Responding to the debate about composers and their fees

There is a lot of debate in the digiverse at the moment, following a survey reported in Sound and Music into the shockingly-low fees afforded to composers (read the Guardian digest here). I have engaged with a composer on Twitter about this, in the light of which I feel an important distinction needs to be made.

It is crucial, I think, to distinguish between those who consider themselves to be composers, and those who see composing as an adjunct to other activities they undertake – teaching, performing, lecturing – alongside their composing.

For the former, composing is their calling – what they do, what they have to do – and, because of the poor fees afforded by commissions for their work, they have to engage in other activities simply in order to make ends meet, and to sustain and support their first imperative: composing.

For the latter, activities such as teaching, performing and lecturing are equally as important as – or perhaps, in some cases, more important than – their composing. This isn’t a criticism, by any means; no-one who has seen the amount of administrative bureaucracy surrounding working in education can say otherwise. But it is important to establish the difference; supplementary activities supporting composing, or composing as one of several tasks.

For those for whom composing is a necessity, it is certainly true that it’s not possible to devote a life to writing music without considerable support from elsewhere; grants, family, etc. But for those who compose as an adjunct to, rather than in spite of, other tasks, it’s not quite the same thing. And those who do earn money around their composing aren’t quite in the same boat as those who strive to earn from their composing alone. The latter isn’t possible. Either you are a composer, or a lecturer/teacher/performer who also composes. Not both; it’s a question of priorities, of the imperative governing what you do.

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Why I’m deleting your unsolicited e-mail

Dear Unsolicited PR Supplicant,

Thank you for your email. Let me explain why I am going to delete it straight away:

1. You say you write to ‘influential bloggers such as yourself.’ Whilst I am fairly certain this is wilful flattery, you make no mention of exactly what it is that I write, or for whom, nor do you reference anything in particular that I have written that inspired you to get in touch. Ergo, I am pretty sure you have copied and pasted this same text to hundreds of other bloggers, and you have no idea who I am excepting that I am a result in your Googled List of Music Blogs.

2. You don’t even have the courtesy to send me a copy of the product you wish me to review; instead, there are several hyperlinks in the email which I am invited to click. I have no idea where these links are going to, and I don’t intend to find out.

3. You make no mention of a fee for my service. Music criticism and reviewing is, like most things, a profession; writers are paid for their writing. The products and articles I have written are part of my job, for which I am therefore paid. You wouldn’t go over to a roofer working down the road, and say “Excuse me, I like what you’re doing on the roof of no.42; can I ask you to do the same for me ? For free ?” Or perhaps you would. No matter.

4. Not only do you not offer a fee, you further exhort me, if I like what I see/hear/read, to book the band for gigs / buy tickets for the performance / purchase the product directly from a website. This only adds insult to injury; you’re not only asking me to provide a professional service for free, but inviting me part with my cash in addition.

5. Your product may just be the most exciting combination of Skunk Jazz Meets Cutting-Edge Morris Dancing Techniques, but if I haven’t already written about the genre it occupies or other, similar products, it’s either a) because I have others about which to write and I’ll get to yours after all of those, or b) it’s not my field and I am unlikely therefore to need or want to write about it. And if it isn’t my field, before I were to write about it, I would need to research and listen extensively around it, in order to be able to review it with some insight or authority. And you are not offering to pay for that time, either.

So, I will take great delight in deleting your e-mail. I hope you find this feedback useful and instructive, and I do not expect to hear from you again.

Yours faithfully.

Normal disservice will be resumed: Programming the Proms for television.

I’m not going to complain about the Proms. It brings music to many, catering for a range of tastes from popular warhorses from the classical canon to contemporary music, jazz, gospel, chamber music, family concerts, film and television music. And Stockhausen. Amidst all the complaints of elitism, catering for bums on seats, unimaginative programming and more, the Proms quietly gets on with celebrating music both ancient and modern, and creating one of the best festivals anywhere in the world.

20130720-142200.jpgWhat I am going to complain about, however, is how it is programmed for televisual consumption, and specifically the evisceration of last Tuesday’s Prom as it was packaged for television. Tuning in to watch last night’s broadcast on BBC4, in delighted anticipation of hearing David Matthews’ A Vision of the Sea, which was receiving its world premiere, I found that the work had been brutally torn out of the televised version, going straight to the second item in the programme, Rachmaninov’s enduringly-popular Piano Concerto no.2.

I feel the BBC missed a real trick, here. Matthews’ piece, an evocative tone-poem exploring the coast of Deal in Kent, would have been a useful way of introducing audiences to contemporary music; it occupied fairly safe tonal territory, had plenty of drama and melodic lines, and is reminiscent of Debussy and Britten. As modern music goes, it’s not scary at all, and is in fact very accessible, and would have done much to dispel the myth that all modern music is complex, atonal, and Difficult To Listen To.

I fully appreciate that, of the two works, the Rachmaninov is the more likely to keep people watching rather than reaching for the remote to flip channels – a key factor in the elements at the beginning of any programme. But to have excised the Matthews completely does a disservice, both to the BBC itself, which does wonders to promote challenging and modern works and commission new music, as well as to Matthews himself. “Sorry, David, but we don’t think your piece will work as well on television as it did in the concert-hall.’ And in wanting to cater to Rach-lovers, the Beeb failed to cater to those of us who tuned in specifically for the new commission. Some of us love new music, too.

New sea pictures: David Matthews premiere at the Proms

Ravishing – that’s the only word that can describe David Matthew’s A Vision of the Sea, which was given its world première at the Proms on Tuesday night.

David-MatthewsInspired by the sound of the sea off the coast at Matthew’s home town of Deal (a series of watercolours made by the composer during the writing of the piece can be seen here) the piece has occasional nods to Debussy’s similarly south-coast-inspired La Mer in its skirling harps and strings beneath a trumpet melody, combined with aspects of Britten’s Sea Interludes. Matthews’ orchestral pallette ranges from the drama of battering timps and growling brass to the lone echoing clarinets, imitating the call of sea-birds. The piece is a tone-poem in the Sibelian tradition, relishing a range of cascading effects as it captures the changing hues of the sea. And whilst the piece occupies fairly safe tonal territory, it does display Matthews’ post-Romantic leanings to great effect.

Listen online until Tuesday on iPlayer here.

The Mozart Effect: who cares ?

Look, I fear we may have our priorities in the wrong place with all this talk of the ‘ Mozart Effect’ and the supposed scientific research in support of / contradicting the idea that playing classical music to babies will develop certain neural pathways, will improve cerebral connections or empathetic emotional understanding.

20130304-195755.jpgEvery so often, some Worthy Boffin either propounded or rails against the view that a baby’s development can be greatly enhanced if classical music, particularly the music of Mozart, is played to them. What strikes me about all this is that it isn’t important At All. When we are concerned with how we can programme our children through the use of music, we have perhaps lost sight (or, more pertinently, sound) of what music can bring.

As a professional musician and parent, I can say with complete conviction that it’s not the supposed cognitive-enhancing possibilities of listening to music, or the more developed emotional empathy with others that music can assist in developing that interests me, or that I want for my children from music. What I want is for them to have the opportunity to experience music for themselves, to listen to a wide variety of music, from Minimalism to Miles, and find out if there’s some that they like, and for them to have the chance to explore more of it if they do. I want them to learn to play an instrument or to sing so they can find another creative pastime, a social activity in which they can participate with others if they enjoy doing so.

I’m not interested in attempting to programme my children into wunderkindern through exposure to pieces from the Austro-Germanic musical tradition, in the hope that they develop superior synaptic connections in order to make them better children, if such a thing were actually possible. And for anyone who’s seen A Clockwork Orange, surely that way madness lies…

So, let’s just forget all the bullshit about the enhancements that the Mozart Effect is supposed to offer, and just allow our children to enjoy music for themselves as a creative pastime, rather than as a conditioning tool for the betterment of their cerebral performance. Music is not, and should not be, about making ‘better’ babies, or assisting in the development of certain physiological capacities that will improve children. Music can do many things, not least of which is to offer fertile ground for lots of utter crap to be talked by lots of idiots.Get a grip, everyone…

Shock revelation: music article contains 90% horseshit

In a shocking moment of revelation, it has been shown that a piece of music journalism contains approximately 90% horseshit.

Investigations into a recent article by Norman Lebrecht have proved conclusively that much of what passed for factual information in the writing was in fact actually horseshit.

20130210-141033.jpgIt is widely expected that investigations being conducted into other articles, not just those by Lebrecht, will reveal the widespread use of horseshit in music journalism, whereby reputable music critics have been contaminating their product with groundless supposition, specious arguments and pure horseshit. The additional use of tripe and bollocks is also suspected.

“It’s a bad time for horse-based product contamination across the country,” admitted an entirely fictional government spokesman in a pretend interview, “and consumers are losing confidence in products they thought they could trust.”

The culture of music criticism is holding its breath in anticipation of further revelations.

Will becoming an Academy mean the death of music in schools ?

Talking to a Music specialist primary school teacher recently, it transpires that, from today, the school at which they teach is becoming an ‘academy.’ What this means in real terms for music provision at the school, is that the school will now have to pay for all the instruments it uses, which previously it had borrowed from its local music advisory service.

shockedNow, at a rough cost of £30 per instrument (such as a cornet or violin – other ‘instruments’ like the ocarina or recorder are in a bundle-package), for a class of thirty children, that’s £900 per year simply to hire them. The school will receive a one-off lump sum as part of its move to academy-status, but with close to £1,000 per year to hire instruments, that’s not going to last long. And with other areas in school – IT provision, real estate up-keep, resources – all clamouring for funding, using funds to hire musical instruments is not going to be high on the list of priorities. (And I appreciate that it’s unlikely that a school will require an entire class-full of cornets or violins – breaking them up across the numbers required throughout the school, though, yields an approximate number).

It seems counter-productive, nay, let’s pull no punches here, totally stupid, that developing a school’s status should in fact lead to its no longer being able to deliver a part of its curriculum.

As of today, therefore, all the instruments will be being boxed up in order to return to the county music service. The opportunity for young children to access instruments to start to learn will be lost, as will the Wider Opportunities aspect to curriculum delivery. The school could, of course,  pass on the cost of instrument hire to the parents,  but with many of them low-income families, with priorities of their own, that’s not going to help.

I wonder if other primary-turned-academy schools are in a similar situation.

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