Erich Stem put something very well in his presentation at the DePauw symposium I spoke at. (See my last post.) He asked whether classical music faced death — or a paradigm shift? I’m sure it’s the latter. And part of the new paradigm would be all sorts of non-conventional performances, string quartets in clubs, new music groups (there seem to be more of them every day), exploding numbers of releases on indie classical record labels, and much, much more.
But there’s one big question about the new paradigm (or, if you like post-classical performances, or alternative classical performances). How will classical musicians make a living? The old paradigm gives you ways to do that (playing in an orchestra, for instance), even though there aren’t enough jobs for everyone who graduates from music school. But the new paradigm doesn’t seem to offer much. I’ve talked about this with an artists’ manager at one of the big managements, who’s certainly in a position to know how musicians support themselves. He’s also one of the few people (though I think their numbers are growing) in big-time managements who really love alternative performances. And he vociferously thinks that the new performances can’t support the musicians who play in them.
I always want to learn more about how this works, so at DePauw I asked the musicians in eighth blackbird and the Bang on a Can All-Stars how they make their living. For eighth blackbird, as I’ve already said, the answer was simple. They get hired for university residencies. In this way, they’re not different from chamber music groups that (unlike eighth blackbird) don’t specialize in new music. A detailed study commissioned some years ago by Chamber Music America found that musicians in chamber groups — apart from a few of the biggest ones — have no chance to make a living from their playing if their group doesn’t have a paying residency somewhere. eighth blackbird, then — just as its flutist Tim Munro insisted — isn’t really a post-classical ensemble, because it makes its living from the classical music mainstream (university division). Merely playing concerts wouldn’t keep the group alive.
The Bang on a Can players, meanwhile, present a different picture. They’re truly post-classical. They never get university residencies (and might not be likely to, because they play pieces written in a far more colloquial style than the new music favored in academia). Only one of them has any university connection, and that’s hardly in classical music: He leads a gamelan ensemble at MIT. The others more or less make their living by their wits, playing freelance classical and non-classical gigs, or teaching privately (and not necessarily with students who only play classical music). So they, too, can’t survive simply from their Bang on a Can tours. They said the All-Stars might play 10 weeks out of every year, which (here’s the half full glass) is more than I might have expected, but (here’s the half-empty glass) isn’t enough to support them. I should have asked how many weeks they’d have to tour to make a living from touring, but I didn’t think to.
I’m reasonably sure that anyone in the alternative classical world (or whatever we want to call it) would report more or less the same thing. A year or so ago I asked Todd Reynolds, a new-music violinist who was one of the founders of Ethel (the new music string quartet that lives in more or less the same aesthetic world as the Bang on a Can All-Stars) whether he thought many people could make a living playing that style of music. He got very serious, and said the financial problems could be crushing. And I remember meeting another Ethel musician (Todd, by the way, doesn’t play with the group any more) in the West Palm Beach airport, her mission in West Palm Beach being to play with a pops orchestra, which was one of the things she had to do, if she wanted to survive.
The emerging new classical world is full of promise, at least musically. How it’s going to support classical musicians — in anything like the numbers of people making a living from classical music now — we don’t yet know.