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 Reverting to the CD model — just for clarity, though it’s speedily getting out of date — suppose somebody makes $10 for each CD sale.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.)