Solutions to Our Predicament

Momitization for creative musicians part 2: solutions

But what can we do about the situation?

In these middling economic times, it might be tempting to give up and resign creative music to the space of avocation.  I have seen this argument from a number of highly skilled musicians, who despite their virtuosity, are unable to make a living, or are making a living so meager that it is insulting to their position within the arts.

This is neither helpful, nor necessary, as models both historical and current abound for the funding of the arts. I shall also speculate as to the effectiveness of the some of the existing alternative systems.

Before we go further, I should specify that I am mostly speaking of, and to the legions of “working” musicians who once formed the bulk of professional music. That is to say, not pop music stars. Rather, the strata that once made up the musical “middle class.” There will always be stars, but the “every day” professional and commercial musician seems to be waning concept.

 

Supply and demand in the arts.

Some might give lectures about a supply and demand in the arts. The national endowment of the arts lectures to us that there is in fact a glut of fine art existing now. http://www.azarts.gov/news-resources/news/in-response-to-supply-and-demand-in-the-arts/

In fact this is a specious concept. There has never been a shortage of artists, only a shortage of famous figures. We must not conflate the two.  I would wager that there isn’t much more art per capita than there ever was. You see, many, many, many people attempt to make art. Only a few try to make a living at it, and since making a living in the arts means building an audience, artists must achieve some form of fame.

Just like any reasonably successful business would.  A successful local business will reach thousands if not millions of people. However, it is ever more difficult for artists to achieve even the moderate levels of fame they need just to put food on the table. And it should be easier today!

What we see today, is that while the majority of the music industry becomes more impoverished, more and more consumers are being pushed toward fewer and fewer famous figures. The larger mainstream music industry effectively controls the number of famous figures, and not the market itself.

In the minor leagues of music, the opposite effect prevails and consumers are free to pick from thousands of effectively non-famous artists, who are almost by definition making a meager living from their music.  Effectively supply is infinite, or in some sense zero. For if all artists are disposable artists, is any artist significant at all?

In this state of affairs, musicians are selected for reasons that are less balanced than before. Since nearly all artists below the threshold of fame are fighting for the a slice of a ghostly, almost non existent audience there is no force (fame) that can enforce competitive consequences. Therefore, traditionally trained musicians, and innovative electronic musicians are not able to actually compete with one another, and musicians end up being chosen for careers based on physical appearance, or superficial stylistic choices, or worse personal connections and nepotism.

Significant artists cannot be produced with any quality without a viable “minor league”

Artists are enjoying less and less staying power than they once did. This is for a number of reasons. However, one important detail that is often missed is that is increasingly impossible for artists to build an audience rather than inherit one.

Throughout the classical, Jazz, Rock, and early EDM eras the model for most artists was to tour consistantly, and build up a following among music aficionados across the united states. This provided a space where artists could meaningfully compete with one another, and practice constantly. While artists partaking in “underground” music concerts from the 1920′s to the dawn of this century were certainly not well paid, they were able to eke out an existence that was proportional to their success musically, and work consistently.

Because of this, the artists that made it to the top rungs of music tended to be at least technically competent, and it was possible to speak of a “mill” of song writers, and virtuosos being produced by the system.  This system was a hot bed for creative energy, and without it is very difficult for meaningful technical advancement to occur in music.

The recent artist bankruptcy in the “major leagues” of music is surely do to the loss of this model. Instead of being the best of the minor leagues, artists are selected based on appearance, or other superficial attributes. While top artists are always been more or less beautiful, in past years they could contribute to their musical field far more consistently.

The not for profit model of arts funding

At  a certain point, someone decided that artists could be supported via donations, and these donations would be tax deductible.

This was acceptable for a time, but at a certain point, individual artists lost favor to “arts groups.” that is to say groups purportedly advocating for artists. Many spend hours concocting plans to build sprawling organizations for this reason.

How many of these organizations succeed? Is this a reasonable expectation for artists?

It is hard to say, but the hurdles to producing a successful, tax exempt non profit are significant. What’s more the very notion flies in the face of logic. Artists, as a rule, should not be viewed as non-profits. The goal of most artists is simply to survive, and thrive. This on it’s own isn’t a very good rationale for pushing most creative and academic musicians toward forming their own tax exempt organizations.

To be perfectly straightforward, the idea slightly abuses the intentions for non-for-profits. Artists should be receiving arts funding from organizations. What happens more often is that artists form their own organizations so that they may collect money more or less for themselves.

These organizations create a situation where the organization is surviving on grants, and donations, rather than ticket sales. This means that the organization has much reduced their energy for what is arguably a more important function: building an audience.

Still, this model works very well for some organizations. However, the hard truth is that there is very little arts funding in the United States for organizations like these, and as many young composers and performers attempt to form such organizations that funding may become harder to come by for artists who are lesser known quantities.

Academia

Now some musicians expect that the only possible way for them to make a living in creative music is to become university professors. One can imagine why this is a formula for heart break. Simply put, only a small percentage of even the best students can secure tenured positions in academia. At the same time, adjunct positions in the arts are becoming brutally underfunded, if not completely eliminated.

The direct patronage system
In times of yore, artists were supported directly by wealthy patrons, and some still are to this day. But how many, and by who? Is this practice on the rise or on the fall?

What percentage of the 1% gives ? Is it reasonable to expect patronage?

There isn’t a way that I can think of to quantify this. It is my suspicion that giving directly to artists has  become somewhat less fashionable than it once was. As the United States tightens its belt, this may be of the things that will be harder to come by. Websites are beginning to pop up, allowing for users to give money via the internet.

It could be that, in less challenging economic times, the idea of patronage via the net catches on, and saves a lot of artists from struggling. However, I suspect that this is a method that will work preferentially for artists who are already known quantities.

The software development model for arts funding

now what if we had venture capitalists? What would that take ?

Software developers sure do have things a lot easier don’t they? In case you didn’t know, many companies are given millions of dollars to work on projects that seem a great deal more silly than the average opera. Phone apps that will never see the light of day. It may be more than worth it for artists to begin to think of themselves as start ups looking for investors.

In which case, the question becomes: How do we argue our worth to investors?

Can a modern opera turn a profit? What could Berg do if it was funded almost infinitely?

I think these are questions that we, as a community should be asking ourselves.
The auction system

Looking towards art, the Auction system does in fact work on some level. While most visual artists will never go to auction, and the vast majority of those that do will only go once, the possibility is there to “auctionize” music successfully. Imagine composers auctioning off their works, or performers auctioning private performances. This is an idea that should be tried.

Of course, finding the correct audience for the auction will be critical.

The Union System

Musicians do in fact have unions. However, music unions don’t play the same role in society that they once did. At one time music unions could control the minimum wage for performers across New York City. Musicians could pick up work in union lounges, and easily augment their wages via their connections.

Sadly, this is no longer the case.

Unions mostly serve Orchestra members, Broadway musicians, and cruise ship pit bands.

I wonder what a revitalized, or radicalized music union would look like? Can you imagine if the union set a minimum price paid to bands at a concert?

What do you imagine that price would be? Do you think anyone would be able to pay it? Do you think musicians would be able to enforce this?

Conclusions

Musicians aren’t without hope. There are many paths for the future. However, musicians should be careful, and more importantly, somewhat unified in their quest to recover their lunches. I think the wider solution to the crisis of musical dollars is for greater awareness and activism in the music world.

Musicians, stand up. Claim your living.

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