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The Reality Of The Situation

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As many of us know, its really tough out there for a composer. The idea of a stable job is fleeting at best, and most will have to look towards an outside line of work to supplement the lack of financial stability. But do we truly know how hard it is out there?


How prepared do you feel you are to make it as a composer? 


The following article expands upon just how hard the prospects of making composing a form of income is. It also offers a new way of thinking that may help in some small way:


 


http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/Composing-a-Life-Or-How-I-Learned-to-Stop-Worrying-and-Love-the-Dollar/


 


Respond to the article: do you feel he over simplifies a complex issue or did you learn anything new about this topic?


 


And what about you, How will you (or how did you) face this situation?

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That was quite a heavy article, i've got to say! Ultimately however, I am unconcerned with how luxurious my circumstances are in the future as long as I can devote myself to make the best music I can, and get the best opportunities possible. While ideally i'd like to be able to live solely from commission fees, the realistic solution is to look for a job at a college or university.

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What artists and musicians need most is time to work and improve their skills.  Finding a way to get that and still eat is the challenge.  

 

Specifics for composers, I don't know, but I think his point about tapping the 90% of the world that doesn't go to classical music concerts is a good one.  You can either make exactly what you want, and spend a lot of time looking for someone to pay you for it, or you can find a way to make something that lots of people are already looking for, but which you also enjoy.  

 

I make a lot of coffee mugs.  Just about anybody needs and can afford a coffee mug.  And I can make them just the way I want to.  I'm sure I could find someone who wanted a $15,000 clay statue of a pink elephant if I looked really hard, but I would spend more time looking for the customer than I would making the elephant.  Not a good use of time.  

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 the realistic solution is to look for a job at a college or university.

How realistic do you think this really is?  Do you think universities are just hiring new professors routinely?  I graduated from a top 5 physics program (graduate school) and I still have an extremely rough time fighting for national lab and associate professorships*.  I've had to go as far as Russia once or twice!  If you think academic route is easier and safer than living off commission, you really need to wake up and fully grasp your situation.

 

I'm not saying that you should not try, i'm saying you should fully appreciate how difficult it truly is. 

 

*I may work in an extremely abstract and theoretical field, so this adds to my burden, but nevertheless even my peers who researched more applied topics struggle. 

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i'm saying you should fully appreciate how difficult it truly is. 

 

There is an inherent bias in advice on this topic of this sort, in that poor candidates are often oblivious to their own weaknesses, and the better ones are wary of competition.

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How realistic do you think this really is?  Do you think universities are just hiring new professors routinely?  I graduated from a top 5 physics program (graduate school) and I still have an extremely rough time fighting for national lab and associate professorships*.  I've had to go as far as Russia once or twice!  If you think academic route is easier and safer than living off commission, you really need to wake up and fully grasp your situation.

 

I'm not saying that you should not try, i'm saying you should fully appreciate how difficult it truly is. 

 

*I may work in an extremely abstract and theoretical field, so this adds to my burden, but nevertheless even my peers who researched more applied topics struggle. 

 

I have to reiterate this point. I know I use to fall for this as well, and my prof didn't really help much either. They kind of make it sound like it is easy; Get a teaching assistant position at your university, graduate, get a job at some university, work on your music while working towards tenure. But the reality is you graduate and hope that someone else got fired or is retiring at the same time. If you have no other skills other than composing (like teaching voice or an instrument or really good at music history) its even harder. 

If you want a real look at what the academia look at the job postings at www.higheredjobs.com and look at the music related jobs. If you are lucky you might find one for composition position. 

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I understand that an academic job is also very difficult to get, but I have a feeling that there are more people who want to be taught/lectured than there are who will pay me to write them a postmodern chamber opera!

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Since I believe it's impossible to make a solid living out of composing only, I will continue to be a lecturer while composing at spare time. I got used to wake up at 6am and composing until 7.30 am when my girls wake up. Also, in two weeks from now, the school will end with lectures and I will have to spend some more time in my classroom doing paperwork. Since that's an easy thing to do, I will have time to bring my computer to school and compose more! :)

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Well, anecdotally: After a conservatory B.M. in composition, I spent years as a freelancer, well below the poverty line, living the unglamorous life of a musician in a city.  It was HARD.  For that to work you have to be resourceful, optimistic, healthy overall (and not addicted to anything expensive), willing to live ultra-simply without the luxuries most of your peers are used to, and lucky (especially medically; I lived without health insurance for years, and although I carefully took care of my health, it is also damn lucky I didn't just have some accident or injury during those years). 

 

Now I'm finally set with substantial commissions and some solid income, and I don't regret those years, but what I really want to emphasize is the temperament that got me through them.  Freelancing requires you to be genuinely okay with very little income and very little stability.  If you feel like you'll want more stability, don't let anyone tell you it's selling out or giving up to have a steady job (musical or otherwise).  Most of the composers I most admire in my peer group do!

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I understand that an academic job is also very difficult to get, but I have a feeling that there are more people who want to be taught/lectured than there are who will pay me to write them a postmodern chamber opera!

That may be a true statement, I just hope you're not confusing easier with plausible.  I wish there existed statistical information for PhD in musical composition like there exist for Physicist.  I imagine that a PhD in physics finds easier employment than a PhD in music, and physicist stand at less than 10% of all PhD staying within academics, with over 50% loss after the first PostDoc and a 40% drop after the second postdoc.  This doesn't include those who never got a first postdoc.  =(

 

Like I said, I'm not trying to persuade you from following your dream, but you must give yourself the ability to work in a related field, find skills that can get you a job in general, or mentally accept life living at the poverty level.  Although you may think you're ok with that at your age, people change dramatically.  One day you might want a partner and kids.  You might not.  One day you just might incur huge debt due to a misfortune and will wish that you could make money more easily.  

 

Key thing to take away is that following your passion is great, but always be aware of what life can throw at you and prepare for it.  Nothing is worse than seeing newly minted PhD's suddenly realizing that academics is not a bright future. Also, people also like to throw out that being a school teacher is a "safety".  Music teacher is probably less secure and more competitive than say a math teacher.  

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What I've been seeing a lot of lately with music students is this attitude that a degree guarantees security. There seems to be this surprisingly common idea that no matter how unresourceful and unextraordinary someone might be, there are many people that want to hire them based on the fact that they have a postgrad education. 

 

Edit: relevant (and applicable across many fields)

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Although I've written a large number of pop songs, and had limited success.  I've always worked in jobs related to writing music.. For many years, I was a recording engineer, then started arranging and producing other peoples music. I traveled around the world as a sound mixer for a famous rock group for two years.  Although it seriously cut into my 'writing and recording time'.  The opportunity was golden..  I got to mix music for crowds up to 70,000 people.  That is quite a learning experience in itself, seeing what drives an audience and the band, to become more creative, when there was good energy.  My good friend and business partner was in the band, and he told me how much he learned just by hearing his music on the radio.  It was quite a different teacher.

 

So the paths a composer takes in life varies widely, and quite often something we do that is seemingly quite unrelated, can be a wonderful opportunity to gain a different perspective on how to make music. In fact that is the 'kernel' of creativity, the ability of a human to take seemingly unrelated things and synthesize them into something new and wonderful.  For instance a home health care worker, may spend many years caring for dying people. But he(she) could take this situation, and use it to create beautiful, serenely inspiring music. Indeed, during the 90's lots of my friends died of AIDs, I spent a lot of time caring for a few people.. As a result, I got into writing new age music, that would comfort both myself, and people that were dying.. Eventually I moved on, and stopped creating 'new age' music.  I also took two years to take care of my dying mom.  I bought a laptop computer, and got to spend a lot of time working with some new music software (Synfire Pro), and take care of my mom.  As a result, I feel my music has much more 'depth' than it previously had. 

 

I do pop music, so in a way it doesn't relate that closely, to the 'serious' composers here.  Working those other jobs, gave me lots of opportunity to learn and become aware of other types of music.. I was also 'composer in residence' at UMass in Boston back in the 70's.  They had built a state of the art 16 track studio, with a large custom built MOOG synthesizer.. I  would have to hustle up jobs, myself, then realize them in the studio.  Again I got exposed to a lot of different music.. We also had a state of the art video editing suite, so I got a number of jobs doing music for the video being produced there. But I also worked on a lot of music that is what the client wanted, not something that I necessarily wanted to do. 

 

At the age of 47, I took a part time job, being a doorman at a club. I did get to hear a large number of DJ's, but by this time I had grown out of the 'disco, hi-energy, tech' music.. Now I write for myself, and others I find who have the same goal as me.  

 

This gave me the opportunity to explore things, that would give me no financial rewards (musically).  My job at the club was a part time job, and payed well enough, that it allowed me to spend large amounts of time writing. When I think about it, this is all I ever wanted out of life, was to create music.   As a result, my music 'matured', and I have been finding older musicians and singers in a similar situation (I'm 64).  Now we create quality music.  I live a very modest life, but have enough money to buy new computers, and kb's when I need them.. But I always did music for the love of creating, I didn't care about being famous or rich.. I had a few friends who accomplished that, but most have burnt out or died by now. 

 

Also the music business has been shaken to the foundation, and a new business model has replaced the standard.  Someone well versed in the internet, can become famous world wide, without the grooming process of record companies. 

 

A lot depends on the person, and his emotional makeup.. What he can learn and gain in life.. His attitude about these discussed situations, are an extremely valuable tool to improve one's craft. 

 

A few years back, I took several online courses at Berklee music school in Boston, again changing my direction..  I have a friend who is quite well known in hip-hop circles (many here not even considering it music).  He took a composing for movie course at Berklee.  He bought a ton of 'sample libraries', and now knocks out scores very quickly.  Personally  I don't like this approach, it is like assembling "Leggo blocks" for music.  After checking out a lot of the sample libraries,  I have noticed, how much TV music uses them.  A lot of movie 'trailer' music is the same.  My friend plays by ear, and knows practically zero, about theory, harmony, counterpoint, etc.  He assembles these pieces quickly; more important someone else in his class is connected with a music publishing company.  So they have an outlet for this 'music'.

 

Creating music that way is not something I want to do, and I can imagine the response, of some of the composers here.  

Edited by mark styles
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