Friday, March 18, 2011

The Oxymoronic "Frugal Composer"

I have gone through most of my compositional education with teachers and mentors advising me to always put my best face forward in terms of presentation, networking, and marketing. Their advice is well-meant and probably realistic given the extremely competitive and networked nature of the composition field. However, often the advice translates in practicality to a number of details that cost a lot of money, ranging from binding scores for competitions (as I mentioned in my earlier post) to attending music festivals in another state or country in order to broaden your contacts and exposure. Overall, composers are advised to spend a lot of time and money trying to build not only a portfolio, but also a CV.

But…how do you measure the fairness of a system that has such inherently high costs for its young, often unemployed/underemployed members? How effective are these costly details in actually furthering a composition career? And, perhaps the most practical question of all, is there a “frugal” way to be a composer?

The first question I posed is one that I cannot answer, but it often troubles me. I recognize that it’s a reflection of life that some people are able to pursue their dreams and others aren’t because of the realities of financial costs (talent and skill, for the sake of this conversation, are separate issues). But who are we pricing out and what effect does this have on our culture? Obviously people of all socioeconomic backgrounds theoretically have the ability to pursue composition if they really want to…but do they? Do we end up only hearing the music of the mid-to-upper classes? To me, the idea of the “starving artist” seems like a misnomer, as most composers I know have been financially supported at some point by scholarships and/or family and relatives, because—let’s face it—it’s pretty hard to be productive, much less prolific, when you’re working a full-time job. (*Note: I do think it’s completely possible to compose successfully while working another job—Charles Ives is a classic example—but it’s definitely harder).

My second question addresses the efficacy of putting lots of your savings into your composition career. Teachers often reiterate that music festivals and programs are an investment: you put money in to attend and then you meet performers and make connections that will potentially benefit you down the road (with commissions, job connections, etc.). It reminds me a bit of those MasterCard commercials: binding and printing costs $10; application fee $25; tuition, room and board, and transportation $1000+; hearing your music performed and making connections? Priceless.

Obviously there’s a lot of truth in the idea that investments pay off. I’ve made a lot of important connections through music festivals, competitions, and programs in the past and I don’t regret any of them, especially since I almost always received institutional support. For some people, however, such a costly investment, without funding support from institutions or kind-hearted relatives, is simply not feasible. So, if you opt out of attending a lot of these things, are you inevitably hurting yourself and your career in the long run? Is it possible to be a successful composer without losing your (probably already depleted) savings? Is the “frugal composer” an oxymoron?

Sarah and I are hoping to make a project for an upcoming post where we’ll present resources that we think could help composers to be cost-effective artists. I currently have my own website for my music (which, much to my consternation, is another added cost), but once my two-year contract expires this summer, I’m considering moving to a different (free!) site. I’ve already moved my music to (thanks to a recommendation from a friend of mine, composer Danny Clay), which I highly recommend. Anyway, my point is that I think there are ways of getting around money issues, including taking advantage of free website hosts and sharing sites; seeking out competitions, festivals, and residencies that have minimal to no costs; and going “local” in taking advantage of performance opportunities. This is probably stuff that a lot of people are already doing, but I know that this year has been a wake-up call for me in terms of economic realities, and I think it’s a good thing to take stock of our financial efforts in pursuing what is often an elusive and challenging career.

Posted by Natalie


  1. Natalie,

    Thanks for sharing this, I think it is real dilemma artists face and you put it so eloquently! As a visual artist, I come across the same challenges and have juggled a variety of paid jobs (either multiple part-time or full-time) while balancing my artistic life. Residencies, teaching opportunities and occasional time-off helps, but I also think making art requires being gentle with yourself. I also have a hard time making work when I feel extremely stressed, which can either come from expectations I put on myself, or a variety of external pressures. Its stressful when you have the job and less time, but its also stressful when you're pinching pennies and trying to make work with serious financial constraints. A friend once made a pejorative comment about 'Sunday-painters' but I had to wonder, what artist isn't a Sunday painter? We all need to eat, somehow.

    Free websites are helpful, but limit the artist's control in how the work is presented (probably more of an issue with visual artists). Our last conversation about time was a really good reminder that artists work an entire lifetime, and while discipline and consistency are important, it helps to also realize that we have time to develop and grow as artists. Not social media time, but an entire lifetime, time. And to this extent, experiencing life outside the studio, even when we aren't producing art, also contributes to our artistic life (is this a little bit of a cop-out? maybe, but I also think its true...). So maybe its about slow-art, and saving time for an artist to grow and develop, opting out of social media time (or not buying into it completely) and learning to be gentle on yourself, while using our precious studio time to distill the experiences that come from all the craziness that happens outside of it...


  2. Thanks for reading, Hana!

    I like the idea of being gentle with yourself in terms of expectations and productivity. That's a really good way to phrase it. Good things do tend to come slowly, over time, as you say, and often, at least for me, they come through nurturing, not force.

    I recently had a lesson where my teacher emphasized that it's important never to feel rushed---to always feel like you are making every part of your piece the most [insert artistic goal here] that it can possibly be. I never thought of myself as NOT doing that, but when she phrased it that way it definitely made me rethink my creative process and it really, really changed the piece I was working on. So many composers who I really respect are intense drafters and that kind of process is something that makes sense to me and that I'm really trying to work on.

    Speaking of work...will be emailing you soon with some sounds! Glad to have your comment, and hope you'll keep reading!