Q&A: Philip Glass On The Economics of Art And Music


Every day this month, in conjunction with our Feb. 1 cover story “Philip Glass, An East Village Voice,” Sound of the City will post excepts of interviews with Glass and his collaborators, as well as reviews of several concerts celebrating his 75th birthday.

In this segment of our interview, we discuss the intersection of economics, art and music. As we noted in our cover story, Glass started his recording company with a $1,000 loan from the Hebrew Loan Society. The landscape for such sources of capital has changed drastically since Glass first arrived in the city, and the reality of digital downloads (something Glass has largely accepted) has dried up many sources of revenue.

So how else is the artist to get paid for their work—especially in New York City? Glass says this if his music is used commercially:

…I expect them to honor the commercial conventions, whatever they are. We’ve lost a lot of ground with that, with free downloads and all of what’s happening. My feeling about that is, when it comes to intellectual property, I am my own publisher, I own all of my publishing. I’m very careful about that. On the other hand, I am also trying be on the realistic side with a fait accompli—which is that the music is out there.

My ten-year-old, who likes to make little videos on his laptop wanted some music for one, and said, “Dad, can I go on the internet and get your music?” And I said, “Sure you can.” He came back about 20 minutes later and said, “Dad, I just downloaded your whole catalogue.” [Laughs]

He’s ten years old. He’s ten years old! I said, “Really? What did that cost you?” He said, “It’s free!” And what can I say? There’s a, that conversation is never going to happen, about what we’re going to do about it already, because it already happened.

Now, what we have to do, and this is a whole different conversation and an interesting one, is how are the arts going to be able to take care of the creators of the work? How is that going to happen? It’s not been completely settled yet. And yet if we’re going to have a vital—if America is going to maintain its position as a real site of creativity with the arts, we’re going to have to figure that out. It may be in your lifetime, but it might not be in mine. But you can’t fight it—it’s happened!

So, if they hear my music on NBC on a basketball game, then I want to make sure the commercial people who use it have to pay for it, and they do. That much we can take care of. And we have performances, and we still play. The marketplace has changed tremendously, as you know. It’s changed for journalists, too. It’s changed for everybody, and we’re all trying to play catch up right now.

Have you taken any stand, just out of curiosity, on SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act?

The what?

It’s called the Stop Online Piracy Act. It’s a piece of legislation that’s currently being debated right now.

I don’t know. There’s been a lot. I haven’t kept up on all the features of it, and I don’t think it’s been settled. The things that I’ve heard, my impression is that financial rewards for the publishers and the writers have not been that great. On the other hand, they say, “Well the marketplace is much bigger now, it’s a hundred times bigger” …but that’s the kind of logic you’re getting hit with. I’m not an expert on is, so I don’t want to be—I don’t want to say too much…but I also know it’s not the way it used to be.

On the other hand, I know that I make my living by music. What that really means is that I’m doing what everybody else does, which is that I’m out playing. And people are back on the road, and bands are back on the road because they’re not selling records. And that’s not such a bad thing. I think it’s kind of good.

I kind of like the fact, that, well of course at my age, I can still do it, and I like it. I like to play. So that’s not slowed me down. I think, a significant part of my income is from playing. Things that would have been, the record sales aren’t there, but other things are there. For example, I have operas out right now at the same time, and there are films that are being done. So there are other, it’s a complex, there are other complex things.

To be truthful, for most composers, and most artists for that matter, it’s too complicated for them. They don’t know how to deal with it. They are in a very passive position of waiting for the industry to decide what to do. And they have less at stake because they’ve already given up their publishing to begin with.

There own 50 percent—fifty percent —less of their work than I do.

Did you start your own publishing company yourself from the outset?

I did. I started from Day One, because a very good friend of mine—a guy named Jerry [Lieber], who was from the couple Lieber and Stoller, who did “Hound Dog” and “Under the Boardwalk” and all of that stuff—he and I went to the same high school in Baltimore.

Oh, wow.

It was one of those strange coincidences where I met him back in New York, and it’s a funny story. I like him very much. He moved on after that, but he went to the same high school I went to, and my mother was the librarian there and he knew my mother. My mother let him work in the library after school. And because he was doing that, and he was a little Jewish guy, and people would pick on him all the time, and he could hang out at the library with my mom. And, he told me, “It saved me.”

And later when I met him, he said, “You know, I’m doing this for your mother. I want you to go down,” and told me about publishing, told me to go and do it. I didn’t have any music published yet, so I didn’t have a publisher. And I went down to Centre Street, 20 Centre Street, and went down to the basment and registered as a publishing company. I’ve always owned it. Isn’t it great?

It’s amazing.

And the funny story, this guy, we went to the same high school, and he knew my mother, and I could have ended up like everyone else, and let me tell you it has made a huge difference. I tried to get all the other composers to do it, but a lot of them don’t have the appetite for it. They say, “Well, I’m not really into business.” In some ways, I wasn’t really into business, either. I spent a lot of years moving furniture, and loading trucks and had all kinds of day jobs. And I finally got out of it, but part of the reason I got out of it, was because I owned my work. And I got out of it much quicker than I would have if I didn’t. I was in my 40s, but it could have been close to a lifetime if my work had been owned by somebody else.

What was your first job when you first arrived in town?

Loading trucks at [EL Trucking] on 12th Avenue.

Did you start your own trucking company, with your cousin, I believe?

Oh, that was much later. That was myself and my cousin, Jene Highstein, artist and sculptor, and another friend, Bob Fiore. We had a company and we worked on the weekends. That’s what you did. We put an ad in the Village Voice. [Laughs]

You didn’t have to have a license to put an ad in. No one had a license anyway. You didn’t have to have insurance. No one had insurance. You put an ad in. Work, it was a seasonal business. You worked the weekends around the first of the month. And then you had the middle of the month to do your sculpture, or your painting, or your poetry, or whatever you do. So it was a great job for an artist. We would put ads in the paper, and we’d rent a van from U-Haul or whoever. We just rented a van, we didn’t even own one.

I’ve heard about your cab driving, most recently when I went to see Satygraha simulcast in HD at BAM.


There was a lecturer beforehand, where the lecturer was saying that you actually drove people in your cab to the premiere at the Met of Einstein on the Beach?

Oh no, I didn’t. I didn’t drive people to the premiere. That’s not true. [Laughs] But I was driving a cab again a week later!

You were?

Oh, yeah. I couldn’t have done it to the premiere. We were rehearsing, that’s sheer fantasy.

I wondered if that was actually true or not.

We were loading in the night before, until 11 o’clock at night. With the crew, it was a union house and so forth, we didn’t begin rehearsing and getting ready [until late]. The dancers had to fit their dances into the stage, and you have to go through all of that. All the lighting had to be fit for the stage. We had to be there for all of that. We were there from 11 o’clock the night before, maybe we slept a few hours before the performance. But we were there working. No one was out back in the cab!

But I think a week, two weeks later I was! I was back to my day work, which lasted for…let me see, maybe until 1979, I think I was 41 when I stopped doing that. I think I stopped taking jobs, the last time was when I was 41.

Well, Wikipedia says that in 1978 you got a commission from the Netherlands Opera and a Rockefeller Grant, and that was sort of the end [of your day jobs].

That was the end. That was the end. It was ’79 when I really stopped working. Seventy-eight [was the year I got the grant]; it was the only grant I ever got, it was from them. I must say it helped; it gave me the money to get the parts for the opera. I didn’t have any money. I had written the opera, but I didn’t have the money to finish the music preparation. I had enough money to do that.

The commission, it was not a handsome some of money, but it was more than I had ever seen altogether. For that time it was a lot of money. But on the other hand, I did renew my cab license when it expired because I wasn’t sure, I didn’t know how long my independence would last. It turned out that it lasted a long time. That was… that was a lifetime ago. I was 41 then so, that was 30, 35 years ago. That was when I stopped my day jobs, but I didn’t know that was going to happen. I did renew my license, and I was ready to do that if I had to.

It didn’t bother me that much. I never had any feeling of anger or bitterness about it. Everybody was working. Most artists, that’s what they did. They had day jobs. That’s what you did. The people who, the visual artists, were usually able to be in galleries were generally able to start their careers earlier because, well, they had work to sell. We didn’t have any work to sell. We could play performances, but people were paying for music in that way. It was very common. It was, “Welcome to arts funding in the United States.” We don’t have it. We give money to musicians, not artists. [Laughs]

Did you ever have a feeling, those years in your late thirties, of, “Oh, am I going to make it or not?” Or [did you] experience any pressure from your family?

No, no, no, I didn’t think that, because I thought I had made it.


I thought I had made it when I was 30. I was in New York; I had my own ensemble. Of course I had a day job, but I didn’t count that as a deficit. I counted that as my insurance as to being able to make a living. I was writing music, I was doing tours, I was playing concerts. I had a small audience, but they were constantly growing. I was on the radio all the time, because I would go to a town and wherever I was, St. Louis or Minneapolis or wherever I was, and I’d find the university radio station and go on the radio. I thought I was successful when I was in my 30s. In other words, I didn’t measure it by whether I had a day job or not.


I measured it by what my work was, what I was doing, and how well the work was becoming. It was very clear to me that I was doing fine. [Laughs] It never occurred to me that I wasn’t. [Laughs]

But then again, I didn’t measure my success by, uh (laughs), a big, fat interview in the Village Voice, like we’re having right now, or by, I never won any prizes at all. To this day I haven’t. I got that one Rockefeller grant. I never got a Guggenheim or a MacArthur. And those prizes, they weren’t for people like me. Those prizes were for other people, people I guess—they didn’t know how to make it on their own. But I didn’t, and at a certain point I realized that I wasn’t going to get any and I stopped applying. I stopped applying for grants by the early 1980s. It was a waste of time; I wasn’t going to get them and I never did.

Previous articles in our series on Philip Glass at 75:
Philip Glass, An East Village Voice (February 1 cover story)
Q&A: Das Racist’s Dapwell On Tibetan Independence And Playing Carnegie Hall
Q&A: Philip Glass On Black Music And African-American History
Q&A: Koyaanisqatsi Director Godfrey Reggio On Dragging Philip Glass Into Film Scoring
Q&A: Glassbreaks Auteur dj BC On Mashing Up Philip Glass With The Beastie Boys, Kanye And The Fugees
Q&A: Kronos Quartet Founder David Harrington On Collaborating With Philip Glass
Live: The Premiere of Glass’s Symphony No. 9 at Carnegie Hall
Happy (Happy Happy) 75th Birthday, Philip Glass, From South Park