With Alex but...

By Bill Ivey, Director, Curb Center, Vanderbilt University
I completely agree with Alex that artists in the fine arts -- many of whom work in a nonprofit environment -- can strengthen their careers by understanding the system of payments, rights, licenses, and contracts that frames any career.  However, I take exception to the assumption that underlines the assertion that "...with some exceptions, the new music world does not generate a comparable scale of income..."  Truth be told, with some exceptions, the popular music world does not generate a significant scale of income.  Remember, there are no grants, faculty appointments, or commissions for indie rock bands, and Placido Domingo never has to bring his own players or stage sets!  Just show up and sing.  There is no Big Rock Candy Mountain out there for any artist, and no category is a safer haven than any other.  We need a firm, warm handshake across the boundary separating our arts categories if we're going to grow a powerful advocacy community.  We are all really in the same boat, although some vessals are decorated differently...
July 20, 2010 4:19 PM | | Comments (6) |


Thank you for the very stimulating comments, Casey. It’s nice to see someone respond to the really difficult questions. Such dialog is the quickest way to unity and activism.

I’m torn two ways in the hi-lo leveling debate. On one hand it has opened our minds to so many new forms of musical thought. On the other, postmodernism has become an orthodoxy almost as monolithic and stifling as the old serialist ideologies of the 50s to 70s. I wonder if more discerning and differentiated views are needed.

One thing is certain, Europeans have not developed the same insecurities about the “classical” tradition as Americans. They massively fund classical music which allows their composers to be far more active and experienced than their American counterparts. That’s why little Finland has such a new music presence in the States while American composers are neglected. That’s why Americans did so much to develop computer music, but that France with its massively state funded Ircam ended up with the most profiled developments and computer music composers.

It’s all very complex. Finland is 98% white and 98% Luthern. How could we ever have the same unity of focus, and the same singular veiw about what our traditions are? Does that mean we should surrender the classical music composer residencies to Finns and other Europeans? Isn’t their some way we could support classical music with funding levels comparible to Europe while still supporting the other areas of our incredibly varied and rich musical traditions? If Europeans continue to fund classical far more strongly, what will be the long-term results for American classical composers?

I was speaking in a more global sense about the range of practical things that musicians -- again, not painters or dancers -- would do well to have a grasp of. Payments, as a generic term, being one.

Let's flip the coin and ignore for a moment the span of time each musical idiom has inspired emotional resonance for evolved primates (who are a fairly new phenomenon themselves).

At one point, classical composers earned revenue from printed sheet music. This grew out of a prior set of trade arrangements between authors, pamphleteers and movable type-jockeys. "Popular" composers, such as Gershwin, could still count on these monies well into the 20th century. But what about blues musicians? Notation was not in their tradition. Does that mean their expression is somehow less valid? Blues is, after all, new, too -- at least in its American form. Maybe Son House was just another fingerpainter?

Even when it comes to public funding, we should do ourselves the favor of not being exclusionary based on arbitrary or subjective estimations of artistic worth. I'd go as far as to say that kind of thinking runs counter to expression itself, which is both the projection of one's innermost aesthetic, and a process of experimentation based on one's exposure to external influences. This includes other kinds of art -- some of which may not fit tidily within a recognized canon.

I may share with you certain frustrations with how our society values (or doesn't) creativity, and I might also even have my own preferences about what's worthwhile and what isn't. But I'd hate to stymie the evolution of any form of expression based on inherited definitions of legitimacy.

Is it perhaps in the interest of certain powerful players to make the system of payments, rights, licenses, and contracts as obtuse & complicated as possible.

If that's the case, then to imply that artists should figure it out before they can adequately participate in a debate seems a bit unfair, don't you think?

Needless to say (but heck, I'll say it anyway) I totally agree with you, Bill and I certainly didn't intend for my comment to pitch one genre against the other. The inherent difference in the way business is traditionally done when writing contemporary concert music versus, say, pop songs, is a huge stumbling block in our industry's not-so-new-anymore digital paradigm. Concert composers have it far better. Commissions, aka notably sized hunks of cash, a good portion of which is paid upfront before the composer has sipped enough single malt to even imagine the first note of the new piece, are a significant part of a composer's income. As we all know, songwriters almost never have such an advantage; all is written and produced on spec. Since rent and groceries are not done on spec, this presents a problem. I work in both the concert and the commercial music fields and am keenly aware of how fortunate I am to be offered money for the thoughts in my head when they involve a wind band or a chamber work, and how I truly sail solo when demo-ing a pop tune that I just hope might find it's way to the shores of a welcoming artist :-)

Snake eating tail: The changes in the recording industry have the most deleterious effect on the artists whose income relies on the back end, and who historically might have been provided a front end from the record companies, which now themselves have considerably less of a back end and thus, rarely offer a front end. In the music biz, as in sailboats, "double enders" are pretty cool. Unlike sailboats though, in music, I'd say they're essential. So one of the many challenges is, how to provide a front end for a formerly back end business? Will this tale of woe eventually have a happy ending?

I think the leveling argument presented here might be another example of how the arts can be subversive. Are we to infer from Mr. Ivey’s comment that the 75 year-old tradition of rock has equal cultural significance to the 800 year-old tradition of classical? Are we to infer that universities should offer professorships to indie rock artists and that they should be publically funded? Isn’t he presenting an argument whose implications are at least somewhat subversive? Do they not add to the complexities we are facing? How do we move to unity from here?

And aren’t there other very complex issues raised by the hi-lo leveling argument? Will it create a situation where America has 10 million digital finger painters while tiny countries like Finland provide the resident composers for the New York Philharmonic and Santa Fe Opera? I can’t argue these issues one way or the other, but I think the “warm handshakes” are a bit distant. As Casey asks, how do we come together?

And Casey, regarding your comment, I must ask, “What payments?” There are very few composers receiving a significant number of performances, so licensing does not seem to be the avenue for solving their problems. Can we unify when the proposed solutions seem pointless?

At any rate, I think the dialog helps move us forward.

Great points.

I might add that understanding the system of payments, rights, licenses, and contracts is also the first step for fixing structural problems with any and each.

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Recent Comments

William Osborne commented on With Alex but...: Thank you for the very stimulating comments, Casey. It’s nice to see someo...

casey commented on With Alex but...: I was speaking in a more global sense about the range of practical things t...

Corey Dargel commented on With Alex but...: Is it perhaps in the interest of certain powerful players to make the syste...

Alex Shapiro commented on With Alex but...: Needless to say (but heck, I'll say it anyway) I totally agree with you, Bi...

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casey commented on With Alex but...: Great points. I might add that understanding the system of payments, righ...

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