Follow the Money: An Update to Virgil Thomson's "The State of Music"

by Barry Drogin

(excerpted from a forthcoming book, Play)

In a pair of essays in Virgil Thomson's famous, "The State of Music," Mr. Thomson analyzed the different forms of musical composition, and how those forms were influnced by the source of income of the composer. In 2003, the entire music industry is much more interested in discovering what the business models for the entire industry are likely to be. "Why Composers Write How, or The economic determinism of musical style" is still entertaining, and its furious condemnation of the "Music-Appreciation Racket" prescient if, sadly, ignored. But when he penned the short introduction, "How Composers Eat, or Who does what to whom and who gets paid," technology was just starting to invade the music world, starting with sheet music publishing, moving on to radio and record production, and further into film and television accompaniment.

As the audience has shifted their taste from live performance to various forms of "loudspeaker performance," actually preferring the latter, and as the means of reproduction, or what the trade would call "illegal copying," has become endemic and epidemic, following the money, for everyone involved, has become a new focus. Thomson's dream of composers "living on their take," of reaping "the just rewards of [their] labor" through royalties from music published, from "grammophone-recordings," and from "performing-rights fees," bespeaks a world in which licensing organizations were rising in power, when copyright law seemed relevant, when "professional" organizations of composers were full of promise. Thomson's dictate - that composers, as "professionals," take care of music and fight against pedagogy, criticism and "the Appreciation-racket" - has been all but lost in the forty years since he did a final update of the book, in 1961. At an annual meeting of the American Music Center, I was the only member to object, and one of only a few to vote against, a charter revision allowing greater performer representation on their Board of Directors. But the seismic changes brought by technology have both democratized and shattered the old ways. Both composers and performers are caught in the onslaught. Just follow the money.


1. How the composer gets paid

a. Non-music-related employment - The bulk of the composers creating scores today support themselves by employment in fields completely unrelated to music. This is a complete reversal of the situation of several centuries back, when the existence of "non-professional" composers such as Moussorgsky and Satie and Ives was considered to be a rarity. This is partially due to the proliferation of music departments in institutions of higher learning, and a result of the lure of what Virgil Thomson called "the music appreciation business," which identifies all acts of musicking by citation of the "famous" composer, an irresistible temptation in this age of celebrity-fixation. So-called "young composer competitions," meant to discover and encourage young talent to pursue a career in composition, also contribute to this surplus.

b. Personal funds - Either through trust fund, inheritance, or through marrying money, some composers survive through living off of the non-music-related work of others, specifically their relatives, dead or alive. This may also include composers who participated in non-music-related employment and then retired; the supporting "relative" being themselves.

c. Music-related employment - The largest source of income for composers has become the academy, the pyramid scheme which has contributed to the proliferation of composers engaged in non-music-related employment. The conservancy, once the institution meant to "conserve" the works of the past, has become the institution that supports the creation of new music, with its own "star system" of teacher-composers, as adjuncts, as tenured professors, as guest lecturers, as leaders of "master classes," and as private tutors. The isolation of the conservancy and the rise of technology that allows for the separation of composer and performer (computer music being a quaint, dated term for a host of processor-assisted music creation and manipulation media, pre-composition and post-processing as well as source production) have contributed to this phenomena as well.

The idea of a compositional "profession," the need for certification in order to obtain grants and to join the academy itself, the birth of the "science" of musicology, the indulgence of trust fund babies and the scholarship "encouragement" of young impressionable individuals with "talent," paired with P.T. Barnum's dictum, "There's a sucker born every minute," have led to this bloated monstrosity, in which there is only one commandment, and thus one sin: the "good" teacher is the encouraging teacher, the "bad" teacher is the teacher who admits to his or her students that non-musical-related employment is their likely fate. The academy, seen as a place of retreat, can concentrate "purely" on history, musical analysis, theory, practice, and remain unsullied by trade or shop talk. Music has become a "literature" to be studied, a "craft" of "theories" to be learned (and to sell books written by the composer-teachers themselves), a thing separate from the act of musicking. Young performers in the academy, on their own misguided career tracks, must be "educated" in new music performance, diverted from their mastery of the repertoire for "the good of the profession."

A prime source of music-related employment, the inking of scores for professional composers, has largely disappeared with the cheap availability of music notation software and the processors needed to operate it. With the proliferation of electronic keyboards, I'm not sure piano tuning is surviving as a profession, either. The critic, the writer about music, the creator of program notes, textbooks and more general essays about new music, are scraping by on the income produced by such activity, ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards notwithstanding. Some technology-related sources of income - web-site and java tool production, sound engineering (pre- and post-production), various exploitive "dot-coms" meant to feed off of the products of the academy production line - are being tried with varying levels of success. Of course, the "composer as performer" and others who "get a cut" of the music business, whatever it is evolving into, are forms of music-related employment as well.

d. Two-faced composition - If a composer is a person who "puts dots on a page" (or, in this age of MIDI-based music notation software, "plays dots on to a computer screen"), then there are many getting paid to perform such a service, but who have created personal distinctions between the creation of "their music," and the music they are being paid to create. I have heard this too often to ignore it as a full-blown category of its own. Composers as diverse as Stephen Foster and Frederic Chopin did not distinguish between the music they created for their prime markets and anything else they may have felt like creating. Schumann created two musical personalities, and George Gershwin, most famously, desired to break away from his lucrative and masterful songwriting business into the "prestigious" classical world (when he asked Stravinsky whether he might study with him, and Igor found out how much money George made at composition, Stravinsky reportedly asked that the offer be reversed). But today, composers who write for band, for chorus, for the educational market, who arrange or orchestrate or do "commercial work" for advertising, theatre (incidental music), television, film, dance, various pop forms and genres, whether they do so under their own names or under a pseudonym, are secretly or publicly writing a symphony, a string quartet, a song cycle, a "Mr. Holland's Opus" or a "Porgy and Bess," to cite the two most famous examples (both musically disappointing in their ways). They earn their living as composers, but they are ashamed of their composition.

Some of these compositions are "work-for-hire" - the composer gets paid once for an act of composition, and then a publishing company or advertising firm or production house takes over the copyright and pays the composer no further (the term is used for performers, sound engineers, and others who do not profit from volume sales). Sometimes the composer retains the copyright, or in some ways earns royalties, broadcast or mechanical or publishing, from instances, sales and uses of the composition.

e. Compositional income - No one gets paid to "write what they want," independent of all restrictions on ensemble forces, expected style and complexity of form, full unbridled "freedom of expression" in every way. Even the act of applying for a government, corporate or private grant contains some form of promise and of expectation. The sources of such income are: performance royalties, from live performances of the work or from broadcast performances, the latter being much more lucrative as attendance at the former dwindles; mechanical royalties, from sales of recordings of the work, endangered by peer-to-peer file-swapping; commissions, available to literally a handful of the most famous composers, and the most lucrative; government and not-for-profit corporate grants, the former now only available through an institution, the latter a form of patronage, some worthy conduits being Meet the Composer, the MacArthur Foundation, residencies, and old and new money funds of various lineage; and payments for grand rights, the result of a collaboration between the composer and an organization interested in dramatic presentation, a significant form of revenue, which explains the recent resurgent interest in opera and new forms of music-theatre.

(Thomson's quaint inclusion of "doles" - i.e., welfare - is particularly irrelevant today, as are his citations of publishing, lecturing, and music journalism. Prizes are mainly reserved for the young, and commissions still are had in America by "only five standard composers," as Thomson wrote. Patronage is rare, and individual government grants have been eliminated.)


2. How the performer gets paid

a. Full-time position in a large institution - Protected by a union, this is the most stable, the most lucrative, and for many, the most boring way to make a living as a performing musician. In America, full-time opera houses and symphony orchestras are in decline, going bankrupt, negotiating new contracts with their unions, turning to "pops" concerts and marketing gimmicks, lobbying for government support (and largely dominating the share of available funds), and, as a trend and speaking truthfully, in crisis. The competition to obtain such a position is fierce, and will only get more difficult in the years ahead.

b. Soloist career - The marketing apparatus is still in place to declare a few stars, in each vocal and instrumental category, as "hot," enjoying record sales, touring gigs, boosting sales at the large institutions and thus helping to support everyone else. But the route to become a star - winning competitions, having recitals reviewed, building a fan base - is being short-circuited by odder marketing blitzes, some tied to new media, some simply bizarre. Association with a new media product - a violinist plays the solo line in "The Red Violin" or "Schindler's List" - or participation in "cross-over" products - a vocalist sings pop standards - is moving from a source of side income to a starting point, if not a major source of recognition and revenue.

c. Participation in a small touring ensemble - Chamber music, due to its flexibility and larger number of venues, is not as stable as a full-time position in a large institution, but many performing musicians are making it work. Depending on the kind of ensemble and kind of music, custom marketing can spell the difference between success and failure. The ensemble must tap into certain "circuits," or create a new circuit previously unrealized. Recordings are essential to establish credibility.

d. Part-time position in a mid-sized ensemble - Free-lance gigs with ballet and theatre orchestras, either as local musicians or in touring companies, are common, and will continue to be, although the former must wait for the production to come to town or the season to begin, and the latter must be available to travel extensively. Such work can be less boring than a full-time position, and, as union work, can be somewhat lucrative. There is often an inherited house, or a spouse in the background, to help the musician survive between gigs.

e. Studio musicians - With the rise of new technologies, studio musicians are often the highest paid, the most talented, and, ironically, the least recognized professional musicians working today. The work is strictly "work-for-hire" - they play the gig, collect their fee, and might, if they're lucky, get a credit, depending on the genre (film and television work, no, theatre work, yes). They are strictly union, are excellent sight-readers, and often get minimal rehearsal time. They are hired by union contractors, who determine who is available, who is trustworthy, who "has the chops," and so on. At present, studio musicians congregate in Los Angeles and New York City, where studios, production facilities, and a constant stream of work is available. To properly sound-proof a recording studio, an investment in flammable soundproofing materials and proper sprinkler systems is needed. In the pop world, professional studio recordings are being "grunged up" to sound like garage bands. Multi-track digital recording equipment is cheap, and some composers are turning live recordings of first (and only) performances into CD tracks. Other composers are using samplers and computer-generated sounds to create scores without the participation of studio musicians. Video games routinely feature scores synthesized by the composer.

So, on one hand, there is a trend towards audience preference of "loudspeaker" performance, while on the other hand, the audience is becoming acclimated to synthesized sound. Arrangers are learning to mix one performing musician with two synthesized tracks to accomplish an acceptable mix within budget. Just as Hollywood film work is farmed out to Toronto, studio music work is being farmed out to Eastern Europe. The Broadway musical is dead, and many films are using pre-existing or new pop songs as soundtracks. Television composers are becoming their own production houses, playing (or synthesizing) most of the instruments themselves. Not a good trend for studio musicians.


3. How the audience pays

a. Advertising revenue - Most of the music heard today is heard through loudspeakers, and free radio, free television, even cable television gets much of its revenue from advertising dollars; the listener "pays" nothing. Muzak is free loudspeaker music being paid for by the store owner (or doctor/dentist or building elevator landlord).

b. Subscription services - Music is also packaged as part of cable television and satellite radio services. Most sellers of subscription services are involved in obtaining advertising revenue as well, so "getting the numbers up" by giving away free services along with the pay services, is very common. I fly an airline a few times, I cash in my frequent flyer miles for a free year's subscription to a magazine, after the free subscription runs out I continue to get the magazine for free because the publisher is more interested in keeping his reader numbers up to collect advertising revenue than in selling magazines. Some world, huh?

c. Subsidy - This public television broadcast made possible by "members like you." They like me, they really like me! Oh, we like sheep, we really like sheep, too. Somebody wants a tax deduction. Somebody "believes in you." Somebody fills in all of the paperwork needed to receive money from the government, or that not-for-profit organization. No matter how you dice or slice it, the audience itself is not paying, someone else is paying, and why? A sense of obligation? A sense of duty? Self-glorification? Self-gratification? Guilt? I'm sure there are as many reasons as there are patrons. One thing is for sure - there's a power relationship there. Someone has money, and what are you going to have to do to get it? Compete, that's for sure. Prove that you're a better composer than some other composer. Believe that you deserve it.

d. Ticket sales - Commercial theatre and film venues are not government-subsidized, are not not-for-profit corporations, and never will be (although some regional theatre and "art film houses" may be). Producers of film are investigating other revenue sources - product placement, merchandizing, video rentals and sales - but some of these do not provide grand rights or royalty payments to the composer. Live performances in ASCAP or BMI licensed venues can also be thought of as falling into this category, although the bride's father, not the guest, pays the catering hall that pays ASCAP for the right to allow the wedding band to play that song. If the music is played in a non-licensed venue - well, there's always ASCAPlu$.

e. Subsidiary product sales - If the composer does not compose music for a video game or score a film as a "work-for-hire," then the smart composer will negotiate payments for subsidiary rights for every sale of the product. The point being that the audience is not buying a piece of music, they are buying a product that contains within it a piece of music, and a small percentage of the sale of each item may be a revenue stream, for the composer.

f. Direct sale of music scores - Who are we kidding here? Composers are giving away scores for free to obtain performances. Except in specialty markets, music publishing is dead. Music education was deleted from the school curriculum, remember? "Name" composers selling to "would-be" composers, that's about it. Me, I get all my scores for free for reviewing purposes, or in trade, or else I go down to the local public library and borrow it. I got a score as a gift, once.

g. Direct sale of music recordings - This is what the RIAA is screaming about. This is why songwriters joined the RIAA in the lawsuit against Napster. You'd think that Bach and Beethoven paid the rent off of sales of LPs. Nobody believes that ownership of a recording by an audience member will disappear, but there is going to be a great shake-out in the pricing structure. $20 for a CD? $10 for a CD? $1 for a CD? Per song download prices, monthly subscription services that allow unlimited downloads, or rampant piracy?

I long ago predicted that music recording distribution would go the way of the porn industry. The person who writes the score, the scenario, the dialogue, who operates the camera, who sucks the cock or licks the clit, who delivers the come shot, they're all work-for-hire. The performers enjoy an after-market in strip clubs, live chat and soiled panties. The others keep churning out product, some of which is traded for free, violating all copyright laws, on the Internet, some of which is sold in videostores or via subscription services. The audience tires of the product, they want fresh product, so there's always a need for more work-for-hire. The industry is booming, and all the old business models are dead. So what?


4. Who else gets a cut

a. The agent - Who got you that booking, darling? Who wrote that press release? Who manages your so-called career? If you don't get paid, I don't get paid.

b. The entertainment lawyer - You signed away what? It's a standard form, everyone signs it, I can't change it. Sign here and initial on every page.

c. The label - We will sell your recording. You must sell your recording. We can't sell any recordings because of the damn Internet!

d. The publisher - A misnomer: 95% of their business is ancillary rights for placement in movies and commercials. Who needs new music when the standard repertoire is royalty-free? The publisher - that's in the singular, no? If not, it soon will be.

e. The venue - Care for some popcorn? Two-drink minimum. Subscribers get a discount. Check out the poo-poo platter. Come to the cabaret!

f. The broadcaster - Format and formula have the same Latin root. As a media conglomerate, we control 80% of the market. We don't even care if you switch channels every two minutes. We're all one big happy family.

g. The union - Just pay your dues. And please write to your legislator, there's power in numbers.

h. The licensing organization - We can't survey everything. We're working with the Internet community to come up with new contract language and new technologies to turn illegal activity into legal activity. Please write to your legislator, there's power in numbers.

i. The store - It's not on display. It's not in stock. You can order it through the Internet. Shall I order it for you? Shipping and handling charges may apply.


5. Who doesn't get a cut

a. The critic - All critics are slime.

b. The musicologist - All musicologists are slime.

c. The educator - All educators are slime.

d. The legislator - All politicians are slime.

e. The audience - The customer is always right.

(Except, of course, that some critics, musicologists, educators and legislators are saints, and some individual audience members are always right.)


6. Final thoughts

It's all about the music, man. It's all about the music.

Note: This entire text is copyrighted, and only fair use selections may be reproduced or in any way distributed without explicit permission from the publisher, Not Nice Music. All rights are reserved.

Copyright 2003-2007 Not Nice Music

Last Updated: November 7, 2007