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. (more…)
Young Entrepreneurs Forum 2012, CC by US Embassy, on Flickr
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
I’ve noticed that every month or so I run across another article lauding an ambitious group of young chamber musicians for forging their own non-traditional path: playing in nightclubs and bars, using non-standard setups, playing amplified, writing/commissioning all-original repertoire, etc. This is what indie rock bands have done for decades, hence the oft-used labels “indie classical” or “alt classical”. And I think it’s great that classically trained musicians are doing this—what better proof of the vibrancy of chamber music?
But… most of the articles I’ve seen focus either on (1) “Isn’t it great what those kids are doing?” or (2) “Does this qualify as classical music?” I personally think those are two of the least interesting questions to ask about the “indie rock”-ification of chamber music. There’s a lot to learn by taking a critical look at this trend, weighing the pros and cons, and trying to figure out what this means for music and musicians at large. (more…)