Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
the daily events and musings of Jim.
It provides an easy way for his friends and family to check in on him,
and serves as a online repository for his random
thoughts, kaleidoscopic flashbacks, and writings on an array of diverse topics.
“Deconstructing Jim” is simply here to
entertain you, but not intended for college credit.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Professional Development

A little history...

I began this blog over three years ago after losing my day-job. At the time I thought it would be good to record my activities, thoughts, and impressions in a format that resembled a diary – only online and available to friends, family, and anyone who cared enough to read it. As the blog progressed my primary area of focus morphed into an open-ended discussion about my thoughts on music and other random rants of the day. My semi-frequent posts have tended to focus on aspects of contemporary music composition and items of interest that relate to it in the periphery, both historically and in the present.

In retrospect, “Deconstructing-Jim” has also served to function as a personal digital soapbox and electronic therapist in an age where, in the spirit of Reality TV, it’s socially acceptable to spill ones guts online. I’m appreciative of all those who have read my blog posts over the past years and have taken the initiative to contact me, reply online, and find out a little more about my music. In the end there has been value if this blog leads one to consider (or reconsider) aspects of my musical work. Over the duration, it’s been an interesting ride.

My blog posts have included random (and not-so-random) thoughts about the challenges of being a 20th/21st century composer, including some of the more mundane and practical matters of self-sufficiency and self-preservation. It’s a story that often goes untold. Yet, I think it is useful at times to explain to the public what many composers actually do to earn their living, and how they maintain their motivation over the long haul. The game of survival often involves jumping through hoops like a circus dog just to make ends meet and to move on to the next level.

Everyone knows that not all composers have the privilege and support of a university position, or even the sporadic income of royalty checks, and/or major commissions. But there are some - a lucky few - who are in that position. If they are diligent and disciplined in their work, they will be successful - almost by default.

I’m not one of those composers.

For me, the music profession has never been fertile ground for generating income. For better or worse, I have never earned a penny from the trade. I’ve never held a teaching job, taught private students, or received a paid commission. It’s not that I haven’t applied myself, but rather that the music I create has had (for whatever reason) minimal commercial success.

Fortunately I’ve been able to survive into middle age with most of my teeth and all of my fingers by working day-jobs of various sorts. I’ve been employed as a dishwasher, security guard, retail sales clerk, house painter, technical trainer, car salesman, technical instructor, and made a career in IT for a time. Some of my day-jobs have been better than others, but all of them taught me something. I’ve also been fortunate in that my wife works (albeit part-time) and has benefits. As a family we’ve been able strive toward the iconic middle class American dream, even though I have made vigorous efforts on the side to promote my own music and career in whatever way I can.

I have to say that given the challenges, when trying to balance composing music with earning a living, all has gone fairly well. That is, at least up until now.

After the loss of my full-time job and benefits in 2008, my personal financial position has declined. As we all know too well, the economy has taken a precipitous plunge into the abyss of recession. The unemployment rate in the US is officially over 9%, but some say that in reality true unemployment hovers around 20%. Any semblance of financial recovery does not seem imminent, at least not in the next few years. The experts say it may take decades before things return to normal.

Since 2008 I landed some part time and temporary contract work in IT for a period, but that also came to an abrupt end. The latest news is that our family lifeline, my wife’s long-term steady job, may in jeopardy due to corporate reorganization.

The timing could not be worse since the employment outlook is dire. After having no success applying for jobs in IT or in higher education, it became clear that I couldn’t continue to burn through personal savings in the hope that the US economy will turn around anytime soon. I found myself applying for entry level jobs that pay a fraction of what I once earned. Yet, even those jobs are now more difficult to acquire - especially for someone in their late 50’s. At one of many job fairs I heard a story about an open position at Barnes and Noble in downtown Boston that attracted 1,000 applicants. That dire fact is fairly representative of what it’s like in the general job market today, and it’s pretty unsettling to anyone who is unemployed.

Recently my luck improved. I was invited to a job event hosted by a large supermarket chain. I spent the day interviewing with them, and came away with a job offer. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the salary is $10/hour. After some consideration, I accepted the offer and have begun work.

In my new role at the supermarket is working as a bagger. I’ve done jobs of this sort before. I can do it again. Although standing on my feet for eight hours a day will be a challenge, I’d rather work than not, be able to pay my bills, and not fall into debt or spiral in downward path financially. I also have a son who could use our assistance in paying his college tuition. I am grateful for the income.

My emotions about my new day-job are mixed. While it is a relief to finally find something after such a long search for employment, it also is unsettling to know that trying to live on a much lower income stream will be a significant challenge. I’m also perturbed about the current economic impact that has resulted from mistakes made by a number of our country’s political leaders, policy makers, and by the grandiose power grab by greedy corporate executives that initiated the global financial meltdown in the first place.

And yet I realize that I’m in the same sinking boat as many Americans, and better off than a lot of them. But it is disconcerting to realize that what I thought would eventually be my retirement years now seems so much farther away in time. It’s as if my retirement future has disappearing from sight as it slips over a moving horizon in a Las Vegas magic show. Counting the additional years to retirement creates a sinking feeling.

I’ve long accepted the fact that I’ve never been able to compose full-time as a profession. That dose of reality has always been mitigated by the notion that I could use my retirement years in pursuit of that lofty passion. Now, unfortunately, even that goal looks less promising.

The success and survival of the new music trade is more important than the success of any particular individual. For that reason I’m glad that at least some of our nation’s composers are thriving and able to create work in the down economy. At least there are still some resources available to them. There are only a limited number of commissions, university jobs, and prestigious foundations to support and aid their work, and I’ve come to conclude that there is just not enough funding to go around to support a broader spectrum of composers such as myself. The tendency has been to award commissions, grants, and academic accolades to composers who have already demonstrated success – based mostly by the quantity and quality of awards they have already received. My unscientific analysis indicates that: as more awards and distinctions are presented to a composer, the more he/she is inclined to receive them in the future. It’s an interesting relationship. [Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this the “Survivorship Bias”].

I do believe that it is important for someone fill the societal role of “professional composer” since a world with a few good pieces is better than a world without any. Given the state of the U.S. economy, not everyone in the field is worthy of that unique privilege.

My new job as a supermarket bagger is physically demanding. Pushing trains of shopping carts in from the parking lot tires me out. Standing all day is an acquired skill.

I have begun to dream about my job, and an unscripted scene from an imaginary encounter runs through my head. In it, I’m at work bagging groceries for my customers passing through the checkout line. The next customer arrives at Register 8 with a carriage full of items to purchase. I look up and notice that they are a distinguished American composer with university tenure. I smile, and then ask the critical question, “Paper or plastic?”

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