and then gets the hell out of the way. At worst, entrepreneurship turns art and artists into disposable commodities.

Unfortunately, our societal love affair with entrepreneurship has confused this relationship. Suddenly all artists are expected to be business innovators, as if coming up with a marketing plan were the self-evident first step in the artistic process. Read more ›

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Profile at National Music Centre

The National Music Centre‘s Nathan Schmidt interviewed me recently and put together an interesting profile. The discussion goes into depth on some my influences and philosophies about composition, as well as my thoughts on the role of classical music in today’s society and how it connects to other types of art. Check it out:

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Accessibility is a Dead End

Dead End Sign

For decades now, classical music proponents have tried to make their organizations more accessible in order to attract audiences. This has always been a misguided and ineffective technique, and in fact I think it’s part of the reason we’ve seen shrinking interest in classical music even as other “high art” forms gain status and popularity.

The failure of classical music versus other art forms really hit home for me recently when I read this article: a young, cultured non-musician goes to hear an orchestral premiere of a composer he knows in another context and grapples to try to understand the music. He feels he “should” get it, but his lack of experience with classical music prevents him from enjoying the performance. If making music accessible were relevant this wouldn’t have happened Read more ›

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Crowdfunding vs. Philanthropy: Which is Better?

Pile of American bills

Some friends of mine were having an interesting Facebook discussion around Ellen Cushing’s recent article in the East Bay Express, about crowdfunding, philanthropy, and what the young and well-to-do of Silicon Valley mean for the future of the arts. The issue was whether or not crowdfunding was replacing traditional arts philanthropy and what this means for the long-term viability of arts organizations. Kickstarter campaigns are great for early-stage artists, but they couldn’t reasonably sustain something like the San Francisco Symphony, or even smaller chamber organizations like SFCMP or SFSound. So if young people with a lot of money are eschewing the traditional philanthropic route in favor of crowdfunding, what does that mean for arts organizations?

Nothing. Crowdfunding is a new category of fundraising, and it draws a different set of people for reasons unrelated to traditional philanthropy—each addresses a separate “need” for the donor that the other doesn’t. The reduction in philanthropic support for the arts right now is not tied to crowdfunding, but rather to larger shifts in cultural priorities. Read more ›

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Working for Free: Helpful or Harmful?

Woman holding will-work-for sign

Ta-Nehisi Coates had an interesting article recently in the Atlantic about being asked, as an emerging journalist, to write for free. He got his leg up in the industry that way, and he makes the argument that there’s no ethical problem with asking people to write without paying them (as in, for the exposure). Obviously, there are strong feelings on both sides of this issue, and I found myself pondering the question anew in relationship to composing, though really it holds true for any artistic endeavor.

The more I think about it, it seems you can make an ethical argument on either side of the debate depending on if you see yourself primarily as an entrepreneur or a professional. That’s because the arts are neither businesses nor professions in the true sense of either word, and neither model fits that well—whatever path you choose, it’s going to be a compromise. In my own case, I always try to get paid and I usually succeed, but if it’s a project I really care about, I don’t let a failed grant application stop me. Read more ›

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