Exciting Economic Report

Before I get going, I need to apologize for two things. One, I try to make it a policy to only go after music critics who write reviews (or, as in the previous post, critics who make “liberal” use of the word review)—those who write for major daily newspapers. Unfortunately, I stumbled across this clunker, which is from an opinion blog associated with the L.A. Times. However, its author, Tim Cavanaugh, is widely respected for his political blog and opinions; so I don’t feel that bad. And this time, he says some strange things about music. Second, I don’t like going after the blogs of bloggers. But, I can’t resist. So I’m forgoing ethics, just this once, hopefully. Sorry.

I’m sure that it goes without saying that music, especially “classical” music, is not terribly profitable, which forces or, more likely, directs composers to seek financial stability in academia. Tim Cavanaugh has a problem with this, as I do. But not for the same reasons.

Sound of money: free-market economies and long-hair music

Longhair does not need to be hyphenated. But I don’t care about that, this time. What’s important is that we’re going to discuss the free-market. Is it good for “classical” music? Is it bad? Something along those lines, anyway.

KUSC ran a richest-classical-composer feature a few days ago, which drew its top-10 list from a 2005 survey by a U.K. radio station.

There’s a link to this in Tim’s blog. In it, the survey adjusts composers’ salaries and commissions for inflation. Its purpose, to simply compare financial success among composers across different eras. And to Tim’s surprise some names were absent.

It's unlikely the numbers — which were apparently calculated in adjusted currencies — have changed much since then, so here's the list:

1. George Gershwin
2. Johann Strauss II

3. Giuseppe Verdi

4. Gioachino Rossini

5. George Frideric Handel

6. Joseph Haydn

7. Sergei Rachmaninoff

8. Giacomo Puccini

9. Niccolò Paganini

10. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Why is this interesting (to me at any rate)? Because longhair music is pretty much universally recognized as an art form that can't compete in an open market and must be supported through royal or (these days) public patronage. Yet this list is remarkable for the lack of patronage its members enjoyed.

A thesis! Financially successful composers were antithetical to general economic knowledge.

All but two of the composers on the list date to the industrial revolution or afterward, and the two who came earlier than that — Haydn and Handel — did plenty of lucrative for-profit work in Britain, which boasted the most liberal economy in Europe. Verdi, Rossini and Puccini were all piece-work producers who were less interested in pleasing the royal ear than in filling up the house with paying customers. Paganini and "Waltz King" Strauss were expert self-promoters and brand builders, Rachmaninoff made much of his fortune on recordings and performances, and Gershwin made it to the top of the list strictly by producing music for a large popular audience. I'm not sure he ever got a dime of public support.

For the most part, I agree with the above analysis. Those composers were, and still are, financially successful. These guys filled seats; in some cases, to do so, they pandered.

By comparison, Richard Wagner, another 19th-century rock star with a long list of patrons and supporters including a king who built the composer his own mansion and theme-park/mini-city, didn't make the list. That's a special irony given how massively popular Wagner was and still is, not just in opera houses but throughout the popular culture.

He is still popular, to a degree. What are we supposed to learn from this?

You could counter that money earned is no indication of musical achievement,

Yes. I could counter with that. But, then again, we weren’t talking about musical achievement. We were talking about how financially successful composers did not require patronage, thus bucking common knowledge off its horse.

and that wastrels like Wolfgang Mozart and Franz Schubert, or humble workers like J.S. Bach, would top a list of actual composing value.

They would. (I think “wastrel” is a little archaic. Don’t you?) So give some counterpoint, buddy boy.

True enough, but hardship and poverty are the default positions of human existence.

Like Jeb and his comatose brother.

It's success that's the unusual thing,

“Financial” success, not success, which we already knew, and agreed upon.

and the numbers here indicate [financial] success becomes a little more likely in a profit-centered environment.

In other words, in order to make a lot of money, i.e. be “financially” successful, you should focus on making a profit. Those words of wisdom would moisten Benjamin Graham’s eyes.

Interestingly, Gershwin and Rachmaninoff, who both died before the middle of the 20th century, are the most recent names on the list. Audience indifference has since encouraged classical composers to avoid the uncertainty of the marketplace;

There have always been only a few composers who wee able to make a living solely by composing—the lucky ones, like John Adams. Hell, even Beethoven taught piano lessons.

but maybe all those composers with academic sits would have been better off trying to make a bigger buck.

Again, his point: if you want to make a bigger buck, try to make a bigger buck. Foolproof! How come no one ever thought of this before?

What I find funny, though, is that many of the composers on the list wouldn’t necessarily be financially successful today, much less “in the canon,” without the exploitation of their music in commercials, television shows or movies.

So, I’d like to try an experiment. Guess the piece that I have linked with the composer. Are you correct? Have you it heard before? If so, where?

1. George Gershwin
2. Johann Strauss II
3. Guiseppe Verdi
4. Gioachino Rossini
5. George Frideric Handel
6. Joseph Haydn
7. Sergei Rachmaninoff
8. Giacomo Puccini
9. Niccolò Paganini
10. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Were you right? Okay, I admit that the Haydn is tough, and I could have found a better Rachmaninoff (but Shine crossed your mind, didn’t it?). Either way, can you think of a second melody by these guys? In some cases, I’m very hard pressed to do so. Now how about Beethoven, the financially crippled piano teacher? Of course you can.

I'm not entirely sure what I'm saying, except that the free-market influences the canon. And one hit wonders like Rachmaninoff, Leoncavallo and Pachabell benefit.


Aaron said...

OK, so the last time I heard someone refer to classical music as "longhair" (or, indeed, "long-hair") music was in 1982, when my grandfather gave me a cassette of (I kid you not) "Earl Hines Plays Fats Waller" - commenting that he was giving me "something fun to go with that long-hair music." So "wastrel" isn't the only thing that seems archaic to me here. Not to mention that referring to Wagner as a "19th-century rock star" is ... weird. Very weird.

His thesis, as you point out, seems to be "If a composer tried to make a lot of money, they probably could, because some famous composers got rich." Which seems kind of obvious - that's, like, an archetypal struggle for artists: how do you make a living making art? Some find a way; most do not. It's not just composers who have a hard time - pick a kind of artistic expression (painting, sculpture, Morris dancing...) and you will almost certainly find a lot of poor people who scrape by doing other things and a handful of rich people who were smart/lucky/good enough to make a living off their work.

It would also be mildly interesting to know how big a gap there is between the Top Ten Richest Composers and the rest of, like, the Top 100 Richest Composers. Also when they lived: is the fact that Gershwin and Rachmaninoff are the most recent guys on the top of the list indicative of anything at all? Is it, in fact, harder to make a lot of money composing today (in what I think we'd have to concede is a more "profit-centered environment" than Germany in 1750 or Italy in 1680 or whatever) than it was earlier? We don't know, but if it were true that would pretty much undercut his conclusion that composers would be better off materially by eschewing (archaic!) the academy for the marketplace.

Might be interesting to find out.

Aaron said...

Actually, looking over the list again, almost all of those guys are 19th-century composers. That's suggestive of there being some kind of structural thing about being a 19th-century European composer that was/is conducive to making a lot of money.

I'd speculate that the existence of a well-established "art music" infrastructure, limited competition from other forms of entertainment (at least from an early-21st-century perspective), the fact that Western Europe was largely peaceful and relatively prosperous in the second half of the 19th century, and the fact that these guys were all quite popular at the time when people's expectations of what Western art music should sound like (this is your point about "the canon," I guess) all played a part in making that era unusually rewarding materially for some prominent composers.

If that's true, it's not at all clear that a modern composer, without most of those structural advantages, would be well-situated to look to the marketplace for a steady income.

Sator Arepo said...

Good analysis, aaron. I was confused about the point of the article, too. Composers...should make...money?

Also: Morris dancing? WTF?

Anonymous said...

Fuck. That. Guy.

I'm so tired of the "free market will fix everything from cancer to traffic" argument. Mostly because it is bullshit, and to a lesser extent, most of the people espousing that kind of theory annoy the fuck out of me. But, mostly because it is bullshit.

The line about "audience indifference" and suggesting that composers should try to play the market game is just lame. Art can exist inside of a market structure, but that isn't the only workable model for artistic production.

And really, Gershwin is a weird one. Is he taking out revenue from non-classical streams? If not, why isn't he including other great Tin Pan Alley composers, many of whom also made some scratch?

Where the fuck is Brezhnev when you need him?

Aaron said...


I just watched the first season of "Black Adder." Ergo, Morris dancing.