2014 was the year in which the real world finally caught up with Classical Music. As the New Year dawns, we find ourselves all deep in the belly of a whale that looks a lot like society-at-large
In earlier blog posts this year, we looked at how the classical music world has been lulled into adopting the mind-set and business practices of junk culture, and we’ve looked at how changes in the social media landscape have made it harder to disseminate new ideas and new music.
For most of us, the expression “the one percent” first became part of our national dialogue during the Occupy movement a few years ago (remember how that one changed the world?). I suppose there has always been an element of one-percent-ish-ness in classical music because of its elite and competitive nature. Every time someone wins a major orchestra job in the USA, we’re reminded that “over a hundred violinists from top music schools and orchestras across the country came together to audition for this single position.” Classical music has always had a complex relationship with the “real” one-percent crowd, who are often among our most influential funders. The arts can offer the very rich a chance to really contribute to the welfare of society at large- for instance, the Oregon East Symphony was occasionally supported by the Paul Allen (he of Microsoft fame) Foundation. Big money foundation supports small town orchestra doing good work for the win! On the other hand, tobacco and petroleum companies have long used philanthropy to try to whitewash public perceptions of their business practices. More recently, we’ve seen labor negotiations in Philadelphia, Minnesota and other major orchestras in which the power to give transformative sums was used as a bargaining tool by board members to extract painful concessions from the musicians, sometimes at significant artistic expense. Sometimes a symbolic gift proves to be a rather empty gesture- such as the renovation of New York State Theatre which left the New York City Opera homeless long enough that the company never recovered. There was money for naming rights of a building, but not for the art to fill it and bring it to life.
I believe the last few years have brought us a new, more pernicious kind of one-percentism in classical music. A one-percentism that’s far more about internal economics than artistic competition or fund-raising from external sources. It should surprise nobody that our story as an industry has mirrored that of our larger society. During this economic downturn, small and medium-sized business and artistic institutions were first to falter and last to recover, and that the modest recovery in the arts has seen most benefit flow to our own one-percent crowd.
For instance- the post-2008 economic downturn caused a significant contraction in the field of artist management (spoiler alert- this blogpost is not a rant about managers). Without casting aspersions, one might well describe artist management companies as the bankers of the arts world- they don’t make music, sell tickets or put on concerts, any more than a bank builds or sells cars. Like banks, they facilitate the business of others by being gatekeepers, connectors and transaction managers. They’ve historically been in the business of connecting talent with opportunity. Like banks, they also are the largely spared the risks, both financial and artistic, felt by their clients: artists and organizations.
However, since 2008, artist management companies have reportedly seen a sharp downturn in revenue. Many companies have folded, shrunk or wound up, while others have had to make difficult changes. Anecdotal reports from across an industry that takes secrecy seriously indicate that major changes have taken place that have serious implications for everyone in the industry, including our audiences.
What hasn’t changed since 2008 is that top artist management companies still hold a virtual monopoly on who gets booked at elite orchestras, festivals and opera companies. Unless you are Lorin Maazel or Kurt Masur (both of whom famously looked after their own business affairs), self-management will only get you so far in this business. More and more artists- not just newbies, but established and respected pros with a proven track record- struggle to find management that open doors for them with top presenters. Why?
Again and again, I hear reports from across the US and Europe that management companies are focusing 99.9% of their energy on promoting 0.1% of artists. Rosters at the big firms are reportedly getting smaller, and a shrinking number of superstar artists are now doing a huge amount of work. The impact of this has been most keenly felt among singers, where the dangers of overwork are most apparent.
Top level singers these days report singing not only an insane number of performances per year, but doing so in a crazed range of Fachs (voice types). Again and again, I hear of singers being pressured into roles for which they are ill-suited, and having to sing them while fatigued or ill, or risk losing representation. They’re certainly singing scared. Artists dare not take time off for injury or illness. One singer I spoke to recently said “I know I’m shortening my career, but the choice between a shortened career and no career is not really a choice.” Management companies, whose attitude to risk is in some ways similar to bankers (“never play games with your own money if you can avoid it”) are said to be bringing in more retainers and fees, and one major company is said to be considering a system whereby if an artist does not meet their annual minimum in commissions, they owe the management company the balance. I’ve not yet been able to confirm the truth of it, but it does seem of a piece with the larger trends. Finance long ago saw a shift from working on commission to working on fee + commission, and I think the same thing is happening in music.
The upshot for audiences is that more and more, one hears superstar singers singing the wrong roles. It makes the singer look bad and gives an incomplete picture of the music. We’re literally wearing out our stars, shrinking our repertoire and skipping most of a generation of performers. We miss out on great Siegfried’s and Wotan’s because those roles are being sung by Pinkerton’s and Escamillo’s.
However, it’s not fair to place all the blame on artist management companies. Historically, many agents have made huge, long-term strategic investment in developing artists. The post 2008 economic troubles have meant they have far fewer resources to invest in building new artists, and the shifting of risk to the musicians is surely an indicator of the existential pressures they’re feeling. Twenty years ago, an agency might use revenue from say the top 5% of their clients, the upper class, of artists to subsidize the development of more “middle class” artists. Now, they have income from only the top 1%, barely enough to keep the lights on. Investment in the middle class, or even the rest of the old top 5% is just not there. It’s no longer enough to be a star, just as being a millionaire in New York won’t get you very far in the property market. Stars are falling off the books of management companies left and right- the age of the one-percent, the age of the billionaire is also the age of the superstar.
One solution might be for major orchestras, festivals and opera companies to become less dependent on artist managers and agents. Self-management has already transformed much of the music world. Twenty years ago, nobody outside of academia really dealt directly with artists- even regional and community orchestras dealt mainly with management companies, and big management companies were actively engaged with small venues. Community Concerts, once the bastion of great music in small towns, was originally a project of CAMI. Nowadays, the national umbrella organization that ran Community Concerts is gone, and the infrastructure built in collaboration with CAMI lives on in small towns across the country where local societies now deal direct with artists. (The value of companies like CAMI can be seen in the huge falloff in quality at many of these series, which focus more on novelty acts and pop).
However, as non- “A” orchestras have started dealing direct with artists, fees have fallen (one wise agent said to me that “no artist should ever have to negotiate his or her own fee”). Artists miss the support of professional advocates in the negotiation process, but, frankly, there’s just a lot less money around at D, E, F or G orchestras. There’s not even much spare cash to be found at B orchestras. Artists may now be able to engage directly with decision makers in smaller organizations, but those decision makers have far less flexibility to spend on artistic product than they did a few years back. The same shift of prosperity we’ve seen among artists has been mirrored among institutions- we’ve lost much of the musical middle class.
However, it’s not fair to place all the blame on artist management companies, festivals, opera companies and orchestras. Orchestras, festivals and opera companies these days need cash like never before. Cash follows audience, and audience follow superstars. Mere stars are no longer enough to sell tickets. In the end, that B orchestra now speaking directly to that self-managed pianist isn’t going to pay them enough to do much more than cover their costs. However, they might drop $100k on a gala with a superstar in hope that it pulls in enough revenue and audience interest to subsidize the rest of the year. A concert series in my home town this year recently brought on a spirited debate about fees when they reportedly paid a great musician nearly $100,000 for a recital. That’s enough to run a decent community orchestra for a year. Does it make sense? Well, it does if that musician can fill the hall- if they’re the only superstar who can get 1200 people in that market to come out for a recital any more. Even the next most famous cellist in the country would probably have only sold 200 seats. The presenter who books a one-percent superstar knows they’re likely to break even. Booking a two-percenter, for one twentieth the fee, would probably still lose money, even if the concert with a less famous player was musically superior (I’m not saying it would or wouldn’t be).
Most parents have dealt with at least one child who was a picky eater. It’s frustrating enough when your dear one only eats pizza, pasta and chicken, but what really hurts is when they then announce that chicken is off the list. Audiences that would have once come out for any of the top 10 violinists in the world will have been dumping mere stars like five-year-olds dump chicken. The same thing is happening with repertoire. There was a time at orchestras when subscription sales were so strong you could mostly play what you wanted- if someone wanted to come to hear a marquee programme, they had to subscribe. I still remember the woman in the box office laughing and laughing when I called the Chicago Symphony to ask if I could buy a ticket to see Kubelik conduct Mahler there in his later years. It had sold out completely on subscription even before the season was announced. One or two marquee events drove subscriptions in which you could program some pretty adventurous stuff. Gradually, it has become less about “the concert that sells the series” and more about “the piece that sells the program.” More to the point, the list of pieces that sell has withered. Just as the 7th most famous pianist in the world will no longer do for most listeners, neither will the fourth most popular Beethoven symphony, or the second most beloved Mozart concerto. Imagine that five-year-old telling you pasta is also off the “will eat” list along with chicken, and you’ll know how the conductor feels when his marketing director tells him “I’m sorry, but Brahms just isn’t good for box office these days. You need a more popular piece on this concert.” Is the message for concert planners in the 20th c. that we have to treat our audience like five-year-olds? Has the junk culture mentality and the star system so permeated our musical world that our diet will soon literally be limited to musical French fries and soda?
However, it’s not fair to place all the blame on artist management companies, festivals, opera companies, orchestras and audience members.
One-percentism is an economic construct, and as one, it’s highly inefficient. Look in the “real world.” A one-percent company like Wal-Mart makes a huge, huge, huge amount of money in small towns- towns that are poorly served by its presence. In places like Pendleton, where I worked happily for many years, one-percent companies drive local businesses of all kinds out of business. Wages go down, quality of goods sold goes down, customer service goes down and investment in the community goes way, way down. A small town orchestra or Community Concerts series used to be able to count on the annual support of all the local businesses- the local bank, hardware store, sporting goods store and department store. Where capitalism once sustained culture, one-percentism guts it. In most small towns, all of those businesses have been taken over by national chains and mega companies that give little, if anything, back to local schools and charitable organizations and do all they can to avoid even paying local taxes. It’s not inherently a problem that Wal-Mart is making mountains of money in a place like Pendleton. The problem is that they’re doing it at the expense of the welfare of the community- they’re making a profit on the misery of others. Similarly, it’s not a problem that a superstar singer is getting paid a fortune to sing Beethoven 9. The problem is that it’s wrong for their voice- they sound bad, the piece sounds bad, we lose audience, we wear out a superstar and end up with one less piece and one less performer for which or whom a huge audience will turn out. Perhaps one-percentism is feeding the “five-year-old” mentality among our audience. If you pay $200 a ticket to see the nation’s fourth-most-famous soprano and you can’t hear her in the hall (I remember hearing dozens and dozens of audience members saying “never again” after spending huge sums to hear a famously small-voiced soprano, made famous over a microphone on TV, in a huge hall in Cincinnati back in the day), you’re not going to risk another $180 on the fifth-most-famous.
I’m no economist, but it seems manifestly obvious that we’ve reached a crisis point in our society, our whole society, where we’ve become insanely delusional about the efficacy of markets in distributing resources. I remember a newspaper article about 7 or 8 years ago about a hugely successful and respected elementary teacher who gave up the classroom to become a stripper after a couple of years because she could make something like five times the money. Does a tobacco company lawyer really contribute more to the welfare of society than an emergency room nurse as the salaries would seem to indicate?
What can be done to restore a healthier economic ecosystem which can sustain our art form? Given that our internal problems as an industry so clearly and painfully mirror those of our society, is it realistic to hope that we can survive by making internal changes and reforms? Can we be a model for structural economic reform that inspires business and political leaders to try to build a more just and cohesive society?