SAM (Sound and Music) has published the results of a recent survey into the earning power of composers, and the figures make for some interesting reading. The average composer in 2013 apparently secured fewer than three commissions for an average total compositional income of £3,689. I nearly fell off my chair when I read this, for, of course, both figures are significantly lower than I would have expected. Naturally there will be some skewing of the figures – perhaps some of the respondents do not consider themselves professional composers but, by the same token, I doubt very much whether the biggest hitters took the time to disclose their incomes to SAM. So, for the sake of argument, let us accept these figures at face value for now, especially as they appear to be the only vaguely accurate ones available.
Dig a little below the surface and some even more astounding features emerge. Over 40% of respondents, for example, earned nothing from commissions in 2013. Also, the top 1% account for 25% of the overall earnings of those surveyed – exclude them and we are left with the news that 99% of composers earn an average of £2,717 a year.
I also found interesting that the most common reason for refusing a commission, which I had assumed would be the poor rate of remuneration, was apparently “lack of time”. Put that alongside the average earning figure and you are left with the strong suggestion that the vast majority of composers need to hold down jobs to supplement their compositional income, but that those same jobs then prevent them from taking the opportunities which might allow them to develop their writing and eventually take flight.
I was, I must admit, somewhat stunned to realise that I am apparently ticking along better than I had thought, although with the caveat that I took a significant but calculated risk in leaving my comfortable teaching job. It has, however, enabled me to focus much more intently on my writing and, just as importantly, all the promotional paraphernalia that goes on around it. I managed to hit my own modest targets for those years and lay the foundations for what looks like being my best year yet, but, my word, it takes a leap of faith and nerves of steel.
Susanna Eastburn, Chief Executive of SAM, said that it takes heroic commitment to become a composer if you are from a working class background, but I would go further and say that it takes heroic commitment whatever background you happen to come from. I know some apparently very successful writers who still need to supplement their income, and many who combine teaching, lecturing and various other things simply to be able to afford to write at all. I never underestimate the support I have received and continue to receive, financial and emotional, and maybe the lesson I should take away from this survey is that, while I appear to be doing better than some, there is no room for complacency.