Portent

Here’s a news item with — as I’ll hardly have to stress — great importance for the future of classical music. Work for New York freelance classical musicians is drying up. 

This was a major story in the New York Times, early this month. And, believe me, it was dire. I remember the New York freelance classical music scene in past decades, and knew many musicians who made a living from it. Not always the easiest living, but you could get by, and maybe even do well. 

And now, to quote the Times story:

[N]ight after night highly trained players traipse from Washington Heights or the Upper West Side or northern New Jersey or Long Island to play church jobs and weddings, Lincoln Center and Broadway summer festivals and fill-in jobs at the Met and the Philharmonic. They occupy the ranks of a dozen freelance orchestras, put the music in Broadway musicals and provide soundtracks — or at least they used to — for Hollywood and Madison Avenue. They form the bedrock of musical life in a great cultural capital.
It was a good living. But the New York freelance musician — a bright thread in the fabric of the city — is dying out. In an age of sampling, digitization and outsourcing, New York’s soundtrack and advertising-jingle recording industry has essentially collapsed. Broadway jobs are in decline. Dance companies rely increasingly on recorded music. And many freelance orchestras, among the last steady deals, are cutting back on their seasons, sometimes to nothingness.

Plus this, from a leader among these freelancers:

Our community is under a lot of pressure. Our jobs are melting away. We have a lot of people who are right on the edge.

So this is serious. (And, a isn’t always the case, the full story is more sobering than the quotes I’ve taken from it.) You could blame the recession, but the musicians apparently don’t. According to the story, they blame the “classical music recession” — the decline in interest in classical music, which leads to fewer performances, and therefore fewer jobs. 

This isn’t a change in the weather. This is climate change. I’ve talked a lot with people at music schools, who’ve started to emphasize entrepreneurship (see, for instance, the new program at New England Conservatory). The reason for the emphasis is that the old ways of making careers don’t work anymore. This New York story underlines — in bright red — how true this is. 

(Shortly I’ll cite another news story, one that (as it was reported in the press) was clothed in bright, furry optimism, but which also — once you understand what’s going on — sounds a sobering note.)http://necmusic.edu/entrepreneurship

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Comments

  1. Alex says

    “According to the story, they blame the “classical music recession” — the decline in interest in classical music, which leads to fewer performances, and therefore fewer jobs.”

    I think that while the seriousness of the situation is real, this is not only a misdiagnosis but also probably factually incorrect.

    Until I see real numbers that show otherwise, I will maintain that in absolute terms, there are more people interested in classical music than ever before; there are more performances of classical music than ever before; and there are thus more “jobs” for classical musicians than ever before.

    What’s wrong? Most obviously, there are also disproportionately more classical musicians than ever before many of whom change careers in order to support themselves while continuing to perform. Classical music has less importance among elites than it used to, reducing government support as well as social pressure to donate to classical organizations. Cultural fragmentation has reduced the presence of any ‘cultural mainstream,’ and what remains of that mainstream doesn’t focus on classical music.

    But most importantly, globalization and technological innovation have completely changed the economics of just about every industry, completely leaving in the dust those industries that were organized around high production costs that created barriers to entry that technological innovation has largely eliminated.

    The situation is just as dire for journalism, publishing, manufacturing, and the recording industry (for rock, pop, hip-hop, and jazz as WELL as classical), as well as drama and most of the “fine arts.” If rock/pop/hip-hop/jazz musicians were used to the same job security and wage levels as classical musicians, they would be feeling a similar “collapse.” The film industry is about to feel the same forces just as strongly.

    It’s really important to keep this in perspective because it’s a very different thing to note that the economics have changed than to say that interest is declining. Just within classical music, every classical performance today competes not only with the other performances in town (of which there are probably more than ever before) but with virtually every recording ever made (accessible instantly through iTunes, Naxos, and many for FREE on youtube or grooveshark), as well as with simulcasts of live performances of the Metropolitan Opera and the Berlin Philharmonic.

    This doesn’t even include the option of a potential concertgoer/classical music lover watching instead one of the tens of thousands of films and tv shows available on hulu and netflix, playing videogames, reading millions of books and magazines, watching youtube bloopers, writing self-righteous responses to blogposts, etc. None of these options existed when the current union-based classical music career system emerged in the U.S. in the 1940s and 50s (which, in the history of classical music, is very recent).

    And yet, people are watching and listening: Ivo Pogorelich’s recording of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” has been viewed 12.5 million times on youtube. That’s fifty times the entire population of Vienna in 1800. As an example of a work outside of the Classical Top 100, an excerpt of Mitsuko Uchida’s performance of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto has been viewed nearly 200,000 times. And keep in mind that most of today’s classical concertgoers are in a demographic that probably doesn’t go on youtube much.

    All of this is a way of saying that responding to a massive global socio-economic change by running around claiming no one listens to classical music anymore because concerts are stuffy and suggesting that the solution is adding tweet screens, DJs, better marketing, and playing more alt-classical misidentifies both the problem and its proposed remedies.

    It’s not as bad as record companies suing their customers, but it may similarly do little more than alienate the existing audience.

  2. says

    In the 70’s and early 80’s I was one of those freelancers – a violist with the American Symphony Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic…and on down the list. Your description “Not always the easiest living, but you could get by” is right on the money – all puns intended. I basically felt like a subway rat, racing from one gig to another, but I truly loved it. When I turned my attention to conducting, I found myself leading the very same musicians with whom I’d been freelancing – not the easiest transition. But here I am, 30 years after the move to the other side of the podium, looking out upon the ashes of what was.

    I know I’m rehashing known material here…subsidized art performance by ensembles and art exhibition by museums is totally reliant on “gap-fillers”. These wealthy, truly amazing individuals contribute the 50%-80% difference in the actual cost of operating symphony orchestras after subtracting admission fees and other so-called “earned income”. And it all works if there is a critical mass of such individuals in your location desirous to support your orchestra. But think about it…in Chicago, where it’s working, somewhere in the range of 50% to 80% of $60 million dollars must be contributed ANNUALLY by the “gap-fillers”. It takes your breath away!

    What has changed?

    Enter the Great Recession…and is it really subsiding? Recessions always make life difficult for non-profits. But, as you noted, the freelancers made reference to the “classical music recession.” What is it? According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, giving in general is down – no surprise in recessionary times. But WHERE are those available donated dollars headed? Do the “Vanderbilt” great grand children in your town think there should be a professional symphony orchestra? Same question must be asked of newly wealthy entrepreneurs in your area.

    If you’re living in Chicago, the answer – for the present – appears to be a resounding “Yes!” The CSO is operating in the black. But deficits plague Philadelphia, Milwaukee, New York, even the MET, and a host of smaller budget orchestras nationwide. If you live in Louisville, Charleston or Detroit the jury appears to be still out, leaning sharply downhill. But if you’re a resident of Honolulu or Morristown, NJ, home to what was the 62 year old freelance Colonial Symphony, your orchestra has slipped beneath the waves like the battleships at Pearl, probably not to re-surface. Massive subsidy is not only required for the ensembles – but also for the venues that present them like Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center and Newark’s NJPAC. Is there a sea change, pardon all the puns, occurring in philanthropic currents? We’ll find out.

    I have not even touched on the issue of demand for live classical music concerts. The stats in the most recent NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts are certainly not encouraging regarding audiences. It would be wonderful if we could bump up the percentage of Americans who take pleasure in listening to classical music. But this is a topic for another conversation and the primary concern of The Discovery Orchestra.

  3. Phillip says

    re Alex’s comment: he makes some very cogent points, but I would add that we are also probably in the middle of a particular overlap between the oversupply of highly skilled/highly trained classical musicians and the high numbers of people interested in classical music that he refers to. As he points out, the economics have changed—but more importantly, they are in the middle of changing even more profoundly.

    The reason is that it’s not a sustainable model for so many practitioners of classical music to exist while not able to really make a living at it. The time requirement for being a really high-level classical musician is so demanding that one cannot maintain that while pursuing another career as a means to live. (Not to say that you can’t be a fine, fine musician—just very unlikely to be professional-level).

    And so while this wide interest in classical music that Alex mentions may continue to exist, it will be interesting to see if the number of recordings made or performances produced will be able to keep up with that demand, as there will simply be fewer such musicians able to supply that particular product. In this country at least. It’s certainly possible that other societies, China in particular, will pick up the slack, producing the lion’s share of the next generation or two of great classical musicians.

    Hmmm — “wide interest in classical music.”

    Where, exactly, is that to be found? It’s all very well to talk about statistical aggregates, how many people buy tickets to classical concerts now as opposed to how many might have bought them decades ago Of course we see an expansion, proportionate, at least vaguely, to the rise in population and the rise in the number of classical music performances, which in turn can be traced at least in part to rising prosperity.

    But wide interest? In the 1940s, when NBC so famously started an orchestra for Toscanini, and broadcast its concerts commercially, then you could say there was wide interest.

    Or two or three decades earlier, when teenage girls screamed for Geraldine Farrar’s Met Opera performances. Or even in the early ’60s, when Life, the most popular magazine in the US, commissioned a piano piece from Copland, and printed it for their readers to play. And major-label classical recordings sold many more copies than they do now, in absolute numbers, even with a smaller population.

    These days, if I go to a dinner party with people who don’t happen to be classical music fans, nobody can talk about classical music, because they simply don’t know much about it. These would be educated, cultured people, some of them artists in other fields. “Wide interest in classical music”? In my direct experience, it’s dropped off the map. When I was in college in the early ’60s, any student with a serious interest in music had classical recordings. No longer.

    And when classical music professionals in their forties talk about their friends, it’s not uncommon to find that, outside the profession, they don’t know anyone their age who goes to classical concerts. Or, if they think back to their college days, none of their college friends had or has any classical music interest.

    Statistics can be very tricky. But I’m grateful for this discussion, because, as so often happens, it helps me hone the points I need to make. And I respect the passion, and (if I may say so) the hope that people who disagree with me express. Alex, Philip — warmest holiday wishes to you.

  4. says

    Greg,

    I’m with you – from my viewpoint in the trenches – the demand has been falling off a cliff.

    Your comment:

    “These days, if I go to a dinner party with people who don’t happen to be classical music fans, nobody can talk about classical music, because they simply don’t know much about it. These would be educated, cultured people, some of them artists in other fields. “Wide interest in classical music”? In my direct experience, it’s dropped off the map. When I was in college in the early ’60s, any student with a serious interest in music had classical recordings. No longer.

    And when classical music professionals in their forties talk about their friends, it’s not uncommon to find that, outside the profession, they don’t know anyone their age who goes to classical concerts. Or, if they think back to their college days, none of their college friends had or has any classical music interest.”

    THAT says it all.

    So the question is – is there anything we can do to stimulate, facilitate the development of more (numbers-wise) passionate music listeners, right here in our own American society? At The Discovery Orchestra we’re giving it our best shot.

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