Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Equal Skills, Unequal Compensation

When I’m not singing, I support my chorister habit by offering research, writing, and related consulting services to a variety of clients. Services to business clients are offered through Peregrine Information Consultants; services to performing arts clients are offered through GraceNotes. Though the clientele are vastly different, their needs for research, information, and written products are similar, and I provide services to each group in much the same way.

Most of my research projects require deep secondary research, analysis, and synthesis, as well as the assimilation of a great deal of technical and arcane knowledge. The research findings are communicated in detailed, clearly-written, original technical papers, program essays, or other products that help people learn about the topic at hand. These are specialized skills that I’ve developed over a quarter century of professional practice.

On any given topic, I might spend 20 or more hours conducting research, using specialized resources not available to the lay searcher or “googler.” Though I now work as an independent consultant, my training as a professional librarian and years of experience as a reference librarian and cataloger/indexer are still central to my work.

For a typical technical paper or program essay, project, I identify, select, obtain, and read dozens of articles, book chapters, web sites, and specialized resources. As I work, I conceptualize the framework for the written product, whether it is a technical paper, a risk management guide, or program notes for an orchestra or choral concert. As I read and absorb, I continue to learn, to question what I’ve uncovered, to verify obscure or ambiguous data, and to form my conclusions and recommendations.

Drafting, writing, editing, polishing, and proofreading! If you’re a writer, you know that creating the written product can sometime take longer than the actual research. In the writing process, I consider the words, the structure of each sentence and paragraph, and the flow of information between paragraphs as well as from top to bottom of the document. My research and insights are of no value until I can articulate them cogently and persuasively for my readers.

Whether I am preparing a technical guide on a difficult risk management topic, or a musical and textual analysis of a major choral work, I follow the same general process. I invest the same skills and attention in finding the correct information, verifying facts, and writing clearly and appealingly. Whether I am writing for a major insurance company or a major symphony orchestra, my assignment is to help my readers understand challenging, unfamiliar, or abstract topics.

There’s one major difference, though, between preparing a technical paper for a business client and preparing program annotations for a performing ensemble: Compensation.

As an example: To research and prepare a three-page original technical paper for a business client, I can (and do) command a substantial four-figure fee. To research and prepare a three-page original program annotation for a full-length classical concert — an effort which requires roughly the same amount of time and the same degree of skill — I might be offered $100, $250 or at most, $500. This absurdly low fee is not the fault of the orchestra or chorus; I can’t tell you how many times a program annotation client has apologized that they can’t offer more. Rather, the low fees are simply reflections of their own absurdly low operating budgets, which in turn reflect the absurdly low funding that is available to our arts organizations.

This inequity can be extrapolated across the arts community. Compensation for professional musicians, artists, actors, writers, and those who support them, is insultingly and pathetically low. Why can a pop tart celebrity “singer” or rap “star” command millions, while truly talented local and regional musicians must take second or third jobs to support themselves and their families? The answer is, of course, that as a society, we prefer the 3-minute song by the “pop tart” to a performance by a professional classical ensemble, or an evening in a club with great local jazz combo.

This societal bias is both a product of, and a response to, the paucity of quality arts coverage in the press, from local newspapers to global media outlets. In our own community, The Hartford Courant devotes pages and pages to video games, the daily dalliances of the people we call “celebrities,” and pet photos, of all things, yet it fails to provide decent pre-concert coverage and reviews of the vibrant arts scene taking place right here in Greater Hartford. It’s a shame that our leading newspaper does not take advantage of its leadership position to help people in our community to discover and delight in the world-class talents all around us.

Why do we place so little value on true, enduring talent and creativity? When we look back fifty or a hundred years from now, will we be sorry for the choices we’ve made?

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating piece, Sarah, which makes a number of points very pertinent to another writer...

    The mundane (but sadly very important) one of payment. In my admittedly specialist field, a 70,000 - word book can provide little more renumeration than three articles of no more than 5,000 words each. And I can research and write one of these in a month, using mainly secondary sources. Whereas a book will take at least a year from concept to completion, involving research, primary and secondary, across a a wide range of sources.

    So, as Charles James Fox said once, in a totally different context, "Why the book?"

    I suppose because my books (if not all of them) tend to be on original, lesser-known, subjects close to my heart. And also because they may, just may, continue to be of relevance for many years to come. That form of "immortality" again, I suppose.

    And, probably like you because of my librarian's training (a long time ago, that seems) I gain considerably more pleasure from the research process than the writing. The latter, on the very rare, almost "blessed" , occasion, may "flow", although that is usually a sign that it will need heavy editing and re-writing later.

    Ultimately, given all the considerations of neglect in the face of "popular" culture etc which you describe, I wonder why we do it? Because of something within us, I suppose, some urge to creativity. I know I could no more not write than not breath, and when I eventually write no more, it will because I've ceased to do the latter....


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