Who pays the piper?

That tweet from Richard Bratby was in response to Overgrown Path posts which gave a platform to pleas by conductor Warren Cohen and baritone Stéphane Degout's for more adventurous concert programming. Now Richard is a good 'virtual' friend and I have great respect for his experience in concert management and for his journalistic prowess. But I do believe that two assumptions in that tweet need amicably challenging, because they reflect entrenched attitudes in the classical music establishment.

The first assumption is that musicians performing at a concert carry no financial responsibility. Many musicians are booked on a per concert basis. As a result their financial responsibility is considerable, because if their performance is not a success they may not be booked again. Moreover a poor performance is likely to have negative financial repercussions for the management that booked them. In fact the financial responsibilities of musicians are increasing: in response to Warren Cohen's criticism of unadventurous programmes violinist Johannes Pramsholer declared on Facebook "SO TRUE also in the Baroque world! A fight that I'm fighting every day and the main reason I decided to set up my own record label". Now I do not need to tell readers that setting up your own record company carries an awful lot of financial responsibility; especially when, as is the case with Johannes' Audax Records, the repertoire includes music by Johann Friedrich Meister and Antonio Maria Montanari.

The second assumption in Richard's tweet which needs challenging is that 'the management' - concert planners, administrators and promoters - pays the musicians. Although the management may sign the cheque, they are not actually paying the musicians. Money to pay the musicians typically comes from three sources: the audience via box office receipts, grants from the public sector, and fundraising from the private sector. The management's difficult task is to balance revenue from the box office and other sources against the cost of mounting the concert in the form of musician's fees, venue hire, promotional costs etc.

A vital part of this balancing process is the decision on what repertoire to programme; because this impacts on both the costs of the musicians and the revenue from ticket sales. Decisions on repertoire are taken by concert management using two main inputs. One is historic data, primarily information on ticket sales generated when a work was programmed in the past. But accelerating changes in lifestyles and tastes are making forecasts based on historic data increasingly unreliable; as the shock election of Donald Trump and the surprise result of the UK EU Referendum illustrate. The other input in concert planning is intuitive judgement, such as backing a hunch on a little-known work. But with objective forecasting becoming less reliable, intuitive decision making on repertoire is veering increasingly towards the conservative in order to reduce the unknowns in the cost/ revenue equation. Which leads, as Warren Cohen explains, to concerts featuring only names the public will know.

As Richard Bratby has previously pointed out there are examples of adventurous programming; such as Gustavo Dudamel's upcoming Barbican Europen premiere of Ted Hearne's 'Place' with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But Warren Cohen and Stéphane Degout are of the opinion that the pendulum has swung too far towards what Richard describes as 'caution', and - very importantly - that this swing is not an accurate reflection of an audience's receptivity. In Stéphane Degout's view, and this is an authoritative view that needs sharing, "The tastes of audiences are often misjudged". So sorry to be boring; but I will continue to provide a platform for deserving and dissenting voices in the hope that we may get, for example, one less Beethoven concerto and one more Bax symphony.

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Pliable said…
A gentle reminder of ground rules for commenting. On An Overgrown Path is a blog – a personal weblog. This means it is a platform for my personal views, not an open forum. Several other prominent music blogs do not allow comments, however I am ambivalent towards them. Comments are useful if they provide new information or an alternative viewpoint. But in too many cases they are merely statements of disagreement that trigger circular and unproductive argument. Comments are also time consuming to moderate, which causes me a problem. So the general rule applied is that civilised comments are welcome, but on a 'one strike and you are out' basis. So sorry, but one of the privileges of having published this blog for twelve years is that the last word is invariably mine!
JMW said…
Your rebuttal to Mr. Bratby's tweet is apposite as usual. While we all can understand the desire to exercise financial caution, it can be argued that that same caution has cost us our audience. The availability of limitless recorded performances of what has lamentably become core repertoire is a massive barrier to concert attendance. This ties into the above mentioned "swing" towards the most conservative programming: the same works are performed, fewer people attend those concerts, so let's play more of the same and hope they will return. And indeed it does not reflect the receptivity of an audience to the less familiar, as any performing musician could readily tell you from anecdotal experience. One of my own: I performed a Glazunov symphony with a community orchestra. The orchestra is composed of amateur musicians, and the orchestra's audience are far from the music lovers who attend professionally mounted concerts. They come for the joy of hearing their neighbors play. It would be an understatement to say that Glazunov was unknown to them, yet at the end of his 5th Symphony's mighty Finale they exploded and leapt to their feet, giving us a long ovation. I was told that the orchestra had rarely seen such a reaction in its decades of performing. Many audiences members spoke to me, saying that they'd never enjoyed a concert this much, and that they would be back with other people. Such is the power of the unknown.

Pliable said…
Warren Cohen comments on Facebook:

An interesting related point- I am doing a concert this very weekend. The music is by James DeMars, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Dale Sakamoto and Graham Cohen. All the music was written in the last 30 years. Pre-ticket sales are the best we have had in years, due to bringing in a well known soloist, and nobody is not coming because the composers are unknown.This is related to my earlier point that well known musicians can do more to bring people to music they don't know, I think the point is that there are many ways around the barn; Kronos Quartet has done very well only doing 20th century music, some of the Early Music ensembles have been wonderfully adventurous in their programming and done very well. I think concert presenters and Boards often underestimate their audience, and frequently think too short term,and they certainly need input from those of us on the front lines about what works and what doesn't. JMW's point that it simply incorrect that standard repertoire gets the most audience is so well taken. Just like JMW, I recently had a great success with a Glazunov Symphony (no. 1), and one of the most sustained standing ovations I have ever had came at the end of a performance of Raff Symphony no. 10. Attracting an audience is a complex and highly unpredictable thing

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