The New Economic Reality for Classical Musicians

There is much strife these days in the classical orchestral world between professional orchestra management and the musicians, especially in the country of our neighbours to the south, the United States. Many of the same conditions and market forces are just as prevalent on this side of the 49th parallel.

In a commentary discussing the appalling situation with the Minnesota and St. Paul Chamber Orchestras where orchestra management is on the verge of locking out its musicians in a contract dispute Eric Nilsson points out some basic observation that I think can resonate through the arts community.  You can read the article I am quoting from here.  The article is well worth a read.  Here are a couple of points from the article, and some points for further discussion.

The first reality is this: However much it takes to become a top-flight classical musician, the performer can expect to earn only what the market is able and willing to pay.

What’s the “market”? It’s people with money, be it $10 or $10 million, who would buy concert tickets or make donations to current operations and, one would hope, to an endowment for the long haul.

Today, far more “people with money” are inspired to give to charities meeting human needs than are willing to pay top-flight classical music performers year after year. In other words, the problem here is not parsimony. The problem is that unless and until society at large assigns higher value to the extraordinary work of classical music performers, musicians cannot expect to be paid what they deserve.

He goes on further…

The first reality points to a second: to increase significantly society’s value perception of live, world-class classical music, greater exposure and appreciation (in that order) would need to occur in our schools, starting at kindergarten and continuing through college. The exposure would have to be via the core curriculum, not simply by casual, extracurricular band, choral, orchestra and individual instruction.

People surrounded by classical music can vouch for its intrinsic value and thus, are willing to pay. However, to persuade people without intense exposure to become huge fans and significant financial supporters of orchestras is a tall order. And the payback I’m talking about would be a long process — 20 years if we were to institute today a “core curriculum,” K-through-college approach. We would then have to wait 20 years longer before the first crop of people with such exposure would reach an age when they would be capable of making major contributions to the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO. (I know what I’m talking about here: In my own case, even after intense exposure to classical music all my life, I didn’t start giving substantially until I was well past 40.)

Is it really just all about education? Do we put too much responsibility on what happens with our lives and our culture on that first 12 years of public education that North Americans are so fortunate to receive   Where do humans learn about culture? Is education just what happens in the education system or our schools, or should we be also thinking about what happens, or doesn’t happen in mass media?  How much of an impact does traditional mass media have on our culture? I for one believe the arts suffer from a lack of constant media exposure.

We are currently in the midst of an NHL strike, what would be the impact on minor hockey leagues across North America and especially in Canada if Hockey was absent for a year or two on the professional stage? What would happen if all that media coverage were to stop for, let’s say for two years. Are the current numbers of young people involved in amateur sport in Canada and the US achieved in some manner through the constant bombardment and media saturation of the professional sports industry? If that coverage disappeared  would the pick-up street hockey game disappear too?  What happened during the Baseball strike a few years back? When the media grew silent, did people lose interest in the sport? The answer of course was Yes!

We seem to ignore the fact that main stream culture is shaped by main stream media. How many hours per day in main stream media in its various forms including TV, Radio and the world wide web are dedicated to sports coverage compared to the arts or even business news?

Main stream media is increasingly a for-profit enterprise where shareholders need to make money We all know the funds to drive one professional sports team are far greater than the sum total of all arts funding in Canada from all sources, public and private.

Also I can point out that Eric Nilsson’s blog post is on National Public Radio blog site (a non-profit), not CNN or MSN, or ABC . Could you imagine it appearing on a  FOX news blog?  Why not?

The timeframe associated with the second reality — the links between exposure and appreciation; appreciation and support — leads to a third reality. To keep live, top-flight performances of classical music afloat today, we need to devise new approaches to how music-making by the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO is presented, marketed and financed.

For a number of years and to counteract reductions in corporate and foundation contributions because of other needs in the community, the SPCO has run with a three-step approach:

First, make concerts more accessible, by reducing ticket prices (raising ticket prices works against the essential need to grow audiences), performing in 10 venues across the Twin Cities and offering “memberships” (an unlimited number of concerts for just $5 a month).

Second, encourage new audience members to become subscribers and donate.

Third, as people become more committed to the SPCO, get them (like me!) to increase their donations by making more significant annual pledges. This innovative model works well, but it needs more time to expand. And it needs a boost.

Not sure I agree, does giving away your product really work to promote what you are doing, or does it just lower expectations? Does society value something it gets for free? Or by doing so do we just lower the value of our product for everyone?

So how can we create a financial model for the arts that creates enough economic power to drive and influence big media?

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