Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Economics of Composition

There is a series of articles in the Globe and Mail that offer career advice in the form of "if I become a jet test pilot, how much will I make?" I have never read any of them so I don't know if the answer to that one was, "$100,000, but you will only work a couple of years before suffering a fiery demise!" But I do, from time to time, think about the economics of composition.

I suspect that the most successful film composers might do pretty well. I have seen numbers like up to $500,000 or even $600,000 for the top rank big budget composers like John Williams. But this might include all the costs of having to deliver a recording of the music. That means having to pay the musicians, conductor and recording costs, which makes you a general contractor as well as a composer. On the bottom end, a low-budget film or TV score would mean around $20,000 to the composer. Again, this might include having to deliver the recorded score, so hello synthesized and sampled instruments. I watched some behind the scenes interviews with Christophe Beck, the composer of most of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtracks and how he worked was to compose the score on his digital audio workstation (a digital keyboard hooked into a computer with music software) and just hired the occasional soloist to lay melodic tracks on top. The results are pretty good. The only time he used an actual orchestra was for the series finale.

But this is all commercial stuff, even if it sounds a bit "classical". It is a tricky thing to describe or define the difference between a film score or video game score and a "serious" composition. I think it is pretty easy to hear if I put them side by side, though. Let's try that. Here is John Williams conducting and commenting on his "Harry Potter Symphonic Suite":

To be honest, I didn't listen to the whole thing as the first piece, Hedwig's Flight, I think makes my point. Lovely sound in the celesta, as Williams says. And it is a direct lift from the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy by Tchaikovsky:

Except, of course that the Tchaikovsky has two things that the Williams piece lacks: it has more distinctive melodic and rhythmic character AND it is original.

It goes both ways, of course, sometimes, perhaps a bit cattily, I have accused a passage from a Mahler symphony as sounding like a banquet scene from Harry Potter. But that is a bit mean!

In any case, I think there are some real, if perhaps subtle, differences between a film composer looting the history of music for little remnants he can dress up and use in his score and what a more serious composer would do. This gets very tricky to talk about because if I say the difference is in the intention, then there are some potentially serious objections to that line of argument. It doesn't matter what a composer intends, you might reply, only what he does. If I intend to write a great symphony, that doesn't mean I will succeed!

But some kinds of intention shape the way you work and therefore the result. John Williams is creating music to accompany a filmed narrative, therefore the needs of the narrative drive the process. If I could refer to someone I have been talking about a lot lately, what the Swedish composer Allan Pettersson is doing is quite different and so are the results. His work is entirely about a kind of spiritual inner journey that involves a great deal of suffering, very audible in the music, with sometimes "lyrical islands" of beauty glimpsed on the journey. Parts of his Symphony No. 10 were actually sketched on bandages as he was confined to a hospital in critical condition for a considerable time.

I think you get the idea? But I find that I have wandered away from my topic, which is the economics of composition.

So, if you are a commercial composer like John Williams you might make seven figures a year, which is around what the most successful classical soloists probably make, though these numbers are not made public. Most classical soloists and film composers, I am sure, eke out a bare minimum.

But what are the economics like for the serious composer? I talked about this in this post where I quoted the standard fees suggested by the Canadian League of Composers. Basically, if you spend a year writing a 20-minute piece for orchestra, you will be paid about, wait for it, $16,000 CAN or around $15,000 USD. Wow, that's easy street for sure! Of course, if you are a very, very famous Canadian composer you might get a commission like this every few years. Serious music composition, in Canada at least, is an amateur pastime. Either you have a day job as composition or theory teacher at a university or conservatory or you are independently wealthy.

Now here is what I really wanted to talk about. What sort of model, economic and aesthetic, is there for really worthwhile music composition, what we would like to call "serious" or "art" music? In the case of Allan Pettersson, he suffered terrible poverty and illness his whole life, relieved occasionally by stipends or grants from the Swedish government. His is an interesting case, because the similar kind of model in Canada does not seem to have produced anything like a body of work like Pettersson's. I have long suspected that the problem in Canada is one of the bland leading the bland. The juries of peers that pick the people that get the grants are comprised of the people that have typically gotten the grants previously and they seem to be the people who compose the properly fashionable kinds of music. This might even be the case elsewhere, though I haven't and don't intend to do the research.

Let's look at a couple of American examples. Three actually. One would be Harry Partch who was a genuine original and probably never got a grant (nor applied for one) in his life. He was so out there that he not only wrote original music, he had to design and build all the instruments to play it. Poor, yes, of course. For a lot of his life his lot was pretty much that of a hobo. Let's listen to a bit of his music. This is an early piece called "Barstow" after the town in California:

Another example would be Conlon Nancarrow who lived in Mexico for many years creating strange and impossible piano music by cutting slots directly in the paper rolls of player pianos. Here is one of those pieces:

And a third example is Charles Ives, now greatly respected as the father of modernism in the US, but from an economic point of view, a complete amateur. His day job was as an executive for an insurance company where he developed the concept of estate planning, but he wrote piles of scores that for the most part remained unknown during his life. His music might be regarded as musical experiments, many of which were never performed until after he was dead. Of course, no-one was offering him any commissions. Here is his "Central Park in the Dark":

So, our models are, composition supported by stipends from the state which often, but not always results in mediocre music; a life of poverty; a life of exile; or a productive career in business while composing music on the side.

I seem to have managed to combine all of these except the first two! I am proud to make the claim that I have never been awarded a penny in government grants.

Now, can we find some counter-examples? Great, or at least really interesting music, that was composed by commission or other direct payment. Up until the 20th century this was the norm. Every symphony Haydn wrote was composed under aristocratic patronage. I won't talk about this here as I have done so elsewhere, but during the 19th century the whole economic structure changed and by the 20th century it was largely states and government bodies that supported or did not support composition. This is still the case. Composers that seem to do ok with this, receiving commissions for their work, but writing compositions of outstanding quality, are people like Esa-Pekka Salonen, Thomas Adès and others. Here is Insomnia for orchestra by Salonen:

This was intended mostly as a "food for thought" post, so leave a comment...


Rickard Dahl said...

That piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen is really nice. It's rare to find modern day "mainstream" classical that sounds so exciting/interesting.

Kalevi Aho relies on another model or combination of models, according to Wikipedia: "He became composer-in-residence for the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in 1992, and conductor Osmo Vänskä has recorded many of his recent large-scale works with the orchestra. Aho has worked as a freelance composer, with a state scholarship, since 1993." His music certainly is very nice so government support can be useful in some cases.

I suppose though that the "working with something else while still composing" model is necessary for most composers unless they want to live in poverty. Maybe a good combination is working at your regular job less so you have more time to compose and maybe try to find some ways to get commisions from time to time to earn some extra money.

By the way, I found an article on this topic:

Bryan Townsend said...

The composer in residence model is a kind of variant of the government stipend model, at least in Canada. As orchestras themselves rely on government stipends, so would composers they support. In fact, it is likely that they receive extra funding precisely for this purpose.

That Guardian article is fascinating! Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention.