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.
3 thoughts on “Classical Music is Dead. Long Live Classical Music.”
I apologize for the long comment but this is a rarely touched topic that I feel like a lot of musicians are either afraid of opening or that is taboo because you’re supposed to only say nice things about music as musicians and I call that delusion hogwash.
I appreciate your topic and wanted to add,
It may vary where you hail from so I say this as someone who observed this with frustration in Southern California and now the Bay Area
K-12 music Ed really makes it hard for a lot of kids to realize the step up into serious strings study. There is a lot of pandering to upper management to keep programs going at schools and those teachers don’t get paid as much as private teachers may.
(Which is why k-12 orch teachers tend to not be good musicians, sorry not sorry)
[at least 2 lesson inquiries I get every year are k-12 teachers assigned orchestra who have never touched a string instrument who want to get a crash course to then teach. I always decline and have gotten less friendly about it every year.]
[im a private cello teacher in my area with contempt for k-12 music programs and their teachers]
The use of very generic information learned in “music Ed” which often is a crash course of the basic gist of instrument playing is then passed on to a mediocre class, often with insecure teachers not noting that students really need a private teacher.
Or, in my case, many times the teacher is bright eyed bushy tailed from their BA with no professional playing or life experience—with a fraction of the practice hours my students in her class have put in— who needs to flex and so they derail private instruction in class to put threateningly better students in their place and maintain control.
They fill the class with YouTube videos and pizzicato their way through 5 months before finally slurring notes in late spring ..
Which does students a disservice if they didn’t know better that string education moves faster than this with private instruction.
They then hit a wall with technique or have aspirations without direction of how to get there. Even worse, is how schools teachers label kids as advanced when .. as we should know, what’s advanced on cello is not the same thing.
As They end up with high school experiences of being called “pretty pretty good” but no idea that.. no … your high school experience is not that of career cellists .
If they wanted to audition as a performance major, they would’ve been embarrassingly terrible and underprepared because they weren’t ever given a frame of reference to what the learning curve really is. Thanks school!
In turn, school music education is just filler. It should not be killed off, but it’s a shame the district and schools cannot pay what is deserved and get real experts to teach there and not someone who is good at parroting All for Strings teaching guides and pressured to keep the program at the best interest of management and clueless parents.
In that case they really should be encouraging private instruction.. at least then their class can play more than open d runs with lame themes and watered down classical hits.
Oh and maybe the kids know more than surprise symphony and eine Klein’s as “real classical” .
This education model is systematic in keeping classical music locked away and inaccessible in more than one way. It keeps it oversimplified and insulting equivalent to the dad jokes of the bowel movement and “kill the wabbit”.
Classical musicians are NOT taken seriously in our country and music is seen as an entitled commodity rather than something we earn a living with.
Skill and dedication has been watered down with the expectation for the familiar and desperate to fit into viral trends or be on a game show.
(My face turns so red hot anytime a relative expects me to watch America’s got talent or YouTube and say something nice about another cellist.)
Viva classical music and real musicians who continue teaching the next generation without going full Peggy Hill.
I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on YouTube.
Thanks for your post, Jes. I hear you — there are systemic issues that make it hard for everyone involved. I do my best to be a resource and support for K-12 programs (and I gladly teach anyone who wants to up their cello game), and one of my future book projects is going to be a resource with more practical advice on how to teach strings well in the k-12 classroom. I don’t know much about your area, but in mine there is very little money for private lessons. Many of the school teachers are really good at getting students into them where possible, however. From my point of view, I just wish music were more valued — at any level. I’m grateful anyone is still doing it at all under current conditions.
I replied but WordPress ate my comment when it convinced me i need a wordpress account..
So i’ll retype:
Your viewpoint is very generous and inspiring. I admit ive put up a little of a wall regarding how i’ve felt about k-12 and your insight makes me want to see if i can find more middle ground with that realm of education. I think that deep down its a matter of intervention by administrations which completely changed the dna of the class priorities and motivations to fund such programs in schools, and where we end up is a grey area ocean separating cello professionals and music ed–the latter may not even realize the necessity in what isnt covered in their class because its not what they know. Maybe those who’d like to up their game could benefit knowing more, and maybe i should give it a chance next year when the inquiries roll in… if the programs survive the lockdowns..
those teachers may value and understand my standpoint more by experiencing it…
so , thank you for your reply! it really was a learning moment for myself.
I am excited to hear you have plans of a book. It sounds like its a much needed resource and you are very knowlegeable on this topic, obviously.
I’d also love to hear how you bridge that gap of communication with the schools in your area if you ever have a chance.
Maybe theres a way i can break the habits in my area and be of help or advise and be an ally rather than an adversary.
As for my area and lesson affordability, We live in inverted worlds. I’m in part of the Bay area called Silicon Valley and the conflicts are quite unique here. affordability doesnt seem to be an issue with many families here, but theres so much commodification of education yet an overreach of doing things literally to a t but with little thought when it comes to school stuff. I didnt grow up here, but what my observation of this is, is that the area is VERY competitive with schools, for test scores and other factors to ensure an easy time for higher education.. most families can afford to make things happen so they do whats best for them.. (i dunno ..)
But my observation is that also theres such an emphasis of tests and STEM etc and getting overinvolved that music suffers in school. The culture of tech also creates impatience with strings studies (3 weeks in and theyre ready to audition their kid for a youth orchestra.. or 2 months in and “why arent they doing vibrato? this one kid on youtube….”) and i wonder if this contributes to my area having such instant gratification and oversimplified school music.
I try my best to be accomodating to the fast pace of the area’s monoculture, but the time to build the skills and ‘cook’ when studying cello is precious, regardless of who teaches it.