There is no art without economics. Music, just as with the other arts, requires monetary support. This includes funding for obvious things like supplies (instruments and repairs, scores, paper, rehearsal space), education, and training costs. It also includes less obvious things such as some degree of financial comfort — without, for example, the stability of a warm home and food, a person is less likely to be able to devote time and energy towards making music because their attention is focused on fulfilling more basic needs. (This idea comes from Abraham Maslow’s 1943 article “A Theory of Human Motivation.”)
Music and economics
We’ve discussed several ways in class that classical musicians make a living historically, what makes musicians employable, and where the monetary support for music making comes from:
- Patronage system, until end of 18th century. This is the employment system in play during the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical periods. Examples of composers employed by the Catholic Church or the aristocracy (the two groups of patrons) include Pérotin, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philip Telemann, and Joseph Haydn. Musicians were expected to fulfill a lot of tasks as part of their positions, including composing, performing, conducting, teaching, organizing, and managing other musicians.
- Transition to free economy during the late Classical and Romantic periods. Music making was shaped by the taste of the public (the emerging middle class) who could buy tickets to performances and purchase sheet music to play music in their own homes. For musicians of this time period (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a good example), there was never any guarantee of payment for their work; they had to hope their artistic innovations were well-received and tailored their music to do so.
- Musicians in the 19th century often received multiple revenue streams: publishing, conducting, private teaching, and commissioning fees — Ludwig van Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Gustav Mahler. Others toured extensively for performances: Niccolo Paganini, Clara Schumann.
- More rarely, composers would earning a living wage from a single job (particularly teaching): Frédéric François Chopin teaching piano to private students in Paris (based on his strong reputation as a good pianist performing in salons) and Arnold Schoenberg at the Music Academy in Berlin. Or they might not earn a living at all (Franz Schubert).
For much of the 20th century, in contrast, there was a trend towards specialization, meaning training for and becoming employed for one particular kind of skill, such as orchestral performance or being a conductor. We saw this with the story of Abbie Conant’s career with the Münich Philharmonic — her professional life was framed by the specialized career trajectory for which she had assiduously studied and prepared her entire life.
This 2012 article (dorris-the-audition) describes the process of preparing for orchestral auditions: how much time it takes, what a player does to prepare, how they earn a living while trying to win a job, what happens after they win a job, how few jobs there are, and how much money orchestral musicians make. It is an easy read and features Mike Tetrault, an orchestral percussionist. Read it before continuing with this blog post.
Supply and demand
(Did you read the article mentioned in the previous paragraph before continuing here?)
Musicians in the top US orchestras earn around $100,000 per year (depending on where the orchestra is located; players in Alabama earn less than those in Chicago, for example), and that shows how valuable and rare high quality orchestral playing skills are. There are very few top orchestras, however, and there are only 20 orchestras in the US whose average salaries are over $55,000 per year.
Demand for these jobs is high. There are 117 symphony orchestras in the US. That means there are approximately 11,700 orchestral job positions in the US, assuming each orchestra has 100 players, which is an over-estimate. But that’s not the same as saying there are 11,700 job openings there are every year, because once someone wins a good orchestral job, they hold onto it for 30-40 years. For flute players, for example, there were only 4 job openings in the US all of 2015-16.
There are approximately 60 college-level music schools or conservatories in the US, and they typically train musicians to enter a specialized career trajectory towards being an orchestral player or opera singer. Each one will graduate a class of around 150 students each year — that’s 9,000 students every year.
Add all those graduating students to the musicians who haven’t won an orchestral job yet (say, 8,975 from every previous year) plus international musicians…
Although college-level music education usually funnels students towards a single career track (orchestral playing), most classical musicians don’t earn a living from only playing in orchestras. The typical modern musician’s career is a prime example of the gig economy: cobbling together a living wage from several small revenue streams, none of which is sufficient on its own, none of which provides benefits like health insurance or retirement savings, and none of which is guaranteed to continue.
- Concerts — Musicians may be paid by a venue or concert series for their appearance, they may take home ticket sales, or their performance may be organized by a management company. A concert payment for a musician can range from $0 to $4,000, but most concert performances pay $100-750 per player. This also includes many orchestral jobs outside of the top orchestras, which are paid “per service” rather than a salary (around $40 per rehearsal and $150 per performance).
- Commissions — Composers charge commission fees when someone asks them to write a work. Rates depend on the length of the piece (longer = more expensive), the number of musicians (more musicians = more expensive), and how famous the composer is (more famous = more expensive). The commission fee may range from $2,000 to $100,000, depending on these factors. Often, groups of performers will form a consortium to commission a work and divide cost among all members, so that no single player has to bear the weight of the entire expensive commission themselves.
- Teaching private lessons — A musician recruits students to take individual lessons (in performance, conducting, or composition), finds space to teach in, prepares lessons for each student’s individual needs and desires, keeps students and parents happy, and organizes performance opportunities for their students. The cost of a one-hour lesson varies based on geography and teacher: $15 (in Texas and the Midwest), $60-75 (typical in NYC), $225 (for lessons with the most famous teachers in NYC).
- Teaching in community music schools — All the work of recruitment and infrastructure (and sometimes curriculum) is taken care of by the school rather than the teacher, but the teacher earns less per hour (usually around $25-30 per hour; even if the students pay $70, much of it goes to the school itself). There are several such schools in NYC: Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, Lucy Moses School at the Kaufman Center, Bloomingdale School of Music, Third Street Music School, and Turtle Bay Music School.
- Teaching primary education — This includes band directors, orchestra directors, and choir directors in elementary, middle, and high schools
- Teaching secondary education — Most college and university instructors teach at more than one campus, and most positions are adjunct (hired just for that class or semester with no guarantee of being rehired).
It takes a lot of these activities to add up to a living wage, and booking one gig doesn’t guarantee that there will be more work in the future. Many musicians work “day jobs” that allow them to practice, rehearse, and gig at night: dog walker, yoga instructor, grant writer, administrative assistant, baby sitter, paralegal, plumber, or insurance salesman. Sometimes these day jobs take over, and a musician stops being a musician entirely.
Rejection. Massive amounts of rejection.
The sheer number of musicians working today, in contrast with the small number of jobs, prizes, fellowships, grants, and competitions available, means that rejection is an enormous part of every musician’s life. Somewhere between practicing, going to concerts, listening to music, making music, and supporting oneself economically, musicians also apply for competitions, commissions, festivals, and jobs as they arise, hoping to move their careers forward, meet new people, and pursue new opportunities.
Jennifer Jolley, who by all accounts is a successful composer (she is professor at Ohio Wesleyan University and is commissioned regularly by respectable organizations) posts every rejection letter she has received for composition competitions, commission projects, and other prizes on her blog, “Why Compose When You Can Blog?” She’s up to 94 so far.
My own statistics:
- Number of graduate and doctoral music schools I auditioned for and didn’t get in: 5
- Number of competitions I’ve applied for and didn’t win: 4
- Number of summer festivals I applied for and didn’t get in: 4
- Number of grants I’ve applied for to fund my performances that I didn’t get: 12
- Number of grants I’ve applied for at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music to support its programming (one of my day jobs) that I didn’t get: 120
- Number of teaching and arts administration positions I’ve applied for and didn’t get: 85
- Number of times I’ve played a concert in which we had more people on stage than we had in the audience: more than I can count
This all seems pretty bleak, and in some ways it is. Our economic system doesn’t allow for everyone who has musical skill or desire to pursue it professionally or to be fully compensated for their skill. The economic realities of how music is made places limits on what kind of music gets made or is widely heard.
On top of that, the majority of people who train at the college level do not become professional musicians, but in no way does that mean they’ve failed. It’s often the very skills that made them good musicians — being good listeners, working well with others as a part of a team, learning to manage their time well, appreciation for other cultures and viewpoints — that make former musicians successful in their post-musical careers.
Some questions to get the conversation started:
- What, if anything, surprised you in the article on orchestral auditions (dorris-the-audition)? Are there other careers that have similarly rigorous interview and preparation requirements?
- How does the range of things that comprise a classical music career help you reexamine your own professional options?
- What kinds of skills do you think a modern classical musician needs in addition to being a good player on their instrument or a skillful composer?