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.
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.
[Ed. Note -- Jeff Harrington has been doing the composer-promotion thing on the web just about as early as anyone could. Now working out of France, Jeff has written a bit about his own long experience, and wanted to share that with you all.]
Here’s a short article I wrote upon request from somebody teaching a course in Digital Musicianship. I offer it as a way to encourage discussion about the costs and benefits of the free culture model. Please pardon the informal nature of it…
My strategy… is basically to get my music into as many people’s hands as possible without expectations of renumeration. What happened to my wife and I in the early 80′s informed the process where I invented the free culture system.
We’d both had to drop out of college, me from Juilliard and Elsie from Pratt because of money problems. We were quite angry about this and started a street art project. This was 1982. At the same time we started showing Elsie’s paintings on the street in the West Village, right on Spring Street to be exact in the heart of Soho. We showed these huge paintings with a sign saying, “Not for Sale.”
This was pretty shocking to people and we started getting more and more interested in seeing where that could take us. We created series of non-destructive art works in chalk and with rubber stamps and displayed them all over NYC. Eventually, we became so famous (or infamous) that we started a whole mini-art movement in NYC and started receiving death threats… we ended up having to flee NYC, broke and regroup in New Orleans.
In New Orleans we continued giving our art away through the mail art networks. These were exchanges where you’d send a piece of art to somebody and then they’d send you something back. These turned into zines eventually, and from there into multiples and even gallery shows. When the computer networks started up in the early 80′s with BBS’s it was a natural progression to take our art give-away there.
I was probably the first serious artist to use the BBS system to distribute art, although I’m sure there were a few more; nobody at the time seemed to have come from the street art/mail art networks. I uploaded the score (as a set of GIF images) to my Variations for String Quartet onto a BBS in 1987 which is probably the earliest music give away. I started distributing MIDI files of my pieces around this time. It was very interesting to upload a MIDI file or a graphic and then watch it get uploaded by a fan to another site. At about the same time I started embedding my music into synthesizer patch downloads. I first distributed my Acid Bach series as a component of a synthesizer patch library I created for the purpose of having a compelling download. That is, I designed the patch library so that people would want it and coincidentally listen to my music. This way they’d have a high quality musical experience akin to the MP3 playback today through the use of the same synthesizer. Read the rest of this entry »
Literally… For a while now, and with far too little recognition, a group of composer-students at Michigan State University have been running their own weekly videocast/podcast. Called SoundNotion, it’s a place where composers share geek-talk with — and more importantly, for — other composers. Whatever’s going on, from the recent Pulitzers to new hot works, current web memes to just your general composerly “what’s up with that?!?”, SoundNotion is a reasonably smart, witty, casual place to catch up with concerns of up-and-coming composers figuring out this musical world today. The regular cast includes Patrick Gullo, David MacDonald, Sam Merciers and Nate Bilton, enhanced with the occassional guest composer, guest interviews, etc. etc. Here’s the latest episode, with topics including:
Q2 (from WQXR) has put together a list of 100 composers under 40.
A big thanks to Tim Rutherford-Johnson for alerting us to the video below. If you’re a comp student anywhere from the grand palaces to the podunk armpits of this country, you really should get to know both Michael Pisaro and Aaron Cassidy. I’d wager they aren’t on many professors’ radar, yet they’re both quietly but powerfully influencing directions in contemporary music that I think will only become more prominent in the next decade. And here you get to have a free sit-down-’n-listen on a conversation between the two. It’s little pieces of the puzzle, that often will barely appear in classes, that help you see the real lay of the musical terrain you’re going to be navigating. So pay attention and enjoy:
One of our most spiritedly discussed posts in recent memory raised the issues of composition competitions and application fees.
While a wide range of opinions were expressed, one consistent issue raised was the necessity for composers to invest their resources wisely in profile-building activities. Here in the forum, let’s talk shop about this. Which activities are most important for composers to pursue: competitions, festivals, recordings, publications, etc.?
The photos to the right show where I make all of my music; the top is from the early 1990s, the bottom from 2007. The equipment has changed drastically but one thing remains a constant, in every workspace I’ve had going back to the mid-’70s… See the single sheet of paper tacked on the wall with an image of a piano keyboard, a long row of notes from low to high, and lots of lines above that? It’s a photocopy of a chart from a book I once owned, on the ranges of all the orchestral instruments. It also includes the frequency in hertz, as well as the naming convention of each note. Michael Urich in La Porte, TX has even been kind enough to offer an exact copy of it online.
Recently I spotted another by Charles Houghton-Webb over at BWMusic, that I think will become the new candidate for my wall; in addition to all the original has, this one extends the range, color-codes some stuff, and adds the standard MIDI note numbers for each pitch. It’s also a PDF file, so the print quality’s a bit better (the PDF is password-protected, but Charles offers the password right there on the page). Plenty of this information has long been internalized, but it’s still something I glance at almost automatically a few times during the composition of any piece.
So how about it? Do any of you have some little, almost-totemic item that stays at your own workspaces, no matter when or where?
Christopher Shanin has put quite a bit of effort into both the site, and keeping it full of current and interesting news. And just as important, he truly works to create regular and real-life opportunities for local composers to share their music and ideas, with both themselves and the public.
Of course there’s the more general American Composers Forum, which is an umbrella linking forums in places like Atlanta, Philadelphia, D.C., etc.; and the even more broad American Music Center and the Society of Composers Incorporated. But I’d like to hear from you, about whatever similar, specifically local organizations are at work in your own piece of turf ( I know, I know, I could look them all up on Google; but I’ve got a life, too, and don’t see why we can’t pick all your brains a bit).
Who’s doing what in your town? Are they active, sporadic, or comatose? Promote calls for scores and concerts, just hang out for an occasional chat, or exist pretty much in name only? Tell me all in the comments — and link ‘em if you got ‘em…
I just finished reading Molly Sheridan’s interview with David Morneau, who spent the past year writing a 60-second piece every day, over at New Music Box. With Morneau’s project, 60×60 (which Morneau sites as his inspiration), and the Microscore Project, music of extremely short duration seems to be all the rage these days. Are we seeing the rise of the miniature as a new net-fueled genre? Any veterans of composing mini-music or attending the relevant concerts care to contribute lessons learned?
A recent essay by Rasmus Fleischer in Cato Unbound does a great job of explaining the evolution — or better, the progressive convolution — of copyright, what’s become fundamentally different in our own time, and why any model based on our old conceptions of it are utterly doomed in anything less than a world police-state. It’s only fair to point out that Fleischer is part of the Swedish anti-copyright group Piratbyran, founders of the notorious file-sharing site Pirate Bay, so some could read this essay as simply justification for their own “questionable” activity. But Fleischer clearly lays out some real issues here, and there are many good examples of how the meaning of copying and sharing have transcended — and will only move farther from — the old models and enforcement. One of the most mind-boggling is this:
One early darknet [the term for the idea that people who have information and want to exchange it with each other will do just that, forming spontaneous networks which may be large or small, online or offline] has been termed the “sneakernet”: walking by foot to your friend carrying video cassettes or floppy discs. Nor is the sneakernet purely a technology of the past. The capacity of portable storage devices is increasing exponentially, much faster than Internet bandwidth, according to a principle known as “Kryder’s Law.” The information in our pockets yesterday was measured in megabytes, today in gigabytes, tomorrow in terabytes and in a few years probably in petabytes (an incredible amount of data). Within 10-15 years a cheap pocket-size media player will probably be able to store all recorded music that has ever been released “” ready for direct copying to another person’s device.
In other words: The sneakernet will come back if needed. “I believe this is a “˜wild card’ that most people in the music industry are not seeing at all,” writes Swedish filesharing researcher Daniel Johansson. “When music fans can say, “˜I have all the music from 1950-2010, do you want a copy?’ “” what kind of business models will be viable in such a reality?”
I’d urge everyone to read the full essay, since this stuff will directly affect all our work, our entire career.