The crisis, viewed from Amsterdam

There’s something lovely about visiting another country, and not feeling entirely like a stranger. Here in Amsterdam I met people who read this blog, and ran into an American cellist who took one of my Juilliard courses and now plays in the Rubens Quartet (based here). And someone even came up to me with fond memories of one of the concerts I used to host with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

That’s apart from the warmth of my hosts at the Netherlands Music Center, and the truly gratifying interest from so many people in what I had to say, whether they’d read my ideas before or were encountering them for the first time. To everyone I talked to personally, and to those who listened to me speak, my warmest thanks.

It was clear, I should add, that classical music in Holland seems to be under a cloud. Certainly that’s the sense I got from everyone here. In part that’s because of a government plan to eliminate subsidies for three CHECK orchestras, a plan which — as I’d read at home before leaving — led to protests in The Hague.

People in The Hague I talked to were quite upset. I could imagine them protesting. In Amsterdam people seemed more nuanced, though maybe this was just the luck of the draw — just the views, by pure chance, that I heard from whoever I happened to talk to.  

What they said was that the government is weak, and might fall before making the cuts; that there are too many orchestras in Holland (too many, that is, for the shrinking audience that comes to hear them); and that the cuts might serve as a wakeup call for the orchestras that aren’t affected, because — looking beyond government subsidies — they, too, face declining support.

I asked the people I met in The Hague if there are too many orchestras, and they said yes, but these were the wrong ones to cut. The cuts should have been made with more thought.

I can’t take a stand on this, because I don’t begin to know enough. But you can see that even beyond these protested cuts, people think there’s a crisis. One part of it comes from falling ticket sales  

And someone who until recently was an artist manager gave me a view of what falling ticket sales mean. His top artists, the ones making the highest fees, had begun to be offered second tier fees. The second-tier artists were getting third tier fees, and so on down to the bottom, where the lowest paid artists weren’t offered fees at all. They were asked to play for a share of the ticket receipts. 

(Added later: This former manager said that fees were still high in France and Germany. But elsewhere in Europe they’d fallen as he described.)

Next: what I did on my visit. (And apologies, because I’d hoped to blog more while I’ve been here. There’s lots to report. But my time and energy had to go elsewhere. I’m back tomorrow,and you’ll see more blogging.)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    There’s an important sense here in which classical music is shifting into economic models more akin to the popular music scene: live music in pop is driven primarily by amateurs, i.e. people who aren’t making a living playing music. Sure, the famous musicians make a fortune playing live, but most of the live rock being performed on any given night is happening in bars and small clubs where the performers get a cut of the door and then show up bleary-eyed at their day jobs the next morning. For most bands, going on tour means taking vacation from work, staying with friends and family and crashing on the couches of generous fans, and hoping to break even.

    I certainly believe that classical music is in crisis, but the idea that the bottom tier of performers is working for a cut of the ticket sales isn’t evidence of crisis so much as an evening out. That’s not to say that having such an amateur-heavy system is a good thing, but if it’s a problem it’s a music industry wide problem.

    I’d even think of it as an opportunity. A chance, just as you’ve said, to rebuild the classical music market from the ground up. Right now there’s very little sign of this happening — the groups that play in clubs don’t think of that as a way to make a living, or even as a step on the road to making a living.

    Of course, since classical music has enjoyed such a special and well-funded status, being put on the level of other musics is a shock and a crisis!