Update, as of March 28: The comment period of this online discussion has been extended to April 5 to accommodate the CUNY-wide “Recalibration Period” (Mar 27-Apr 1).
The approximate reading time of this post is 12 minutes, not counting any audio media. 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. 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.
Economics in a music class?
The main thing that I hope this discussion underscores or brings to light is something that runs contrary to the way we often think about music and creativity: 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 she/he knew would keep him employed—they express the taste preferences of whoever was footing her/his bills—a patron, an executive at a record company, or audience members who buy tickets to concerts, buy albums, or stream music. And that means the history of music is often a documentation of the taste of wealthy individuals—people with the means to commission and preserve the material culture of music.
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.
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.”)
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 (meaning wealth, military strength, or direct control of the land where food was produced); real power 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).
Architecture, for example, was used to demonstrate might and financial resources.
The visual arts captured a patron’s image for posterity: sumptuous attire (rich fabrics, intense colors, and intricate details) and 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. (Remember, 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 (with a job title like maestro di cappella in Italy, surintendant de musique or maître de musique in France, or Kapellmeister in Germany) 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). Johann Sebastian Bach’s contract with the town of Leipzig, where he was in charge of composing music, rehearsing music, and coordinating musicians for the town’s four churches was typical of the time: bach-duties-in-leipzig (You might choose to model your Writing 5 on Bach’s contract when you create a primary source document of your own.)
It was also 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.
Economics, taste, and self-expression
Music written for a patron was designed to suit the needs or taste of the patron. If the patron loves the baryton (as Joseph 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.
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—it still all comes back to economics!
Public taste is volatile (particularly 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, composer (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.
Pianist Clara Schumann (1819-96) was able to support her family of 8 children and her mentally ill husband, the composer Robert Schumann (who is the first person who’ll come up if you Google “Schumann”—not Clara) through her rigorous touring schedule. She performed widely and to great acclaim across Europe right up until her death, and this was how she navigated the free market.
A “good” job today
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). Although the best jobs in these fields pay quite well, there aren’t very many opportunities to go around, and these jobs aren’t 100% secure: in March 2020 the Metropolitan Opera (New York City), Winnipeg Orchestra (Canada), and Oregon Symphony all laid off their entire musical staffs due to lost revenue caused by Covid-19.
The next few paragraphs deal with orchestral performers, but the same issues are true for composers and professorships.
You can learn about the lengthy, exhausting process of preparing for orchestral auditions in this 2012 article (dorris-the-audition): 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 musicians who aren’t already in the US…
The gig economy
Instead of holding a single, steady job, 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), $250 (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 $40). There are several such schools in NYC: Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, Lucy Moses School at the Kaufman Center, Bloomingdale School of Music, and Third Street Music School. Some musicians teach at programs that offer music classes for free to students who can’t afford it otherwise: Juilliard’s Music Advancement Program (tri-state area), UpBeat (Mott Haven, Bronx), Corona Youth Music Project (Queens).
- Teaching primary education— This includes band directors, orchestra directors, and choir directors in elementary, middle, and high schools. The average NYC public school music teacher makes around $50,000 per year.
- 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). Some schools pay only $1,500 for a semester-long class; CUNY schools (depending on the highest degree a teacher has earned) pay up to $4,000 per class per semester (this page gives adjunct salaries by the hour).
- 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.
Online streaming: the promised land!
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—less than a penny.
When a musician’s recordings are played on various digital platforms, we as consumers generally pay little or nothing for the experience. YouTube, Spotify, and Pandora all include advertising on their basic levels of service (free for the consumer); it seems like artists are probably compensated for their work through ad revenue and that popular artists make significant money for their efforts because so many people are listening to their music.
However, these business models pay musicians very little: Spotify pays between $0.006 to $0.0084 per play; Pandora pays either $0.0014 (non-subscribers) or $0.0025 (subscribers) per play—and depending on an artist’s contract with their record label, they’ll receive only around 40% of that money. The songwriter for “All About that Bass,” sung by Meghan Trainor, is Kevin Kadish. The song was unequivocally popular in 2014 and was played 178,000,000 times on Pandora, but for this Kadish received a check for $5,679; another songwriter whose work was played just over one million times was paid $16.89. The less-popular but still successful band La Roux earns approximately £100 for three months of streaming.
On top of that, an artist doesn’t even take home the entire $0.0025. Most of it goes to a record label, if they have one. The take-home pay is better for an independent artist, but most streaming algorithms don’t play independent artists as much or won’t let them upload their work at all.
For many years, Taylor Swift didn’t include her music in Spotify’s streaming catalogue for this very reason—it devalues the art:
“Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free.”—Taylor Swift
It’s also worth noting that Swift is in a position of considerable privilege—she can reject the means by which less-established or less well-known artists connect with new listeners because she is already successful and also because she makes money via other avenues, such as ticket sales for her live shows.
The irony of recorded music being ubiquitous in our lives (meaning that we can’t imagine our daily activities without it and that we prize its perfection) is that it seems we value it less than ever.
Making music is more complicated than just 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 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.