Non-traditional venues

Classical musicians have been seeking new venues and new audiences for a long time now, so it’s no surprise to see the phenomenon of casually-dressed musicians playing in nightclubs, cafes and bars featured in the New York Times.

I’m no exception to this. I’ve played in a lot of smaller alternative venues, partly because, as the article points out, the booking arrangements are easily made and the overheads are low.

It’s also nice to play for people who might feel uneasy going to a large concert hall where semi-formal dress and behaviour are expected, and may even encourage them to give the concert hall a chance if they like what they hear in the cafe. (I’ve heard a new concert-goer compare the first-time classical concert-going experience to being up in front of a judge at traffic court: you have only the haziest notion of what’s going on, but you know that you’re in big, big trouble.)

It’s also pleasant for the performers: it’s easier to talk to and interact with the audience in a smaller space where our voices can be heard. What’s more, the polite clink of china and forks at a coffee house seems to take away some of your perfectionistic anxiety that things might go horribly wrong. Some find the distraction of espresso machines and other background noises irritating, but it’s not that different from the performance experiences from Mozart’s day, when aristocrats habitually wandered in and out with food and drinks while the musicians played. Provided you go into it with the right expectations, it can be quite agreeable. We can wear jeans, you can wear jeans, everyone’s happy.

But are we? When you’re a young musician, you’re not only desperate to please, you’re desperate to be heard. You’re willing to play for very little money or none at all. I’ve given many free concerts, and I encourage my students to do the same, since I firmly believe you don’t know a piece intimately until you’ve performed it upwards of seven times. Any opportunity to experience the elevated adrenaline and concentration of the performance atmosphere is good for us. But there comes a point when we can’t do things for peanuts any more. Nowhere is this more obvious than in this paragraph from the article:

Classical Revolution also gives struggling musicians looking to build their careers some vital opportunities to perform, network and even make a little money. According to Mr. Premawardhana, musicians generally split audience donations, which amount to anything from $200 for the average Revolution Cafe session to $750 for playing at the Legion of Honor.

$200, even for one person, is peanuts for a concert, formal or informal, when you consider the amount of time spent performing and preparing for the performance, let alone the player’s level of education and the cost of living. Split between several players, it’ll barely buy a post-concert beer and the taxi fare home. $750 is better, but still doesn’t amount to more than pocket money once you’ve divided it. It might be possible to live on this kind of money plus other freelance earnings from orchestral subbing and private teaching when you’re in your early twenties, but for a thirty- or forty-something with children and a mortgage, there’ll be nothing left over whatsoever once they’ve paid the babysitter, let alone the wherewithal to buy sports equipment and orthodontic braces.

And that’s the perennial problem with being a freelance musician, isn’t it?

Playing in clubs and cafes is, of course, important. We should keep doing it. But I’m uneasy at the idea that it could ever be considered a replacement for the concert hall, where, after all, more people can fit and more dollars can be earned. We’re all singing for our supper, but we have to think about tomorrow night’s supper too.


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