How do musicians make money? Today, that usually involves playing live concerts, selling recordings through music streaming sites such as Spotify, or creating music for movies or other video media. However, before roughly the year 1900 in the case of recordings, and roughly the year 1800 in the case of ticketed concerts, both of those sources of income were largely unavailable to musicians. So, what did musicians do for money before 1800? To answer that question, we must ask a couple more fundamental questions that rarely get considered today: What were the social purposes of music before the era of ticketed live concerts and recordings? Where would one hear music and how did musicians get paid for creating that music?
We tend to think today of music as a commodity, something that has an exchange value (a song is worth a certain amount of money) and that can be purchased in a marketplace (such as online). But music as a commodity is a relatively recent idea. Before the rise of the modern publishing and recording industries, music was thought of more as a social activity, something one did rather than something one consumed or purchased. Accordingly, before the modern era, money was earned by musicians largely for their labor in providing music for social occasions, rather than for producing a musical commodity that could be consumed in a public marketplace.
Consider all the various social functions that would have existed in the year 1500 where people would have heard music: weddings, funerals, social dances, in a pub, street fairs and markets, private parties, military battles, church services, etc. No doubt musicians have been paid for their labor in providing musical accompaniment and entertainment in these and other social occasions for longer than we have written histories of human culture. But the same would have been true then as now: some musicians made more money than others, and some much more. What were the sources of income for musicians prior to the commodification of music, and which jobs were the most prestigious and offered the greatest income security?
In the several centuries leading up to about 1800, composers and the musicians who played their compositions were frequently tied economically to a church, which, in Europe, meant the Catholic or later Protestant churches. Another common economic tie that musicians nurtured was to the noble and aristocratic courts who increasingly governed the economic and military affairs of a region to the extent the church did not. In Medieval Europe, up until about 1450, the Catholic Church controlled not only the local economies, but also the arts, including music. This control extended beyond economics and into the style of music that was considered appropriate for certain occasions. For example, the music one heard in church would have been very different from the music one heard at a peasant harvest festival — a distinct stylistic difference had already developed between an elite, literate culture and the illiterate culture of the masses.
There were musicians and musical styles that were outside the control of the church (“secular” or “vernacular” as opposed to “sacred” music), and most peasants and other people outside the elite classes likely only heard such vernacular music. However, those vernacular musical styles (what we would call “popular music” today) did not exist within an economy by which musicians or songwriters could earn a decent living, or even a living at all. Certainly, some vernacular musicians of the Medieval era could make money on the side as street musicians or providing entertainment at peasant weddings, funerals, or other occasions, but the level of such economic activity paled in comparison to the economy controlled by the Church.
The best known, and no doubt best paid, composers of the Medieval period earned their keep (often including room and board) from the Church, writing music for use in church services and assembling and directing those performances. (It is worth noting that in the Medieval era, the vast majority of people could not read music, and most could not even read at all. To be able to read and write music was then, even more than it is now, a sign of belonging to the elite ruling class.) In cities with the largest and most influential cathedrals, and associated clergy, the first universities were also established during the Medieval era as an extension of the church’s administrative power. The cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, for example, gave rise to the neighboring University of Paris in about 1170. Within these church-controlled universities, a new class of musicians and music scholars arose, still devoted to and employed by the Catholic church. Musicians in these universities perfected their techniques and theoretical treatises on the sacred musical style that one would only hear in association with a church service. It is interesting to reflect that even today it is within our modern universities that we still find composers of “serious” musical styles employed to carry on this tradition of elite musical style, where popularity with the masses is still generally not the measure economic musical value.
By about roughly 1450, the Church had begun to lose exclusive control over the administrative state, the economy, and the arts. City-states and other administrative regions controlled by aristocratic families in the regions of Europe once controlled as part of the Roman Empire (Italy, France, Spain, England, and increasingly Austria-Germany) developed economies built on expanding international trade and associated support services, such as banking and shipping. With the wealth accumulating within the courts of these elite families and their administrations, music and the other arts became part of the economy of prestige these courts used to bolster their competitive standing. Thus, during the Renaissance era (1450-1600), composers and musicians developed a new source of income apart from the church — court patronage.
Court patronage, however, was not exclusive of church employment — this was not an either/or choice. Many of the best known composers from the Renaissance Era earned income from both the church and the local courts, writing music to be used both inside and outside the church. But we must also not assume that just because composers were writing and performing music to be used outside the church that they were therefore entertaining the uneducated “masses.” The aristocratic families of the courts existed in a very elite world, far removed from the peasants and other illiterates that made up the vast majority of the population. The music the court musicians wrote and performed was written music that only the most learned and civilized of the population could hope to perform, understand, or even bother to enjoy. The members of elite families took pride in their musical abilities, a sign of their cultured and elite status, and they paid professional musicians to give them lessons and write music they could use to impress their friends and family. Again, note that this tradition continues today, with more educated and wealthier families paying for expensive piano or other music lessons for their children, often in the comfort of their own homes. This continues to be a significant source of income for formally-educated musicians.
The composers who earned commissions and other employment from the courts were thus expected to deliver not only entertainment, but prestige. Courts prided themselves on not only the quality of the music they produced, but on the development of new expressive musical devices and performance practices. Whereas music written for church became stylistically conservative as appropriate for a social setting steeped in tradition and formality, the music of the courts became more experimental and expressive. Money began to flow to musicians who were more creative or ingenious than others, rewarding risk-taking and creativity rather than conformity. This linkage of musical economy with musical creativity and expressions of individual artistic “genius” continued to mark the Western musical economy through the coming centuries.
The system of court patronage increased in importance throughout the 16th century as the wealth and influence of the Catholic church continued to wane. That was due in large part to the success of Protestant Reformation, instigated by Martin Luther in Germany in 1517, followed by the King Henry VIII’s decision to form a separate Church of England in 1534 after the Catholic Church (based in Rome) refused to allow him to annul his marriage (divorce) his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, after she failed to provide him with an heir.
Protestant churches in Germany and those of the Church of England still employed many well known composers and musicians, but the potential wealth and prestige of those positions was more local in scope and significantly diminished from that of the Catholic church. The best-known example of a Protestant church composer was Johann Sebastian Bach, who after a 6-year stint as a court composer in Köthen, Germany, seized an opportunity to become the music director of the Lutheran church in Leipzig, Germany, where he worked for 27 years, until his death in 1750. During his time as a church composer, organist, and music director in Leipzig, Bach wrote an enormous amount of music, much of it for the weekly church services and church holidays.
By the late 18th century, during the Age of Enlightenment, the system of court patronage for the most powerful of Europe’s aristocratic families had become a source of great prestige, security, and wealth for those composers and musicians who could land such jobs. Each court connected to the monarchies of the leading centers of power in Europe, employed their own composers, orchestras, and choirs to entertain and provide a source of cultural prestige. The financial security these positions afforded musicians who held these positions continued to give them the freedom to find novel and creative means of musical expression, which served to increase their own individual fame and the prestige of the court to which they were employed. The late 18th century marked the height of this court patronage system, shortly before the revolutionary spirit of the time increased the demands for democratic reforms (e.g., the French Revolution of 1789).
Composer Joseph Haydn best represents the heights of international fame, wealth, and creative freedom that a musician could achieve in the court patronage system of the 18th century. Haydn was born in poverty, but through a tireless honing of his natural musical talents and self-promotion, he managed to earn a position as court composer to a prince of the Esterhazy family of the Austrian Empire at the height of its power. The Esterhazy court also happened to have a palace in Vienna, the single most important musical city of 18th and 19th-century Europe. During his employment by the Esterhazy Court, Haydn composed hundreds of pieces of music in several genres, including 104 symphonies, that earned him fame and admiration throughout Europe as the greatest composer of his day. Haydn’s style became the basis of what is known as the “Classical” style and contributed greatly to the styles of both Mozart and Beethoven, who also both lived in Vienna and admired the elder Haydn. The system of court patronage would diminish with the democratic revolutions underway in the late 18th century, but it served to support the professionalization of literate music for over 400 years.