Online discussion #1 is available for comments February 6-12. The rubric I’ll be using to grade your participation and a description of these assignments is available here.
As with all aspects of music and music making, the economics of classical music vary from place to place and across historical periods. This discussion is an introduction to the trajectory of music history in the West (i.e., Europe and North America) for the few hundred years our course material covers. Try to keep these ideas in mind as a backdrop for all the music we encounter this semester.
How do economics and music relate?
Economic factors—such as who has money, how much they have, how they spend it, and why they spend it—determine the way that music is made, what it sounds like, who listens to it, and the circumstances in which people experience music. They lurk behind all the various musical sounds we hear, and knowing a little bit of economic history can give our ears insight into the how and why behind much of the music we encounter.
If any of this material is review for you, this in opportunity to incorporate a layer of music to your background knowledge! If you haven’t taken a history or economics course that covers these topics, use the embedded links throughout the blog post to fill in gaps in your understanding.
The patronage system
For most of the European continent’s history, the countries we think of as being “European” didn’t exist—e.g., France, Germany, Italy. Instead, the land was divided into multi-ethnic empires, city-states, and nomadic groups. Nations as we now know them were established in the late-18th and 19th centuries as a way to unify groups of people who shared a linguistic heritage and other common cultural features, along with geographic proximity. Kings existed, but they didn’t hold the real power—wealth, military strength, or direct control of the land where food was produced—this was wielded by aristocrats (noblemen with various titles: duke, viscount, baron, earl, lord, prince) or the Catholic Church.
And everyone else? The majority of the population consisted of peasants, and they worked in the fields generating the wealth of said aristocrats.
Part of the value of being wealthy and powerful is letting other people know that you’re wealthy and powerful. It creates a sense of respect, a healthy dose of fear, and a social class identity. One of the ways that the aristocracy and the Church were able to demonstrate their might was with the art that they commissioned, displayed, and controlled: they were the patrons of the arts, and the patronage system was the economic structure in which art was produced for these patrons. (A great background to the division of societies into people who produce food, rulers, and artisans/religious figures who consolidate those rulers’ power is the 1999 book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond).
Art (including music) wasn’t just a pleasant diversion or pastime under the patronage system—it was part of PR and image control for those in positions of power.
Architecture, for example, was used to demonstrate might and financial resources.
The visual arts captured a patron’s image for posterity. They often include not only sumptuous attire (rich fabrics, intense colors, and intricate details) but also depictions of music making, because it was believed by members of the noble classes that musical talent and musical taste proved how worthy a person was. (Most noblemen and noblewomen learned to play an instrument as a hobby.)
To be a musician under the patronage system meant to hold a job post at a patron’s center of power: a cathedral or an aristocratic court. This form of employment was a lifelong commitment, and a musician would earn a salary and also receive a uniform, be provided with supplies to make their art (staff paper, ink, instruments), and be housed and fed (including firewood for the winter). A musician’s duties were often extensive: a composer would also be required to teach, perform, and oversee other subordinate musicians (hiring and firing). In return, the patron had final say on everything their employee did: travelling, permission to sell sheet music, and what music was made (more on that below). It was often in a patron’s best interest to allow their musicians to travel and publish sheet music—the fame and respectability of their employee would reflect positively on the patron and add more prestige to their reputation.
You may be surprised by some of the tasks or activities required of a composer such as Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), who was employed (1723-50) by the German town of Leipzig to oversee and compose music for its four Lutheran churches: bach-duties-in-leipzig
Economics and taste
Music written for a patron was designed to suit the needs or taste of the patron. If the patron loves the baryton (as Haydn’s patron did), a composer will write a lot of music for the baryton (Haydn wrote 72 trios for the instrument, even though no one else was doing it anywhere in the world). If a patron loves dance music (like King Louis XIV of France), then their composers and musicians need to be really good at creating and playing dance music. If a composer writes music their patron doesn’t like, the patron will tell them not to write like that any more, and that will be the end of that.
But what about self-expression?
Something that you may find disconcerting or uncomfortable at this point is the realization that much music that exists in the world isn’t written for personal expression—it’s a job. The contour of a melody, the emotions conveyed by the harmony, or the instruments used aren’t necessarily an expression of the composer’s desires, just what he knew would keep him employed—they express the taste preferences of whoever was footing his bills.
The rise of nation states and shift to free-market capitalism
We don’t live in strict patronage system any longer, and that makes it seem like musicians are free to create whatever they music they want—they don’t have to please a king or aristocrat who is their lifelong employer. Bring on the self-expression!
Not so fast…
The shifting political-economic landscape in late-18th and 19th centuries simply means that music is now treated in a different way. The musician’s role in society becomes one of selling goods that the public may or may not buy. Public taste is volatile (particularly so when ideas are able to spread more and more quickly, as the Internet now allows), and this means that some musicians try to suit public taste (for example, commercial jingles, soundtracks, and pop music) while others simply make what they want to make, with complete disregard to whether or not consumers like it.
“The people who don’t want your music don’t change their minds. You outlive them, if you’re lucky.” —Philip Glass (b. 1937)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1832) navigated this economic transition by using both the patronage system and the emerging capitalist markets to his advantage. He threatened three Viennese aristocrats (who loved his music and loved having him in their city) with a job offer he had received to join a court outside of Vienna. Under fear of losing him, these aristocrats caved to his threat and agreed to pay him a healthy annual subsidy to remain in the city with no other strings attached. Beethoven also shrewdly published his music simultaneously in multiple countries at once—there was no such thing as copyright law at this point, so if Beethoven had sold his work to an Austrian publisher, for example, there was nothing stopping a French publisher from copying it and selling it themselves. Beethoven’s business acumen beat them to the punch and took advantage of the fact that he was well-known across Europe, with consumers everywhere clamoring for his music.
Musicians today: the gig economy
An ideal situation for many modern musicians is holding a steady position with either an orchestra (as a performer or conductor) or a university or conservatory (teaching composition, performance, music theory, music history, or some combination of those subjects). The best jobs in these fields pay quite well, but there aren’t very many opportunities to go around. The next few paragraphs deal with orchestral performers, but the same issues are true for composers and professorships.
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.
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 in 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 of being an orchestral player or opera singer. Each school 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…
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 commissioning 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 (in NYC students pay around $70, but much of it goes to the school itself and the teacher takes home around $25-30). 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).
- Grant writing — There are several foundations and government organizations that support the arts and music making, and they award money (ranging from a couple hundred dollars to millions of dollars, depending on the organization) for the creation and public sharing of artistic work via a competitive application process. Here’s a taste of what grant writing is all about.
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.
You may have noticed that I left out online streaming as a source of revenue for the average classical musician working today. That’s because it typically doesn’t pay well for anyone, regardless of their musical style—the average pay is $0.0025 per play.
Making music is more complicated than being inspired and sharing sounds with the world. Oftentimes the most financially successful musicians aren’t necessarily the most talented, the most interesting, or the most artistic—they’re the ones whose skills (musical and business skills) aligned with the economic means and demands of the time and place in which they live. The music we’re left with over time is the music that was created in courts and churches that had the means to fund and preserve copies of sheet music over several centuries (not necessarily the best music), and the music we come across on the radio or digital media is often also the result of a musician being aligned with record companies, management, or promoters who have the economic clout to ensure that their music is heard (again, not necessarily the best musicians).
Questions to get the conversation going:
- What similarities or differences do you see between the economics of classical music and the ways that non-classical (pop, hip-hop, rock) music is made today?
- How do people today show off their socio-economic status through the art in their lives (their music, their fashion, home décor, etc.)? How have you used someone’s taste in music (or other art) as a way to judge them?
- Would you rather be a musician employed under the patronage system or in the modern gig economy?