CC by Superlekker on Flickr

There is never enough money in the arts. Equally problematic, the money we do have is not always used very efficiently. In the United States, most arts funding outside of ticket sales comes through philanthropy, whether by individual donors, private foundations, or nonprofit advocacy groups. While individual donors don’t usually have the clout to sway an entire sector, the larger arts funders can and do. As such, they shoulder greater responsibility for the financial inefficiencies that affect the arts—not out of malice, but simply because many a well-meaning initiative has relied on accepted wisdom that isn’t actually all that wise. Now, there are indisputably organizations conducting innovative work. But doing philanthropy well is really damn hard, and the bar could certainly stand to be raised.

Philanthropy is about 90% how and 10% what—it’s not enough to have an endowment and good intentions. Read on ››

By Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When you think about it, the concept of music notation is pretty weird. Imagine if Andy Warhol had received commissions not for paintings, but rather for paint-by-number templates, to be realized by each art interpreter on their own canvases. Of course, we all know why music developed a notation system, but a recent email exchange with French composer Sasha Zamler-Carhart reminded me of the importance of not taking our practices for granted. Assumptions are baked into every aspect of music notation, often layered one on top of the other, and they color the kinds of music we can make.

Any notation system is about trade-offs: certain elements are emphasized over others for the sake of not overwhelming our human minds with their finite capacity for detail. After all, you could theoretically employ waveform print-outs as music notation, but that’s way too much detail to be useful in most performance contexts. By necessity then, the priorities of your practice inform its notation. But as soon as your notation exists, it throws its priorities right back in your face and informs your practice, more or less to the same extent. Read on ››

Soprano Sarah Kirsch

Congratulations to soprano Sarah Kirsch, who has advanced to the finals won the first prize in Canada’s prestigious Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition, where she’s singing two movements from my piece Sensational Revolution in Medicine.

Check out the video of Sarah’s semifinal performance; Sensational Revolution closes the set, starting at 37:20. She’s prepared a fantastic interpretation, complete with faux Russian accent.

You can also tune in tomorrow, Sunday May 4, to watch the finals live. The performance starts at 1:30pm Central.

Factory spewing music notes

Not everyone buys my claim that entrepreneurship is impossible in art, so I want to spill a few more pixels on this question. Whether or not you agree with me, you’ve got to admit that entrepreneurship hasn’t been a winning formula for artists as a whole—unsurprisingly so when you examine the fundamental characteristics of both disciplines. Art is infinitely scalable, communal, inherently subjective, and useless by design. Entrepreneurship is scarcity-based, individualistic, inherently objective, and pragmatic by design. Both are creative activities, but of opposite types.

When you look more closely you’ll notice that “art entrepreneurship” is and has always been about art technology, not art itself. Read on ››

Violinist busking, photo CC by meltsley on Flickr

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 on ››