How many management agents are facing the axe?
Every day brings deeply disturbing reports of orchestras facing the axe as a result of funding cuts. But there is a conspicuous absence of reports of management agents facing the same axe. As explained here last year, management agents are the intermediaries who earn a fee of around of 15% for booking a soloist or conductor, or even the whole orchestra, for concerts. And that fee for a single concert can be 15% of £20,000 in the case of a star conductor or £10,000 for a star soloist - exact figures are impossible to find because of the secretive nature of the agency network.
Derailing the management agency gravy train will not solve the structural crisis facing classical music, because the root cause is the global banking crisis which has prompted deep funding cuts. But breaking the hegemony of the agents could deliver much needed savings while also bringing other valuable benefits, including the very attractive one of opening up career opportunities for the unsung heroes of classical music, the rank and file musicians. Let me explain.
The role of the management agents has always been justified by the argument that they fulfil the essential role of bringing musicians and performance opportunities together - in fact just like high street bookshops used to fulfil the essential role of bringing books and readers together. But the internet – which is a very efficient way of matching buyers to sellers together - changed all that, and bricks and mortar bookshops have, sadly, almost disappeared. Classical music has had a long running love affair with the internet. Yet, with the exception of some promising experiments with YouTube auditions, it has not applied new technology to the challenge of matching performers and performances. Which leaves classical music management agents as one of the few remaining bricks and mortar dinosaurs, complete with plush offices in New York and London and, now, China.
Many great soloists started their career as rank and file musicians. But there are many more rank and file players who are more than capable of performing as soloists – and even conductors - and sometimes do. The problem is they are not represented by management agents, and this closes the door to career advancement because soloist and guest conducting opportunities are filled by clients of the agents. Which means an ambitious rank and file player has to find agent representation if she/he wants to break into the big time - and so the vicious circle continues. But here is a 'straw model' proposal to break that vicious circle.
A co-operatively owned and managed secure online community – working title Virtuoso.net – should be created. Professional musicians without management agents seeking soloist bookings can register and create profiles detailing experience, reviews, audio/video clips, availability etc. Orchestras can register performance opportunities for soloists. Musician and opportunities can come together in one of two ways. Either by orchestras searching the musician database for suitable soloists, or by the orchestras posting soloist opportunities and arranging virtual auditions.
Initially Virtuoso.net would exist as a layer below the established agency network. It would provide a cost effective way for financially challenged orchestras to book quality soloists, and it would open up opportunities for musicians without management agent representation. It would also send a clear message to funders that classical music is putting its own house in order by cutting out expensive middlemen and favouring emerging talent over celebrity performers. But I have a feeling the idea would quickly take off, and as Virtuoso.net became the de facto clearing house for musicians and performance opportunities the celebrity soloists would be forced to join. At which point the management agent structure would collapse like the over-inflated balloon it really is.
This quick and dirty proposal is simply an attempt to prompt some different thinking, because well-intended actions - such as threatened orchestras playing tweets and musicians interrupting concerts - are sending the wrong message. If orchestras are to be saved from the axe musicians must change things within their own industry, as well as seeking change outside it. Virtuoso.net may well be pie in the sky. But who would have predicted the success of eBay which is built on similar principles?
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