COVID-19 didn’t kill the classical music profession. It was already on its way out; COVID just sped it along a bit.
- In today’s New York Times, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera — an organization with an annual operating budget of $308 million, far more than most music institutions — admitted that the Met was in trouble even before the pandemic.
- Higher education (a major component of the classical music profession and its chief training ground) never recovered from the Great Recession of a decade ago.
- Orchestras were already embroiled in massive labor disputes with their management.
- Public school music educators were already the first to get the chop when school districts cut budgets.
- Politicians were already gleefully eliminating the already very small amounts of government funding for the arts.
With conditions like that, who needs a pandemic?
What I’m about to say is going to make you mad, and then you’ll send me an email telling me I’m an idiot and a disgrace. (It’s OK, I’m used to not getting much fan mail.)
We, creative professionals, were complicit in our own destruction.
I’m not blaming us. Who could blame anyone for wanting to devote their life to classical music? In a world filled with hatred, ugliness, and lies, who wouldn’t want to make something beautiful and truthful and loving? What we did was noble. It was admirable.
It also involved going along with the gatekeepers. Who are they? Why, the entire industries that function on a business model that is explicitly designed not to pay creative professionals for their work.
“But that’s terrible! Who would do such a thing?”
- YouTube. Almost no one makes any money from YouTube. Don’t believe me? Look at what you have to do to get monetized. Do we really think classical musicians are going to do well out of this? One of these days, I will write an entire very long blog post on all the ways that YouTube sucks.
- Spotify and pretty much all other streaming platforms. Spotify gets a very nice profit from Spotify. Guess who doesn’t? The people who make the actual music. We don’t make pocket change from streaming services.
- I’m going to add CD companies in there, since they willingly let YouTube and streaming services do this, meaning that no one buys CDs any more. Who’s going to buy that cow when they can get the milk for free?
I’m not finished.
- University presidents who decided they would “run universities like a business,” which demonstrably doesn’t work, not least because its success relies on serfdom. (Also, if you relentlessly seek to commodify education, sooner or later your “customers” are going to ask for their money back.)
- The CEOs of cultural organizations who keep saying there isn’t money to pay artists, even though they never have any problem paying their own large salaries on the grounds of “market rates.” (What market rates are for musicians is a moot point; they have always been a pittance.)
Guess what, ladies and gentlemen? Management is not your friend.
What are we going to do about this? Concert halls are closed. Festivals are canceled. K-12 and university music classes are online-only for the foreseeable future. We’re not even allowed to sing. Is classical music — the professionally-made, professionally-paid kind, that is — going to be silenced forever?
I wish I had good answers for the wholesale destruction of my beloved profession. What I have are mere scraps of ideas, and only time and lots of thinking will tell if they’re the way forward, but here goes.
Musicians: please stop giving away stuff for free.
I’m not talking about the Instagram videos you made because you were bored and anxious and all your concerts were canceled and you had to do something, anything, to feel human and creative and connected. I mean, stop giving away your professional services to people who don’t care about them or about you. Those are the same people who make you beg for scraps.
Why, for the love of all that is holy, are we letting the gatekeepers take all the money?
As I wrote in a previous post, just about the only way to make decent freelance income right now is remote private studio teaching. It is a thing that we can do from our homes. You need a device and an internet connection, things most of us still have. We can grow our own studios. We can do our own admin.
What we shouldn’t do is give it away for free. I made a bunch of people mad on Twitter by saying this, but I stand by it.
It is our horrible reality that professional classical music-making may never recover from COVID-19.
All that remains is the deep human yearning for creativity. We see it in the faces of our students through our screens. We see it in the mirror.
Is it enough? Let’s talk about it.
© Miranda Wilson, 2020. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission of the author.