New Music Scotland Day 2014, Review

September 23, 2014 in featured, guest blog, News, Stuart MacRae by Stuart MacRae

NMS Day 2014A couple of weeks ago I attended the first NMS Day in Glasgow, hosted by the recently formed New Music Scotland. Run as a cooperative, New Music Scotland is unusual in including among its membership not only composers, but promoters, ensembles, performers, festivals and other professionals with an interest in new music.

This spirit of new music as a shared enterprise was apparent throughout the day, which began with a broad discussion of what the fledgling organisation had been set up to do – namely, to foster and encourage opportunity, networking and dissemination among Scotland’s new music practitioners and organisations – and how the board planned to put these aims into action over the coming years. All of which sounded to me like something that should have been done A Very Long Time Ago, so I stumped up 20 quid and became a member there and then.

A longish lunch break provided plenty of time for networking (I don’t like the word, but it’s essential nonetheless!). However the real substance of the day was in the afternoon panel sessions chaired by John Harris and Oliver Searle, which were billed as discussions of the opportunities available for the development of new music, both in Scotland and internationally.

Let’s deal with the massive elephant in the room – at least for the composers – first.

The recent Sound and Music commission fee survey, which revealed the average composer’s annual income from commission fees to be a paltry £3689 (for an average of 2-3 pieces), may have come as a bombshell to many outsiders, but to composers it was merely confirmation of what was already suspected: that the funding available for new commissions is hopelessly incommensurate with the number of new works being written, asked for, performed and commissioned. Not only that: nearly half of the survey’s respondents didn’t get paid for their work at all.

It seems clear that most composers would like to be busy and in demand, but also to be paid fairly for their work. And promoters, performers and festivals say they’d like to do more new music, but that it’s expensive to rehearse, to commission, to hire and to promote. Where there is a limit on available funding (and there always will be) something has to give; and it’s evident that composers bear the brunt of this mismatch, lowering fees and in many cases foregoing them entirely for the sake of having their work performed. Such devaluation of new music surely cannot be acceptable.

Susanna Eastburn, Chief Executive of Sound and Music, stressed in the first panel discussion that what is required is not an imposition of minimum fees, but a change in the value society places on new music: this, it seems, could come about if we find new ways to engage our audiences, to reach a global market through online dissemination and social media, to transform the live experience of music by taking it away from the traditional concert hall.

Clare Hewitt from Creative Scotland, who was also on the panel, echoed this in her emphasis on cross-artform work, citing the recent Commonwealth Cultural programme as an example of how artists and organisations could contribute to public events on a large scale.

But first composers need to decide what value they place on their own work.

Some commissioners of new work really don’t know how much they should be paying for a commission, and this makes it impossible for them to budget appropriately and take the necessary steps to secure funding in good time. I can’t think of a way to improve this that doesn’t involve a set of guidelines of some kind – or at the very least a collective effort between composers and commissioners to decide what is acceptable and reasonable.

The panel’s third contributor, James Hannam from the PRS for Music Foundation, told us he had seen a 300% rise in funding application activity over the last three years, and that there are also fewer festivals across all genres of music. This chimes with anecdotal evidence I’ve heard that as funding sources dry up or tighten their belts (for example private endowments, estates and trusts) there is increasing pressure on large funders such as PRSF and Creative Scotland as commissioners are bottlenecked into the same funding streams. On a more positive note, he pointed out that international interest in UK music is increasing, which suggests there is a wider international market for ensembles and composers out there if we can break into it.

It strikes me that all of the above leaves three options: the status quo, in which many commissions are not paid at a sustainable rate; far fewer, better paid commissions; or finding ways to make new music more economical, more attractive to alternative funders and promoters, and more ‘useful’ as composer John De Simone put it on the day.

The last option surely seems the most positive, and there was much advice to this end during the day, particularly with regard to the use of the Internet as a promotional and dissemination tool with truly global potential. The trick seems to be in learning how to use it effectively; and those who have done so are often now promoters in their own right, far more in control of their own work and opportunities (and income…?) than composers who are more dependent on the traditional system of commissions from established institutions.

(One caveat here: we don’t really know whether these empowered composer-curators who might just change the paradigm for new music are paying themselves either enough, or at all, and it would be interesting to know what goes first when there’s pressure on the budget.)

Next up was Graham McKenzie, Director of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, who was not short of advice for ensembles and composers alike: make sure project proposals are as well targeted as possible; try to give a clear impression of the composer’s influences and approach; think internationally.

There were two headline figures from Mr. McKenzie’s talk:

  • 1%: the proportion of unsolicited project ideas that end up in the festival.
  • €2000: the amount he expects to contribute to a commission fee for a work to be premiered at the festival.

The first of these gives an indication of the enormity of the task facing big festival directors in choosing what to programme, and should encourage us all to work hard to make proposals as distinctive and necessary as possible.

The second figure, €2000 (yes, that’s Euros and not Pounds, which is revealing in itself) is meant to be just a part of a co-commission, the rest being made up of similar sums from as many as six international partners, which Mr. McKenzie says he works hard to persuade once he has decided to back a project. He didn’t say what size of piece this scenario would relate to (but it seems likely to be something quite substantial such as a full-length string quartet) but pointed out that a successful co-commission benefits everyone involved: more performances, international exposure, and lower costs.

And what if the international festivals don’t want to join in? Well, then the composer might end up with €2000, or no commission.

This all feels quite a long way from the empowered composer-curator mentioned earlier (in fact it seems like good old-fashioned patronage with a bit of modern venture capitalism thrown in) but perhaps that’s the price of finding a top-notch international platform.

Whatever conclusions can be drawn from the day, one thing is certain: the more we talk to each other about how to create and develop a healthy, thriving new music environment in Scotland, the more progress we will make, and the more confident we will grow.