Composer Operating Costs

Composer Operating Costs

Calculator and Money, by 401(K) 2012 on Flickr

Calculator and Money, by 401(K) 2012 on Flickr

As many of you are well aware, June 1 is a pretty significant date in the composing world because lots of grant application deadlines fall on that day. Like many other composers, I spent a good chunk of May writing proposals, updating all of my resume/CV/catalog of works documents, printing, binding, and assembling packages. At this point, I’m on a first-name basis with my local post office workers. Boy howdy, I’m glad all that stuff is finished! At least for a couple of months, until the application deadlines pile up yet again.

Having blown through an impressive amount of composer-y office supplies during this process (I maintain that half the battle of being a composer is having the ability to procure oddly sized and/or obscure office supplies), I made a trip last weekend to replenish my dwindling reserves of paper, CDRs, and padded envelopes. No matter how many times I run this errand, the final price at the register never fails to take my breath away. And the same thought always comes up:

“Damn, being a composer is expensive.”

I’m not talking about just office supplies. I mean pretty much everything about having a career as a composer—with the exception of the actual composing part, that is—costs money. Perhaps super-successful composers with major publishers are in a different position, but I suspect that even they are not immune to this phenomenon.

There are numerous “composer operating costs” (most of which apply to performers as well) that kick in during and/or after the largest expense of all, education. For instance, there is travel (to concerts, auditions, and other events), professional development (workshops, festivals, conferences), concert tickets, membership fees, self-promotional stuff (website hosting, etc.), and computer hardware and software, to name just a few items. And the more advanced the career, the more expensive it can become; a copyist to help manage the composing workload, or a publicist to assist in getting the word out about a new CD release can add up to big bucks. With increasing success, it seems as if rather than the expenses decreasing, they simply transform into different expenses. All of this is obviously above and beyond the basic human need for food, shelter, and clothing.

I am continually impressed with the resourcefulness and creativity of many composer colleagues regarding the ways they combat the potential “composer money pit.” There are composers who live in extremely low- or no-cost housing situations, some have armies of student interns to help with various tasks, and one composer I know is an absolute genius at scoring complementary music gear from manufacturing companies.

Throughout history, composers (and plenty of other types of artists) have received support in many different forms. Tchaikovsky had a benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, who sent regular infusions of cash, for example. Whether it is the generosity of a mysterious sponsor, an inheritance from a well-to-do auntie, or the help of a spouse, an institution, or an entire Kickstarter campaign, every one of us has received financial or in-kind support of one form or another (and probably in many forms) at different points in our careers. I think it’s important to remember all of the people who have played a part in helping us get to wherever we are in our creative paths, and to recognize that behind every artist who “makes it” is most likely a sea of individuals who provided support along the way.

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9 thoughts on “Composer Operating Costs

  1. Nickitas Demos


    Thanks for this excellent article! I’m going to share it with my composition students! I think it is important for them (and all of us, really) to think of ourselves as entrepreneurs. Our widget just happens to be our music – or actually more properly understood – ourselves as artists. Technology in the 21st Century is remarkable and allows us to, in essence, become our own record label, publisher, agent & publicist. However, there are two hefty costs that come along with this empowering technology: the first you outline very well in your article. The second is the willingness, on the part of the composer, to embrace these other roles and devote time to them!

    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Hi Nickitas,

      I’m sorry I didn’t see your comment till now! Thank you, and yes please do share this with your students. When I was in school I had NO idea about any of this, and learned everything (as I’m sure many of us have) through trial and error. And yes, the “life/time costs” are significant as well.

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  2. Mark N. Grant

    Great article, Alexandra, though you left out the many cases where the composer himself pays for the performance. A stunning example of that, and the outsized overhead of being a composer, is furnished by our own very esteemed Frank J. Oteri in his fascinating liner notes to the VAI Audio CDs of Gabriel von Wayditch’s early operas “The Caliph’s Magician” and “Jesus Before Herod.” Commenting on the only public performance of any of Wayditch’s fourteen (very long) operas, “Horus,” FJO writes:

    Staged by the Philadelphia La Scala Opera Company on January 5, 1939, the performance at the Philadelphia Academy of Music was a tragedy. The orchestra consisted of only 65 players (rather than Wayditch’s specified 110) and cost the composer seven thousand dollars, a considerable sum of money in Depression-era America.”

    According to the U.S. Department of Labor website for inflation adjustment, seven thousand dollars in 1939 WOULD EQUATE TO OVER $117,000 in buying power in 2013. Yet the lamentably fated Wayditch lived, according to FJO’s notes, “in a South Bronx tenement, eking out a very small living by giving private music lessons.” Where on earth did he obtain such money in the Depression? Adds Frank, “Wayditch originally approached Arturo Toscanini, who after reading through the score exclaimed, “I wouldn’t do it for a million dollars.” (For less than a million dollars, evidently, Gustav Mahler’s nephew Fritz conducted it.)

    I wrote about other noted instances of composer performance self-financing, as well as the general issue of the expensiveness of composing, in a 2007 NMB blog:

    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Hello Mark,

      Thank you for your reply! Actually I didn’t forget the composer performance self-financing at all – rather I assume that it is something that most of us have had to do at some point or other in our musical lives. I certainly have! It comes with the territory.

      1. Mark N. Grant

        I think Virgil Thomson summed it up best in his July 17, 1985 letter to the widow of Roy Harris (the last letter quoted in the Pages’ book of Thomson’s letters). Thomson wrote:

        “There is no easy way to make a career composing. It is long, painful, and expensive.”

  3. Dean Rosenthal

    I try to do as much work as I can online, eliminating much else other than the cost of software (which I hang onto for as long as possible, or use shareware, with small donations) and internet service in costs. I figure the cost of my laptop into that and pick out something as permanent as possible when I buy. But underneath these costs comes an outlook – what does it mean to invest so much into the craft of a career?

    Festivals, workshops, and residencies that require travel expenses, participation fees, etc. are pretty much automatic “nos” for me. I’ve made the decision that I’d rather live as comfortably and interestingly as I can and live and work without the experience you will get from those, including those essential contacts. Applications to contests and calls for works that require a submission fee also get the ax, on the whole. In exchange, I am able to afford a lifestyle that offers me what is really a permanent kind of residency – a good space to live and work without overburdensome demands on my finances and time.


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