Why does it matter what composers earn?
This morning, the Guardian published a short piece by Susanna Eastburn entitled The future of new music is at risk if we continue to undervalue composers. Here she presented and addressed some of the information that has come out of a Sound and Music report into commissions for composers. You can read the report here, or if you don’t want to read it (it isn’t very long, I’d recommend it), then you can look at this infographic.
There are lots of points to be raised from this report: the average fee for a commission was, all things considered, very low, and many respondents thought that both the number of available commissions and their conditions were getting worse. The article sums up what I see as the greatest problem in this statement:
It takes heroic commitment to become a composer if you’re from a working class background, with higher education courses charging fees in the thousands of pounds and remuneration for your compositions so low.
The many responses that I’ve seen along the lines of, “oh, things aren’t so bad” completely miss the point of this sentence which should be a concern for all involved in the arts. It is important that music, as a career as well as an interest, is open to all as art should reflect all of society. Where it doesn’t, it’s hardly surprising that there are many people who choose not to engage with it.
Here are some of the objections that I’ve seen:
1. I have another job to support my composing and that’s fine, I like that job too
That’s fine! That’s also the situation that I am in. I enjoy and value my job and trained for it for a long time. If this weren’t the case, I may resent spending a majority of my time doing something other than composing, of course…
2. Most people have portfolio careers these days
This is also true. Again, many people may want this type of career and enjoy the variety that it offers them. But also many people may do this to support what they really want to do. For everyone I know who loves teaching their instrument I know someone else who only does that to support what they really want to do. They may be amazing teachers, but they may not be the happiest teachers either.
3. It’s possible to get support from your family whilst starting out
This is the most disingenuous objection, to me. For a majority of people, this is absolutely not the case. To expect this is also to expect the families of composers and artists to effectively subsidise the arts. It also excludes a very large number of people from a career in the arts entirely.
In addition, this is a problematic expectation for other reasons. Whilst I’m sure that this issue doesn’t effect the majority of composers who receive support from families or partners, financial dependence greatly increases the likelihood that people will be unable to leave abusive relationships or be autonomous in their own lives. Surely something that is not wanted in today’s society!
4. Composers can choose to turn down unpaid work
This is both true and not true. Of course they can say no, but the structure of the arts today means that they will also probably say no to advancing their career. The Sound and Music figures show that if composers want to work at all they will need to do so for very little or no pay.
There are a couple of things to say about the survey. The first is that it just presents the figures. Although Susanna Eastburn’s Guardian article brings out some of the related problems, the survey does not in and of itself. Second, having filled in this survey myself, their definition of commission was very broad. This was most likely so that a wide variety of types of work could be included, and also because within contemporary music the word commission is often used in situations which don’t look like a commission (i.e. where there is no money involved). This actually means that this survey has taken in a wider variety of work done in contemporary music today than one which only looked at paid work. Therefore, the picture is bleak but it is also realistic.
The final point to be made is also covered, briefly, in the Guardian article. The survey only looked at paid commissions and not at other contextual issues around work for composers. The problems highlighted here that prevent entry into arts careers for those from non-wealthy backgrounds are amplified by education. Many composers will have completed some level of postgraduate education. This report highlights how a decline in funding for postgraduate education is making academia accessible only to the very wealthy, even when a good salary at the end of it is assumed.
In addition, increasing undergraduate fees, along with the incessant ‘employability’ narrative, will put many off from studying music at all. It is true that you don’t need a university degree to be a composer, but it is also true that education for composers in higher education focuses on more than just technique: rehearsing pieces, working with musicians, and very importantly introducing students to performers and others in the industry who can help them in their work. When music at higher education is not accessible to everyone, neither are these opportunities, and this puts a career in composition further out of the reach of many young people.
This isn’t a minor issue. It’s an important one for all the arts. As many articles are written bemoaning declining audiences, few focus on the relevance of art for many people. And by relevance I do not mean the insertion of gimmickry and popular music references but the presentation of art that is really relevant to people’s lives. So much of art subsidy goes to the next season of Beethoven, and the like, and so little to the practitioners of today, one wonders what will be left to listen to in 100 years. After all, there’s only so many times you can listen to the same old works. Given the opportunity many regular concert goers would probably try out something new (especially if it weren’t presented in a patronising way).
What composers earn matters because it matters that the arts is accessible to all. This must be the primary argument, not one about the intrinsic value of composers’ labour or about the value of contemporary practice even though these things are important. If art cannot be made by anyone who wants to work towards it as a career then it isn’t for everyone either. As someone who is responsible for educating part of the next generation of composers this is extremely concerning: do I want to work with students who come only from wealthy backgrounds? No, I want to make music, and particularly composition, possible for everyone who wants to be involved in it. If I am to be able to do that, this situation will need to improve.