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How much do we pay string quartets?

In the current issue of The Strad, I lift the lid on the finances of chamber music and expose a gruesome statistic: never have we had so many great string quartets surviving on less.

To find out how poor the fees have become, you’ll have to buy a copy of the magazine. But what amazes me is that this particular form of making music is flying in the face of economic truth. Money, or the lack of it, is not an incentive when it comes to playing string quartets. Here’s my take:

Two decades ago, with the chamber music circuit collapsing, quartet players came huddling for work in orchestras. Today, orchestral players form their own quartets, regardless of where they play and how little it will pay. There seems to be some primal urge at work, some connective aspiration.

I have some ideas and plenty of example, but I wonder what you make of this anomaly. I know plenty of agents who refuse to take on string quartets, saying there’s no money in it, and one in particular who only takes on quartets – for the sheer belief in it. I know plenty of young musicians who turn down $100,000 jobs in orchestras and go off into the wilds to play Intimate Letters on a wing and a prayer. Why would they do that?

 

All experiences and insights gratefully received.

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Comments

  1. Being in a quartet is a way of life – a calling, a vocation – even an obsession. I manage one of the UK’s top quartets and they are doing less work now than they were a year and two years ago. They are also accepting lower fees than they were two years ago. This is due to the Olympics fiasco and the recession, now being made even worse by swingeing government cuts. The very fabric of chamber-music in the UK is under threat as small promoters go to the wall and those that are left are forced to use more and more cheap ensembles fresh out of college.
    I only manage ensembles – because it’s what I love and know and I wanted to create a niche for myself. I won’t take more than one of any kind of ensemble (therefore, only one string quartet), to avoid conflicts of interest. No, there’s no money in it, it’s true. A top quartet in the UK can (if they’re lucky) command a fee of £2,500-3,000, but few can afford that in reality and £1,500-2,00 is more like it. When one takes into account the amount of rehearsal and travel most quartets do, this isn’t exactly a generous fee and most quartet players have to supplement their incomes with teaching, playing in other ensembles, etc.
    String quartet musicians do what they do because they LOVE it; none of them will ever become rich!

  2. I think the reason is artistic autonomy. A study that addressed job satisfaction that was conducted by Harvard researchers in the recent past concluded that orchestral musicians, even with six-figure salaries, are disgruntled by and large simply because they have minimal input into artistic decision making. On the other hand, they found that embers of string quartets earning on average about 40% of this love their work, largely because of the satisfaction of having true artistic ownership. It’s no wonder that most orchestral players love chamber music and will do it for a pittance.

  3. Paul Rapoport says:

    Arnold Steinhardt has a good look at this from when he formed the Guarneri Quartet in 1964 (in his book Indivisible by Four). Obviously there are many quartets whose members do something else to keep going, such as teaching. It’s an old model, especially for composers in North America.

  4. James Lambert says:

    I suspect that quartet playing is so persistent because the music is some of the greatest ever written. To be in close contact with such beauty and greatness is probably worth the economic sacrifice for many – for a while at least!

  5. Anders Lindgren says:

    Scary. We earned the same fees as a quite unknown Swedish string quartet, but that was 25 years ago!
    What we really should mourn, however, is the disappearence of the skilled amateur musician, the life and blood of the music life in all provincial cities. It used to be part of a good education and as a result every other doctor, dentist, or anybody with an academic degree used to play in a lttle chamber group. I grew up playing string quartets with a doctor and two of my teachers, and there was a symphony orchestra taking on just about the whole repertory. In Östersund, 600 kilometers north of Stockholm.
    Important fact: playing chamber music makes you a better orchestral musician, it’s about projection and knowing what goes where.

  6. Ken Keuffel says:

    I’m sure the Strad article in question exposes some sobering realities. Is every music student out there aware of them? I wonder, particularly when I hear talk of pursuing chamber music as a viable career option. It is not. It is at best one of several things an artist can do to make a living, such as teaching, playing in an orchestra or doing something with flexible hours that is totally unrelated to music.

  7. Brant Taylor says:

    When I left music school, it was to play in a professional string quartet, and I did that for 5 years. Now I play in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
    Playing string quartets has always been my first love, and I once embodied the answer to the question about why a young musician would turn down a top-level orchestra job to go play Janacek: I was young. Most of the fresh-faced folks forming the newest string quartets on the scene are at the perfect time in their lives to sacrifice much for their calling. Young people can likely live on very little money, they are healthy, and they likely have no spouse or children and few significant financial obligations.
    Life changes. Priorities change. At a certain point, people tend to desire certain things. A stable income. Health insurance. Paid maternity leave. A great city to live in. Not being on the road for weeks at a time while your family is at home.
    Some quartets find great residencies and essentially have the best of both worlds, but those positions are very few. Mine had to decide between (1) a small town residency/teaching position which allowed little time to pursue outside concerts, or (2) traveling constantly to play any concert that would make us a little money or help us meet someone who would.
    Make no mistake — a great string quartet with four wonderful, matched players who all get along successfully is a really rare and wonderful thing. The art form should be encouraged and supported far more than the current reality reflects. As someone who has done both quartet and orchestral playing full-time, I must state that both choices have their glories and drawbacks. Being in a quartet is not exactly an oasis in the middle of a pile of disgruntled orchestra musicians. Quartets are hardly immune to discord, frustration, ill will, lack of respect, and poverty. Further, many of my colleagues in the orchestra world would change very little about their artistic lives. The stereotype identified in the Harvard study is of the orchestra player who depends on their orchestra to be the entirety of their artistic happiness, and this is where this person goes horribly wrong. I don’t know too many under-40 orchestra players who fit that stereotype. We’re too busy supplementing orchestra life with teaching, playing string quartets, writing about music, and generally trying to be well-rounded artists.

  8. As a jazz musician with classical training (my teacher studied with both Oscar Peterson and David Saperton) I have to chuckle wistfully at this post.
    We in jazz have been following the “primal urge” and “connective aspiration” aspiration for years. I, and many of my colleagues, have so subordinated our material consciousness to the inner imperative of music, that we are inured to the the wants we endure, and the privations we know. The situation differs little for many of my classical colleagues.
    Add to this the ever-expanding (a) undervaluation of musicians’ work, and (b) supply of high quality musicians- and the explanation is complete.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Have you ever played in an orchestra, Norman? If you have, you know that most conductors are incompetent. By most, I mean well above 90%. Conducting is my work — I know what I’m talking about. Playing day after day under incompetent musicians means being forced to produce sub-par music-making. For a performer, producing sub-par work is demoralizing. I have had experiences of feeling physically unwell when producing sub-par work.
    For a well-trained musician interested in first-rate music-making, $100k for sitting in a noise factory under the management of a clown vs. $40k for a shot at producing a high-quality product that you will be almost directly accountable for is a real choice demanding serious consideration.

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