Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Passion Trap

Why do we do it?

I’m talking about the desire to create art within a modern American society that is, at best, indifferent or, at worst, hostile towards the arts. It’s a question I’ve been asking of myself as I’ve navigated through another extremely busy fall. For the past three months, I’ve been composing new works, presenting concerts, and traveling every weekend playing Greek gigs or attending performances of my compositions. All the while, I’ve also been engaged in heavy teaching and service loads at my university. Yet my bank account in no way reflects the amount of effort I have made in my professional life. Now that autumn is winding down, exhausted, I’m left to wonder why I do what I do. It obviously is not for the money. Maybe I cling to some 19th Century Romantic image of the misunderstood artist producing work for future generations while marginalized or ignored by the current generation. This image can serve as a balm applied to the chaffing of indifference. However, I personally find this image self-indulgent. It does not really ring true for me anyway. In reality, I believe that I’ve actually walked into a trap.

Donald Erb (1927-2008)
One of my very first lessons as a young composition student was learning that it wasn’t enough to merely “find my own voice” but to passionately pursue it. An audience can always tell when a work has passion and when it does not. As my great teacher and mentor Donald Erb always said, “A craftsman can create entertainment, but you need more than that to create art. There has to be something inside you pushing out or all a person will ever write is a craftsman-like piece. And that's not quite good enough.” Being passionate and endeavoring to create art at a high level may be regarded as its own reward, however, therein lies the trap. While I must have passion to create great art, that very same passion pushes me to create work whether or not it is fully appreciated.

Yours truly performing at the
2012 Atlanta Greek Festival
This passion trap applies to performers as well as composers. There is a joke going around the Internet about a client wishing to hire a six-piece band for an event. When the bandleader quotes a price of $2000 for a six-hour gig, the client balks. The bandleader counters, “Okay, find six plumbers and find out what they charge for six hours of work. We’ll play for half of that.” It’s an amusing story except for the fact that in real life, the bandleader would probably take the gig at the lower price or another band would. The musicians would then still perform at their highest capable level. The passion good musicians have for making music would not allow for anything less. So what has the client learned? Artists will give the same effort for less money.

The ASO and Chorus at Carnegie Hall on October 27.
(Photo by Chris Lee)
From the humble cover band to the highest levels of orchestral concert music, the passion trap is present. As I have recounted in past blog entries, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has recently endured a brutal labor dispute. As Scott Freeman notes in his recent article for, “The two-year contract that the musicians accepted included a total of $5.2 million in salary concessions, an average pay cut of about 16 percent for each. The size of the orchestra fell from 93 to 88. Under the terms of the deal, the ASO will go from a 52-week orchestra to 41 weeks this season and 42 weeks in the second year.” Not long after this dispute was resolved and the season began, the ASO performed a concert in Carnegie Hall that had been planned before the lockout. How did the musicians respond to their drastic cuts in salary, orchestra size and their season? The members of the orchestra behaved as all wonderful and passionate artists do when they are onstage. They performed brilliantly and received great reviews. The bitterness of the labor dispute dissolved for a moment and all that remained was the music. What does management take away from this?

I do not mean to suggest that the musicians should have protested their mistreatment by performing below their abilities. I don’t think any of us should do that. Returning to my realm of music composition, I readily acknowledge that even if I were not paid for a commission, I would still try to compose an excellent piece of music. However, I can’t help but wonder if, somehow, I unintentionally contribute to a culture that fosters indifference to the arts and the exploitation of creative artists. The musicians of the ASO or that cover band may not have had many options in their negotiations. Do I have more choices? There have been plenty of times when a commission has come my way and when the talk turned to payment for work, I was informed that there was no budget for that. Most often, I’ve written the piece anyway and was appreciative of the performance. Yet, what’s the message I’m sending? Not many other professions operate this way. To take just one example, no entrepreneur would engage in the creation of a product if satisfaction for a job well done were the only reward. No one consistently gives a product away for free. There needs to be a profit involved or the business collapses.

So what am I to do? Trapped within my passion for creating great art, I fear that by sticking to my guns and demanding payment for everything at all times, presenters or potential performers will simply move on to the next composer. If, on the other hand, I compose works and never receive (or even ask for) payment for my efforts, how can I be a professional composer? How can I justify all the hard work involved?

For the serious composer, there is no easy exit from this trap short of being “discovered” or winning a significant prize. Therefore, I’ve come to believe that my best bet is to follow the admonition of being “wise as [a serpent] and harmless as [a dove]” (Matthew 10:16). Christ gave this instruction to His disciples so that they would not be unnecessarily wounded as they preached the gospel. This is good advice within the narrow field of the arts as well. There is no need for me to be unnecessarily wounded in an agreement with a performer, presenter or ensemble. Being wise as a serpent means to take my career seriously. If it feels like I’m being taken advantage of, I probably am. It wouldn’t hurt to channel a little of that reptilian wisdom on occasion and take a pass on certain opportunities. However, this cannot be my rigid credo. By also trying to be as harmless as a dove, I must strive to not carry a chip on my shoulder nor retaliate against perceived injustices. Sometimes it really is in my best interest to simply write the stupid piece for free or at a huge discount. I have to remember that, like myself, most presenters, performing groups or individual musicians do not have deep pockets. Being harmless as a dove means I charge when and as much as I can as the specific situation warrants. It means that sometimes, when the budget is tight, I work out acceptable in-kind service arrangements such as guaranteed performances of a commission, guaranteed recording of the work, release of the performance for recordings and/or online streaming, etc. Being harmless as a dove also means treating every opportunity as unique and not applying a one-size-fits-all approach. Being wise like a serpent but harmless as a dove during negotiations may be all I need to establish myself as a true professional.

In the end, walking into this passion trap seems to be my only option. However, there’s no need to go in with my eyes closed, hoping for the best. How I proceed is important. Knowing that it can be a trap, yet walking in anyway, eyes wide open, with caution and confidence makes all the difference.