The Composer in Society

It is essential that composers place a proper value on their work – even if society is slow to do so...

Ask 150 creative artists to discuss ‘The Romantic Ideal of the Lone Creator’ and they will find fault with society, i.e. that the creator has not enough time to be alone creating. Modern society requires writers to conform to market requirements and to go on reading tours; the visual artist is required to go out into the community and be an uplifting force for the young or the disadvantaged; composers must spend time promoting and arranging concerts. In short, all are assailed by society with a host of non-creative roles — society does not support the creative act itself to the degree where it is possible to make a living.

These were the conclusions reached by a recent EU commission sponsored meeting in Sweden, where 150 creative artists met to discuss ‘The Condition of the Creative Artist in Europe’.[1] Ireland is typical: a recent survey found that the vast majority of creative artists in Ireland in all disciplines earn less than £10,000 p.a. for their creative work. The average industrial wage here is over twice that. This immediately poses the question: does society really want art? It usually pays for what it wants.

However, none of the selected speakers at this meeting made the point that the ‘romantic ideal of the lone creator’ was always a chimera in any case — composers have always lived by teaching, conducting and performing. And more importantly, none of them mentioned that this image is often a mistaken self-image. There are a few composers who need to adjust their self-image, rather than just keep on moaning that the world owes them a living.

Younger composers often adhere to the ‘romantic ideal’ to an unhealthy degree. This problem manifests itself every time a composer forgets to ask for money for their services! Ideally (working to a different utopian ideal for a moment) no one would ever compose a piece without first knowing who will play it and when they will be paid (and how much). However, there is a valid resistance to the notion that a piece of music is a commodity in the usual market sense; it is after all a unique cultural object, not mass-produced. But it is still a product, and it must be produced for eventual ‘consumption’ by someone other than the composer!

What I actually want to emphasise here is that it is essential that composers place a proper value on their work, even if society is slow to do so. They should also produce ‘for’ society, even if it is slow to demand new works. A practical example of this is as follows: suppose a choral festival with a healthy private sponsor regularly invites one commission a year from a different composer. Generally they look for a composer they have heard of, therefore relatively established. Yet they offer a rate per minute that falls below the ‘going rate’ (which is in fact a minimum rate). The composer who values his/her own work will query this and attempt to negotiate before signing, some will not. The commissioner in this case is actually insulting their reputation.

In fact, it is natural for composers to feel insulted quite regularly, simply because they value this activity (if not always the material) more than everyone else. This often causes them to turn their back on society — a plague on all your publishing houses, as it were — and to work away alone, perfecting the romantic ideal. That, in relationship terms, is stonewalling — exacerbating the problem.

The composer and commerce
The composer of new music has a commercial problem that amounts to a tragic flaw: nobody buys the CDs or concert tickets. That is, not in sufficient quantities or at prices that would lead to a decent income. If it is commercially necessary for Madonna’s tickets to range in price from £40 to £85 (it isn’t, of course, but bear with me) then how much ought it to be for a new string quartet before it can go without state subsidy?[2]

It is easy to simply forget the degree of taxpayer’s support by which the edifice of new music is supported. Without it there would simply be no orchestras or any ensembles whatsoever performing new music. We would be condemned to endless repeats of Classic FM-style pops at all concerts; the artistic equivalent of surviving on onion sandwiches (repeats). Even when the NSOI plays to a full house, every single ticket has been subsidised beyond its face value. The government is practically paying you to go! The same goes for everywhere that ‘classical’ music is heard live.

So the composer’s commercial relationship with society is next to null and void. He/she doesn’t have a relationship with society in commercial terms — with the exception of Bill Whelan. Almost by definition, if it sells enough to live by, it isn’t new concert music.

The composer and the public
So if composers have a tragic problem with the public, what can they do? Well, the problem of CD sales is out of their control: if society is not able to take on board anything beyond early Debussy in commercial quantities, they really have to forget about that. They can’t actually reverse the execrable failure of the educational system, though, of course, it is possible to make a meaningful contribution. Neither can they write music as if Stravinsky never happened.

Composers who are fairly decided on writing ‘serious’ music must, apparently, resign themselves to commercial failure. However, that does not actually mean that they must remain mutely in the garret. So long as there is public support, and new music concerts happen, they can seek to reach the somewhat specialised audience of concert-goers. The first thing is to get pieces programmed, preferably with a proper commission beforehand. The key element is to put aside a portion of regular time for promotion. That’s more unpaid work — this time outside the garret. There are more composers out there than are needed by the public; it has room in its head for about two names, and in Ireland there are around 120 composers.

The successful ones go out to meet performers and get commissions and concerts. There are other things that can be done, but it would be tedious to list them here. Also, there are new music CDs (mostly thanks to the taxpayer again; the Arts Council has a scheme for supporting recording companies), and these help to raise the profile of the featured composers. Again these are ones that have set aside time for promotion, and are reaping their reward. These composers do not make a good living out of CD sales; in fact, they get a small trickle of money that wouldn’t keep a hamster in lettuce, but it goes into their bank nonetheless. And along with that goes a trickle of performance royalties, and another trickle, bigger this time, of commissioning fees. All this can add up to something worthwhile, yet still not enough to live on.

Just to return to the question of style — is it worth considering writing in a more accessible style? Many find this question itself offensive — but let’s suspend disgust for a moment. I would say that if you wrote neo-Debussy-type music extremely well this would not solve many of the composer’s problems. He/she would still have to find someone willing to play it, and still hope that the public would take time to get to know the new work. Of course, there would be far greater likelihood of performers and/or Lyric FM giving it repeated plays, instead of the usual one-play-only given to pieces in a contemporary style. The result might be in the order of £100 more in royalties, while commissioning money would be the same as usual. That’s rather little for a volte-face undermining of one’s entire apprenticeship. True, it just might lead to a success on the level of Michael Nyman. Other than that, the fact is that royalties do not pay enough unless you have a ‘hit’.

The composer and public policymakers, and the public sector
This brings us to the public sector. I have already mentioned that the taxpayer is supporting new music along with all concert music. But that is not the main source of subsidy for the arts. The main subsidiser of the arts, when it comes to brand new works, is the creators themselves, every time they produce a new book or score without payment. Anyone reading this from an Arts Council perspective will throw their hands up and declare ‘but public funding has hugely increased over the years.’ There are several things to say to that. Yes, composers must acknowledge many improvements over the years, material and otherwise, in their relationship with public bodies. The overall Arts Council budget has increased in real terms (figures below). However, the amount spent on new work in all disciplines amounts to about 5.1% of the arts budget.[3] The rest is spent on actors, performers publishers, and the whole arts infrastructure — and the composer needs that.

Perhaps most of the money goes to arts administrators, since they have ‘real jobs’ (which composers, writers, artists do not?). The administrators are not just the 26 or so in the Council, but others in theatre companies, arts centres and resource centres. There are many more producers of art than there are administrators, yet the bigger spending goes to the latter. One must conclude that there is a tacit acceptance that, since creative artists will continue to produce whether they are paid or not, then money can be saved by not paying them. This cannot be applied to administrators, as they will simply leave for better jobs. Any chance of composers going on strike?

A huge objection that might be raised is that it is not actually the government’s role to provide solely for the artist. There should be other sources of income. Fair enough, notwithstanding the unpopularity of new music. But if we look into where composers actually source commissions, we find that recent music commissioners in Ireland include the following: Dúchas, local authorities, CRC of Dept. of Foreign Affairs, the Per Cent for Art Scheme, City Music Society, Music for Galway, RTÉ performing groups, the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, the Cork Choral International Festival, AXA Dublin International Piano Festival, the NCH, various choirs, Young European Strings and other youth orchestras, individual performers, Project Arts Centre, Music Network, and ensembles such as Crash, Vox21 and Concorde.[4]

Notice how these are mostly funded by the taxpayer, and many by the Arts Council. It is not unknown for those with private sponsors to go to the Arts Council when the issue of commissioning is raised. This means that the perception that no private agency would want to pay for a new piece of music is widespread.

We see that it is difficult to source creative income from anywhere other than the Arts Council, directly or indirectly. The same is true for the composer’s non-creative earning potential. Composers generally tend to earn money from other activities such as teaching, performing, administrating performances, conducting, occasional radio work or whatever. It is almost impossible in all of that to go outside the loop of the subsidised world. Education and public broadcasting, for example, are almost entirely state-funded. At the moment, no matter which way they turn, composers tend to exist thanks to the beneficence of the state sector. So there is no point in feeling guilty about ‘living off the Arts Council’ (however difficult that may be), since that means getting paid by the state to work at your primary skill; whereas if you teach/broadcast instead, you will get paid by the state for your secondary skill. If composers truly value their own work, they are morally bound to seek as many grants, bursaries and commissions as they can get!

Arts Council budgets: examples [5]
If we analyse the figures below we can see some good times and bad times. The recent virtual doubling over four years was heralded as unprecedented. But it is not. The figure more than doubled between 1976 and 1980. Most other four-year intervals show near doubling, with a woefully poor period between ‘84 and ‘88 where little increase occurred. The figures appear to be loosely ahead of inflation, but one has to be aware that official inflation figures are strange things, based on the price of essentials — cigarettes and high-fat spreads — while leaving out minor expenses on luxuries such as rents and mortgages.

Arts Council Budgets

1976: £990,000

1980; £3,000,000

1984: £5,193,000

1988: £6,599,000

1992: £10,161,000

1996: £18,409,000

2000: £34,000,000

1999 Arts Council expenditure [6]

Total budget £28,302,000

Admin: £1,878,000 (= 6.6% of the total)

Funds to individual creative artists:

Film: £106,577 (= 11% of film total)

Literature: £124,050 (= 11.1% of literature total)

Music: £40,000 in commissions. £29,375 to individual composers (=3.3% of music total)

(note on music fund ing: £69,375 for new work as against £182,500 for CDs)

Opera: £8,965 (= 0.65% of opera total)

Visual arts: £214,595 (= 10% of total)

Combined Arts: £20,915

Drama: figures difficult to extract unless one knows actors from writers: estimate £68,000 or 1%

Dance £32,970 (= 3.8%)

Architecture £6,350 (= 5.5%)

All of the above plus Áosdana (£858,288) brings the total on individual creative artists to £1,442,085, or 5.1% of the total budget.

The composer’s media and ‘the media’
The composer reaches out via various media, i.e. scores and recordings. These in turn go through channels such as agencies or broadcast media. Traditionally there was such a thing as a publishing house that produced scores and parts, but this practice is no longer relevant to most composers for various reasons.

Firstly, there is miniscule demand for scores. There are no music publishers in Ireland, while the real number in Britain has shrunk radically in the last 30 years through mergers. They therefore carry fewer composers — about 4% of Irish composers are published. The publishers are Maecenas, Oxford, Chester/Wilhelm Hansen and Universal. Secondly, it is doubtful whether it is altogether desirable to be published nowadays because the publishers are inclined not to produce music for sale; they find it more profitable to hire parts and often scores too. They also have the habit of making photocopies rather than finished books, which they then sell for the same kind of money. Two more things make publishers irrelevant to living composers: the widespread use of PCs to produce fine quality scores, and the support of MICs (Music Information Centres, such as CMC here), who assist with making a professional-looking score.

CDs are beginning to follow this self-publication trend. If composers can find the enthusiasm for it, it is within their reach to organise their own professional-looking (and sounding) CD. They can get assistance in this from the Arts Council, and the overall costs are smaller every year. They can then sell these at every concert of their music. A few Irish composers are already doing this. It is also common internationally.

Thanks to cheaper digital recording, CDRs and minidiscs can be reproduced as cassettes were in the past. But now, because it is digital, it is easier to get the recording accepted for broadcast. The composer can promote themselves through Lyric FM or their local radio station with clips or whole pieces from live concerts.

As for newspapers and print media, it has often been noted that investigative reporting is a thing of the past. The modern trend is for papers to print what is sent to them, or what they can buy from international press agencies. So again it is often up to performers or composers to ‘create a buzz’ by bombarding the arts pages with information when they have a retrospective coming up or whatever. Usually the venue handles this, but it would make no difference to the paper if the composer were to do it. It is another avenue for self-promotion.

The present situation is that a large amount of work that used to be up to agents and all sorts of intermediaries is increasingly up to the composer, and takes up more and more of their valuable creative time. But that is pretty much how it is, and composers should accept society as it is rather than bewailing how it should be (for them).

It is also the case that the composer feels, rightly I believe, that those who speak for classical music in the media never have much understanding of new music. This is because they have to cover music from Vivaldi up to the present day, yet their education will only have covered up to Stravinsky c. 1913 and almost nothing beyond. This means that their knowledge is 80 or 90 years out-of-date. There will always be a few informed specialists, but it is all too common to hear off-the-cuff remarks on the radio by so-called music pundits that merely reveal a shocking ignorance of anything past Mahler, the same going for articles in newspapers.

The composer faces a perception problem not parallelled in writing or visual art. Not only is there the assumption that ‘music’ means the work of non-living composers, on top of that is the widespread perception that the descendants of Mozart are rock musicians. You might think that we could just put this down to ignorance and forget about it. I would, were it not for the fact that the other day I heard a Lyric FM presenter make precisely this mistake. All sorts of general policy-makers may be doing the same … (In regards to the media, the Irish Times certainly does its bit, with reasonably frequent composer interviews, but the Lyric FM presenter obviously doesn’t read that paper.)

The only way out of this perception problem is to have composers on television. There is always a smattering of cultural sofa-based television shows. On them you can see writers and visual artists giving their opinions of films and even reviewing books. When it comes to music, they ignore it — too highbrow to have a rock musician (or they can’t afford them), too lowbrow to know about us. A recent issue of The View (RTÉ 1) featured the launch of CMC’s new premises. Even then the panel had no one who had even the foggiest idea, let alone a composer. They seemed to be at pains to point out that CMC has scores of Bill Whelan, Patrick Cassidy and Shaun Davey. No mention of Gerald Barry, Raymond Deane or John Buckley, for example.

It might not be altogether impossible for a composer to get on such a programme. I believe that the main reason it doesn’t happen is that the producers simply haven’t heard we exist. We should let them know. (Incidentally, recently it was suggested to me that composers might be advised to make video clips of rehearsals, so that there is something visual to put on the screen while they talk.)

The composer and other musicians
The immediate society that the composer often spends time with is other musicians, whether composers, instrumentalists, students or others. This has a distorting effect that is good and bad. The first distortion is magnification — the whole musical world is exaggerated in size and importance compared to how others see it. This is a necessary evil if one is to give music the time it needs.

The other composers may be the worst influence, since this gives the enterprise the nature of a cabal; they have a secret language that is their medium (though as far as most of society is concerned it’s such a good secret that they haven’t even heard of it). This means that it is beneath them to write for the public, who by now haven’t a clue. They spend some of their time writing for themselves and some writing for each other, whenever a summer school or festival occurs. This is the source of style inflation, trying to write in an ever more fashionable or up-to-date style.

In the composer’s defence it must be said that the blame for all this also lies at many other doors, including education policy-makers and so on.

The composer spends some time with performers too. He/she is endlessly amazed at how little the performers know about new music, and even more amazed when they meet the odd one that knows a lot about it. Music students, the performers and audiences of tomorrow … are all being educated for yesterday’s music.

The composer and his contribution: researcher, pioneer, and patrimony
To counterbalance that last slip into anti-composer polemic, the reader should be reminded that the composer is permanently engaged in serving society on a recondite level, and this is not a joke! In the sciences it is called R & D — research and development. One of the many possible parallels is that scientists also speak a secret language as far as general society is concerned. But alas, everyone generally understands the potential relevance of scientific research to future generations, and the fact of the existence of scientists, while the same is not true for composers.

Nonetheless, this is how composers should be ‘benchmarking’ themselves, to use a current term. (Incidentally, research scientists will tell you that they are not well paid for what they do either, but that is relative.) Composers are defining the present-day language of music, which will in turn define the future of music in the wider sense.

Composers also undertake pioneering work in music electronics, which the big corporations profit from later. Cheap synthesisers have made many a Japanese electronics firm very happy, but these instruments owe their existence to the early work of composers in the 1950s. Recently I heard a composer propose ‘pioneer rights’ for composers, the opposite of the ‘public domain’ rights that already exist.

Then there is the concept of patrimony. Who knows what Irish composer may be writing a music version of Ulysses. Irish society might in the future mention some musical work in the same proud tones; and with unintended irony, refer to the rejection Joyce faced.

This brings us back to the problem of value. A composer may be producing something he/she knows is of value, but how to get society to see it that way? Usually at this point the education system gets blamed, rightly. But given the present situation, can the composer prosper better? All I know is that he/she must guard against pining foolishly for a utopian situation that will never come, and accept society as it is. With a realistic picture of how present-day society actually works, the composer will be equipped to look for opportunities that may not yet be in operation. One example that recently came to notice here is the British scheme for groups of people to chip in for one large commission. Not only does this provide some private involvement in raising income, but it also raises awareness among the ‘consumer’. Performing groups, individual composers and representative bodies must keep on the look-out for more of this kind of lateral thinking, and share any more such ideas in a spirit of generosity; the situation is too far gone for begrudgery. Let’s not kick ourselves when we are already down.

Why compose? Motivation, aesthetics and positions
Every composer might very well give a different reason for why they compose. So I will present a few thoughts on the question without claiming that they are other than personal ideas. But to attempt some elucidation on this point relates centrally to the question of role.

In writing a new piece one is primarily engaging with the challenge of inventing something that didn’t exist before, but sounds as though it should have. In other words something coherent (in the aesthetic sense of having integrity), interesting and original. This being music, there is no content or subject in the sense that there can be in writing or visual art. Music, if we disregard instances with added text, is an abstract art form. Because of this the composer can get very remote from the surrounding culture. It is easy to exist with no points of intersection with it. It often appears contrived when an attempt is made to make new music relate to such things as politics or philosophy. But composers somehow feel that their music is relevant to their own lives, therefore there must be some aspect of universal relevance.

The standards for what is coherent, interesting or original vary from one composer, or school of composers, to the next. It is possible nonetheless to focus on the concept of integrity, which can translate to realms beyond this recondite pursuit. Art which lacks this quality can be categorised as kitsch. The ‘aesthetic’ (if that is the right word) of kitsch can be said to exclude everything that is unacceptable or disturbing.[7] In direct contrast, art that is concerned with its own material integrity is bound to include whatever is necessary to it, regardless of the outcome. Thus composers (sometimes … ) shine the paradigmatic light of metaphorical truth; often dealing in material that is a little repugnant at first. In other words the value of the pursuit lies not in entertainment value per se.

Serious composers spend all of their time avoiding cheap tricks and emotional stereotypes. The intention is to be interesting without recourse to cliché or gross over-simplification. As such, the ‘rules’ have not changed since the time of the great names of the past. These conditions are what lead to new music not being immediately popular, no matter how wonderful the piece in question. (There is always room for an exception: post-modernism.)

In a utopia where art would be widely understood, it would be valued in its own terms. These terms would be valued at a similar level to spiritual or ethical values (they are distinct, but share the parallel pursuit of integrity). Composers and other artists can therefore be seen as public communicators of something valuable though recondite, and the mode of that communication is forthright, without any agenda. As such they are in stark contrast to many other public communicators such as politicians, advertisers and purveyors of kitsch.

1. See proceedings from Visby, 30 March on
2. Source: The Guardian
3. This figure does not include some hidden commissioning through theatre companies or choirs, etc. However, in the comparison with administrators the same is true; there are administrators in all these bodies that are not included under admin. in the Arts Councils annual report. These distortions therefore cancel out.
4. Source: New Music News, CMC
5. Source: Towards a New Framework for The Arts
6. Source: Arts Council annual report 1999
7. This definition is borrowed from Milan Kundera

Published on 1 July 2001

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.

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