Composing in the Entrepreneurial Era
200 years since his birth, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Karl Marx Exhibitions Organisation present a series of concerts, soundart installations and events commemorating the life and work of Karl Marx in Trier in Germany and Birmingham and London in the UK.
When I was starting out as a composer, in Canada in the early 1990s, being a composer was the opposite of being a business person. A few composers devoted a small amount of attention to promoting their work, which seemed both admirable and quirky; but if anyone was too self-promoting, it seemed like they were openly admitting that their music couldn’t stand on its own merit. Now we’re all supposed to be entrepreneurs all the time, it seems, and not only that, we’re supposed to be excited about it. (For further reading on this topic, composer Aaron Gervais has written a great pair of articles about the essential incompatibility between art and entrepreneurship, available here and here. And Andrew Lee and Alex Shapiro have an interesting exchange on whether entrepreneurship is a part of the arts on NewMusicBox, here, here, and here.)
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, having just reentered the world of freelancers after almost 10 years away, during most of which time I was on a music faculty, where a salary meant I could write the music I wanted to without having to worry too much about funding. I’m happy to be back to composing full time, but hadn’t realized just how much things had changed in the time I’d been away from freelancing.
I can play this new game: composers have always been good at playing the games we need to, to keep ourselves fed. In different times and places, we’ve been in the employ of the court or church, we’ve cultivated patrons, we’ve applied for government-funded grants, we’ve participated in work schemes, we’ve had stipends, we’ve lived on welfare, we’ve gone hungry, we’ve flocked to cities with a low cost of living, we’ve lived collectively, we’ve been supported by the community, we’ve come from or married into wealthy families, we’ve taught, we’ve had day jobs. I’ve participated in many of these systems, and of course they’re not mutually exclusive. At the moment I’m doing a mix of applying for grants, teaching, living in a less expensive city, living frugally, feeling grateful to have a partner with a regular income, and figuring out how best to exist in this new world of entrepreneurship without losing myself. Each of these systems has its strengths and drawbacks, but I can’t help but feel that the current entrepreneurial model is taking a deeper toll than we yet realize.
On the surface, my freelancing life of 20 years ago and my current freelancing life may not seem too different. I write music, I meet people, I share my work, I plan new projects, I apply for funding. But each of these acts now feels subtly different. Terms and techniques from the business world have infiltrated all the material aspects of life as a composer, and I’m worried about the extent to which they affect the music we write too. Though they may at first just seem like new labels, which almost describe what we do, or new procedures which are pretty close to what we were doing anyway, they end up subtly reshaping our identities, our art, and our communities.
I write music. My focus has always been on the act of writing music, working with performers, and sharing it with audiences. I’m a composer because I compose, not because I style myself as such. As a composer I engage with the world all kinds of ways—politically, socially, across disciplines—but always connecting back, in some way, to the act of arranging sounds to be heard.
I was taken aback when I first heard composers, and artists in general, described as “creatives,” perhaps 10 years ago. The term originated (in its nominalized form) in advertising in the 1960s, and was popularized as a word to describe “people in design, education, arts, music and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology and/or creative content” in urban studies theorist Richard Florida’s influential bestseller, The Rise of the Creative Class. Of all the functions music and the arts can have—expressive, exploratory, experimental, decorative, healing, spiritual, community-building, and any number of others—Florida considers the economic function to be most important. Connection with an audience has always been important to me, but only because for me music is in essence a form of communication, not a consumable. Effort to maximize saleability would limit the potential range of expression and form: indeed, privileging commercial value above all else is considered by most to be antithetical to the very idea of art.
The widespread influence of Florida’s view is revealed in the plethora of articles arguing that the arts are important because they are good for the economy. Arguments supporting arts education because it improves test scores in math and the sciences are only one step removed: fund the arts so students will do better in math and sciences so they will go into technology-related fields so they can make us richer which is what matters.
I’m even less enthusiastic about the idea of “creating content,” which suggests platform is what matters, not art. I always thought that concert halls, records, and radio stations existed to enable music to be heard (even if their owners were entrepreneurs), but apparently I had it backwards. Now I exist only so the owners will have something to sell.
I meet people. Meeting people—other composers, performers, impresarios—has always been an essential part of being a composer. And the word “networking” has been in common use since the 1980s, though I never really think about things that way. It’s usually easy to find people to talk to with shared interests and enthusiasms. New collaborations can flow spontaneously from genuine human and artistic connections.
But with the rise of social media, networking is now 24 hours a day, knows no geographical limits, and is immortalized in writing. Lines between friendship, business, and public discourse are blurred. Is this person friending me because they like my work, because they are interested in participating in a discipline-wide discussion, or because they want me to buy their new CD? (I’ve experienced all three). Are we participating in an online discussion because we’re interested in the topic, because we like the sense of community it fosters, or because we want to get our name out there? (I’ve done all three). Social media can facilitate real connection, but can also lead to a continual jockeying for position, which doesn’t turn off even when we are home in bed. Cultivating an online presence, which we’re all supposed to do now, can be stressful, tedious, distracting, or fun, depending on one’s personality—but it’s not creating art. Building our reputation as an artist becomes a side occupation, which may be only tangentially related to our actual artistic work.
I share my work. It used to be on painstakingly copied cassette tapes, then on home-burned CDs. Now it’s through links on social media. As much as we try to distance ourselves, it’s hard not to try to collect “likes” for work we share. (And is it exactly sharing if we’re hoping it will lead to sales?) We try to win music competitions by soliciting online votes from friends. Whoever has the most friends, or whoever pesters their friends most, writes the “best” music, apparently. I don’t think of myself as someone who spends a lot of time looking in a mirror, but the times I’ve lived without one —camping, or while traveling—I’ve been surprised at how much time and mental energy is cleared up for other things. Social media is the distorting mirror of our creative souls. It deflects the energy we should be using for new projects continually back to their packaging and promotion.
I plan projects. These days the conversations turn immediately to money, before we even imagine the piece. How can we make it fit this grant? How can we market it? How can we maximize its impact? Finding funding for the artists and the production of the work is important, of course, and I certainly don’t suggest that we work for free. But I’m wary of letting considerations of marketability affect the shape of our work from its beginning stages, before we’ve even begun to imagine what it might be.
I look for funding. 20 years ago, my primary funding sources were provincial and federal arts councils with arm’s length funding—organizations in which the money comes from the government, but funding decisions are made by a panel of fellow artists. (I was in Canada then, but most countries in Europe had and have similar arts councils.) The application forms were predictable, concise, and uncomplicated. We presented our experience, our project, and our plans for carrying it out as straightforwardly as possible: overselling met with rejection. The jurors were neither the funders nor the audiences, which gave us freedom to propose work different than what audiences might be expecting or already familiar with. Once funding was awarded, no check-ins were required until the work was complete. It could develop at its own pace, with the ups and downs that typically attend the creative process.
Many of the grants I apply for now (in Canada, the UK, and the U.S.) come from private funders, or from government agencies operating under an increasingly business-influenced model. Jurors come, more and more, from the “cultural sector”—administrators, curators, media presenters—rather than being artists themselves, and the applications have a distinctly different tone. One had us make webpages to promote our project as the application, which would be made public if we were successful. Another expected us to blog about our work every step of the way. I declined to apply for the grant that required me to submit a slick video.
Crowdfunding is the most blatantly entrepreneurial form of funding, necessitating as it does the continual hawking of one’s work. I have no criticism of individual artists who crowdfund, and don’t rule out the possibility of doing it myself one day. We do what we must to survive. I even see it as a useful adjunct to other kinds of funding—but it has serious drawbacks as well. While it’s true that crowdfunding appears superficially to be democratic, in that anyone can start a campaign, those with the most and richest friends are likely to be the most successful. It may slightly increase the pool of people to whom arts funding is available, but decidedly does not give everyone equal access. Beyond this, it conflates audience and funders, meaning a project will only be funded if the audience already knows they want it. Lots of great art may be created this way, but the art that the audiences don’t yet know they want will be lost. Furthermore, crowdfunding encourages us to spend our time and energy on meeting our needs as individuals, which may detract energy from working towards communal solutions.
Certainly finding ways to bring our work to a larger audience is important, and just sitting at home waiting to be discovered is its own form of arrogance, in addition to being ineffective. It’s necessary to seek funding, and to check in with potential audiences from time to time. But at this stage, we’re continually redirected back towards self-promotion. Promote yourself for this grant application! Tell us how important your work will be! Now blog about your working process! Now tweet about your blog! Now promote it to the public! Now sell the performance! Now document and sell the documentation! Now document its impact! Now boast about what you’ve just done!
While any one of these self-promotional acts may be harmless, when it accompanies a piece every step of the way, it can end up becoming the project, rather than a support to it. A few people thrive on working publicly, inviting audiences as they go along, but this shouldn’t be the only way to create art. For most, the act of continually promoting one’s work becomes a performance of creativity, which can at best exist in parallel to the real creative work, and at worst replaces or destroys it. When I was in graduate school, a friend tried to describe “simulacra,” and I didn’t know what he was talking about. Now the word keeps coming to mind.
Obviously this era of increased entrepreneurialism in the arts hasn’t developed in a vacuum. We live in an economic climate in which business interests and profit are privileged above everything else. Austerity affects all aspects of life, from education to healthcare to housing. 20 years ago, for artists to live close to the edge financially might have meant that if things went horribly wrong they would have to live in subsidized housing or temporarily go on welfare. Now it means that they might be homeless, might have no medical care, or might be thrown in jail for student loan debt: any one of these might mean they could never get back on their feet. As social supports diminish, we need to become increasingly entrepreneurial to survive. But working so hard for our own survival diminishes our sense of community, which makes us less likely to work together for collective solutions, whether arts-specific (eg. increased funding to arts councils or creation of new kinds of funding agencies) or society-wide (eg. increased social safety net or guaranteed basic income).
I’m not arguing that artists should never be entrepreneurial—but I’ll be continuing to advocate for a world where it’s an option, not a necessity. What I object to is the entrepreneurial system being held as an ideal, such that even non-entrepreneurial ways of funding arts try to imitate it. I don’t want to have to brag about the importance of my work before it’s even been made. I don’t want to have to claim that each new work will be groundbreaking. I don’t want considerations of how many people will see my work or how much money can be made from selling tickets to be first and foremost in the funders’ minds.
We need grants that fund on the basis of what we will try, rather than what we promise to produce. We need the freedom to write the music that the audience doesn’t know it wants, as well as the music it does already know that it wants. We need a social support system that allows us to stop thinking about money for long enough to create, and we need to be able to experiment without worrying that a lack of commercial success will result in financial ruin.
We need to be working to build a vibrant musical and artistic community together instead of scrambling for individual survival. We need the freedom to let art emerge from the dark and quiet spaces, without pretending to know in advance what it will be or whom it will affect. Though we’re all living in a world that values entrepreneurialism above all else, we don’t have to let its values become our own. ¶