Music and Livelihood

I am not going to be able to work as a performer for the rest of my life. There are a number of reasons for this, and none of them are up for discussion in this post, but my current strategy is not working and is unsustainable.

However, I am a musician through and through: when I am not making music I am pretty miserable. So I’ve been thinking lately about how to make a living as a musician, without performing.

Recording is out. I have enjoyed the work I’ve done on albums for Bandcamp, but the quality is unremarkable, and the amount of work that goes into recording and editing multiple tracks (“What Wondrous Love is This” has about 15 I think, but even “Swete was the song the Virgine Soong” and “As pants the hart” are four each) is phenomenal, and the money earned isn’t enough to get me to a proper recording studio where I might be able to do a better job. Don’t get me wrong — I think Bandcamp offers a great service in exchange for 15% of profits. I just don’t think recording is something that is likely to bring me a lot of money in the near or far future.

I love teaching: it is some of the most fulfilling work I have done. But it does tie me to a geographical area and someone else’s schedule, and building up a class of students during a recession turns out to be difficult. And, ultimately, I think it is preferable to teach if I am also performing: if performance is not going to be a long-term thing for me, teaching needs to take a back seat too. It may not disappear entirely, but I don’t think it should be my main focus.

I have never been paid for composing. This may change — I’ve had one or two tentative enquiries after putting more of my work on the Choral Public Domain Library — but as of 4th February? Not a penny. The issue here seems to be my commitment to CC BY-SA: publishers don’t want to touch it and I don’t know of an online sheet music service that allows people a “look/listen first and then pay what you will” structure, like Bandcamp does.

But looking at the reasons I am not going to be a performer for ever, and the directions my life may take as a result, composing looks like the best option for me. It can be fitted in around other things without being too disruptive, I can do it pretty much anywhere quiet enough, it doesn’t require me to keep and maintain a lot of specialist equipment, and the discipline is mental rather than physical. I enjoy it, and while putting music online seems at times to be like playing tennis with a black hole, the feedback I do get is positive and encouraging.

I am committed to the CC BY-SA model. I want to contribute to a public body of work and I don’t want anyone to have a monopoly on it. But I have been wondering whether my lack of income from composing is not so much because I use CC BY-SA but rather because I am not very good at asking for money for myself. This is, arguably, an unfortunate character trait for a freelance musician! But it’s certainly true that when I blog about new works I don’t tend to offer people any way of paying me even if they wanted to.

So I’m trying an experiment. I’ll keep composing, likely with increased output as I give it more time, and I’ll keep putting works online for free. I have a new page on this site which details some of the ways to offer me support, and when I blog about new works I will start including links to those as well. Nothing big and horrible and in-your-face: just gentle text reminders. I’ve signed up for an account with Patreon (more on that in another blog post), and I’m looking for a way to put .pdfs online so that they are previewable, but anyone who downloads them receives a “would you like to send me some money first?” prompt — always with a pay-what-you-will option where “£0” is valid! My work will still be available for people to use, absolutely free, but perhaps those who can and would like to will be more able to contribute if I actually ask and make the mechanisms obvious.

Other suggestions are welcome.


3 thoughts on “Music and Livelihood

  1. I love the idea of a sheet music equivalent to Bandcamp. I wonder, is that something you could get funding to set up? Perhaps in collaboration with others. I realise it would be a lot of work, but would be great to give yourself and others a sustainable platform for sharing music in the way you want to. Kickstarter might be an option to fund the initial setting up, or perhaps there’s some obscure music-related trust out there that would give you a grant for it… In a previous life, I was something of a connoisseur of obscure trusts and funding bodies, but alas no longer. But if you are looking at some point, I might still be able to dig up a few useful pointers/contacts.

    1. Ruth,

      I am talking to a computer geek friend about possibilities in this direction. I’m not sure about setting up a site that scales the way Bandcamp does: I want to write music, not run a secondary or tertiary business so that it can be online… but if someone else wants to set something up on along the same lines as Bandcamp I’d be delighted.

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