I'm half way through my Masters in Music (Composition) and will complete this course in madness the proud owner of a degree and school loans totaling over $150k. I'm 47 and you might consider this a midlife crisis (although crisis hardly seems the right term). Why would I leave a rather high paying career as a software engineer (where I was making over $100k/year before the dot com bubble burst) to get a degree in music - and continue that course into a Masters degree? Because I have to... there is no other option that makes any sense (to me personally).
Kyle Gann, a fellow composer, wrote on his blog PostClassic a nice article about The Economics of Composing, a follow-up article of his Almost All Is Vanity. He does a nice job of describing the futility of being an "older" composer in the classical music market.
"We have three markets. There's a commercial market, entirely determined by huge corporations whose sole interest is money. We're never going to make a dent in that one. There's an orchestra-music circuit that you have to enter young, and it's all about who you know, and the music sucks. And there's an academic market, which demands a healthy respect for the Schoenberg line and a suspicion against anything populist."
Part of the commercial market is film. Unfortunately, a majority of modern films are composed by people who play on a keyboard to create rough sketches which are then mass-market arranged into generic scores, trumped up synth sounds and serious effects. Much of this is because the industry doesn't give composers much time to create the music (often only a few weeks before the film is released in theaters). Composers who can "play in" tracks of music on the piano tend to be cheaper than getting someone who is going to spend the time scoring it by hand. There are a few film composers who still write scores by hand in an attempt to create unified themes - but those composers are rare and often very expensive. Coincidentally, they also tend to be the ones to win the awards at the end of the year, but an Oscar for Best Score is not tempting enough in general to allow for more time in the film release schedule.
In the orchestral music circuit it's all about who you know. I've met a lot of people through this blog and with the concerts/CD's I've reviewed. But so far nothing has come from those introductions that will help me as a composer. It would be better if I actually played in an orchestra (or conducted one), but that's not likely to happen at my age - not unless I can gain some notoriety for a piece I've written.
I'm in the academic world right now and Kyle is right when he said the focus is on post-Schoenberg style music. So much of what I'm expected to write is some form pan-tonal music. I can accomplish this easily, but it is not really I style I enjoy, nor a music that has any financial viability outside the academic circle. I don't know why the academic world of music is so restrictive stylistically - it is as if a painting teacher instructs the students to only paint in cubism - but, in order to graduate I comply. (What harm if I just bin the scores after graduation?)
Knowing these facts, why am I striving for a Masters degree? Because Kyle has a nice job as a teacher. John Adams (who is doing very well as a composer now) taught at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. John Corigliano teaches at the Juilliard School of Music as does Eric Ewazen. Jennifer Higdon, who just won the Pulitzer Prize this year for her Violin Concerto, teaches at The Curtis Institute of Music. Being an instructor doesn't preclude success as a composer, but it does help prevent starvation (and keeps debt collectors at bay). It order to even be considered for teaching at an institution of higher education, one really needs to have a degree from one.
Do not mistake my quest for a degree as simply a means toward a better job (although I seriously doubt it will ever match my high-tech days). I am learning a great deal and the music I am writing now is considerably better than what I wrote even two years ago. The Piano Preludes and Symphony No. 1 which were written in the last year of my undergraduate degree (2008) are still pieces I'm proud of. But the Trumpet Concerto and Cantilenas - a lyric orchestra piece which were finished this academic year are both better compositions due to what I have learned over the past year. That learning continues.
Earlier this year I received my first commission (for $200) which comes out to be $2 per minute of music - and I think this is a WIN! Later this year I'm arranging 50+ mins of music for a guitarist who wants an orchestra to back his band in a concert of his blues rock pieces. While I have been promised pay, I estimate the actual income to be about $3/hr of work I'll spend on transcribing and arranging his music - not even minimum wage. I am also working on an oboe concerto for a dear friend (at Uni), as well as a solo piano work for yet another friend. Neither of these will earn me any money, but they are projects I am honored to be asked to do.
While none of my current compositions are going to provide enough to live on, I wake every day excited about each and every project. My blog (interchanging idioms) earns enough to keep it cost free, but as of yet has not made anything extra (even to take my wife to dinner). I've also taken on a position as an Intern (read: unpaid position to gain experience) with a professional orchestra. The unpaid part is tough, but the experience (in just two weeks so far) has been incredible. I'm not making a living with music (yet), but I'm having the time of my life!!!
Money isn't why I chose to become a composer. Or better put, I am not a composer because I make money doing it and money isn't why I decided to finish my education at this stage in my life. I simply can't do anything else; composing is the only thing that really makes me happy - well, that and my wife [of 30 years].
I resonate with Kyle's words. Writing music is not something anyone does with the idea of becoming wealthy. Some do, but that's not why they started. Maybe, just maybe something I write will live beyond our years... maybe not. I don't really think about it when I'm writing a piece of music. For me there isn't a choice. I do this because there is no other option.
Money isn't what makes the music - the music is what makes the composer.