in Columns

How composers earn their crust in Finland

by Pasi Lyytikäinen

“From the viewpoint of direct artist funding, art politics since the 1990s recession have failed. The sector’s growth has not been matched by increased public funding.” Composer Pasi Lyytikäinen reflects on the progress and future views of composers’ livelihood in Finland.

I began my composition studies at the Sibelius Academy in the late 1990s. I was told that in Finland, an art music composer’s income would be made up of primarily three streams: grants, commission fees and royalties. These revenue sources could then be supplemented by teaching or consultancy work when needed.

But the reality soon started to look very different. The proportional share of royalties out of art music composers’ total income was reduced significantly in 1996, when Teosto (Finnish copyright association for music creators) moved away from genre-based distribution of royalties. This arrangement had guaranteed notated art music a larger distribution percentage compared to other music genres, due to Teosto’s use of a particular multiplier system. This change marked the starting point for impending changes in composers’ livelihood in Finland.

Another factor affecting the sector’s living wages was the growing number of composers, a trend starting to emerge around that same time. When the Society of Finnish Composers had around 110 members in the mid-1990s, their membership had grown to 235 by the year 2021. This expansion has led to significantly tougher competition for grants and commissions. Conversely, as a result, the whole sector has experienced growth leading to increased visibility, international presence, commission opportunities and entrepreneurship. These changed circumstances have given rise to entirely new activity platforms for Finnish composers: running their own ensembles, festivals and publishing companies. 

Freelancer, self-employed, grant recipient, or salaried employee?

A composer’s work is structurally difficult to define. If I look at my own career as a composer, spanning back some twenty years, it is as colourful as my grandma’s patchwork quilt: I have been a grant recipient, freelancer, entrepreneur, self-employed, employee, employer, and office-holder. At times, these categories have been overlapping. This is why careful forward planning as well as administrative and legal assistance have been necessary for me in order to cope with the many specific issues around the funding of my work.

In addition to my work as a composer, I have kept my options open to other professions in close proximity: I have taught composition, played the flute, done research, conducted orchestras, provided many different consultancy services, worked as a music journalist, and directed a festival. I also worked as an office assistant at the Society of Finnish Composers throughout my university years. In all of these roles, my training as a composer has given me a considerable advantage.

My versatile work profile is partially due to my temperament, but also to my circumstances. As a parent, I have never had the luxury of putting all my career eggs in one basket. When first entering the workforce, I soon realised that almost none of my income sources included retirement or leave benefits, not to mention any security in the event of illness or unemployment. Fortunately, this has become slightly less of an issue throughout the 2000s, but in the current pandemic situation, for example, many Finnish artists who unexpectedly become unemployed still fall right through all the government safety nets. 

When I look at what my colleagues do for work, however, my own career setup does not look so different from the rest. We may each have our own area of emphasis, but nearly every one of my professional colleagues undertakes work outside of composing at times. The reason behind this is not always simply financial constraints, but it is also a reflection on the loneliness of working as a composer, and our desire to connect to communities around us. Likewise, many feel it is practically our responsibility to share our accumulated expertise with our professional sector, for instance through different expert or public trust positions. 

Composers’ income prospects in the future

Grant subsidy will remain a significant source of income for composers into the future as well. It is the only way to secure a long-term, professional career allowing for serious in-depth composing. In recent years, there have been many discussions on various platforms about the future of our grant structure. These include a suggestion to replace it entirely with an artist salary system. This would mean scrapping the tax-free status of the current scheme, and establishing a new artist funding system where recipients would either work on a payroll, or as self-employed artists. In order to achieve this new model whilst maintaining the effectiveness of the current model, however, a significant boost to the existing art funding pool is required. So far, there are no indicators whatsoever from the government that a boost like this would be forthcoming. (See also Kimmo Hakola's column on the Finnish grants system from December 2020.)

From the viewpoint of direct artist funding, art politics since the 1990s recession have failed. The sector’s growth has not been matched by increased public funding. Another issue is artist grants’ purchasing power which has experienced significant decrease: in the 1970s, artist grants’ purchasing power was close to the median salaried wage. In 2015, the purchase power of grants was only half of the median salaried wage (source in Finnish: Arts Promotion Centre Finland bulletin). This trend has had a significant impact on composers’ income and work profiles.

If we want to take a realistic look at the future of full-time composers’ income, the only sector where significant growth is predicted is funding from private foundations, as well as negotiating commission fees to better match composers’ training and workload. In addition, composers’ income could be increased through direct private funding, such as crowd funding. Art music exporting efforts and funding need to be strengthened as well. Any significant increases in art music composers’ royalties will only continue to occur outside of Finland in the future.

Composers’ livelihood, recognising the intrinsic value of art, equality, and future composer endeavours are all interlinked. It is important to assess how we as a sector could even better take into account the range of different composer profiles and artistic tendencies. This requires an open communication about composers’ livelihoods, public funding guidelines, and the ever-growing diversity of artistic values. 

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham
Featured photo: Lauri Mannermaa