Predicting Tectonic Changes in Classical Music
Not long after the last global pandemic, in which some 50 million people died from Spanish flu, a social change began to take place in living rooms across the world. With the dawn of radio, and later television, the parlor gatherings and upright pianos that had once been the focus of evening entertainment were gradually phased out. A century later, with a new pandemic sweeping the globe, classical music has never felt more under threat. “I think it will tectonically change the industry,” says Andrew Ousley, a publicist and concert promoter based in New York. When the curtain finally lifts on concert restrictions, a new world will start coming into focus. And while it’s impossible to predict the future, here are 19 things we think will be different—based on over a dozen conversations with people across the music world.
Music At Home
1. Amateur music-making is coming back.
Many see the period of isolation as an opportunity to pursue passions that might have otherwise lain dormant. Music-learning apps and sheet music sites like nKoda have boomed, and, contrary to trends across the rest of the retail sector, so have instrument sales. Sam Rusling, General Manager of Coach House Pianos in Swansea, Wales, one of the UK’s leading piano distributors, says he has experienced a big spike over the last two weeks as aspiring players rush to get deliveries in before the lockdown. Claire Dash, owner of The Piano Gallery in Oxfordshire, England, also reported record sales: “It did surprise me. It turns out that panic buying pianos is actually a thing.” According to German conductor André de Ridder, this makes perfect sense. “Music seems to be essential, as you can see. People are almost desperate to play and broadcast their music-making on social media. I can see it having a very positive effect on creativity.” When the current restrictions on movement are lifted, instruments could well be relegated to the attic, apps deleted, and sheet music left to gather dust under creaky piano stools. But, as more people choose to work from home—the possibility of which this crisis has illustrated—and thus reclaim practice time formerly taken up by commuting, we could just as easily see mass-conversion to amateur music-making. (Timmy Fisher)
2. The small concert will regain its prominence.
Groupmuse, the platform for private house concerts, was founded in 2013. Other initiatives, salons, microperformances, and intimate festivals abound, but are still considered under the radar or less prestigious than major venues. Still, the COVID-19 lockdown will likely ease up in stages, with gatherings of 10 or 15 people allowed before Taylor Swift fills stadiums again. (One Budapest-based theater maker was offering one-on-one shows before the crisis—performances that would be legal even in today’s Germany.) This downsizing is an opportunity for promoters of small concerts to expand their previous work, and keep thinking creatively about curation and experience. What gives a concert electricity? How does a small audience change programming? Andrew Ousley runs The Crypt Sessions and The Angel’s Share, which take place in a crypt and a catacomb, respectively. His 49-seat maximum gives him full creative control and flexibility that means he is effectively able to sit the crisis out without incurring massive losses. That’s essential to survival. “We run a lean, lean ship,” he says. (Jeffrey Arlo Brown)
3. Classical musicians need more breaks.
When I ask them to name something positive for the industry about the COVID-19 outbreak, all the people I talk to say it’s provided a much needed rest. At HarrisonParrott, the London artist management company, agents are finding time for long term strategizing. Besides leading the company through the crisis, Jasper Parrott is currently learning Japanese. He is encouraging his musicians “to work on their own art, take time to breathe and think.” Sonia Simmenauer, a Berlin-based agent, says, “We’re relieved, because it became too much.” Musicians, managers, and publicists shouldn’t have to rely on an unprecedented worldwide pandemic to be able to take vacations. The industry is too used to a furious tempo and relying on the 16-hour days of interns, toiling without overtime pay. This period of forced reflection should help that change. Sometimes, the best ideas flourish out of idleness. (JAB)
The Streaming Boom
4. Streaming isn’t just for large institutions anymore.
Over the past three weeks the Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg has live-streamed nearly a dozen recitals from his living room, and has been bowled over by the response. “It’s encouraging and a little bit overwhelming,” he says. “I’ve never had an audience of 24,000 for a recital.” Giltburg believes that building a more reciprocal online presence could be the key to engaging those who might usually dismiss classical music as stuffy. “There is so much code associated with it,” he adds. “But maybe this is a chance to break down the wall. Online concerts feel more like a two-way experience, and the result may be that classical music becomes more accessible in general.” While he is desperately looking forward to playing in concert halls again, he says he will continue with the live-streams even after venues reopen. “It might be that this is just a separate audience to the physical one, so it means reaching even more people,” he says. “Who knows?” (TF)
5. It’s also not just for the pros.
The crisis has also seen a rise in online initiatives looking to connect isolated musicians. With geographical and economic barriers eliminated, such enterprises bring together many that wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to group music-making. The UK-based choir director Gareth Malone’s latest project, Great British Home Chorus, for example, offers the many thousands who have signed up to his website the opportunity to rehearse a series of choral pieces, via Youtube, downloadable as sheet music. Other sites, such as musicacrossthebalconies.com, launched last week by the University of Melbourne, offer a guide to the various music apps and software needed to set up an online performing group. After the crisis has abated, cross-continental creativity will be easier than ever. (TF)
6. Streaming will build deeper fandoms.
“When we started the Digital Concert Hall around 2009 people said to us: ‘Are you absolutely mad? It’s going to stop people coming to your concerts,’” says Berlin Philharmonic hornist Sarah Willis. “We’ve discovered, though, that it’s exactly the opposite. At every venue we play at, all around the world, people wait for us at the stage door. They address us by our names; they know exactly who plays what. They say: ‘We’ve watched you on the Digital Concert Hall all these years and we just had to come see you live—you’re only five hours drive away!’” (TF)
7. But streaming needs to develop beyond the basic concert video.
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra recently launched LACO at Home, which, as well as concert videos, will broadcast interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. Last week composer Juan Pablo Contrera hosted a remote salon on Facebook Live, in which he presented excerpts from his upcoming LACO commission—still in progress—and took questions from viewers. The London Philharmonic Orchestra also just unveiled a package of free interactive initiatives called LPOnline. Taking a lead from the Digital Concert Hall, the site promises educational videos and the chance to “interact” with the orchestra’s musicians. The top prize for ingenuity must surely go to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, however, who have set up a personalized version of the card game Top Trumps, releasing two player cards each week and inviting young fans to compete with each other on their devices. RPO players have also recorded backing tracks for the Stay at Home Choir, a remote project which offers amateurs the chance to learn and sing Vivaldi’s Gloria. If orchestras can match this demand with inventive and witty visual content, they could seriously reap the benefits in the form of ticket sales. “What will actually be effective in streaming is not what is effective in a traditional concert setting,” says Ousley. “Quite honestly, there’s going to be a lot of experimentation in streaming….It’s going to create a new experience around the live performance of music.” (TF/JAB)
8. Live events are still precious.
I recently sat down to watch “King Lear,” by the Royal Shakespeare Company, at home. The famous dishonest odes to their father by Lear’s daughters were less impactful when marred by buffering problems. As Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker recently, “Audience-free concerts streamed on the Internet...cannot provide the bond that forms under the spell of live music.” Nor can they replicate the concentrated atmosphere that I, at least, need to really listen. In 2018, the musicologist Linda Shaver-Gleason wrote in VAN of contemporary concert halls that “our familiarity with this experience—not only in concert halls and opera houses, but in movie theaters—may have dulled our sense of how precious this inward-oriented listening experience would have been before the dawn of recorded sound.” That sense is dulled no longer. Here’s hoping that post-COVID enthusiasm will mean that the creeping trend of people live-tweeting concerts and checking their emails at the opera will come to a halt. (JAB)
Institutions large and small
9. American artists will start getting government support.
Since the culture wars of the 1990s, American government has been broadly hostile to the idea of supporting the arts with taxpayer money. With government-mandated lockdowns in place, however, it may not have a choice. The recent stimulus package signed by President Trump included $25 million for the Kennedy Center (which, as the Washington Post reported, was not enough to keep orchestral musicians paid). That bailout was almost certainly not a priority for Trump personally; it may show that U.S. politicians are becoming more willing to give the idea of government funding for the arts consideration. A major weakness with the philanthropic model is that when donors take financial hits, so do artists; as the state acts as a lender of last resort for banks, it can be a funder of last resort for the arts. Even without federal support, state governments might be willing to step in. Would Andrew Cuomo or Bill de Blasio accept a New York without the Metropolitan Opera? This doesn’t mean that smaller institutions should be less to fend for themselves, as after the 2008 Great Recession. “In America, we’re so dependent on philanthropy,” says Alan Pierson, director of the ensemble Alarm Will Sound. “When the 2008 recession hit, it made fundraising tighter across the board for all sorts of arts organizations. It seems like that could happen here too.” Pierson continues, “What’s happening right now in America is a discussion of what our values are. I want to be optimistic and think that we as a country will affirm the value of the arts and creativity.” (JAB)
10. For the fourth time in six years, Peter Gelb must go.
Speaking of the Metropolitan Opera: America’s largest house is certainly worth saving. Peter Gelb’s tenure: less so. In 2012, the company staged Verdi’s “Otello” with a Afrikaans singer in blackface. (They abandoned the practice only in 2015. “We recently came to the conclusion that it would make sense, that this production should not employ any [dark] makeup,” he told Alison Kinney for Hyperallergic. “I realize it’s a sensitive issue.” ) In 2017, after credible allegations of sexual abuse surfaced against longtime music director James Levine, Gelb denied that the company had ever been aware of Levine’s alleged behavior. A Met investigation later found incidents stretching back to the 1970s. (The conductor and the company later reached a settlement.) When Domingo was accused of sexual harassment this fall, in deeply reported articles by the Associated Press, Gelb hired him anyway, citing lack of “corroboration,” as Zoe Madonna pointed out for the Boston Globe. (Domingo withdrew from the performances.) And now the company has put its entire union staff on furlough. Soloists were informed about cancellations via Twitter. From talking to multiple musicians in the Met orchestra, it’s clear that communication from leadership to performers has been disastrous. The musicians are stepping up to help one another access unemployment, mortgage relief, and credit card debt postponement. Whatever Gelb has been doing lately, it isn’t leadership. (JAB)
11. Not all independent ensembles will survive the crisis. Those that do will enjoy better protection.
As American musicians look jealously toward their colleagues in Germany, which has promised (and in some cases already implemented) financial support for freelancers of all stripes, Germans are taking a hard look in the mirror. Even those who have decried state arts funding are becoming aware of how reliant their much-hyped music scene is on freelance musicians and ensembles, and how precarious these lives are. Much in the way of artistic energy comes from the “outsiders,” especially in new music and historically-informed performance. At the same time, a large percentage of the freelance scene is just barely surviving financially. As Hamburg Culture Senator Carsten Brosda notes, the previous terms of the deal were: financial precarity in exchange for artistic freedom. But there are broader structural problems at play too: independent ensembles are not allowed to save any funding they might receive for rainy days; they can’t keep up with the fees of fully-funded institutions; they tend to scrape by from one project to the next, with the administrative work increasing disproportionately to the money they receive.
Their valuable contributions are under threat. Politicians are starting to see the necessity of securing the future of independent ensembles. “These structures are so fragile that they can be blown away by a slight breeze, but we’re in the middle of a storm right now,” says Brosda. Not every independent group will survive the corona collapse, but, for those that remain, there will be more security in the future. Smaller groups will start receiving reliable institutional funding. Grants will be longer-term and offer more chances to save up for emergencies. “We’re about to have interesting conversations about what we as a society have given up to the market,” Brosda continues. “And if that’s really the right perspective for the future.” (Hartmut Welscher)
12. “More, faster, further” will stop being the guiding principle of the orchestral tour.
Major European and American orchestras approach touring like one of those viral social media challenges a few years ago: everyone’s doing it, but no one knows exactly why. The competition is playing abroad, you often hear, or the hope is to reach an international audience; accompanied by a shrug. It’s “high culture” following the capitalist logic of growth, a logic that was worth questioning even before the acute necessity caused by climate change. And from a business perspective, touring is hardly lucrative—often, it requires subventions. The real goal of touring seems to be raising orchestra morale and generating pretty photos for social media, many of which are accompanied by cultural stereotypes (the quiet and concentration of Japanese audiences being a particular favorite). Is that really enough reason to spend vast resources and further sully the climate with a planeload of musicians and instruments? For a European orchestra touring to Asia, instrumental transport alone takes up over 100 boxes and 10 tons of freight. Even before the coronavirus, orchestras such the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Helsingborger Symphonieorchester decided to give up flying. The pandemic will cause touring one-upsmanship to flatten off. The finances of orchestras and their sponsors are on the rocks; flight prices will rise; and administrators will start to question the point of the entire exercise. When an international orchestra plays a guest concert somewhere, it will be a rare pleasure once again. (HW)
13. Local community outreach will replace the international tour.
Andre de Ridder tells me he would like his own new-music ensemble, stargaze, to follow the example of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. The orchestra still tours, but has set up shop in a school located in a difficult Bremen neighborhood. “It’s become a very important thing for them, to be connected with a school in their town, opening up rehearsals and playing the repertoire to students,” he says. As the world wakes up to the fact that this won’t be the only global crisis of the 21st century, orchestras and touring musicians will need to adapt accordingly, and greater involvement within local communities could be an unexpected and welcome consequence. (TF)
14. An orchestra is more than the sum of its parts.
If an orchestra has 120 players, how many possible chamber music combinations does that make? Large groups have long split into smaller ones for performances, from the Boston Symphony principal wind players’ quintet I grew up with to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Scharoun Ensemble and 12 Cellists group. As illnesses such as COVID-19 mean that not every player will be available for every performance, this is a good model for the future. When restrictions on gatherings are eased to allow small gatherings, orchestra players can split up, performing, say, 60 duos at homes around the city. And while, as Alan Pierson says, it’s “a non-trivial task” to change the instrumentation of a piece, a plethora of new arrangements, particularly of contemporary pieces, is one way of encouraging their performance and giving composers and musicians work. (JAB)
15. Analytics will go from the digital to the physical.
Until very recently, the largest part of the classical music industry was content to rely on cliches instead of numbers. “Now, you have people who can book an artist and command a hugely high fee, and you have a half-full house,” says Ousley. “Or invest huge amounts of money in a recording that sells nothing.” He continues, “If we emerge from this with more clarity about where the real impact, results, and excitement are in our industry...then that would be a good scenario.” The corona-inspired crunch will force institutions to look more closely at the data on what people are interested in. Maybe they’ll even hire specialists. (JAB)
16. At least in the middle term, the crisis will lead to a conservative backlash.
A sentence I’ve been hearing a lot lately from freelance musicians is, “I’m keeping my eyes peeled for a permanent position.” The crisis has been particularly tough on them. If the previous deal, financial precarity in exchange for artistic freedom, used to be somewhat palatable, now the main thing on everyone’s mind is something simpler: survival. This safety-first attitude will lead to less entrepreneurism, fewer new ensembles and experimental concerts. The conservative backlash will be present in programming, too. One promoter who was planning to put on a series of concerts at the Berlin Philharmonic featuring unknown masterpieces of the 20th century asks himself, “Who will be the target audience for this next year? Will anyone care? Wouldn’t it be better to do repertoire that people know?” Facing empty coffers, stretched government resources, and the fear of layoffs and bankruptcy, many promoters, festivals, and artistic directors will have one main priority: making sure the halls are full. Anxious about the future, they’ll be choosing the warhorses over newly unearthed pieces or new music. (HW)
The Solo Path
17. It will be even harder to get an agent.
For classical musicians, getting a good agent was always a little bit like winning the lottery. It’s going to get even more difficult in the future. In order to survive the COVID crisis, and to prepare for further disruptions, managers will focus on the most viable of their existing clients: What technological solutions are there to keep them in business and in the public eye? How can they further develop their artistic profiles? Unfortunately, the energy that these tasks require will mean little extra intellectual space for discovering and signing new artists, and a dearth of investment capital to divert toward their careers. “When the artists aren’t earning, neither are we, because there’s no commission,” says Berlin artist manager Karsten Witt. “It’s one of the basic problems in our industry.” He adds, “For young artists today it’s especially difficult. They might not have such high expenditures, but the fees they get are very, very low.” That means lower commissions for managers, too. (JAB/HW)
18. Personal self promotion will become even more essential.
In the first weeks of lockdown, classical musicians have enjoyed an unprecedented explosion in their online reach. Virtual music making has become another facet of the battle for visibility in the attention economy. Even those who have avoided social media so far, citing its bubble-like growth, are forced to participate. New musician Twitter and Instagram accounts proliferate. As the crisis continues, musicians’ online exhibitionism will reach a new level. Many have already realized that they can increase their engagement much easier with digital strategies than with “good musicianship” alone.
That’s why an artist represented by Andrew Ousley asked him recently, “So, essentially, we all have to get really good at self-promotion really quickly?” His answer was yes. That doesn’t necessarily mean that every performer now needs a constantly updated stream of what bread they’re baking; it does mean, however, that strategy, planning, and social media expertise will become ever more important in separating musicians with flourishing careers from all the other great musicians. Self promotion “is a hugely difficult skill to develop without guidance,” Ousley says. No musician would hope to have a career without an outstanding teacher in their instrument. They’re going to start needing excellent mentors for the rest of it. (HW/JAB)
19. Musicians will need to pursue fewer, but more highly engaged, fans.
A broader trend, which COVID-19 is accelerating, is the push toward the niche. Engagement is becoming a more valuable measurement than raw eyeballs, because it might be easier to monetize. If you stream to a couple thousand followers, but get them desperate for more, then they are more likely to support your Patreon, buy your CDs, come to your concerts. The always-fantastic JACK Quartet, for instance, performs almost no mainstream repertoire, but still plays to enthusiastic audiences at the world’s most prestigious venues. “If an artist can bring fans and followers to invest in them and come to a concert, and also pay for a ticket, and do that through social media, there are more reinforced connections to fans,” says Ousley. “Then that could be tremendously valuable to presenters and thus to managers and bookers.” Artists will need to become more and more themselves. (JAB) ¶