The current economic crisis has uncovered what composers of new music already knew: there are deep and serious flaws in how our society compensates artists, especially musicians. The short of it is that free market capitalism has prevailed in the public mind so that music is now understood to be a commodity – it is worth precisely what someone will pay for it. And government subsidies – once a way to provide for continuity in the arts – are now under attack as a needless luxury given the present dire economic circumstances.

So, like pork bellies and gasoline, those in the musical arts must conform to the inflexible laws of supply and demand. Too many musicians? Well too bad because that means the supply exceeds the demand and therefore wages for players must necessarily drop – ask the folks in Louisville or Detroit how that turns out. Can’t cover your symphony orchestra expenses Philadelphia? Well then you’d better program something that will attract a bigger paying audience – this is not the time to experiment with something new. You say your digital music offered on-line produces an infinite supply of product with almost zero distribution costs? Then the capitalist system decrees that it isn’t worth anything.

It has gotten so the odds of a musician leaving the university and playing for a living wage are about the same as for football and basketball players. As a result, cultural life suffers and composers and players can expect to receive little for their efforts to create and present new works. And it all goes back to treating music like a commodity – you sell your art for what the market is willing to pay and hope that it will be enough. For all but a select few, however, it is not enough. So we do other things – teach, work an unrelated day job or simply suffer.

So what is the answer? We must decouple our art from the capitalist markets. No one should have to try to live on what the world is willing to pay for his art. How to do this? I think the Occupy Movement is on the right track but the real answer is to recover the wealth that has been flowing out of the working and middle classes and into the 1%. The productivity of the American worker has increased 400% since 1950, but this has not resulted in higher (real) wages nor shorter hours for you and me. Rather that wealth has been captured by the top1%, and here is how they did it:

If productivity increases by 50%, for example, because of computer automation and the Internet, then instead of paying two workers the same wages for half the hours worked, the capitalist fires one worker and makes the other work the same 40 hours at the same pay – and management pockets the difference. That is the cause of the unprecedented concentration of wealth in the US today and the stubborn unemployment problem. Change the way the benefits of productivity are distributed to society – and you change everything.

What could we do as a society if all it took to make a living was 20 hours of work a week? There would be an explosion of creativity and interest in the arts. Those of us already so inclined would have more time to devote to our pursuits. Those trapped as wage slaves in a full-time job could escape to recover their humanity – think of how this would address addiction and depression issues. It isn’t a matter of redistributing income – it is a matter of giving all of society a fair share of the increases in their own productivity and efficiency.

Or we could let the 1% continue to take all the fruits of our labors and beg them for some crumbs to fund our art. We’ll name a concert hall after them or dedicate a concerto while continuing our slide backwards to the status of a kitchen maid, hired hand and lackey.

6 Responses to “How to Properly Fund the Arts”
  1. David Hahn says:

    I wrote an editorial for the Seattle Times regarding this issue and focussing on Federal Funding.

  2. Amanda says:

    “What could we do as a society if all it took to make a living was 20 hours of work a week?”

    In any major US city people value music enough to pay between 30 and 50 dollars for a weekly half hour music lessons for their children. You can easily earn a comfortable living working just 20 hours a week, leaving you with plenty of time to pursue your other interests. You might feel less frustrated and alienated by our economic system if you honestly made an effort to make it work for you.

  3. Amanda, many composers don’t work in cities large enough to support 40+ half-hour lessons every week. Or 20. Or a dozen. Some live in smaller places or in the country. I have one (adult) student here in Vermont. My other clients (in related fields, such as recording, editing, engraving) suffered so badly from the recession that they’re only now coming back after several years scraping along. Performances are down, and groups are delaying paying their royalties. In other ‘luxury’ areas aside from music, my wife’s family ran a chess camp for a decade — and it closed two years ago as well. The compound effects of low demand and recession have been extreme enough that PaulM’s suggestion, though welcome, comes too late for many (I’m among them) — particularly outside that handful of major cities where music lessons can ride right over economic conditions.


  4. Amanda says:

    Dennis, You are right to remind me that the economy hits all of us differently. I guess we are isolated in our wealthy coastal cities, where there is a certain thrill to being in the center of culture and policy even during tough times. There is definitely a feeling amongst my peers that being engaged in diverse, competitive, opportunity-rich urban centers is the only reasonable way forward.

  5. Paul Muller says:

    Amanda – if you can make a reasonable living in music by teaching 20 hours or so a week – good for you! My point in the article was that if the increased productivity of the last 50 years were returned to the workers who trained and actually achieved those gains – we would all have more time to become interested in music and the arts. How many students would you have if everyone was working 20 hours a week? Lots, I’ll bet. The arts would become more central to our life because work should not have to be.

    As it is now, the arts have to prove themselves in the marketplace of a harried world and beg for handouts from the government and the rich. The current musical establishment seems designed to preserve 19th century symphonic forms while getting new works performed has become an insider’s game. Give the people back their time and the arts will flourish like never before.

  6. Amanda says:

    Paul, I don’t think you are going to convince many people arguing for economic justice so that people can work less and have more free time, particularly with a population that currently uses much of their free time to eat themselves to death and watch TV.

    My point was that if you want to have a flexible, varied, and less then full time job, music is the ideal occupation with dozens of specialized and well compensated opportunities. Teaching was just one example.