From one day to the next everything has stopped, has been postponed or canceled. All meticulously planned schedules have started to live its own life. Hung in the unknown. Something unexpected happened, something that puts things into perspective. Something that hopefully might show us what’s really important. And I don’t mean health, which is obvious. I mean values that for the last decades ruled the music world although they shouldn’t.
“Where are you going next?” a slightly bored assistant of a manager of a renowned orchestra asked us while driving us to our hotel after a concert.
“Well, we’re going to X in a few days.” my husband answered.
“And what’s next?” the assistant asked again.
“After that we’re going to Y!” my husband informed her.
“And what’s next?” the assistant continued in a stubborn and dull manner.
She repeated the question a few times more.
In that moment I felt there is something terribly wrong: an ex-junior manager of an important artist agency, who happened to work now in a lower-level management of an important orchestra sees the act of going for concerts as a routine, no matter how impressive and important the venues of the concerts are. There was no respect in her voice, no excitement. Only “business as usual” approach. What’s even more disappointing – many artists talk exactly the same way: ‘what’s next?’ asked and answered in an unexcited, unimpressed way. Sadly, for way too many artists playing concerts IS just a routine. Or rather… it was.
Until the coronavirus, the life of an artist consisted of playing concerts and recording CDs. At least these two activities were being recognized by the industry. The rest of the activities – no matter how great, unique and courageous – were frequently ignored.
The cycle looked like that: you play, you record, you advertise what you record in order to play. And repeat. You have a manager (or more than one), who likes to be supported by a PR agent in order to get you more gigs, so that a record label sees you obey the scheme that may bring the most profitable results for them.
It’s not idiotic and from a business point of view there is no problem with it. Expect for one thing – you’re the one who pays for everything and slowly but surely you become a rat-racer, because you simply have no other choice: a manager takes roughly 15-25% of the gross amount of each fee, the PR agent (if you decide to take one) can cost you monthly roughly one thousand euro, a couple of thousand or more (depending on the scope of promised-promotion and depending on whether it’s a project-based contract or a long-term collaboration). Major record labels take a few % of artists’ gross or net concerts’ income (depending on the negotiations).
This sort of explains why over the past decades, musicians had to grow some thick skin, put on an unimpressed face, focus and race: the goal was to be visible, to fight for the spot. If you’re musical or not – this is secondary, because many people (including those working in the music business) don’t even know anymore what it means TO BE MUSICAL. It’s wrongly assumed that alone the fact that you play an instrument makes you musical.
What is expected though is to play with no mistakes. Can be cold, robotic, unnatural, standardized but with no mistakes. ‘You have to deliver’ this is one of the circle’s favorite sayings.
Now, there is nothing to deliver. The racetrack has been brutally closed, throwing musicians around and leaving them on their own. The planes don’t fly. The venues are closed. The managers don’t have anything to manage, the record labels cannot profit from the concerts, neither can they make new recordings. The PR agents can still put some effort in promoting artists, but artists’ income has been severely limited or stopped altogether, so their willingness to pay PR bills is questionable. The whole cycle is off the rails.
The panic kicked in. Musicians jumped on live-streams in order to stay visible somehow. Obviously for free, since they’re not paid for public online performances. As if their efforts would suddenly be worth nothing. This shapes the tendency of making available everything to everybody for free even more.
Their glamorous PR produced with professional equipment has been replaced by self-arranged homey live performances, revealing their private spaces in full: living rooms, kitchens, studios, gardens. Next to their taste in interior design we can also see on a daily basis what they eat for breakfast, dinner, dessert. Who feels comfortable at the cooking stove, who enjoys playing to pre-recorded accompaniments, who has a spacious place to live and whose place is cluttered. There is a bit of desperation in this attention-seeking. It reminds me of Woody Allen’s movie “From Rome with Love” where Leopoldo Pisanello, once he has lost the media’s attention, runs around and shouts what he had for breakfast and what he likes. Just to have a chance to be heard, seen and not forgotten.
Anxiety. Sudden shock. Insecurity. It is an extremely difficult situation.
When one reads all possible scenarios how the new reality might look like and what it might soon mean for us in general, one can easily spin further and see what it might mean for musicians. At some point the concert halls will open. It will be a happy moment for the performers. A moment. Then, they might get another slap in the face…
Concert Halls. There might be new regulations how densely people in the public are allowed to sit. If venues are not allowed to fill the concert halls completely, they won’t be allowed to sell as many subscriptions as they used to have. This will reflect in less income, unless the price of tickets is higher. If the price stays the same, the fees of artists in many cases will go down. If the ticket prices grow significantly, many concert goers may not be able to afford a ticket. Some concert goers, especially the older ones, the ones whose immune system is compromised, might be too afraid of catching a virus when sitting in the hall. And one shall not forget that the classical music public largely consists of elderly people.
Managers. Some managers will go out of business. Music business. This is OK, because many of them are capable to manage anything else and will do that better. Those who will want to stay out of honest interest or necessity will fight for concerts more than ever before and their artist-selling techniques may get more brutal than before. Desperate ones will dump artists’ fees just to get a gig at any cost. And if one artist doesn’t agree to lower his fee, the hungry manager will take another artist from his roster who doesn’t mind.
Promoters and concert series. Some concert promoters might disappear. Some promoters might have less money due to the crisis. Some will be fine and will stay being supported by numerous sponsors but might play the crisis-card in order to get musicians for a cheaper price.
Travel. Travel will most probably become less convenient due to many restrictions. It’s not said everyone will be allowed to fly; what if you need an immunity certificate? Or what if you have a light harmless fever and you’re not welcomed aboard? If that’s the case, forget of playing one concert today, the other in another place tomorrow. Forget 100 concerts a year. Getting from A to B might simply take you more time.
Flights might also become more expensive: if airlines that anyway earn a couple of euro per ticket(!) are not allowed to fill the plane completely due to the new safety regulations, they will be forced to increase the fares in order to survive.
Already now many promoters don’t care how the artists travel and some simply love to offer the all-in fees so that they have less problems with flights and hotels bookings. If the airfare goes up, musicians’ earnings will go down.
This all doesn’t sound too good but I do believe that every cloud has a silver lining.
What I really hope to happen is that we finally stop this rat-racing to nowhere. That people stop “making sport” and start making music. That there is less of a monkey-business where an impressive packaging and empty words make the job and instead the artists’ personality is allowed to shine on its own and be appreciated. That there is less routine and more excitement. That there is less of a mass production style in playing and more individuality that awakens listeners’ sensitivity each and every time differently. That there are less concerts because no one values what’s easily accessible. That there are more artists among musicians. That the circle recognizes and favors the uniqueness rather than the repetitive pattern. That in musicians’ playing one hears honesty, love and joy rather than very proper but cold “I have to deliver”.