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Time was the end result of a composer’s efforts was a score and parts on paper.  And paper is surprisingly durable – they are still finding Bach manuscripts in Germany after 250+ years.  But 21st century composers use a variety of digital media to do their work: notation software, MP3 or .wav files, executable application files and maybe some spreadsheet and word processing files for the business side.

Apart from the variety of files to be stored there is the issue of media durability. We have all probably experienced hard drive failure. Turns out CDs and DVDs are not forever and may degrade after 20 years. Files kept in the cloud may be at risk if the server has some sort of catastrophic failure.  And another issue is platform longevity – some of the early music composed by computer 30 years ago can exist only as recordings; the hardware needed to realize it is obsolete and no longer available.  Software may be abandoned by the company that created it or your version may not be compatible with later operating systems.

So what is the best thing to do?  I know I don’t address all of these issues but I do keep my files in three places: on my PC hard drive, on an offline storage drive (updated from my hard drive twice per year) and in the cloud.  My notation software is on a CD so I can reload if my PC fails, and other software that I use is freeware and I keep back-up copies of the executables.

So what is the best practice?  What are some of the solutions for the long-term issues?  What do you do and what have you found that works best?

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The Guardian recently ran an article titled “Can You Make Any Kind of Living as an Artist?” and the first sentence stated: “With the exception of household names, most people in the creative arts need a day job to make ends meet.”  This is not exactly news to those of us in the musical arts – so the more practical question for composers might be: “How can I get more done in less time?”  Can a 21st century composer forced to work a day job hope to produce the output of, say, a Bach or Haydn?  The answer, surprisingly, may be ‘yes’.

Let’s look at are some historical examples of composing productivity that we can use as a benchmark.

During 1724 and 1725 JS Bach wrote one cantata per week for the Leipzig churches where he had recently been installed as Kantor. Each cantata was about 20 minutes of music and consisted of choral, instrumental and keyboard parts. Bach had to compose, notate, rehearse and perform this music each week, so his productivity, assuming a 40 hour week, was something like 2 hours spent composing for each minute of music performed.

GF Handel raised the bar on composer productivity in 1741 by completing the ‘Messiah’ in just 24 days. This famous oratorio runs some 136 minutes and has 259 pages in the original score and works out to a rate of composition of almost 40 minutes per week. If we assume he worked 8 hours per day, this calculates out to about 1.4 hours of composing per minute of music. This does not include rehearsing or copying out of parts – so Handel and Bach were probably about equal in terms of composing efficiency.

Josef Haydn produced some 340 hours of music over a 42 year career. If we assume he did this in standard 40 hour, 5-day weeks, we get an output of something like 9.7 minutes per week – requiring an average of a bit more than 4 hours of composing per minute of music. Notice that Haydn worked at a rate about half that of the most skilled Baroque composers – but he is still considered very prolific.

As an experiment in 1998 I took one week of my vacation and tried to write a Baroque church cantata. And to my astonishment I actually succeeded in producing 8 minutes of usable material. Of course my 8 minutes weren’t as good as Bach, but it was performed during a church service very much as Bach would have done. Throw in a couple more hours for choir rehearsal and my composing efficiency was about 5.25 hours of composing per minute of music. Not a lot worse than Haydn!

But here is the thing: when I was writing my 8 minute cantata I noticed that only about half the time was spent actually creating music. The rest was spent breaking out parts and checking them, transposing for various instruments, making copies and organizing the pages into a rational format, etc. In other words my composing efficiency was cut in half because of the requirements of performance.

21st century composers now have the capability of realizing and delivering their music electronically – there is no need for notation and performance – and there are computers to increase our productivity over 18th and 19th century practices. I have been composing electronic ambient music for about 2 years. I do this by a combination of notation and processing – this music is not written for performance. In the first half of 2012 I have produced some 5.5 hours – realized by PC and delivered to the Internet. I have a full time job but even so I am producing over 12 minutes per week. So my composing output is something like 25% greater than that of Haydn. Now I’m no Haydn – and although I like my music it’s possible that I’m actually making 12 minutes of crap per week. Even so, I will only get better at what I am writing and can do so knowing that I don’t have to be a full-time composer to achieve a historically high output.

Contrast my situation with the composer who writes for performance – his efficiency will be only 50% of what I can achieve, and the number of new pieces performed each year for even a busy, well-connected composer is likely to be in the single digits. So his progress is restrained by the slower pace of writing for performance and his art will take longer to develop. Performance is presently deemed the successful end result of the composing process – but the lack of performance opportunities and the efficiencies to be gained via electronic music would seem to be compelling for those of us who are increasingly composing part-time by necessity. Sooner or later those among us with real talent – and the inevitable day job – will be working as I am, reaping the benefits of improved composing efficiency through electronics.

The most dramatic effect of the Internet on the art of music, therefore, may be the breaking of the historical chain of composer, performer and listener.  Music will henceforth be composed primarily for listening – rather than for performing.

What do you think?

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An article in the May 14, 2012 New Yorker profiled Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who examined the effect of disruptive technologies on large corporations. Here is an excerpt from the article about one of his first case studies:

“The first industry that Christensen studied was disk drives. He saw that the companies that made fourteen-inch drives for mainframe computers had been driven out of business by companies that made eight-inch drives for mini computers, and then the companies that made the eight-inch drives were driven out of business by companies that made 5.25-inch drives for PCs.

What was puzzling about this was that the eight-inch drives weren’t as good as the fourteen-inch drives and the 5.25-inch drives were inferior to the eight-inch drives. In industry after industry, Christensen discovered, the new technologies that had brought the big, established companies to their knees weren’t better or more advanced—they were actually worse. The new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior.

But the new products were usually cheaper and easier to use, and so people or companies who were not rich or sophisticated enough for the old ones started buying the new ones, and there were so many more of the regular people than there were of the rich, sophisticated people that the companies making the new products prospered. Christensen called these low-end products “disruptive technologies, ‘because, rather than sustaining technological progress toward better performance, they disrupted it.’”

To repeat, here is the key insight of Christensen’s research: “In industry after industry, Christensen discovered, the new technologies that had brought the big, established companies to their knees weren’t better or more advanced—they were actually worse. The new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior. “

Christensen found that big successful companies typically saw no threat from inferior products with poor performance and so ignored them in favor of their existing high-end, high margin products. Why try to manufacture millions of 5.25 inch PC disk drives for just a few dollars profit when your much better eight-inch drives were already selling for hundreds each in the minicomputer market? But when the disruptive technologies became accepted – and improved – it was too late for the fat corporations living off legacy products.

Is there a lesson in this for new music? I think so. Let us assume that the tools used by traditional performing organizations – the concert hall, the expert players, the rock-star conductor and the traditional commissioned composer – all produce a much better product experience than the computer-generated MP3 realizations posted by Internet musicians and composers on-line. And the revenue coming from down-loadable music is certainly minimal. So if you are John C. Adams, for example, why would you undertake to realize your music for the on-line audience when the result will likely be less satisfactory and much less lucrative than writing a new score for the Los Angeles Philharmonic?

This, I submit, fits the classic Christensen pattern of a disruptive technology. The computer-realized music is perhaps less impressive than what is heard in the concert hall, but it is also very easy for the composer to get his music out there and very easy for millions to hear it. So, while new music realized electronically is perhaps inferior in quality, it is also low cost and widely available at a time when the traditional performing organizations are doing less and less with new music. Will our philharmonic orchestras perceive the disruptive effects of this technology and will they be able to stay on the cutting edge of music? Clayton Christensen would say no.

What do you say?

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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.

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The Stop Online Piracy Act – SOPA – has been taken up by Congress and this puts the future of recorded music back into the news. The SOPA bill – backed by big money entertainment firms – ostensibly provides for the protection of intellectual property by allowing internet domain names to be blocked if a website allows unauthorized downloading of copyrighted materials. Sites like YouTube or Facebook will be at risk if someone improperly posts a movie clip or MP3 file that is under copyright.

The recording industry has been in a state of flux ever since it became possible to exchange music between individuals easily via electronic files. Napster and other file sharing services made it possible to download almost any recording in existence – for free. Fierce legal action by the recording industry essentially made criminals out of their customers and further alienated consumers already reeling from the high price of CDs in record stores.

Apple provided a sane solution to the Napster problem by launching iTunes a few years ago and has now sold over 16 billion files . The success of iTunes is due to the balance it has struck between a low selling price per track, protection for the copyright holder, and convenience for the consumer. In the process iTunes has essentially set the going price for a single downloaded track at $1. Other, similar services have since been established: Amazon is a big player and sites like BandCamp and CD Baby allow the copyright holder to offer tracks or entire CD albums to the consumer directly.

Just as the iTunes model was taking hold and offering some hope for market stability, the technology behind music streaming took off and made the actual downloading of the music file is superfluous – because now you have continuous access to the server holding the music you want to hear. So the search for the correct price point for streamed music is now underway. If iTunes has established that it costs $1 to own the file – what should it cost just to listen to it? Not much, apparently – the Spotify model pays fractions of a penny per listen. This may eventually change, but so far you have to be a mega-pop star to see any significant revenue from the streaming model.

And now comes SOPA – strengthening the hand of copyright holders – with the ultimate goal of allowing an increase in the price point possible for all forms of electronic distribution.

So what does any of this have to do with new music? We certainly benefit by the world-wide distribution possible via the Internet at essentially zero cost.  But our music is a niche and much bigger players are now trying to reshape the digital music landscape.

So where does that leave the composer of new music?   Is the current $1 going rate for a downloaded track sufficient? Is there any point in releasing your music to a streaming service for fractions of a penny per listen? Should we even care about copyright protection if revenue is going to be negligible? Is infinite distribution and promotion via YouTube and Facebook – even with zero revenue – preferable to some more restrictive model that might evolve under the constraints of SOPA ?

What are you doing now to copyright your music? How is the current Internet distribution system working for you and what would you like to see changed?

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How many performers and ensembles out there are willing to play new music? Probably hundreds. How many composers and compositions are out there waiting to be played? Probably tens of thousands. A call for scores can literally bury a performing group in hopeful submissions. The dismal arithmetic of composition means that that the number of composers and compositions far outnumber those groups willing and able to play new music. And even then the playing field is tilted toward a relatively small pool of composers associated with institutions, so the odds of getting one’s work performed are slim indeed.

Slim, but not impossible. Networking, persistence and determination can win out. The recent efforts of our friend Dennis Bathory-Kitsz to get his opera performed were heroic by any measure: he applied for state grants, did fund-raising, promotions and solicited donations at every opportunity. He organized the cast, the musicians and supervised set construction. All this despite the fact that his basement flooded, it snowed on the day of the first performance and even his house cat died during the run-up to the performance. And yet, after three well-attended performances, Dennis will likely have more fund-raising to do just to break even. How many of us would endure what Dennis has gone through to get his work performed?

Given the imbalance between new compositions and the number of groups who can play new music – what is the composer to do?

One obvious solution is to start your own performing ensemble and be your own composer-in-residence. This was essentially what Philip Glass and Steve Reich did in the early days of minimalism. Steve Moshier – to name just one west coast example – is doing this with his Liquid Skin Ensemble. In New York  Bang on a Can is perhaps the most well-known group.  And there are many other examples of smaller groups playing original music in unexpected venues:  James Ross, Richard Lainhart, Michael Waller and Dave Seidel in the east, Paul Bailey in Los Angeles.

Similarly, by networking you could get close to a performing organization and write pieces that work to their strength. I do this by writing choral music for our church choir – it’s not the Met but still a very rewarding avocation.

Still another, more radical solution, is to bypass the need for performance altogether – and write electro-acoustic music. The Internet makes this option particularly attractive by delivering your music world-wide directly to the ear buds of listeners at essentially zero cost.

So what is your method? What works best or least?

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Well, I am writing this on my employer’s computer during work hours. And I don’t even feel guilty about it – the same increases in productivity via computers and the Internet that now allow me to do the work of three people for my employer (at the same pay, of course) also lets me do some extra-curricular activities – all with time to spare.

I find I can get a lot of networking done on Facebook, G+ and the various new music blogs during work hours. Reading articles, posting comments and maybe creating some album artwork – all easy to do between phone calls, quoting prices, responding to emails or rewriting technical specs for our products where I work. I can also print out scores, break out the parts and get them ready for copying. So one way to leave more time for composing at home is to get all the other stuff done at work. Of course I have my cubicle set up so I can quickly put my emergency spreadsheet on the screen as soon as anyone approaches, but that is actually pretty rare.

At home I try to reserve the same time slot each week for composing and for me this is Saturday morning. I’ve been able to sleep in so I am refreshed, the house is quiet and I know I can concentrate on getting all the notes in the right places. I work strictly by PC – so I don’t need to bang around on a piano or fool with staff paper – it all goes straight into the notation program. When I’m finished I can print out a .pdf score and upload to my website in just a few minutes.

I do a bit of processing to the resulting midi file – sequencing, normalizing, maybe stretching or adding some reverb, echoes or equalization. But the final mp3 or .wav file can be uploaded directly, again in a matter of minutes. Everything is on my laptop so I can do this pretty much anywhere – although I prefer the familiar surroundings of home. But the whole process is a beneficiary of the efficiency that the PC (and Mac) has brought to music creation over the last several years.

All of this has encouraged me to believe that a full-time day job need not prevent the composer from a reasonably productive musical output. Many of us must make a living outside of music – and even if you are teaching the academic life is pretty crowded with job-related responsibilities. It might even be argued that a full-time composer will spend much of his time on non-composing tasks anyway – networking, rehearsals, traveling, overseeing the distribution of scores, etc.

So what makes you productive? Do you have a full-time day job? How would your composing habits change if you could work at it full time? If you now work exclusively at writing music, what is the best thing about full-time composing?

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