Back when I was working for the American Music Center, one of the most common and maddening riddles that would come up with respect to our members was “what does it mean to be a professional composer?” The normal sense of “professional” implies earning one’s living from one’s work in that field; but only a tiny percentage of concert music composers are actually able to do this from year to year on the strength of commissions and royalties alone. Similarly, most jazz musicians do not earn a living from gigs and record sales; many of them teach for supplemental income or hold odd jobs. Yet qualitatively, there is no doubt that many of these musicians are highly capable, extensively trained professionals who take their artistry very seriously. I consider myself a professional composer, even though I spend relatively little time composing compared to other things and earn barely enough money from it to cover my textbook budget for the year. The majority of composers out there fit a similar profile, including some of the most ingenuous creators today.

Let’s think for a moment about why this might be the case. There aren’t a lot of full-time, salaried staff positions for composers—essentially none, unless you count the advertising industry (and even then it’s heavily commission-based) and university faculty positions. What little money organizations do have available to pay musicians for creating new work tends to be concentrated in the hands of a very few highly successful individuals, because only those with established names and reputations can really help drive sales or put butts in seats. To put it another way, the market—even taking subsidization from charitable sources into account—only really supports a limited number of serious musicians, i.e., the ones at the very top. It supports those few quite generously, to be perfectly honest (I’m sure Lorin Maazel isn’t complaining about taking home $2.5 million a year), but once you get past the very top of the ladder, the pickings become very slim indeed. Barriers to entry for new artists are low; competition is so fierce as to practically commoditize the music, making a middle-class existence as a non-superstar composer an extremely difficult goal to achieve and highly vulnerable once it has been attained.

In an industry with so many undesirable attributes, an economist would expect suppliers (i.e., the composers) to exit—stop composing and do something else with their lives—until the overall supply was reduced enough to affect the overall dynamics of the field. This is especially the case since the costs of stopping (barriers to exit) are essentially zero. And yet, what we see is the exact opposite. It’s an accepted truth in the new music world that there are more composers today than at any previous point in history. Music schools are churning out graduates at record rates, and new departments and conservatories are established on a regular basis. Not only are there more artists than ever before, but because of the intense competition and extensive training available, the quality of those artists (or at least those at the top of their field) is arguably at an all-time high as well. Meanwhile, technology and the Internet have combined to make it very easy not only to create content like this, but also to ensure its ongoing survival in the public sphere even at an extremely low level of visibility. Thus, new content not only competes with all of the other material newly created by this unprecedented population of artists, but also the entire back catalogue of recorded material created in the past—a collection that can only increase in size and scope over time. Which is all to say that it’s a completely amazing time to be a composer, as long as you don’t care about making any money or getting more than a few dozen people to listen to your music.

One thing that’s become clear to me since starting business school is that composition is far from the only industry that is experiencing some variation of this phenomenon. I blogged last month about commonalities between symphony orchestras and the newspaper industry: the Internet is driving an explosion of interest in “citizen journalism,” yet full-time, salaried journalist positions are steadily disappearing across the country. Meanwhile, journalism schools are thriving, dutifully preparing students for jobs that don’t exist. We see similar patterns across all of the arts, including dance, theater, visual arts, literature, film, and so on, not to mention commercial analogues of these fields (such as the mainstream music industry). Generally speaking, it’s a good bet that almost any endeavor involving content creation is experiencing more freelancing, lower average salaries, and an intense level of competition for the good jobs.

That’s why I expect that we are going to start seeing more and more of the kind of “semi-professional” approach and cost structure that Fractured Atlas is using in its RFP for online courses. Such an approach is aimed squarely at the middle of the long tail of content creators in a given field: bypassing the superstars and their reputation-inflated price tags/egos, while employing incentive and filtering systems to identify the best of the rest and secure their services at a considerable savings. It sounds coldly capitalistic, but I actually think it could be a very good thing for the field in that it fights the increasing stratification between the superstars and the nobodies. It helps to create a middle ground where it’s possible to make something doing what you love even if you’re not famous. Given the realities discussed above, would that not be preferable for those who don’t already have it made?

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  • Erik

    I can second your notions on the glut of live acts, having toured nationally with an act myself for the last five years. It’s easier than ever to self-promote and self-produce, but harder than ever to feel like there’s a “big break” right around the corner. The death of record companies as we know it has drastically changed the industry, to the point where our current manager (and others I know) is showing almost no interest in producing new studio work, choosing instead to focus on our live show. This happens to work well for us – we’re instrumentalists and improvisers as well as songwriters, and we love playing live. It does, however, create a daunting outlook for ever being able to create a passive income stream. We just got back from festival in Illinois produced by a band that’s looking forward to their first touring break in 18 years (!).

    David Byrne has some great thoughts on this:

    He’s genuinely excited by the prospect of live music becoming reprioritized. All the rest of us working musicians may as well be excited too. With the possible exception of TV placement, it’s the way things are now, and if we love what we do, we’ll have to embrace it.