Archive for the “Music Business” Category

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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[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 »

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[Ed. -- An early joiner at s21, composer Armando Bayolo has been off on his own personal career adventure for a while now. Firmly planted in Washington D.C., teaching and running his own ensemble, we asked if he'd like to share some of his recent experiences, and maybe give us an occasional D.C. update.  Armando has kindly penned this introduction:]

I am a composer.

That doesn’t mean what it used to mean, however.  Webster’s Online defines “composer” as “one that composes; especially: a person who writes music.”  This is certainly true; a composer writes music.  But a composer, at least if  s/he expects to have anything like a career as a composer, is often, if not always, forced to be many things.

What are we as composers?  Besides writing music — which is the central and most important activity to my own work as a musician — I teach music theory at one of the east coast’s oldest conservatories, I am (or was, as this activity has unfortunately taken a back seat recently) a pianist, a conductor, a writer and impresario.  I have also had to take on a role as a manager and publisher for my own work (If I am not for myself, as Rabbi Hillel said, who will be for me?).  This is nothing new, of course, as composers going back at least as far as Beethoven complained about all of the activities essential to being allowed to make music for a living that inherently get in the way of the process of making music (and this is certainly not exclusive to composers!). One role that is perhaps less common which I’ve undertaken in the last five years is that of advocate for other composers through my work as conductor and Artistic Director of Great Noise Ensemble.

In 2005 I found myself at a bit of a crossroads.  Throughout my student years I expected my career to follow the more typical route of settling into an academic position after finishing my graduate studies.  After a brief stint as a visiting professor in Portland, Oregon, and thanks to various factors finding myself without a regular teaching job, my family and I resettled in suburban Washington, D.C. where my wife grew up.  The early years before the move weren’t unproductive, but they were a critical and difficult time — a time, I now know, which every creative artist faces at one point or another.  In my case I realized that, rather than waiting to see “where I would land”, I’d try founding a new music ensemble (something I’d been wanting to do since graduate school) within the context of an academic program. Why not look for like-minded people in the area, see if we could put together some concerts and see where that would take us?

In the summer of 2005 I placed a classified ad on Craigslist.com with a sort of loose vision, a list of composers I would like to perform (Andriessen, Adams, Ligeti, etc.) and the idea that we should treat it a bit as a garage band and see where it would take us.  About seven people answered that ad, of which about four or five came to the informational meeting a month later… Except that those four people had spread the word and brought friends, so we had more like nine people at the first meeting.  The same thing happened at the next meeting and, in the end, we ended up with a full sinfonietta of about 16 instrumentalists plus two singers.

Great Noise Ensemble is about to wrap up its fifth season on April 30.  Our sixth season begins in October with the most ambitious project we have ever undertaken, a rare performance of Louis Andriessen’s 1984-88 “opera,” De Materie.  Great Noise will be the first ensemble of American professional musicians to perform this piece.  It was a dream and a hope of mine to do this piece, and, frankly, I never thought we would be in a position to perform it so early in our history.  The rest of the season will see performances of large and small works by established AND emerging composers, as well as readings of works in progress by students at the Catholic University of America (where we’ve been in residence since 2008).

Great Noise Ensemble has become as central to my work as a musician as my own composition and I see it, along with my teaching activities, as an important responsibility of being a successful American composer.  (This notion of being a successful composer is itself odd and one with which I have yet to come to terms, since success as a composer is not necessarily linked, in our world, with financial/material success.  But that is a topic for another essay.)  It is not just my music that matters.  All contemporary concert music (or art music; I don’t like the label “classical” and, while I’ve been lumped within the “alt-classical” movement by certain critics, I’m not 100% comfortable with that term either) is important.  It reflects the soul of our nation, even while remaining largely hidden behind much more commercially viable musics.  Composers (and performers) are all in this together.

I see my role in American music, such as it is, as being similar to a guerrilla fighter.  I operate under the radar, merging between concerts with the (academic) mainstream only to emerge, every six weeks or so, to strike another salvo on behalf of contemporary art music.  In this small way I hope to be part of the change I see happening (that must happen if our musical institutions are to survive) in American concert music every day.  And so I co-opt a phrase from one of recent history’s most polemically polarizing figures when I say, “hasta la victoria, siempre!”

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For all you composers big and small who still think that a big publisher contract is the bee’s knees: composer John Mackey blogs in a nicely lucid way about why the deal is nowhere near as good as the dream, and how you can and should be taking control of the full fruit of your labor. This is stuff that, to me, is every bit as fundamental to a young composer as learning I-IV-V-I (& maybe more, these days). Yet it’s rare that we ever see a “Basic Music Business 101″ course — not the first year, not the fourth, not even the sixth or eighth.

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