Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Vanity, It's All Vanity!

Funny how stories seem to come in clumps. I've just run across two stories that do not reflect well on the music business. Here is one, courtesy of Norman Lebrecht:
The composer Nathan Currier has been given a green light by the state supreme court to sue the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra for stopping the premiere of his evening-long oratorio before it finished. Currier, 53, had paid $72,000 for the performance of Gaian Variations, but at 10.45, with overtime looming at 11 pm, the orchestra stopped playing.
The composer wants his money back. The orch says that would cause them financial difficulties. Not the finest hour for either side.
Ok, the thing to note is not the lawsuit, but the fact that the Brooklyn Philharmonic were charging Mr. Currier $72,000 for playing his music. Now for the other story, this time courtesy of the Guardian. There is a bit of a backstory, but the basic facts are that a person with no training or experience in music has a dream in which he hears a whole symphony and becomes so wrapped up in it that he leaves his wife and moves to London to see if he can get it performed. Here is what happened:
One day I sat on a bench outside BBC Television Centre and a man stopped to chat. He was a musician called Anthony Wade and after I told him my story he listened to the very rough recording I'd made using a guitar I'd bought for 50p. He was amazed by it and told me that it could be magnificent if it was orchestrated, but that would take hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Uh-huh. Apart from the pricing, this is a pretty similar story. I could add one of my own. I had made a master recording and was looking for someone to distribute it. A company in Toronto agreed, but said that they needed $5000 up front for production costs. I foolishly agreed and of course, they did not fulfill their contract and there was very little distribution and marketing. Years later they made the mistake of putting some tracks from my album on a compilation CD and I sued them for breach of copyright (which had reverted to me). They settled out of court for $5000.

I think you might be getting the idea? If you are not wise in the ways of the music business, DO NOT agree to pay someone a significant sum of money to perform or record or orchestrate your work. If it is worth while musically, sooner or later someone will want to perform/record/orchestrate it. Though my feeling is that if you can't orchestrate your own music, you should really learn how.

It's that story about sitting on the bench and some musician happening along and saying it would cost "hundreds of thousands of pounds" to orchestrate it that really outraged me. Unless we are talking about Gurre-Lieder or a five-hour opera, that is just ridiculous. First of all, do your own orchestration. If you can't then I have serious doubts about whether you have written anything worth the trouble. Second, for "hundreds of thousands of pounds" you could commission just about any composer to write a whole lot of pieces. Classical composers work pretty cheap these days. As an example, here are the commissioning rates from the Canadian League of Composers:

Schedule of Minimum Commissioning Fees
The fees indicated are the CLC's suggested minimum rates, effective January 1, 2013
*Please note that rates were raised on January 1, 2013 from previous rates.

I Chamber Ensembles Fee per minute
One or two $425
Three or four $475
Five to Eight $535
Nine to Fifteen $615

II Orchestra Fee per minute
Chamber orchestra up to 15 parts $615
Orchestra over 15 parts $790

III Chorus Fee per minute
A cappella (or with piano) up to seven parts $475
A cappella (or with piano) eight parts or more $535
With instrumental ensemble (up to eight performers) $560
With chamber orchestra (over nine to fifteen performers) $615
With full orchestra (over 15 parts) $790

IV Electroacoustic Music per minute
Plus studio rental unless provided $560
For the addition of an electronic part or tape to an ensemble add to the rate $145 to the appropriate rate

Hilariously inexpensive, isn't it? This means that you could commission pretty well any Canadian composer to write a 30 minute piece for large orchestra for-----wait for it----$23,700 Canadian, which is pretty much equal to US dollars these days. That's thirty minutes at $790 a minute. Hundreds of thousands of pounds? Hey, I have a bridge in Brooklyn (oddly enough) I could get for you really cheap!

Well, let's listen to Mr. Sharp's symphony:

Was that what you expected? It was certainly better than I expected. It does tend to sound too much like movie music for my taste, but it shows that some strange things can happen in the music world. Of course what we are really dealing with here is the back story: dead child, leaving everything behind, life on the streets, finally ultimate triumph. It's a book! The symphony is not so much a piece of music as the symbol of a human triumph. How genuine is it? Perhaps as genuine as the unnamed "musical experts" who attest that the symphony is a work of genius. It pretty much has to be to make the story come out right, doesn't it?

UPDATE: Here is a crazy comparison for you. This painting by Jackson Pollock sold for $140 million dollars:

Now sure, it's really nifty, but how would you compare the creativity and craftsmanship involved in creating it with the creativity and craftsmanship involved in creating a large-scale work for orchestra? More? Less? Similar? It just seems very, very peculiar to me that a large piece for orchestra is valued at $23,700 and this painting at $140 million.

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