A few decades into the 20th century, after the craziness of the 1920s led to a rise in a new kind of ‘mass’ royalty known as pop stars and celebrities, both within the musical world and beyond, the once supported composer was now entering a new phase: one of a more patron-less nature. Patrons of all sorts had previously supported the composer, so as to allow them the financial freedom to create works. Such patronage in the past might have included churches or persons of royalty or the occasional well-off upper-cruster. But by the 1920s and 1930s this was gone, seemingly never to return.
At that time, there also happened to be a massive shift towards totalitarianism in political climates around the world, particularly in Europe. So with the apparent death of the composer-patron system at hand, this left a sort of power vacuum for ideologues, or even the dictators themselves, to swoop in to support these composers, albeit with a few conditions in mind for the return of that favor. What these new patrons wanted was simple: to have control of the music, both aesthetically and structurally, for what they thought would be to the benefit of the masses. In other words, it was to be used as propaganda: totalitarian art for totalitarian means.
To anyone familiar with 20th century politics and music, this isn’t news. The list of composers who were subjected to these ideologies, either willfully or against their wishes, is well known. Certainly at least some of these composers were even quite often justifiably afraid of losing their lives out of fear of creating works that were displeasing to their dictatorial supervisors. And some of them did lose their lives. So it wasn’t simply about finding the funds to continue to write music, it was also about avoiding the very real threat of physical harm that might result from works that didn’t fit within certain ideals.
This totalitarian method of politicizing music and the arts doesn’t seem to be the case today, however; at least not in as dramatic a fashion, or at least not in the west, anyway. But this hasn’t alleviated many of the same problems the composer still has to face. And although the threat of execution or being jailed isn’t currently on that list of problems, it doesn’t necessarily mean that artists are unchallenged by persons or powerful institutions (depending on which country you live in, these two are considered the same) in extraordinary positions of power, who could make life as a composer unbearable enough so that it might seem at least comparable to some of those old world threats. There may not be the visible presence of dictators hanging about, pushing artists in certain directions for political gain or some other purpose, but one has to wonder if the power behind such an authoritarian position has gone, or if it has simply fallen under a new guise and perhaps even expanded.
In many ways technology has allowed the individual artist a powerful means through which they can share their works, network rather effectively and receive the appropriate amount of exposure. But it seems quite seldom that it actually generates enough funds for the artist to survive. The composer, like many artists, never has an obvious means of support. So they are essentially still without resources. And this would seem to leave a kind of power vacuum in the arts unfilled: again.
It’s probably always been the case that the power in the arts has always been with the ones who have the money, not the artists themselves. Even in the old composer-patron system, there were many great artists who were supported by patrons who likely also had their own ideas about the particulars within the works of their creators. But today, when we talk about art and finances and the influence that money has on the arts, I think we’re now talking about something wider reaching than a few patrons or dictators could match. We’re looking at something that possibly has the power to dictate or to influence artists so heavily that it shapes the arts in an increasingly global way. And of course such an influence can be dangerous because it could prevent artists from doing what it is they want to do or how they want to do it. This also can contribute to the ‘canning’ of music. As composer Bryan Fehyrnough once remarked:
“The moment you put a label on something you’ve ‘canned’ it. And I know the present day world of commerce ‘cans’ things,…but that’s not my concern. Art is about questioning how things fit together, it’s not about making them fit together better.”
And so if we are facing an incredible influence like this, one which involves a shrinking pool of institutions who control media and lobbying centers, one which is no longer restricted to certain regions like in previous decades/centuries, then it appears as if we may have drifted into uncharted waters.
If we think about a composer’s lifestyle and how they might stay alive financially, there are, it seems, a few different categories of composer to consider. There’s the composer who has another job on top of composing, who is free to do sort of what they wish artistically. They at least have much more wiggle room to try new things, or to move on to different projects that better suit their tastes because their income comes from outside composition. Although, they probably never have much time to do as much composing since they have that other job.
Another type of composer, the one who is, perhaps quite foolishly, attempting to pursue a living through creating music, simply isn’t as free. Like the composer who has another job, they face enormous obstacles. But although the fulltime composers actually have the time to compose, they also deal with an increasing amount of creative pressure that comes along with the financial pressures of being in it full time. Eventually virtually all of these composers have to turn elsewhere for money, once the bills threaten to become stacked too high: to film scoring or jingle writing, or writing as musicologists or bloggers, or to teaching. Or they must join some line of work that might not even have anything to do with music at all.
And of course there’s nothing wrong with those other professions: if that’s what you want to do. But unlike other professions, in the composing world, even a composer who is talented and is doing interesting things almost always fails. The lack of public support eventually crushes them. So in the end, all but a few can’t continue as fulltime composers and find themselves taking on other positions to avoid financial collapse. And many times these are positions which might end up becoming much more of a detriment to their creative lives than they had imagined. And so we lose out not just on the art and the possibility of great art being created, but quite possibly the artists themselves. We also allow the idea of art as being of some importance to our society to erode.
It doesn’t seem at all unhealthy, it should be said, to have some composers succeed at attracting audiences whilst others fail. That seems perfectly normal. It's understandable that the Darwinian model should be applied to the arts in the same manner that it is applied elsewhere.
What might be objected to, however, is the idea that many interesting and talented composers could be turned away simply because their works might just be what they are and nothing more. That is, they don’t serve a secondary purpose which someone or something could use in conjunction with something else, which is usually for the purposes of selling something, like a film or a pharmaceutical product or some retail product. Therefore, if forced into the situation of sacrificing the meaning of the art by having other meanings thrust upon it, the full-time composer has to abandon whatever work they might have done, in order to create works of art that are no longer purely musical. They're vehicles for businessmen.
It seems if that were to happen, they’d then have fallen victim to some form of mass consumption, forced either to encourage the feeding of this beast through their works, via advertising or whatever, or simply forced to become consumers themselves by having to abandon their lives as composers in favor of a secondary job in order to meet their financial role as consumers. This current of mass consumption might then seem simply too strong to swim against, and inevitably it feels as if everyone, whether they are composers or writers or even someone who wants to enjoy life without being pushed into some hyper capitalist goal of becoming rich, must abandon whatever their purpose might actually be and join the masses, so as to avoid drowning in a sea of economic corruption and political deception. This saturation of business-world models into every other field in our world causes those fields like composition or the arts to adopt the business mentality, and the idea of profit simply takes over everything. It seems one thing to run a business and advertise, to do it fairly and to let the public choose their favorites, and quite another when the world turns into a relentless black hole of mass consumption that sucks everything into it.
It also doesn’t help the composer that the overwhelming majority of elements of their own family- the orchestras, various arts organizations, ensembles, media and concert halls- have all but turned their back on new music. Of course there are some who have not. But sometimes it's regrettable to mention that fact because, as soon as you do, everyone thinks you might be talking about them. So this seems to make it a double blow for the composer: one from within and one from outside. And in both cases, one of the problems is that we could seriously question whether all sides are being shown. That is, especially in the case of the composer’s extended musical family, the contemporary composer’s work is rarely even put up for a vote. It may do the public a huge disservice to assume to know what the public wants or needs, rather than what they might actually like. Anyone could try to say that the general public, if given the chance, wouldn’t like, for example, the solo piano works of this contemporary composer or the new opera by that contemporary composer, but why should we believe it? It seems logical to think that a great number of people might enjoy contemporary music if they had a chance to hear it. How could anyone really know what would happen if it hadn’t happened yet?
The composer, like many of us, is forced to adjust, which could be considered code for becoming something that they are not. They are then required to create works that are burdened with economic identities. As we are burdened with economic identities. Again, this isn't to advocate against having winners and losers (in a loose way), but to question whether these economic identities are necessary for everything, for everyone, for every situation. And what if the economic situation worsens, becomes corrupt, is fraudulent? What then, for those economic identities? How much further do we get away from the actual art and its intended purpose and meaning then?