We Need to Talk About Money: Musicians Without Financial Privilege are Being Pushed Out

In our field of Western classical music, we often set the expectation with young musicians that if they are just talented enough, hard-working enough, or entrepreneurial enough, they will find themselves on a pathway to success guided by the quality of their work. But as anyone who has worked with graduating college and conservatory students knows, this is a very incomplete truth – an optimistic image that, at best, a tiny fraction of our worthy students will find to be their reality.

As a community, we have made measurable strides over the last few years in supporting underrepresented composers, diversifying the voices we champion, and trying to build alternatives to the top-down, stylistically-narrow, white-male-centered culture that was the norm in classical music for centuries. But my experience has been that under these positive currents, you don’t have to dig far down to see musicians walking away from the creative art they have poured time, blood, sweat, and tears into. And very often when we press to understand why, the answer is money and opportunity. These two things are so inextricably intertwined that it often feels like we are afraid to say out loud what so many of us have seen or experienced – that the workings of money and opportunity in classical music present an insurmountable obstacle that pushes talented musicians out.

Of course, this reality is not entirely unspoken; people outside of music – families helping students choose careers, for example – do frequently encourage other more stable paths. But in talking to organizations and individuals within the field, you often get a sense that musicians who didn’t achieve prominence simply weren’t good enough – that there was something they did wrong that kept them from success.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that there is a disconnect between the realities of a career in classical music and the stories told publicly about it. Survivorship bias means that those asked to comment on the state of the field are those who have succeeded within it. We don’t amplify the stories and experiences of those who faced obstacles too big to overcome.

Photo by Martin Olsen on Unsplash

Photo by Martin Olsen on Unsplash

I recently spoke with one of the most performed living composers in the world and asked how they built a sustainable living in new music. Their answer – that their several hundred performances a year, commissions, coachings, and speaking engagements don’t actually provide a livable income – shocked me. I appreciated the honesty it took to admit that the home they live in, schooling for their children, health insurance, and health care for their family were all possible because of the non-music-related income of their spouse. But if that’s the truth behind the scenes for one of the most widely performed composers in the world, what does that mean for others without that kind of financial safety net?

We have created a field where instead of reliably being paid for your work, you need something external to allow you to afford to work in it. And so the people we lose are, often, those from lower socio-economic groups – those without a financial cushion, without spouses or significant others to lean on, with dependents needing additional care and resources, without family that might provide in extreme circumstances a temporary alternative to homelessness (or at least the freedom to not worry about homelessness and instead devote that time to building a creative career).

Survivorship bias means that those asked to comment on the state of the field are those who have succeeded within it. We don’t amplify the stories and experiences of those who faced obstacles too big to overcome.

As a composer from a non-musical family, a woman, an immigrant, and as someone excited to engage young people into creativity through music, I want to be able to tell younger musicians from underprivileged backgrounds that there is space for them in this field. I don’t want to admit that there is still an enormous element of elitism to classical music, that factors beyond their control that may well marginalize them despite their incredible talent and work. But until we can articulate these challenges in specific and concrete terms, we’ll never come up with effective ways to solve them and open up our field to those from lower socio-economic groups.

Some of the gaps where musicians without financial privilege fall behind in terms of being competitive with their colleagues include:

  • Learning Music – Buying/renting instruments, group/private lessons and coaching fees, buying music, costs of transportation, and childcare to accommodate for lessons
  • Building a body of work and a network of contacts – College and conservatory fees and associated costs, festival applications fees/tuition/travel costs, competition entry fees, hiring performers and putting on performances, making/marketing/distributing recordings
  • Buying time to invest in your career – Time to do applications for festivals/grants/funding opportunities, build a website, run social media, buy concert tickets, drive to shows, send out music, create marketing materials, go to conferences and events
  • Having a financial safety net – Money in savings or assets to absorb the costs of fluctuating, unpredictable work and inconsistent payments, often from family or significant others.

We all know these issues are tied up with larger trends in our economic landscape that reach far beyond classical music – the growth of the gig economy, rising costs of living, increasing income disparities. For decades, the norm for many working composers was to have a tenured teaching position that provided a financial cushion, but the rapid adjunctification of higher ed – the removal of tenured positions in favor of inconsistent, poorly-paid contract work – makes this a less and less viable option. Instead, most musicians these days are assembling their livings piece-meal: some gigging, some teaching, some administration, some non-music work. But as they start to have families, or have to care for elderly parents, or want to buy homes, or run into health problems – so many step away to other fields or other parts of the larger music business. While that’s not a bad thing, per se – we badly need good teachers, administrators, and people with hands-on experience in the arts in all possible roles – what I worry about are the consequences of pushing out those with fewer economic resources.

We need to keep working to support – at every stage – a true diversity of musicians in our field, so that we are representative of the communities in which we live and work, and not just the privileged or elite parts of them.

If we want our field to thrive and to grow, to be enriched by diversity in its greatest sense, we need to build strategic solutions that address the factors forcing people out. While some of the solutions do require investment, others begin with a simple reframing of how we think about diversifying our field:

Step outside the bubble of survivorship bias

If we want to create effective initiatives, we can’t just have conversations with the people already thriving in the field and expect to find where the barriers to entry or upward mobility are. Instead, we have to reach further out to the people who were in the pipeline and got pushed out, and to people who want to be in the pipeline and can’t get in, to really understand the limitations of the current system. If we only make one change, let’s start here – to listen to the people we are pushing out.

Use this knowledge of what/where the barriers are to be more holistic about the kind of support and opportunities we offer

These will vary across organizations, locales, and genres, but some examples we don’t talk about enough include more opportunities for mid-career or age 35+ composers, support for working mothers, travel funding to subsidize the cost of attending events/auditions/festivals, opening up competitions and opportunities to non-citizens studying in the U.S., mentorship programs, and supporting composers after an initial commission by continuing to share their work.

Plan for greater longevity when creating opportunities

We have a tendency to create one-off opportunities within our field, and while effective, they only ultimately make an impact when an individual can knit several of them together. For example, bringing lessons and music classes to young students is a phenomenal project, and one quite a few organizations nationally are doing successfully. But very often, once these programs are completed, there is nowhere for students to go – without access to instruments or teachers, students are simply not competitive compared to peers who had access to those things. There needs to be more funding to support musicians of all ages through these various stages and expenses, not just a hyper focus on supporting musicians at certain stages of development.

Photo by Lucas Van Oort on Unsplash

Photo by Lucas Van Oort on Unsplash

Plan for wider access when creating opportunities

Side by side with the above, we need to be aware of not just bringing a small number of people into the pipeline and patting ourselves on the back while others just like them are left out. Do we consider the needs of our diversity initiatives met if they show an x% increase in inclusion of some demographic? Or do we look more critically and notice that across the field, we are tokenizing the same tiny handful of people? How can we take the necessary next step to widen our reach to bring more people in?


And finally, I think we need to have a collective sense of respect for composers that goes beyond our easy measures of success – the fellowships, prizes, and residencies that are often taken as the definitive hallmarks of skill. We very rightly celebrate the composers who have earned these accolades but have to remember that these are not the only ways to be exceptional, and that our meritocracy is an ideal and not a reality. Whether or not we consider a composer’s work for programming shouldn’t hinge on the prizes after their names. When we recruit for projects, we should go beyond referrals from those already in our networks and the names we already know.

I know I am preaching to the choir, to people who are already working to make our field a more progressive and inclusive space, and I’m grateful for all the work we as a community are doing to reinvent our field. In recent years, some real strides have been made in the percentage of music commissioned and performed by historically underrepresented groups, a trend that I hope will continue to grow. But the realities of our field, especially as they tie into issues of money, earned livelihood, and the cost of opportunities, mean that we are alienating and pushing out musicians and composers from lower socio-economic groups. We need to keep working to support – at every stage – a true diversity of musicians in our field, so that we are representative of the communities in which we live and work, and not just the privileged or elite parts of them.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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