Thursday, December 20, 2018

Musical Economics Ramble

I was working with a seven-year-old student the other day, and while we were discussing the weight of the bow on the string, the subject of gravity came up. My student told me that they studied gravity in Kindergarten, and that in first grade they were now learning about economics. Maybe it's a fancy way of talking about money: dividing dollars into quarters, dimes, and nickels, which could be useful when introducing physical concepts of math. It is interesting and amusing to consider various scenarios of costs and benefits through the eyes of a first grader.

Anyway, I have been thinking about musical economics lately.

Most of the people reading this blog know that I stopped working with commercial publishers years ago, and since 2006 I have made everything that that I have written available by way of the IMSLP. It's free to download and free to perform. It simply isn't worth my while to work through a publisher and not be able to distribute the music I write for free. The IMSLP makes it possible for me to participate in the exchange of music without dealing with ideas of ownership or money. I am also very fortunate that being married to a now retired academic professional, and living in a place that has an extremely low cost of living, I don't have to sell music to pay the bills. If I were a different kind of person I could even say that I had a "patron." Anyway, the quality of what I write would remain the same regardless of whether I were to exchange it for money or offer it to musicians for free.

But everything you read tells you that nothing is really free.

If I perform the prelude from a Bach Cello Suite (and we violists practice them all the time and perform them occasionally) it is a reflection of thousands of hours of concentrated practice. The "cost" to me is the time I have spent building up enough technique to allow me to shepherd the groups of notes into formations that please me and please the people listening to me. If I play a Bach Prelude for a wedding and get paid money for doing so, that money hardly compensates for the time I have spent hard at work on the piece. It does, however, compensate for my travel and for the time I spend sitting quietly during a wedding ceremony.

The benefit for Bach is negligible. He has been dead for a long time, and his name and his work is well known. But there might be someone at that wedding who has never heard a Bach prelude before. There might be a child (or even an adult) who thinks that the viola is the most beautiful instrument she has ever heard, and will want to play it. There might be a person or two who is better able to connect to appropriate feelings for the event because of the safety of the music.

But being hard at work is really being hard at play for me. And all that work (play) makes me a better musician. I imagine Bach would have been happy to know that his music has proven useful after all these years.

And what are the economics relating to a person (or group) playing music that I write? The cost for the player is measured in hours of practice time and rehearsal time, and the benefit is having new music to play. The major benefit for me is having the music I write "live" in other places besides the inside of my head. I also know that most musicians are poorly paid for their work. It brings me no joy to think about musicians as customers. It does bring me joy to know that people who might not be able to afford music for their students to play (school orchestra budgets being limited) can find new music to perform without spending money they do not have.

The costs of creating a publishing company are the similar to the costs of setting up any small business. You need space for production (including large-format printing equipment and binding equipment) and supplies (high-quality paper and ink). You have to either understand accounting or hire an accountant, have a professional website, set yourself up to do e-commerce, and protect your intellectual property. You might need to hire a lawyer to help with those protections, if need be. You have to understand business, advertise, go to conferences, and be ever-present on Facebook (gasp) and Twitter. The expenditures you have to make will be reflected in the price of the music so that you actually make some money from owning the publishing company. And that price might be higher than it would be from a larger publisher.

The company that handles my published music is now offering services to self-publishing composers (i.e. composers who do not have a relationship with an established publisher and would like to sell their music). In exchange for a yearly fee, they will print and mail your music, and list it on their website. Unlike the non-self-published composers (like me) they allow the composer to retain ownership of the music (saving themselves the expense of filing for copyright).

The publisher takes a hefty percentage (45%) of the money that customers pay in retail sales (that's less than the 90% that they take from the composers they publish). The company also will sell self-publishing composers copies of their own music at a 70% discount. I suppose that the company thinks of would-be self-publishing composers as customers rather than as people who produce items of value. I suppose that adding this new "consumer class" of composer elevates me up a tier in the company's hierarchy, though I still can't imagine ever seeing this company actively promoting my work.

So I keep sending my new work to the IMSLP, where it can be accessed by people everywhere who are looking for music to play. It costs me nothing and it benefits anyone who is interested. And it leaves me time to write music. And blog posts.


Victor said...

I have a decent amount of music on IMSLP, but it's kind of a black hole. You put it there and rarely ever hear anything back from it. Of course sometimes you hear something and it can be very special: a piece of mine was played at the US embassy in Afghanistan. But in general, IMSLP will tell you that your piece was downloaded hundreds of times, and you never hear if it's even played. Do you get any more feedback?

Elaine Fine said...

I occasionally get email messages from people who play my music, which is nice. I never hear from people who play my published music, so my experience with the IMSLP is far better. I’m happy when I see that people have downloaded pieces, and I hope they enjoy playing them. I do like the idea of having a little corner of a vast library, and I like contributing because I use it so much for my own pleasure.