Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Even Great Composers Can Write Flops

In an earlier blog that touched on the issue of fear of failure, I wrote that "all great composers have had bad reviews, been harshly received by members of the public and/or their family, and many have been told been told their music is unplayable.  In spite of this, they went on to greatness."

For today's blog, I decided to research the topic of compositional "flops," a term I define below.

Stephen Sondheim is, by any measure, one of the all-time great composers and lyricists of musical theatre, and yet Anyone Can Whistle (1964) closed after only 9 performances, and Merrily We Roll Along (1981), had only 16-performances.

Have you heard of Galt MacDermott? He is Canadian (b. 1928), and the composer of the wildly-successful, period-defining musical, Hair (1967). Another successful Broadway production of his was Two Gentlemen  of Verona (1971), which won the Tony award for best musical that year. He also did the music for Via Galactica (1973), which closed after seven performances.

The history of musical theatre includes many flops by otherwise successful composers. Rodgers and Hammerstein — creators of many of the most successful Broadway musicals, such as Oklahoma!, Carousel, The Sound of Music, The King and I, and South Pacific — created Pipe Dream (1955), described as "a flop and a financial disaster" by Wikipedia, and others. It closed after 246 performances — which may seem like a pretty good run, except it was "the shortest run of any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and their only show to lose money and not go on tour." Breakfast at Tiffany's (1966), by Bob Merrill and Edward Albee (both extremely successful), closed after only four previews, despite having a cast that included Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Chamberlain, and Sally Kellerman. The Rocky Horror Show (1975) closed after only 45 performances on Broadway (although it did well in London and other venues). The film adaptation (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) did poorly when it opened, but went on to become a cult classic.

A reversal of this last example is Disney's Newsies, a 1992 film described by the L. A. Times as "one of the year's biggest flops." The music was by Alan Menken, composer of some fairly successful (!) film musicals, such as Tangled, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin,  The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, and many, many others. Menken won an Academy Award for Aladdin the same year (1992) as he won a Razzie for "worst song of the year" for Newsies. Ouch! When the movie was reworked into a Broadway musical twenty years later, with songs from the original movie as well as new numbers, all by Menken, it became a smash hit.

Beethoven is possibly the best-known classical composer that ever lived; surely he must not have written any flops! And yet, he worked on his Violin Concerto in C when he was a young man, and either never finished it, or did finish it, but it was never performed.
This brings up an important point: What exactly is a flop? If a composer fails to finish a work, does that make it a flop?  
I think of a flop as a completed work that was received badly by the public and/or critics, and, as a consequence, did not fare well, at least initially.
Let us set aside the Violin Concerto in C, and consider Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, which he did finish. Unfortunately, it got off to a bad start; according to Wikipedia, "the premiere was not a success, and the concerto was little performed in the following decades." Beethoven died thinking his Violin Concerto had been unsuccessful. It was revived seventeen years after his death in a performance by a 12-year old violinist, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn, and went on to become a staple of the classical music repertoire.

Fidelio (1805), Beethoven's only opera, was also the largest work he had composed at the time. It suffered several delays during composition, one of which arose from objections raised by the Austrian censor, and finally premiered in November 1805 to houses that were nearly empty because of the French occupation of the city. Wikipedia tells us that, "in addition to being a financial failure, this version of Fidelio was also a critical failure, and Beethoven began revising it." The next revision (1806) was also unsuccessful, but the last one, in 1814, was finally well received.

The Paris version of Wagner's Tannhäuser (1861; original Dresden version completed in 1845) was an expensive flop, closing after three performances, this after 164 rehearsals. The performances were belligerently disrupted by members of a claque called The Jockey Club, which had unsuccessfully tried to extort Wagner into paying them off to prevent these disruptions. They were also displeased that it had a ballet in the first act, because they held the strong conviction that ballets in operas should only be in the second act, which allowed them to arrive late for shows and still catch the ballet, for them the highlight of any opera.

There are many more examples of compositions that did not fare well, at least initially, by highly-regarded composers, but there are also countless examples of people working in other fields who experienced failure in their lives, and yet managed to overcome it.
  • Vincent Van Gogh created 860 paintings, but only one was sold during his lifetime.
  • Emily Dickinson published fewer than a dozen of her 1,800 poems during her lifetime.
  • Dr. Seuss’ first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was refused by "at least 20" publishers.
And then there are people who used failure to spur them onto success in other fields:
  • Vera Wang competed at the 1968 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but failed to make the US Olympic team; she then switched careers and entered the fashion industry.
  • Steve Jobs was the cofounder, chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc. He was dismissed by Apple in 1985 following an unsuccessful power struggle with its board of directors; you can probably imagine how gutted he felt by this experience. He then went on to found a new computer company, NeXT, which made better computers than those being produced by Apple. NeXT was moderately successful, but caught the attention of Apple, and in 1996 Apple bought the NeXTSTEP platform and used it as the basis of its highly-successful OS X. This led to Jobs coming back to Apple as an advisor, and in 1998 he was once again given control of the company, bringing Apple back from near-bankruptcy to become the world's most valuable publicly-traded company in 2011.
  • And that is not all; after being fired by Apple, Jobs acquired Pixar for $10 million in 1986 and became its CEO. Pixar went on to produce some of the most commercially and critically successful animated films of all time, such as Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, and Wall-E. In 2006 Jobs sold Pixar to Disney for $7.6 billion.

The point of all these stories is that almost everyone experiences failure on some level at various points in their lives, including highly-successful people. Setbacks are a normal part of life, and especially of the creative process; try to learn from them, and push past them, but never let them define you.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

On the Value of Living Composers

Sound and Music, an English organization "committed to supporting new music and developing the audience for it," published results of its Composer Commissioning Survey, conducted during June-July of 2014. Three quarters of the respondents were based in the UK. Here is a summary of their findings, in (mostly) their own words:

Commissions are not a significant income source for a lot of composers.
  • 66% of composers stated that they do not find commissions to be a significant proportion of their income. Given that the respondents had an average of 2.65 commissions in 2013 with an average fee per commission of £1,392 it is easy to see why. 
There is a lot of a variance within the pay scale for commissions.
  • Annual income for 2013 from commissions ranged from £1 to over £100,000 including the single highest paying commission at £60,000. 
  • The best-paid 1% of composers received over 25% of all commission income; once we excluded them from our sample, average commission income fell from £3,689 to £2,717.
  • Over 40% of composers stated that they had earned no income at all from commissions for 2013.
The conditions for commissions are worse than before.
  • 49% of composers feel that there is less rehearsal/preparation time for new works. 
Although there appear to be more commissions available, they appear to be paying less well.
  • 74% of composers received an equal or higher number of commissions in 2013 than they did in 2012, but only 15% earned more income.

What does this mean?

The Guardian, a British national daily newspaper, did a story on this survey, and this was their headline, followed by a couple of excerpts from the article:

The future of new music is at risk if we continue to undervalue composers
Professional composers are being asked to create new pieces for ‘shockingly low’ fees, Sound and Music report finds
"If we believe that music is a living artform then it stands to reason that the creation of new music is vital to its current and future health. However, professional composers are being asked to create new music for very little money in conditions that are too often inadequate. As a sector we have some hard questions to ask ourselves about our priorities. Being commissioned to create a new work (and getting paid for it) is a vital part of life as a professional composer. At Sound and Music, the national agency for new music, we continue to receive anecdotal evidence about the worsening environment for the creation of new music."
"What the evidence implies is that the work of composers (and composing as a profession) is valued far less by the sector than that of performers, conductors and administrators. How can that be right when it is the music itself that communicates with audiences? With a new generation seeking out beautiful and unusual new sounds and experiences, audiences for new music have never been more enthusiastic."

What are your thoughts on any of these points? More specifically,
  1. The above excerpts suggest that living composers, as a rule (although there are very famous exceptions), are undervalued. Do you agree?
  2. Is the future of new classical music "at risk?"
  3. Is the creation of new music vital to the "current and future health" of classical music?
  4. Why are 99% of composers paid so poorly? 
  5. Within the 1% of top-earning composers surveyed (the 1% that garnered 25% of the total commissioning fund pool), how many of them do you think are able to support themselves entirely from composing?
  6. Why are most professional music administrators, orchestra musicians, and conductors paid so much more than almost all composers?
  7. Does any of this matter? Should composers just "suck it up" and be grateful for any remunerative crumbs that come their way? 
  8. Should composers take a pragmatic, "it is what it is" attitude, accepting that they are unlikely to earn a sustainable living from composing alone, and therefore find other means of employment?
  9. Should composers engage in advocacy to create better working conditions? Are there any organizations that advocate for composers?
  10. If composers are undervalued, what are the reasons for this? Do composers bear any responsibility for finding themselves in this predicament?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Daring to Dream Big – Pros and Cons

Today's post was inspired by a family trip to Walt Disney World last summer, a place where the word "dreams" is a kind of idée fixe. Here are some examples associated with Disney:

  • The Disney Dreamers Academy ("We help unlock the potential in young people and enable them to imagine their futures anew through inspirational leaders who show how to set goals, make plans and dream big"),  
  • A Dreams Come True parade, which in a previous iteration was called…
  • Walt Disney's Parade of Dreamswhose eight floats included Getaway to Dreams, Dream of Enchantment, Dream of Laughter, Dream of Another World, Dream of Imagination, Dream of Adventure, and Dreams Come True,
  • The Dream Along With Mickey show, 
  • One Man's Dream (a pavilion celebrating the life of Walt Disney), 
  • Many promotions, such as the Year of a Million Dreams, which included Disney Dreams Giveaways (my boys and I were randomly given Mickey skullcaps with plastic ears one day), 
  • Many commercials that use the word "dream," and
  • The Disney Dream (cruise ship).

Disney marketers and imagineers clearly believe that the public is attracted by the idea of following our dream, but what are the risks and rewards of doing so, and, in particular, of daring to dream "big" dreams?

There is much encouragement to fearlessly follow our dreams in songs, movies, biographies, interviews, etc. — wildly successful people are often said to have done so — but what about people whose life experiences have been more like those of Wile E. Coyote (see below; a lifetime of frustration, aided largely by his misplaced faith in faulty products found in the Acme Co. catalog, followed by the cancellation of his show) or Charlie Brown (who, according to Wikipedia's rather harsh description, "fails in almost everything he does"), than Walt Disney's or Bill Gates'? Don't big dreams lead to big disappointments?

An ill-conceived plan; this will not end well. 
For Wile E. Coyote, they never do.

For Charlie Brown, life can sometimes feel like an endless series of disappointments.

Well, for me the answer is obvious: Big dreams can lead to big disappointments, but that doesn't mean we should not have them.

Just to be clear, by “dreams,” I mean aspirations or goals, as opposed to the reveries we all have  during REM state while sleeping, which we often don’t remember. And by "big," I mean lofty aspirations, such as wanting to become ridiculously rich, wanting to be the King of Iceland (bad news: Iceland's monarchy ended in 1944, but who knows, maybe they'll bring it back for you!), or wanting to become a great composer, and recognized as such.

Walt Disney supposedly said, All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them, and if you can dream it, you can do it.

(These quotes are frequently attributed to Disney on the Internet and are found in How to Be Like Walt; Capturing the Magic Every Day of Your Life (2004) by Pat Williams. However, I have yet to find when, where, and in what context these statements were made, making me wonder if he actually said them, or if an awful lot of Disneyphiles wish he had said them.)

As mentioned above, daring to follow your dreams is promoted as a core belief at Disney theme parks and in many Disney movies. This advice is summed up nicely in the following song, by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington, from Walt Disney's 1940 adaptation of Pinocchio.
When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you
If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do
Fate is kind
She brings to those who love
The sweet fulfillment of
Their secret longing
Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true

Of course, it's not just the Walt Disney Corporation that promotes this belief/marketing strategy; many others have expressed similar sentiments:
The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.
Eleanor Roosevelt
Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.
Harriet Tubman 
If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
Henry David Thoreau

But before we all quit our day-jobs and head off to Hollywood, we need to ask ourselves whether it is wise to dream big. Here are some quotes that may give you pause:
A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.
Oscar Wilde 
A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.
John Barrymore
He was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher... or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.
Douglas Adams
Dreams will get you nowhere, a good kick in the pants will take you a long way.
Baltasar Gracian
Take everything easy and quit dreaming and brooding and you will be well guarded from a thousand evils.
Amy Lowell
When younger writers and poets, musicians and painters are weakened by a stemming of funds, they come to me saddened, not as full of dreams and excitement and ideas. I am then weakened and diminished, and made less rich.
Maya Angelou
It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.
J. K. Rowling
The last four quotes above (highlighted) are particularly sobering; they articulate the dilemma with which we all must wrestle:
While it is probably true that many or even most great things could not have been achieved without big dreams, it is also true that most dreams do not come to fruition, and indeed, the loftier the dream, the lower the likelihood of its coming to pass, and the greater the potential disappointment.

There have been at least ten different songs — as well as a television series, a film, a painting, and a book — with the title, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."

Broken dreams — dashed hopes — is cleary a concept that resonates for many people, just as the more hopeful Disney quotations above also resonate for many, presumably because we all have had aspirations of varying magnitudes during the course of our lives, but we have all experienced deep disappointments along the way as well; we have all felt both optimism and dismay at different times.

We must all learn to navigate between chasing lofty dreams and pragmatism, but my advice for all composers is to go ahead and dream as big as you wish, because you are unlikely to find much success without first dreaming of it.

However, greatness in composition does not result from luck, like winning a lottery; it is the product of years of hard work, critical thinking, thinking outside and inside boxes, a positive attitude in the face of rejections, and many other factors, some of which I have discussed in previous posts. Luck can certainly play a part as well, especially in terms of one's success as a composer — composers are sometimes "championed" by music directors and conductors, for example — but even in cases like these, you have to be good to be lucky, as the sports saying goes.

So, go ahead and dream big, but be prepared to put in a lot of hard work along the way. Be pragmatic at least some of the time, because we need to provide our basic needs (food, shelter, clothing), but be aware that too much pragmatism can be a dream-killer; a highly-pragmatic person might decide to abandon their dream in favour of a more "realistic"or achievable goal, and, while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, nobody would ever achieve their dream if we all felt this way.

Also, in case it is any consolation, failure to achieve one dream can lead to success in a different one.

Here's a chart that I had fun with (when I wasn't getting frustrated over the challenges of formatting this thing in HTML); the statements on the "pro" side (left column) are arguments in favour of pursuing one's dream, with counter-arguments represented on the right column. See which statements you agree with:

Some Pros and Cons of Dreaming Big Dreams
• Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

• Nothing great was ever achieved without first dreaming of it (me, paraphrasing Emerson)

• Dare to live the life you have dreamed for yourself. Go forward and make your dreams come true (Emerson)
• The greater our enthusiasm, the more catastrophic the pain we feel when something does not work out

• The greater the dream, the less likely it is to come true. Dream of small  achievements, like finding a good parking spot, and you won't be too disappointed.

• You are unlikely to make your dreams come true unless you dream of small things, like finding a good parking spot, or beating the boss level in a video game.
• When you have a dream, and follow that dream, you will gain from the experience, no matter the outcome (me)

• Pain, disappointment, and frustration are all experiences from which we can learn (me)

• That which does not kill us makes us stronger (Neitzsche)

• Yeah, you'll gain pain, that's the only guaranteed outcome of following a dream!

• This is what I have learned from pain, disappointment, and frustration: I do not like them; therefore I choose a path that is likely to produce a negative result

• Neitzsche alienated many during his life, and became become "effectively unemployable… The subsequent "feelings of revenge and resentment" embittered him," (Wikipedia: Nietzsche) and he eventually went mad. This would seem to negate his statement in the left column.
• All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them (Disney)• This is self-evidently ridiculous, but in case you feel otherwise, here is why: Even if your dreams have no imagination whatsoever, like aspiring to find a good parking spot when you go shopping, there will be times when your dreams do not come true. You may have to park a long way from your favourite mall entrance during the Christmas rush. The store may be sold out of the item you really want. Your favourite restaurant may take your favourite dish off the menu. And if your dreams are loftier than this, there is a greater probability that at least some (and probably most) will not come true.
• Did Disney even say this, or is this something that the Disney Corporation wants you to believe while visiting their theme parks, presumably so that you will spend lots of money making sure your kids' dreams are not dashed?
We are all resilient, to varying degrees. Yes, following a dream can lead to profound disappointment, and even leave us feeling crushed; however, we have it in us to bounce back and try again, possibly a little wiser from experiencing the setback

• Not only are we resilient, we are adaptable; if, after working at it for some time, we conclude that our dream is unattainable, we can re-think our dream and come up with another one. Frequently "dream B" (or dream "C," "D," "E," etc.) succeeds in a way that exceeds our wildest hopes for "dream A" 
• Some people are more resilient than others. We all have a pain limit… If chasing a dream fails repeatedly, and the pain of it all becomes too much to bear, perhaps we should stop chasing that dream

• Well, if you conclude that "dream A" will not work out, or if you conclude that to continue pursuing it is resulting in more pain and frustration than you can bear, do you really want to open yourself up to more of the same by chasing "dream B," "C," and "D?"
• There is no path in life that is devoid of pain, frustration, and disappointment. Yes, following your dream can (and likely will) lead to negative experiences, but to think you can avoid them completely by following another path is foolish. So, if these are a given in life, why not experience them pursuing your dream, instead of following a "safer" path that you don't really want to be on?• Some paths have a significantly-lower probability of success than others. If my dream is to become a huge Broadway star — the next Idina Menzel — and I find myself reduced to doing poorly-paying sporadic dinner theatre shows to bored audiences in suburbia twenty years from now, I don't think I would be very happy. There is a time to admit when your plans are not likely to lead to a positive outcome, and come up with more realistic plans
Conclusion: The decision of whether (and for how long) to follow your dream, or to modify your expectations and pursue something else is something with which all artists (and probably many other people too) struggle, and it is a decision we must all work out for ourselves. 
• I actually agree with many of the points on either side of the above, "pros and cons" chart. I think it's good to have a dream, and to overcome any fears that may be preventing you from pursuing your dream. 

• I also think it's important to be grounded in reality at least some of the time (acknowledging that different people have different realities), and to consider other options if option A is not working. 
    I have met successful business people who told me their dream had been to become a musician, but they abandoned it to go to business school when it became apparent to them that their dream was not panning out. The people I met didn't seem to regret their decision at all, presumably because they found success in another area of life, and I think this is fairly common. 
       But part of my motivation in sticking with my dream of becoming a composer was the worry that if I didn't go after my dream I would regret it later in life. I don't know if I actually would have regretted it or not, of course — in retrospect, I think I might have been content in other pursuits as well — but I didn't want to become a bitter old man, regretting the things he didn't do in his life, so I stuck with my goal, despite frequent doubts as to the wisdom/practicality of this goal, and some significant, soul-crushing setbacks along the way. Luckily, things worked out, at least so far…