Last week, we ended by talking about “making a living,” and today we’d like to talk about that funny word “living.” There’s the sense we meant: your “living” is whatever it is you do to support yourself. Then there’s the other sense of “living,” the opposite of “the dead,” by which we mean living music, the “quick,” the good stuff we’re always going on about–that is, the importance of paying living performers, promoting living composers, and being responsive to living audiences.
Of course, one of the things living audiences, composers, and performers all genuinely crave is–that’s right–the music of dead composers. To perform Bach (on violins or synthesizers, alone or huddled in choirs) is to participate in an immortal stream of consciousness flowing from the first howls of our pre-human ancestors into the most distant futures. It’s how we keep our ancestors and their music alive, and keeping them alive is part of how we keep the whole tradition alive.
How else do we keep the tradition alive? By making it serve the living. We are the ones spending our flesh and blood creating it, consuming it, buying it, selling it, cherishing it, and conserving it. We are the music’s body, and the body has to eat, so if we’re going to keep buying albums and taking piano lessons and funding symphony orchestras, we’d better find a place to lay our heads and a reliable source of food and water. This is where little things like ”money” and “jobs” come in, and it takes us back to where we started: the problem of making a living.
And how do musicians make a living? Well they sure as hell don’t make it by making music, not usually. There have been brief windows in time and space wherein well-trained artisans could make an honest middle-class living by writing and performing music, but those times have never lasted long before degenerating into diverging strands of elitism and poverty.
The churches used to gobble up all the best musicians, and the theater would take the rest, and even in this digitized secular age that’s still basically true. If you want to compose stock music for film trailers or write soundtracks for crappy family comedies, there’s always Hollywood. But it’s the omnivorous education industry, K-through-PhD, that claims most of us (not that your professors don’t also take church and theater gigs on the side).
That’s if you work in one of the ritzier music streams like jazz or classical or world music. If your thing is heavy metal or prog or “experimental music,” you can forget about it. You might be producing the most ground-shaking music on the planet, but if your band has some goofy name, or wears crazy masks, or makes its own instruments, or refuses to release anything but mega-legit lo-fi cassette tapes–well then you will likely be less successful than, say, the fancy-pants Takács Quartet winning Grammys with Beethoven. Might as well get a real job.
And while all performing musicians share the Swing Shift Curse (by definition they work during your time off, dear reader) it’s the grittier, folkier end of the music world that gets hit the worst. Later nights, rowdier audiences, lousier pay, no respect. In that world, you’re doing it for Love, you’re doing it for the Fans, you’re doing it for Exposure–which can be fatal, out here on the Oregon Trail.
We’d like to quote from a Rebecca Solnit essay we’ve been obsessing over the last few months:
The labor lawyer I know sees her work as an act of solidarity, though she collects a salary for it, and the climate organizers I know collect salaries and care about the fate of the world, and the doctors and nurses I know want to make a living and maybe have nice things and do it their way, as do we all, but also want to save lives when they can be saved and comfort the dying and improve their journeys when they can’t and are so passionate about what they do they also do it for free often and offer their services and skills as a matter of course in emergencies.
Writing is also work that straddles this divide; we want to plunge into our own depths, and we want to make something beautiful that will change the world, and we hope that it will not only do that but change it for the better, and if we’re lucky we make a living at it. Anyone reading this is almost certainly someone for whom a poem, an essay, or a book has been a life raft onto which they clambered in an emergency. And yet the selfishness of writers is a recurrent motif, one I wish I could tie lead weights to so it would never bob to the surface again.Rebecca Solnit, “On Women’s Work and the Myth of the Art Monster“
The problem Solnit outlines is the old Labor of Love issue, which is this: any work which is regarded as “fun,” or “rewarding,” or “inessential” tends to be interpreted (by the accountants and the lawyers and their various employers) as “free labor,” as “women’s work,” as “low-overhead human capital.” It’s a buyer’s market.
Not that there aren’t wealthy musicians, obviously (we would never begrudge Beyoncé her billions, nor Björk her–whatever it is that Björks get paid in). And there are still good jobs for musicians, though they are scarce and subject to the usual market cruelties. Our issue today is with how musicians get paid–to date no one has really found a good model for mapping artistic labor to living wages. Instead we drift across competing streams of hourly jobs and gig work, with a dollop of royalties and the odd rags-to-riches story to keep things interesting.
Our opinion: the best system for all artists would be a guaranteed basic income type of plan. What if we flipped the usual business model around and put the horse in front of the cart? What if, instead of eternally seeking some magical method for fairly allocating ever-shrinking profits, we were to start by ensuring that all musicians earned a living wage and then started trying to sell their music? What if a musician’s living were not tied to fickle things like album sales, streaming revenues, and concert tickets?
All we’re talking about here is subsidizing an essential industry and its essential workers–nothing particularly radical about that. We subsidize farmers against crop and market failures, we subsidize bankers and captains of industry against intellectual and moral failures, we subsidize war machines that produce little more than pollution. Remember those bumper stickers that asked, “what if schools got all the funding they needed and the Pentagon had to hold a bake sale whenever they wanted a new bomber?” Do we really have to have a revolution just to fund the arts?
This doesn’t even need to be some Big Government thing, which is lucky for us since apparently we can barely keep the post office open. So why not cut out the middleman and fund the arts yourself? If you’re not cursed with the creative impulse, that probably means you have a normal brain, a normal life, and a normal job that pays you normal money. Why not spend some of that surplus value sponsoring the creation of new art? Skip the Keurig, sell the SUV, and set aside a couple bucks every month for your favorite singer, your favorite band, your favorite composer. Donate to your local symphony, your local opera, your local choir, maybe even the local Jeremy Wilson Foundation. Subscribe to a Patreon, contribute to a Kickstarter, Venmo some cash to an out-of-work busker.
Buy a bag of groceries for a singer, make them literally sing for their supper! Or–why not go all out, and adopt a musician? Hell, you could think of it like having a pet, except instead of getting rewarded with purring and tail-wagging you get rewarded with fresh music and the warm feeling of knowing that You Helped.
The Medicis used to do this all the time, you know. It’s how most composers made their living in the old days: find a patron, normally some super powerful dude with Church Money or State Money or both, and write music just for them. Haydn spent most of his career working for a Hungarian warlord so rich and powerful he owned his own orchestra and opera company. Three of Beethoven’s best string quartets were paid for by–gasp!–a Russian diplomat. And who can forget the masked meddler who murdered Mozart?
There aren’t a lot of proper Medicis these days. Our tyrants lack even artistic pretensions, preferring to paint only portraits of corruption and destruction–and we probably wouldn’t take their money anyway (easy to say while the bills stay paid). But what would a modern day Medici’s patronage actually look like? We doubt Bill Gates is going to be commissioning any symphonies, but on the other hand do we really want to hear some thirsty young composer’s Bezos Concerto?
So it looks like it’s up to you and me, dear reader, to be the Medicis we want to see in the world.
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