Why I Chose to Not Get Paid for My Last Gig : Composer Kurt Erickson

One composer finds increased opportunities and collaboration through an unusual approach to commissioning new works.


This article was originally published in Classical Singer magazine. To subscribe to the print magazine, go to www.csmusic.info/subscribe.


As aspiring musicians, we are constantly faced with the dilemma of performing for free, trying to overcome the cliché of the starving artist, and legitimizing what we do to the general public. So why would a successful and established composer write a song cycle without charging a commission? San Francisco Bay Area composer Kurt Erickson is redefining the current composer-commission model with his latest project, Here, Bullet.


Why did you choose to not get paid for your last gig?

This may sound crazy, but I’m in the middle of a two-year commissioning project that is based entirely on the concept of me not getting paid to write my new song set Here, Bullet for baritone and piano.

Commissions are wonderful and the lifeblood of a professional composer’s business, but they are solitary affairs with one or a few guaranteed performances. What [do you] do if you’re hoping your new piece catches fire on a much larger scale? My solution to this dilemma was to take a strategic risk and try something new: waive my usual commissioning fees in exchange for offering singers a chance to commission a work for free. The only stipulation was that they commit to performing the work publicly during the 2019–20 season.

This scenario is unique and a potential win-win for all. Singers get an opportunity to personally commission and premiere a new work alongside fellow performers all over the globe while, in turn, my music is heard by audiences I would not otherwise have access to.

Over 25 singers will premiere the work during the 2019–20 season worldwide. Two singers are writing about the project in their doctoral dissertations, I’ve received invitations to come speak at various institutions, singers who themselves have served in the armed forces are performing the work in their uniform, and one singer is even negotiating a performance at West Point Military Academy.

The veteran and armed service aspect of the project is important as the texts come from acclaimed poet Brian Turner, a U.S. armed services veteran who served tours of duty in both Iraq and Bosnia. Here, Bullet is his groundbreaking collection of poetry that provides poetic, firsthand descriptions of the effects of war on soldiers and civilians alike.


Where and when was the gig?

The first complete performance of the set in a traditional recital format took place September 13, 2019, in Nashville, Tennessee. Performances continue throughout the 2019–20 season as the piece essentially goes on tour.


How long did it last?

I’m expecting performances from [September] 2019 through June 2020, all by different performers. That’s quite a nice run for a single work.


How did you get the job?

I’ve been fortunate to spend 11 years in composer residencies with different organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area and I’ve always felt that artists should give the same level of focus toward their career as they do to perfecting their art.

In my case, what started as commission requests from individual organizations soon evolved into requests from small commissioning consortiums. That led me to taking the next step: why not try out a completely new template for how a work could be commissioned and presented on a large scale?


What was your overall experience like?

This has been an absolutely wonderful experience. The camaraderie between composer and performer, usually siloed in two separate worlds, has been fantastic. Conversations, suggestions, feedback from singers—this is all incredibly inspiring.

Increased performances create a career momentum that drive other aspects of what we do leading to paid commissions, author and publisher performance royalties, teaching opportunities, and guest speaking appearances. This project represents an exponential expansion of my outreach and serves as a model that others can use in the future.


Would you do this or a similar gig again?

I’d be foolish not to! As working artists, it is imperative that we embrace a proactive mindset in a professional world that can often be equal parts unforgiving and indifferent.

My project started as a thought experiment—how can I most effectively engage singers from across the globe to perform my music? And how can I normalize the commissioning process so that singers view projects like this as something that can and should be a regular part of their career activities? I believe I’m making some headway.


Anything else you would like to add?

We sometimes forget how unique and special it is to be the first person to help introduce a new work into the repertoire. Benjamin Britten isn’t taking any more commission projects these days. Franz Schubert won’t answer your texts. Hugo Wolf isn’t on Instagram.

Since it’s impossible to collaborate in a meaningful way with a composer no longer in our midst, we really owe it to ourselves to seek out the exciting new voices of our own generation. Create meaningful partnerships with artists who will influence the next generation of singers and patrons. Help nurture new work for future generations. What could be more exciting than that?


You can learn more about Erickson at www.kurterickson.com.


 Callout: We want to hear from you. What are you doing to expand your palette of musical genres? Where did you last sing and get paid? If you have recently performed and were paid for that performance, whether it was a traditional or nontraditional gig, we’d love to share your story with the CS Music community. Please email Michelle Latour at thelatourvoicestudios.com regarding your experience. And tweet about it at @classicalsinger and @latourstudios. Also #mylastpaidgig, #neversingforfree, and #createopportunities.

Michelle Latour

Dr. Michelle Latour is active as a teacher, singer, writer, and adjudicator and lives in Las Vegas. She has been on the full-time faculties at several universities. She is currently a voice faculty member for the Italian-based summer program, The International Opera Performing Experience and owns a private studio, the LATOUR Voice Studios. You can visit her at www.thelatourvoicestudios.com, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.