Whenever I work with European partners, I’m reminded and feel quietly proud that the UK is admired for the size and quality of its new music scene. Carefully crafted schemes devised by specialist agencies, orchestras and ensembles regularly benefit emerging composers and when it comes to audience engagement, the UK is seen to be way ahead in terms of aspiration, new formats, research methodologies and funding policies which encourage all of the above.
But what about our track record in giving composers – of any age – the chance to take control of the way their career develops? How often do composers get the chance to dictate or think about what they really need or want to do next as part of a longer-term plan?
At PRS for Music Foundation we’ve been exploring these questions following some research we undertook at the end of last year. Composers who completed our survey told us that the main challenges they faced were – no surprises here- limited access to [decreased] funding and lack of a team. Interviews we held with a sample of composers at different stages in their career also revealed reservations about traditional commissioning models which imply a passive role for composers who wait to be approached by organizations which have access to funds. In straitened times this can also result in lower than anticipated income because commission fees are often the first to be reduced when fundraising targets aren’t met. (You can read about Judith Weir’s views on this subject here).
Some other established and mid-career composers commented on the decrease in commissioning opportunities for them and the challenge of furthering their creative development alongside an all-consuming job in Higher Education.
So how can we empower composers and create a better balance? First of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge the vibrancy and imagination of the DIY scene that already exists in the UK and to make sure we keep helping that to flourish. The tendency for composers to set up ensembles, curate concerts and events which feature their own music is not a new phenomenon and it’s one that several funders do and should encourage. Furthermore, thanks to the launch of Gabriel Prokofiev’s Nonclassical movement ten years ago, composer-led activity has grown significantly, creating an exciting independent scene which stimulates collaboration and experimentation.
But what if, as a composer, you want to extend your practice beyond the people, venues or festivals you’ve already worked with? Perhaps you have very specific ideas for a piece you want to write that could push your career forward to its next phase? Maybe you want to spend more time with a particular group of performers you’ve been building a relationship with? Or perhaps you want collaborate with a group overseas? That’s where I think composers need more direct access to funds which would give them a chance to make the case for support on their own terms: a chance for composers to explain why they need to take control of that next step in their career and what funding they would need to achieve it.
This doesn’t just relate to the commissioning process. Funding which aims to support career development and generate income could enable a composer to invest in training or skills development – whether music or business related. It could also give composers the opportunity to take stock of what they’ve written so far and find ways of securing more performances – or a recording – of a particularly important work. As the majority of composers are not published and have no team to help promote their catalogue it’s crucial that composers are supported to get more of their music heard even if the availability of commissioning opportunities is the more frequently debated topic.
It’s our intention to launch a new fund that will take all of these points on board in the next 6 months. It’s no coincidence that it will share some of the flexibility and career focus that drives Momentum, the talent development fund we run in partnership with Arts Council England. (This resource for artists working in popular music has attracted interest from composers too).
I believe this new approach will work if the sector – composers, performers and promoters – buy in to its basic premise: that composers would benefit from and welcome more opportunities to take the lead, that their performing and programming colleagues are willing to listen and that we don’t shy away from thinking about sustainable careers as well as the art itself.
If you have any thoughts or ideas please get in touch.