Commentary on Work

Increasingly I see professional and well-off composers talking out against working for little or no profit. While this trend and argument sounds to be both very sound and reasoned, such people do not understand how the internet works as a whole and do not understand the origins of their craft, or how the ladder into the industry is shifting due to technology.

What they fail to see is that they are not alone. The experienced, professional, 20-years+ of industry experience and has toured the country with famous rock stars and written the score to 20 games class is NOT the only class of artists, composers, and creators. There are novices and students. There are poor people, who use an old piano and actual notation paper or free software they find online. These people can’t afford the $1,000 plugins and keyboards and DAWs that the professional class can, yet this class expects these people to produce the same quality and charge the same rate!

The pizza the student composer sells is not the same pizza as that made by the industry veteran of 30 years. It does not deserve the same price.

The second issue is the belief that such “cheap” or free composers are somehow getting conned by the people they work for. In such industries as Flash and Mobile development, most developers are normal middle class people. They can’t afford professional rates, so they need to rely on cheaper composers, who will, understandably, charge lower rates. A flash game brings in pennies compared to a full scale game. Ad revenue? $20 bucks. Sponsorship? You’re lucky if it’s more than a few hundred for a decent game. The developer can only afford to pay you a few hundred dollars at best. Remember the three-sided triangle of which you may only pick two sides: Speed, Price, and Quality. If the developer wants a low price, they must pick either low speed or low quality.

As each of us start off in the world of music composition, we must begin somewhere. For most of us, that is downloading a free program or getting our hands on some sort of instrument or piano and perhaps (but not always) some textbooks or lessons. For many this also means going to college or further training with a professional… an apprenticeship or so on.

Let us take for example the first instance, in which an average middle-class individual might find a free program online and start experimenting with composing. After a few months, they might move up to another program, perhaps a full DAW if they have the money. All this time, they continue to write music and practice.

What happens with the music they write? Where does it go? Many times, it is put up online to be shared on various sites across the web, such as the Newgrounds Audio Portal, Soundcloud, or Bandcamp or forums like YoungComposers or even VIControl. In these places, it can receive critique and advice from composers who have different prospective and experiences, sometimes far more experience. Alternately, it might be shared with friends, family, or even a teacher or close fellow composer who might give feedback. As the music spreads across the internet, people begin to listen to it. Next thing you know, you get the e-mail from John Doe who does Let’s Plays on youtube and wants to use your song as background music in one of his videos. John is, perhaps, 20 years old and in college. Should you demand licensing fees and registration and royalties?

This is where what I call consumer-grade music/score comes into play. It is the produce of a developing artist. It is not worth or as good as professional work. It is created to be used by a rapidly expanding consumer base of low/no funding projects. This type of music is abundant and varied. It is the heart and soul of the developing artist… and often has more emotion and spirit to it than many professional works.

I think the best example of free consumer-grade music being done right is the work of Kevin MacLeod and others like  him. If you haven’t heard of his music, you have not been on the internet enough. It is everywhere- youtube, games, animations, everything. You don’t see big high-priced composers with their music all over youtube or in games or animations that the general population is regularly exposed to, and here I see his name roll in the credits or description of half the youtube videos I see! This is consumer-grade music in action. Music for the common man. A professional composer can rant and rave all they want about how it is wrong that music might be free, or how the Creative Commons system allows blah blah, etc. In truth, consumer-grade music is an astounding success. By that I mean that people KNOW, for example, who Kevin MacLeod is and creators credit him- people outstandingly practice attribution across the internet regardless of the source of the content. People are more than glad to have intermediate or novice composers score their flash games. They don’t NEED, WANT, or have any ability to AFFORD a professional industry-level composer, with the exception of the very highest games, which may be ported to other platforms or are developed by developers who are not your average Joe!

It is entertaining from the mid-lower class of the world of composers to look up and see a handful of greater composers launch rhetoric wars condemning the actions of those trying to climb up the ladders below them in this sense. Many of those composers climbed up there years ago when the normal path was far far different and supply was far lesser than demand. These composers tell us the ship is sinking and it is the composer who uses his free program he downloaded to write music as a hobby and charges a few bucks a hour to flash game composers. They tell us it is the uneducated composer who they forgot to let know what the going rate was in such a competitive and cutthroat world because they just want to watch the novice fail and quit. They sit there with their expensive plugins and insatiable want for more technology, more samples, more resources, demanding for a pay rise and complaining it is too low. Perhaps they are all instead just living too highly. Perhaps it is time for the modern world to remember something really important:

Being a professional creative of any type has NEVER been a standard career until just this last century, especially being a professional composer. Some of the greatest composers (as well as artists, musicians, writers, and thinkers) in history were shopkeepers, priests, cooks, soldiers, and even servants and thought of themselves as such! The only individuals who have ever been able to fully support themselves on their work alone are prodigies, those in direct service of the elite (royals or just very rich), or those who spend every moment of their waking lives practicing and working on their skill until they gained skills similar to such. Even then, it is not an easy path. To think that composition is a fully sustainable career is a modern idea born from the rise of film scoring and large grants/endowments when a composer could do a few films or projects a year and make a tidy profit, and it should not be taken for granted as some people do.

Remember that music was sustained through the Dark Ages and Middle Ages predominantly by monks. They sure as hell didn’t get paid to write the hymns and chants (although they were given a bed and modest clothes). They wrote music because of the one thing music can create that is infinitely more valuable, infinitely more finite, and infinitely more intangible- emotion and a feeling of something greater. For this same reason, the transcendentalists abandoned luxury, Diogenes lived in a barrel, and the cultures and religions of civilizations around the world flourished. Their works were indeed not to make money, but to attempt at understanding and touching more than one normally can in their materialistic human existence. This doesn’t mean you should do the same, but it shows that there is more than just money that can be found in music. If you do what you do and enjoy it, then why worry about money as long as you can support yourself? After all, what is the joke often said about one majoring in composition- that they are dual-majoring in house painting as well. So if you get into a trance-like state of wonder when you write or feel a great pull on your heart with every melody you add, there is no reason to demand more than enough to cover what you truly need. You have the rest all set.

As an after-note, I should remark that on situations of corporate bodies taking advantage of composers or musicians, or of fully qualified and educated composers charging next to nothing for exclusive services, I do agree that these things are detrimental. However, these things are a fault of a system in which there is no standardization and publication of knowledge on prices that is accessible to the NEW class of composers. There exists an old system based on records, CDs, and concerts. In the future, that is all going to continue to shrink as the web expands to fulfill more spots in peoples’ lives. Information needs to be accessible via just a search in the wide open, edited, plain and simple, authoritative, on the web for all to see- not hidden in old dusty books, not hidden in lengthy forum arguments, but out in the open where the novice can go and see it. This is the cornerstone philosophy behind my new project- a Guide to the Orchestra, a digital orchestration manual for all levels of composers. People shouldn’t have to spend years and thousands of dollars finding out the basics of a flooded, dynamic industry. They should have it at their fingertips without charge and without any hassle.

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