Reports from the Front: American Composers Forum

John Nuechterlein

My friend and muse, celebrated composer Libby Larsen, recently told an audience that “music is alive and well in our culture,” and she said it with an exclamation point! I agree with her, and in one sense that statement could be both the beginning and the end of this report. It’s pretty definitive. Since the digital age has made access to everything so much easier, composers and performers have continued to learn from and utilize the new technological tools to their benefit. The full-time, professional composer is still relatively rare, but options abound for exploring composition on a part-time basis with limited formal training. With the exception of disappearing music programs in our schools, the avenues for creative musical expression have grown and multiplied regardless of genre or style of writing.

In 2008 we conducted a national survey of composers with the American Music Center, and our findings showed that the ecology of a career in composition has become ever more complex in recent years. It confirmed that professional composers are doing a lot more than just writing (or performing) their music: they are actively promoting it and publishing it themselves. The technological tools of our age allow them to master their own destiny as never before, and successful composers have learned to collaborate in ways they never could in previous decades.

While music may be thriving, the new economy is proving to be a barrier to the creativity and flexibility of the organizations that support composers. And lest we delude ourselves, the need for service organizations has not diminished. Composers can network online and build careers very effectively as individuals, but service organizations create valuable partnerships and opportunities for the field and offer resources otherwise unavailable to composers as individuals. Aside from regranting, our public value rests in our ability to connect composers, performers, and communities in ways that benefit everyone. Our role in this sector needs to be more clearly defined to the general public, from which additional support could and should be drawn. We have always existed to support the creation of new work, but now we must think about expanding the market for that work in a more strategic way.

Here’s another way to think about the situation: service organizations have operated as business-to-business enterprises for decades, but we now must begin to think and act like business-to-consumer organizations. We now face the same issues that many performing organizations face. How do we break through the clutter? How does our work stand out from the crowd as something distinctive and valuable? How can we be perceived not as brokers but as promoters? For the thousands of composers who rely on us for support and guidance, how can we add new value to their own developing systems of support? It is critical that we answer these questions in ways that engage potential new donors.

The more service organizations can encourage public investment in creativity, music and those who create it will continue to enrich our culture in meaningful ways.