A hidden cost of classical music

My last post sparked some lively discussion, including interesting comments from Ryan Tracy, who runs the Counter Critic site.

One thing Ryan said left me thinking. He named (almost wistfully, I thought) Ani DiFranco as an example of an alternative rock figure with a small audience, and offered the hope that classical music, too, could accept small performances for relatively few people.

Which of course — in a way — it always does.

One quick (and crude) take on Ryan’s point might be that classical music, compared to pop, is a niche genre, and that all its audiences, even the largest, aren’t (by pop standards) very large. But let that go. I understand what Ryan meant when he named Ani DiFranco (one of the most thoughtful and honest figures in pop, someone who’s never worked with a major record label, and controls her own releases), and I sympathize.

But I think there are instructive differences between her and — let’s say — a string quartet that appears in the same clubs she might play. Ani DiFranco sells more recordings, whether CDs or downloads – gigantically more. (A pop musician who sells 20,000 copies of a new album in a year would be toward the bottom rungs of the business. A classical musician who sold 3,000 copies would be near the top, at least in recording sales. Reverting to the CD model — just for clarity, though it’s speedily getting out of date — suppose somebody makes $10 for each CD sale. The pop musician, with a low-selling album, 20,000 copies sold in a year, gets $200,000 for this album alone, plus money from sales of older records. The classical musician, hardly able to believe his or her luck, sells 3,000, and gets $30,000. These figures are meant only to be suggestive. They ignore rather giant complications, like how much the CDs cost you, how much record stores might get, and how you split revenues with your record label, if you have one.)

But then the musicians in the string quartet can teach, get grants, get university residencies, and, if they want, play freelance gigs, none of which Ani DiFranco is likely to do. (She’s not about to show up as a guitarist on Madonna’s next tour.)

All this is fairly obvious, at least to people who know how the business works. But now for the hidden cost that Ryan sparked me to think of. Ani DiFranco never went to music school. And if by chance she did, she didn’t have to, not to get where she is right now. Most pop musicians learn music on their own.

But not the members of the string quartet! Each one had years of schooling — private lessons, undergraduate music school, maybe a graduate degree. The undergraduate and graduate schools are the most expensive part of that. Who paid for it? Some combination of the musicians’ parents, the musicians themselves (through student loans), and of course the schools, with scholarships. But the schools couldn’t give those scholarships — and in fact couldn’t exist — without large donations. They’re raising money all the time.

And that’s the hidden cost even of small classical performances. Go see Ani DiFranco, and what you see is, pretty much, what she paid for. The costs of her being there are mostly visible, or easy to figure out. (She has to buy her equipment and pay her band; she has to travel to whatever club you’ve seen her in; she needs a van; she has to sleep somewhere.)

But the string quartet? Invisibly present are all their years of education, paid for, in considerable part, by donations to their music schools.

And now we’d better ask where those donations come from.From individuals, some of them very wealthy. And why do they offer their support? I’m going to take a speculative leap here, because I don’t have data, but I’ll bet I’m right. These donors don’t support Juilliard or Eastman or Curtis or Rice or Indiana University or Peabody because they love seeing string quartets in clubs. Or Pierre Boulez in Zankel Hall. Or the Bang on a Can marathon. They support music schools because they’re impressed with the glory of classical music, which means major orchestras, the Metropolitan Opera, and, in general, big concerts by glamorous mainstream stars.

Which means that even small classical performances (at least right now) depend on the big mainstream classical world. And that’s an important point we’d better remember, when we imagine what classical music’s future might be. If we’d like to think that small performances might survive even if the mainstream world goes belly up, we’ll have to figure out where the next generation of musicians will learn to play, and who’s going to pay to keep them alive. (Even string quartets that play in clubs might make much of their living directly from the mainstream, through grants and residencies, and, conceivably, from its members’ freelance work. For a little more on this, see my earlier post on making a living.)

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  1. Paul A. Alter says

    Yes, important train of thought here.

    [Oh, and don’t forget how much they pay for their instruments.]

    Think of all the peripheral jobs that suffer when an orchestra goes belly up: sales of instrument, maintenance of same, music critics, music-school staff, symphony office staff, house staff, stagehands, parking lot people, parking lot owners, late-night snack joints, music copiers, outfits that publish and/or rent out the scores, advertising media (such as newspapers), program printers, program publishers, public transit, and on and on, to enterprises we wouldn’t even think of (like people who clean the suits that get mussed when a patron goes to a concert during a rainstorm).

    Add up all the symphony orchestras in this country and you have got what amounts to a multimillion dollar industry (billions, maybe?). As such, it could well be a gorilla in the American economy and entitled to a lot more support from the government than it has been getting.

    The politicos put subsidies into a lot of lesser industries, but won’t peel a grape for the orchestras.

    It’s time for the symphony biz to step up to the trough for a fair share of the pork.


    The only problem with economic arguments for supporting the arts is that they can backfire. Can anyone prove that an orchestra adds more to the economy than anything else that might spend the same money? The St. Louis Symphony, right now, has (I believe) an endowment of around $100 million. Suppose that money were used to start a successful manufacturing business, or technology firm. Wouldn’t these enterprises bring even more economic benefit than an orchestra does?

  2. says

    Any successful entrepreneurial or freelance setup is going to need years and years of slavish labor at the beginning, either for nothing – or with someone else’s capital. Whatever DiFranco’s costs were – in time or money – they were probably totally different to a string quartet’s, but why does that mean they’re any less significant?

    Maybe what you say here is probably more useful/true at the orchestra & big arts organization level.

    In time and money, the musicians in a rock band and the musicians in a string quartet put about the same amount into starting their enterprises. Though in one way, rock musicians, at least in past decades, probably worked harder. They had to be more entrepreneurial. Classical performers usually started (again in past decades) by impressing the gatekeepers who controlled entry into the field — that is, classical performers would find management, or win competitions. Rock bands tended to work their way up from the bottom, getting their own club dates, and making their own records, long before they had management or a record label.

    But the financial burden, direct and indirect, is much higher for classical musicians. They need music school, and (as Paul Alter pointed out in his comment) they need to buy expensive instruments.

    At the highest level — top orchestras, top rock stars — I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the direct financial investment is more closely comparable. A Chicago Symphony budget from a few years ago showed expenses and income of more than $60 million. If you count the income that top rock stars make (and expect to make), I can imagine you’d get into similar financial territory.

  3. Yvonne says

    This prompts me to ponder the sheer amount of training classical musicians pursue.

    Classical music isn’t really a teach-yourself niche: the instruments, the techniques and the repertoire were all developed in the context of intensive training through a network of guilds and later conservatoria. BUT…(and I’d be interested in data on this) it seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon that so many young classical musicians are spending so long cloistered in colleges and universities, esp. in English-speaking countries.

    Is it really necessary that classical performance training be so protracted (and thus so expensive)? And what does that mean for the future of classical music?

    Hi, Yvonne. And that’s a very good point. Classical musicians these days get undergraduate degrees, then master’s degrees, and often even doctorates. Singers spend years in young artists’ programs. Is all this really necessary? In the old days, musicians were more likely to serve something like apprenticeships. I’m reminded of a story Regina Resnik told my wife, about her first performance as Leonora in Fidelio. Bruno Walter, a very great conductor, coached her in the role for months. And took not a penny for it.
    Not that this issue isn’t more complicated than that. I’d be very curious to know how the present educational practices developed, and what deep need they serve.

  4. says

    Andre Previn wrote in one of his autobiographical books that shortly after he began playing piano in Hollywood studios as youngster one of the studio violinists asked him which piano trios he played. Previn asked him what a piano trio was.

    Thereafter Previn went to the home of the violinist every week, where he learned the entire repertoire for violin, cello, and piano.

  5. Greg says

    One of the initial points you make is that classical audiences are argumentatively smaller than pop audiences… BUT, this spawns two adjacent arguments, 1) Pop artists have larger audiences at their performances because they are unique to their following and they perform only once a year in any given city or region, and 2) Based on point #1, are orchestras providing too much “product” for their constituencies? (i.e. Would Madonna or Ani be selling out their concerts if they played every weekend for 48 weeks out of the year?… I’m sure it would get old after a while)

    Many, many people who work professionally with orchestras think there’s too much product — that orchestras give too many concerts. In the old days, that wasn’t a problem, because subscribers bought almost all the tickets. Thus, orchestras depended on people going over and over again, during the course of a season. If enough people did that, then the number of concerts in a season wasn’t a prpoblem. But since subscription sales have fallen notably over the past couple of decades, attendance isn’t as dependable as it used to be, and the number of concerts can become a problem.

    Or put it this way. (And thanks for stimulating this line of thought.) Pop music depends very simply on demand. Madonna tours once a year, approximately, because that’s what she can sell. She’s not going to give any concerts that there isn’t specific demand for. And you can generalize that to the pop world as a whole. Each concert has specific demand — that is, the concert happens because the artist involved has fans, who want to go.

    But many classical events, like orchestra concerts, don’t work like that. A big orchestra plays just about every weekend during the season. The concerts don’t respond (most of the time) to any special need. It’s just assumed that there’s a general need to hear the orchestra, and that people will show up to do that. Obviously some soloists and even a few conductors have followings (though very few do — fewer than most of us would guess — according to the marketers I’ve talked to). And obviously some programs — those with a lot of new music — will be less popular than others. But generally orchestra concerts read simply as orchestra concerts, with a very generalized demand. Opera does better — at least each opera has a particular identity. But the classical music world needs to look at this situation, and see what it can do to create events with genuine demand — events that people will be eager to buy tickets for. And without any dumbing down! I think it’s possible, but that would be another long discussion, one we ought to have here.

  6. says

    Hi Greg,

    I did eight years of university study, and the honest truth is that I kept studying because I continued to be unable to win an orchestral job. Many of my friends have done the same, only to drop out of music altogether. So that actually adds ANOTHER cost – because these donors that you speak of (actually, they are governments in Australia) aren’t just funding classical musicians who go on to careers, but MANY MANY MANY who go on to become anthropologists, physicists, lawyers…

    I wrote a blog entry dealing with some of this – here’s a bit:

    In many ways we are locked into the classical traditions by virtue of the venues in which we perform. Our status – as a full-time, professional touring group that relies on performance income to balance our budget – restricts us somewhat. For example, we simply can’t afford to go the route of many exciting young new music ensembles who have found small but engaged and diverse audiences at clubs and pubs. Small venues such as these can barely cover even the costs associated with moving our percussion equipment.

    There are other ways in which 8bb benefits by remaining a firmly “classical” ensemble. University residencies make up a significant portion of our salaries, enabling us to function as a full time group. Without our cred as an award-winning (and did I mention, Grammy-nominated) classical chamber music group, that would not be possible.

    Hi, Tim. Good to hear from you, and thanks. I’d suspect that one core reason for the extended study is exactly what you say. A student can’t get a job — or hasn’t gotten one yet — and so continues studying, because that’s an available option. It helps support the student for two or three more years (or more), gives them a dignified way to account for themselves while they look for jobs, might put them in a better position to get an academic job (if other things don’t work out), and in any case can’t hurt. I’m sure the schools benefit by having capable students around, so the system perpetuates itself, while also in some ways insultating students (and, more generally, classical music) from the realities of cultural life. As long as the schools keep raising money!

    Thanks for the continued clarification about how eighth blackbird survives. It’s an important story, and all of your honesty — I mean everyone in the group — has been very helpful in teaching me to understand the financial forces that shape the classical music biz.

  7. Paul A. Alter says

    Well, maybe the millions in the SLSO trust fund could be invested in some start up fund and create a whole new business, but consider that the general success rate for new organizations is about one out of ten. So it might not be a particularly wise use for the money.

    But, most important of all, shame on you (picture finger wagging). It would most emphatically NOT be a BETTER use of the money. Because, which do we need more: a new firm that uses up the few remaining resources we have in a world that is threatened by over-population and diminishing resources or a great art form that has provided great satisfaction for millions of people for several hundred years?

    The point is that the the symphonic orchestra, although it is ONLY an art form (sarcasm, there), when joined with other orchestras in this country, is part of a major industry, employing many, many, thousands of people, and is thus, deserving of governmental support. (I draw your attention to the WPA orchestras the government supported durin the depression to help support musicians, thus proving that, at one time, musicians were considered worth supporting.

    But shortening the season is not a good idea. That would return us to the bad old days when musicians had to scramble to support themselves because the orchestras couldn’t, and the musicians suffered, and the orchestras were not as good.

    Symphonic organizations have achieved a plateau, and we need to focus on maintaining that plateau, and not on ways to cave in and give comfort and support to the enemey by saying, “Well, yes, maybe we are being selfish, sol let’s give up all that we have fought for in the past.”

    Everybody else is selfish, why should we be. (That’s a rhetorical question.) And wasn’t it the extreme right wing — Ayne Rand, specifically — that proposed that idea and other right wingers who supported it?

    Paul A.

    So now there are thing we’re required to say — or not say — because we’ve enlisted in a crusade, and we have to stay on message? Paul, much as I like you, I can’t accept that. We should tell the truth, and deal with the consequences.

    I didn’t develop much my point about the economic argument for the arts. Other people have made it, quite beyond me. It’s systematically taken apart in the MUSE report on arts support, written by the RAND Corporation for the Wallace foundation, and I hope still available on the Wallace website. Essentially, the argument goes like this. We can say, if we like, that the arts are important because they do good in some way, like helping kids (who take part in the arts) to get better grades in school. But then someone else can always come along, and point to or propose a program specifically targeted to that goal, which would arguably achieve the goal better. Then we have to retreat, and say, “Well, we didn’t really mean the orchestra is important because it helps kids get better grades. We just wanted to say that, since the orchestra does exist, it also has these benefits, even for the vast majority of people who never go to its concerts.” Which is a much weaker argument.

    As for the corporation I imagined could be started with the St. Louis Symphony’s endowment money, why assume it’s going to be an evil one? Suppose we take that $100 million, and start a company that sells low-cost solar heating to homeowners. I’d be thrilled if such a thing existed, after seeing my heating bills this winter. What would be wrong with that?

  8. Kate Peters says

    First of all, I have a friend who says that classical music is basically an art form that is subsidized by wealthy people for middle class white people who could pay for it but won’t. He is a donor and believes this madness should stop, though he loves classical music.

    Second point, at least in LA, more and more rock and pop musicians have had classical training in order to compete in the studio world, so I don’t think there is such a huge difference as you outline in the post. This may change, however, with changes in the recording industry, but I don’t think so. It’s a competitive edge to be a great sight reader.

    And finally, as for too much product being produced by orchestras, this has as much to do with classical musicians seeking full time jobs with security and benefits as anything else. In Orange County, the musicians play at Pacific on a per service agreement as opposed to LA where they are salaried. LA has many more concerts, partly because they CAN with salaried players.

    Kate, I’d be interested to know how your wealthy friend thinks middle-class people could pay for classical music. TIcket prices — at least at big institutions — have increased far more than the inflation rate over the past generation. And in spite of that, ticket sales pay for no more than 1/3 of the costs of putting on concerts.What more could middle-class concertgoers pay?

    I can well imagine that the very few pop musicians who play studio gigs in LA benefit from classical training. As you say, sight-reading is a big plus. But this is a tiny part of the pop music universe. For another view, I could ask you if you’ve seen “Juno,” an absolutely wonderful movie I caught up with this past weekend.The songs on the soundtrack (many of them suggested, by the way, by Ellen Page, the actress who plays the title role) are typical of one kind of alternative rock. The musicians who sing and play them don’t need classical training, and most of them surely don’t have it. The same could be said about people in rock bands, people playing country music, hiphop musicians, or people creating dance music on their computers.

    And you’re absolutely right, the full-season employment that the big orchestras offer their musicians is a consequence of union activism in the 1960s. I wouldn’t want to see this reversed. A big part of it was to give musicians the same dignity and security in their employment that professionals with comparable standing in other fields would have. But still there are questions about how sustainable the full-season employment might be in the future. The answer, for me, isn’t to cut back (though some orchestras have done that), but to find a completely new model of what an orchestra is. Which is a long discussion, to say the least.

  9. says

    Hi Greg-

    I’m happy our conversation has spun out into a new thread.

    So you know, Ani di Franco is quite possibly my favorite musician ever, past and present. The fact that she is a living musician who communicates through intimate songwriting might make me feel closer to her than say, Beethoven or Schoenberg (both artists whose work I also admire). I did not randomly pull her out of a hat.

    Thanks also for illuminating the larger economic picture. Although, I think hard figures would help clarify a lot. Even if Ani di Franco didn’t have to pay for music school (I know she studied poetry at The New School with the late Seku Sundiata, so I’m guessing she might have incurred some cost there), there are other pop musicians who studied in classical conservatories; Tori Amos, for example (the youngest student ever admitted to Peabody’s paino program; although I believe she was on scholarship until she proved too interested in other things to have it renewed: Good for us!), and also, Joanna Newsome, who, as I understand, trained classically as a composer.

    What is perhaps a larger conversation, deserving of yet another thread, is the role student loans are playing in the present musical environment, and how much our unreserved practice of assuming them will determine the future of music.

    We, as a society, have no business allowing prospective musicians to assume as much debt as some aspiring doctors and lawyers. It is simply absurd.

    The student loan is a hidden cost that really should not exist in the arts at all. This is a skeleton that is certainly beginning to be exposed.

    I cannot propose an immediate solution, but I have ideas, maybe, as I said, deserving a post of their own.



    One thing this conversation is doing for me — it makes me want to hear more Ani DiFranco. I really only know one song of hers, “You Had TIme,” which Nick Hornby talks wonderfully about in “Songbook.” (His book of comments on some of his favorite songs. I usually assign his Ani DiFranco essay, which is also about Aimee Mann, to my music criticism class at Juilliard.)

    I think the number of pop musicians with classical training — and especially serious classical training — is surely small, as a proportion of the total pop universe. Especially outside alternative precincts. Did the guys in Aerosmith or Guns ‘N Roses have classical training? Or Slayer? I don’t think so. Did Bob Dylan have it? Or so many sidemen and producers and recording engineers….

    It would definitely be helpful to have hard figures. I hope I’ll assemble some for the final version of my book.

  10. Lara Sipols says

    Could we not make the same argument about scientific researchers’ enormous cost to society? What about the cost of an athelete to a community?

    This site seems to portray Classical musicians as money-sucking babies who rely others for support of their unpopular and expensive habit. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the first place, some communities enjoy a sizeable economic benefit from Classical performances. We only need to visit some musical hot-spots to see this in action. Charleston, SC, for example, is teeming with people from all over the world during the Spoleto festival, and the city relies on this annual economic boon. Also, many symphonies perform in downtown areas that otherwise would hardly have a regular economic pulse of any kind.

    Another way in which Classical music is “useful” to a community is this: most musicians are extremely involved and personally committed to the cause of local education. One could argue, that musicians, more than many others, are paying off any societal debt in this way. Many of us donate lessons and performances to those in need.

    Lastly and (perhaps most importantly), Classical music and all art has value exactly because it is about truth, compassion and the human spirit, not greed and dollars. Isn’t it a positive thing, that some who have the most temporal possessions still value what is essential spiritual wealth of art? This above all continues to keep music alive, and thank goodness! — Lara Sipols, Professional Vioinist and Educator

    Lara, I respect the points you’re making here, and I certainly respect your passion in saying these things. But I think you’ve misunderstood my point in saying what I said.

    I’m not trying to say that classical musicians don’t deserve to have all this money spent on them. That’s a separate issue.

    What I was talking about was something else. As classical music faces financial challenges, it appears as if mainstream classical music organizations may be endangered, and at the very least may have to give fewer performances than they’ve given in the past.

    Some people — people I respect a great deal — think this wouldn’t be all that serious a problem, because the number small classical performances has been increasing greatly in the past decade. So maybe these small performances could replace some of the big ones.

    I like these smaller performances myself, but the one problem they have is that they don’t make much money, and may not be able to ensure a living for classical musicians. So that’s really my concern here. How can classical music survive financially? I stressed the cost of music education, because even the smallest, most informal, most innovative classical performance has in effect been financed by donations to the music schools where the musicians involved got their training. So if large music schools should have to cut back, that might make it impossible for some people even to learn to become professional classical musicians.

    That was my point. I wasn’t trying to say that classical music gets too much money. (Though some people _do_ in fact think that, and I’m not sure the classical music world as yet has a thorough answer for them. Thanks for offering yours!)

  11. Bruce says

    The basis for classical music has changed little in hundreds of years. It exists solely because of patronage by the wealthy. If you want to consider that a subsidy, it is the most traditional kind. Comparisons between classical music and popular music are useless because they appeal to completely different audiences who relate to the music in completely different ways. There is no accounting for taste.


    Bruce, I know that many people think the things you’re saying here, but some of it is mythical. There are many examples from classical music history of commercial success. For instance, the Metropolitan Opera made a profit — yes, a profit — on ticket sales in the 1920s. Before World War II, almost every classical music organization in America (certainly the largest orchestras) made almost all their income from ticket sales. Now, granted, some proportion of those sales (and at the Met, too) were to wealthy patrons, but still the proposition involved was commercial. The performances took place, and ticket sales largely paid for them. It’s a shock to learn, as I did over the past few years, that no major classical music institutions in America did any systematic fundraising until the 1970s. I’m not saying wealthy patrons weren’t involved before that, giving money where money was needed, but in the past 60 years or more, there’s been a long-term evolution of the funding of classical music in this country, from reliance largely on ticket sales, to reliance largely on donations.

    In the past, it’s easy to find examples of classical music as a commerical endeavor. Italian opera in the 19th century, almost entirely financed by entrepreneurial impresarios, who rented opera houses and tried to make a profit. Almost any performance by 19th century virtuosos, like Liszt or Paganini. Handel’s opera companies in London, set up as profit-making corporations. Wealthy aristocrats invested in them, it’s true, but they expected (or at least hoped) to make a profit on their investments.

    This list could be very greatly lengthened. The growth of the middle class in the 18th and 19th centuries greatly changed the economics of music, because it became possible to sell the middle-class audience all kinds of musical things — pianos, concert tickets, printed music. Brahms made his fortune selling popular piano pieces, like his Hungarian Dances.

    As for distinct audiences for pop and classical music, not so. Studies both here and in Europe has shown that the typical arts consumer (forgive the phrase) is an omnivore, paying attention to both high and popular culture. A recent European study failed to find _any_ statistically significant percentage of people who only paid attention to high culture. All my students at Juilliard and Eastman listen to pop music, and some of them never listen to classical music.

    The live concert audience is in many ways different. But then there are differences among various pop audiences as well. And among various classical audiences! The opera audience isn’t the symphony audience, the country audience isn’t the hiphop audience, you’ll almost never see anyone black at a Bruce Springsteen concert, but when Luther Vandross was alive, you’d hardly ever see anyone white in the audience when he performed. The alternative rock audience isn’t the Joni Mitchell audience. Etc., just about ad infinitum.

    Besides, if classical music is losing traction in the modern world — losing audience, even losing funding — then it needs to gather more support, and that can only come from people who currently aren’t buying classical concert tickets. They’re involved in pop music. So comparisons do start to matter — though I have to repeat what I’ve said to at least one other commenter here, namely that my comparison was designed for a strictly limitied purpose. Namely, to show why the financing of classical music meant that small classical performances might not be able to survive on their own, the way small pop performances can. I wasn’t saying this was good or bad. But I think it’s a fact. And it becomes an important fact if — as some data seems to show — funding for classical music starts to drop in the next decade or so.

  12. Paul A. Alter says

    If symphony orchestras made money in the past it was for one reason: the musicians in the orchestra subsidized the orchestra.

    Musicians worked for less than a living wage. By doing so, they made it possible for orchestras to exist.

    Who thinks we ought to revisit that paradigm?

    Paul A. Alter

    (Whose cousin committed suicide when sound films came in and the pit orchestra at the Fox Theater folded and he could no longer make a living and support his family.)

    Two points, Paul.

    First: We can’t let emotion get in the way of analyzing what’s going on. I never said that musicians shouldn’t get a living wage. The question is how that can be done. If there are difficulties, we have to see what they are, and face them.

    Second: the increase in musicians’ pay is far from the only reason orchestras can’t pay their expenses from ticket sales (or, rather, come close to paying them). The increase in pay came in the ’60s. By that time, the percentage of income from sales had already sharply declined from what it was in the 1930s. There are many reasons for the decline, but the most important one might be Baumol’s Dilemma, the economic principle that says service organizations are more expensive, over time, to run than manufacturing companies, because they don’t show gains in productivity. Orchestras have always been cited as the classic example of this principle in action. The theory predicts that orchestras will become more expensive to run, over time, than the rest of the economy, and the decline of ticket sales as a percentage of needed income would appear to confirm that.

  13. Bruce says

    Did you ever read the book The Agony of Modern Music, by Henry Pleasants? His argument, reduced to its crudest essence, is “that which sells the best IS the best.” I consider that a line only a marketing schmoe could love.

    The music which inspires me is in most cases music which has never attracted a wide audience, and it is not limited to classical music. I continue to believe that the commercial marketplace can do only so much when it comes to the arts before opportunities for musicians and audiences alike are foreclosed by claimed business necessities. Many of the musical business models are failing these days because they are based on inappropriate models themselves (like a great deal of our economy, which is no longer dominated by farms or factories but you would never know it!).

    Popular music appeals as it does because of an identity process–I don’t really identify with classical composers in the same way I think popular music fans do with their favorites artists. I’m a university trained musician and composer-aspirant who has essentially never “worked” in the field, and probably never will. I hold no animosity whatsoever toward those who do, but I believe it will continue to be a very specialized ‘market’ until some of the national trends in places like Finland and, yes, Venezuela, begin to expand peoples’ tastes beyond the immediately accessible popular music. Which begs the question, are there such things as “unpopular music” or “unclassical music”? I, personally, am not in search of an audience, and I don’t wish to have my musical experiences heavily shaped by the “need” to appeal to an audience consistently, I just want more knowledge and experience as a musician.

    Even your example of Brahms fails to take into account his drive to compose in older, outdated musical forms in a more absolutist approach that was clearly important to him and brought him criticism during his own time. His ability to write more “market-friendly” pieces like the Hungarian Dances is similar to, for example, what used to happen in the 1960s and 1970s in the heyday of Columbia Records, when big-selling pop artists essentially capitalized more experimental and lower-selling musical artists.

    But that model is now gone, apparently, and we are told we must combine many different musical genres in one concert in order to attract a wider audience. Hmmm…I don’t think I’d find a mix of Marley and Mozart very appealing, particularly if I’m shelling out for the tickets. No offense to Mozart. :)

    So-called “classical” music developed from European folk music, but at some point became much more involved than that, the result of experimentation and daring by Vivaldi, Berlioz, Brahms, and a slew of others. I still believe it has always been a “calling,” whether one is a performer or composer. It’s beyond the appeal of popular music at this point, and some of what we’re lead to believe is “modern classical music” (a contradiction in terms)

    is even beyond all but the most academic audiences.

    Sorry for my rambling rant, but I really think that the commercial market for ANYTHING is ultimately limited, regardless of what Wall Street says. That’s why I prefer libraries to bookstores–more selection!


    Henry Pleasants — a book that’s by now around 50 years old, more or less. I think we need more modern references. A lot has changed in the past few decades, as you yourself say.

    Unpopular music? A lot of what’s classified as “pop music” today is unpopular, in the sense that it doesn’t sell very well. No serious person in the pop world would be surprised by much of what you say, except of course by the way you leave pop out of your commercial/noncommercial dichotomy. A lot of pop these days is noncommercial. The sooner the classical music world realizes that — and stops imagining that classical music is the only noncommercial art music around — the better.

    How many times will I and others have to say that, before the classical music world catches on? (Of course, younger musicians already know this.)

    And if you don’t want to hear a concert with Bob Marley and Mozart, fine. Don’t go. (Not that I’ve ever heard of such a thing.) But — a simple fact, here — there are many people who do want programs of at least certain kinds of classical and pop music combined on a program. There are enough of these people to make these programs a great success in both London and New York, and very likely elsewhere. So it might be best not to let your own taste lead you to prescribe things for the rest of the world. That’s good advice for everyone, of course, including me.

  14. says


    Well, my friend isn’t actually wealthy though he does a lot of suppport for the arts. His position is really one of asking himself WHY he supports symphonic music? That of course brings up questions about validity of programming, age of audience, cost of production versus income from tickets, etc. etc. The sheer expense of classical music does make the concert hall experience unattainable to many. I myself have to ask as a donor about the validity of supporting an art form that is primarily enjoyed by the elite few, when I could be supporting something else that serves more people and keeps the art form alive and growing.

    Buyt what is that something else? I completely and wholeheartedly agree with the perspective(and my friend would too) that it is time for a new model. And it is exciting to see it emerge in offerings such as those of the Brooklyn College of Music, and the concerts you mentioned in New York with indie music played alongside more standard (?) classical compositions. It has not, however, arrived in the OC yet to my knowledge, though it might be more welcoome than some would believe!

  15. Paul Al Alter says

    I am aware that the situation is different now. The question was “how did orchestras survive in the past” and my answer was that they were subsidized by the musicians — that was then, this is now, and things are a lot different.

    Take the orchestra that I know the most about — the St. Louis SO.

    Into the mid-1900s, it was an 80 piece group.

    Musicians got about $1500/season — that’s for a year’s work. What would that be in today’s dollars — $15,000 to $30,000?

    There were no assistant conductors; the concertmaster was responsible for conducting when Golschmann couldn’t.

    There was no manager listed; that job was taken care of by a guy whose main job was booking other events into town.

    There was only one full-time percussionist (apart from the tympanist). When more were required, men from the second violin section would move into the battery, which left the already barely nourished string section even smaller.

    The orchestra gave its concerts in the Opera House of the Keil (ne. St. Louis Municipal) Auditorium, a pretty hall, with comfortable seating, and lousy acoustic. To make matters worse, on the other side of the back wall of the opera house stage was a sports arena, and musicians (and, sometimes, the audience) could hear the crowd noises from sports events.

    Later, the hall decided that the orchestra could no longer rehearse in the opera house, so it rehearsed in one of the meeting halls and played the concert in the opera house, making on-the-fly acoustic adjustments as it played.

    Every year, Golshmann had to go to New York to find new players. He recruited people such as the first trumpet from the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra, a female trombone player who was the first woman to play brass in a major orchestra, a woman oboe, and the whole clarinet section of a Mexican mariachi orchestra that was touring through St. Louis. Then, at the end of the season, about 10% of the orchestra would move on (there was a terrible drain of first oboe players), and Golschmann had to go fishing again.

    It took some three to four concerts at the beginning of the season for the orchestra to cohere and reach concert pitch. So, the idea of programming the Beethoven ninth at the opening concert — as many orchestras do today — was out of the question.

    Rather than driving people away, the uncertainty kept people interested; we wanted to know how the orchestra would do this concert. Hey, would it really get through the concert?

    And, it did. Week after week, they concerts were worth attending and, sometimes, they were sheer magic.

    But we could afford to take that chance, because the ticket’s started at less than two bucks per — about what you’d pay for a first-run movie on Saturday night. It was cheaper to go to the concert than it was to buy the equivalent recordings.

    Orchestras tended to be threadbare operations in those days. It worked, but I don’t want to go back.

    Oh, and I don’t intend my previous posting to be emotional. I only presented the facts as I saw them. Even my mention of Cousin Harry Brandt’s suicide was factual rather than emotional, showing that a career as a musician has always tended to be tough. In my lifetime, we’ve lost movie-theater/vaudeville orchs, radio orchs, TV orchs, hotel orchs, restauranant ensembles, movie studio orchs, dance bands, non-musical-theater orchs, musical comedy pit orchs, etc, etc, etc.


    Thanks, Paul. Very interesting.

  16. says

    Getting back to music schools for a moment, I’ve come to loathe the word “training.” It reeks of indoctrination and automation, which is (surprise) what sometimes happens to students who enroll in such programs. Musicians don’t need “training;” they need to read, listen, and practice. I went to music school, and I’d be lying if I said the theory and musicology requirements had no effect on me whatsoever, but the longer I’m away from that environment, the more I realize that I’m doing a better job of teaching myself than they did of teaching me. It takes something to get the ball rolling, but even just 4 (well, uh… 5 actually) years of undergrad was too much. I spent the second half of those 5 years itching to get out of music school so that I could get to work on what really mattered to me. The lessons, on the other hand, I think were worth it, but in a decent sized city with a half-decent scene, lessons of comparable quality can often be had for a fraction of the price (my college tuba lessons, wonderful as they were, cost over $100 each, and only part of that went to the teacher, obviously). There are too many things that I found galling about music to list here, but on top of all of that, the lack of self-directedness among the general student body was pretty depressing. I don’t know that there’s anything we can do about that…just thought I’d report my experience. I come from an academic and musical family, and would never say that musical training has no place in academia. I do believe, however, that what we have is in desperate need of reform.

    One last thing. Somewhere above, I read this:
    Classical music and all art has value exactly because it is about truth, compassion and the human spirit
    I seem read a line very similar to this every single time I sit down to read something online; can someone please explain to me what the hell it means?

    I’ll take a shot at that.

    What people mean, I think, when they say such things is that classical music and other forms of high art have these values, but also — and this is the crucial point — that popular culture doesn’t have them. Thus classical music and other forms of high art are crucial in our society. The statement, in other words, is really about popular culture, and not so much about the arts.