Modern Composition: The Long Tail

Like many of my favorite posts, this one stems from one of my favorite TED talks: Clay Shirky on institutions versus collaboration. While most of his examples are from the tech world, I think there are some important lessons to be gleaned by artists and arts organizations. In this post, though, I'll focus on what I know best: composers.

In his 20-minute talk, Shirky cites several specific tech examples of collaborations, the best of which being Linux. Linux, as an open-source platform, allows individual programmers to modify the code. But there's no money in it; the programmers are doing it for the good of the operating system. 

In such systems, there's a statistical curve that emerges. Few contribute much; many contribute very little. In fact, Shirky says that the vast majority of the programmers only contribute one patch. According to the institutional model, you should only hire the 20% who are contributing the 80%; in the collaborative model, you can accept everyone's contributions.
You might think I'm frying small potatoes with all this, but I'm not. I'm trying to get a perspective of the whole potato industry.
The collaboration is this: countless composers, most of whom unpaid, contributing to the collective body of music. And most of whom contributing 1 or 2 good pieces: this is the long tail. Just like in the tech world, we're creating a vast class of highly skilled amateurs whose contributions will not go unnoticed.
There's still a professional class - composers who can actually make money writing music - and these composers are the institutions. And once an organization is institutionalized, it's primary directive is self-preservation. Once a composer has myriad commissions, their primary obligation is to fulfill those compositions, demoting to secondary any projects of self-expression. Same for composers tenured at a University: an obligation to composer just to keep their job.
The good news for these composers is that they are getting paid to hone their craft. And craft is really important; just ask Ravel. Or, maybe it's not; just look at Debussy.
So composers-as-institutions get paid, but composers-as-skilled-amateurs get the freedom that comes with not really having a job. The downside to the latter is that money is still necessary in our pre-apocalyptic society.
It's the same dilemma as in the rest of society: the choice between Security or Freedom.
The consternation sets in when amateur composers envisage institutionalization as success. There are fewer and fewer slots available in the professional ranks, and more and more people are fighting for them. The educational system sets up these expectations, which are almost always disappointed.
So the lesson is this: you don't need to be an institution. You probably shouldn't even want to be one. Which means you're going to have to look for a real job.
I have already made my decision: I'd rather whore out my time than whore out my art.

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