Making a living as a composer during a global pandemic
Photo of Ted Hearne. Credit: Jen Rosenstein
Ted Hearne is a composer, performer, singer, and bandleader who creates personal and multi-dimensional works. He has written works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Ensemble dal Niente, Roomful of Teeth and Ensemble Klang of The Netherlands, among others. Attending Manhattan School of Music and then pursuing a Master's degree at Yale School of Music, Hearne is now an Associate Professor of Composition at USC Thornton School of Music.

Ted describes Thornton as adhering to the conservatory model. "Institutions that lean so heavily on conserving practices of the past can be slow to introduce ways of teaching that use current technology or that engage hybrid conceptions of composition," he begins. "Understanding that Thornton is susceptible to that blind spot means we need to try extra hard to incorporate new and different thinking about music into our practice, and keep updated [on] what it means to be a composer and artist today."

Looking into the future, Hearne tells me he feels very worried. "The economy for artists in this country — and for so many working people — is bleak," he claims. "It's harder and harder for most people to make a living wage, and of course we see the work of musicians being increasingly devalued." The composer talks about how often the measure of a musician's success is rooted in the amount of money they can make with their work, and with platforms like Spotify occupying so much space in the market while offering low payouts to independent artists, that number keeps getting smaller.

Wired paints an imaginary example to illustrate how payouts are calculated. For instance, Apple Music is paying out £100 to rights holders. "If ten percent of the total streams on the platform for that month were Ariana Grande songs, then Grande — or the rights holder for those recordings, which in this case is Universal subsidiary Republic Records — would receive ten per cent of the total payout, or £10," the media states. With this system, the musicians with the most streams receive revenue from listeners who haven't played any of their songs. "It means that most of your ten pound subscription actually goes to Ed Sheeran or Drake or Lady Gaga rather than the other musicians whose music you may have been listening to."
The pandemic has had a tremendous impact on all musicians, Hearne included. When the first Covid-19 outbreak started in the United States, Place, an evening-length work Hearne wrote with poet Saul Williams which had been scheduled to premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, got cancelled.

The composition deals with displacement and housing insecurity, and seeing creative opportunity, Ted decided to make a live filmed version that documented the real-time effect the pandemic and lockdown was having on the performers themselves. "Some of the musicians' economic security collapsed the moment they were not able to perform live. One of the singers actually got evicted from their home and ended up moving into a trailer, which they wanted to include in the documentation of this project," he shares.
"More than ever, there is a need for unique, interesting, and challenging music — as we see fewer economic opportunities for people and widening wealth gaps, society needs original artists to keep us imagining a more just reality," Ted believes.
The Covid-19 outbreak has also created an even more evident discrepancy between big name record labels and smaller artists that barely get paid every time their music is streamed. Tasmin Little, a classical UK violinist who has received honors such as an Order of the British Empire designation from Queen Elizabeth, had more than 600,000 monthly Spotify listeners. However, she was paid £12.34 for over 3.5 million total streams in six months on the platform.

Pitchfork writes that perhaps the solution to that is Bandcamp. Founded in 2007, the company believes that "music is an indispensable part of culture, and for that culture to thrive, artists — no matter the size of their audience — must be compensated fairly and transparently for their work." 75 Dollar Bill's latest studio album became No. 1 on Wire magazine's best albums of 2019 list. On May 1, they released their album, Live at Tubby's, exclusively on Bandcamp. The pay-what-you-want release earned $4,200 from nearly 700 buyers in just two days, which is more than 75 Dollar Bill have made through streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube over the last six years.

As Pitchfork mentions, when the coronavirus hit, Bandcamp waived its 10 to 15 percent share of revenues for two full days to support the artists on the platform. May 1 was the second of these Bandcamp Days, which have already helped direct a total of $11.4 million toward musicians.

For most artists, making a living from their own music is hard. Ted himself juggled multiple jobs before he was able to make revenue from his written works. "I was doing all sorts of things right after college: teaching here and there; playing cocktail piano in hotel lobbies; playing the organ; I was lucky to have a really challenging position with a Renaissance choir who sang at a church in Times Square; engraving scores for established composers; and a whole host of other random gigs," Ted recounts. Gradually, he was able to quit them, one by one, and earn money from his compositions. "The opportunities are scant, so it may be necessary to piece things together from a lot of places," Hearne concludes.
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