Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Changing our Musical Way of Life

Musicians in America enjoyed the "fat of the land" from the middle of the 20th century to the beginning of the 21st, but before that orchestral musicians who lived outside of major cultural cities (like New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles) had a very difficult time making enough of a living to support a family from music. Musicians had to work constantly (often playing commercial music) in order to make ends meet, and many orchestral musicians in smaller cities had to take summer jobs outside of music to make it through the "off season," but at least there was work.

During WWII and for the next decades, a good number of first-rate musicians had the opportunity to play in what would become the Seventh Army Symphony, which flourished from 1952-1962. Musicians who were not enlisted (for various reasons) were needed to fill the ranks of the American orchestras, so low-paying employment opportunities for competent orchestral musicians were almost plentiful. Musicians from New York made their way westward to places like Cleveland and Indianapolis. I know a bunch of them who returned to New York because they could make a better living freelancing.

As these orchestras became more established, musicians could make enough money to live from their orchestra jobs. Through the second part of the 20th century we saw an explosion of high-quality music making coming from places all over America. Great conductors from Europe made America home, and musical life flourished in many cities. Conservatories produced new generations of employable and employed musicians, musicians and audiences began embracing new American music, and the quality of musicianship kept going up and up.

The 1960s and 1970s were years of great hope for music. Young musicians had options. Some took orchestral auditions (and the good ones got jobs), and some decided to become university professors. The really good musicians who went the university professor route (and you could do it with a Master's degree even in the 1970s) became excellent teachers, and produced musicians who were even more competent than musicians from previous generations. Their students (who required doctorates to get university jobs) made their way into positions at "lesser" universities, spreading the quality of teaching (and music making) out to places that nobody had heard of twenty years before. Chamber music ensembles and chamber orchestras began to flourish, blossom, and record.

The recording biz was bopping during the LP era, but, with the advent of superior recording technology, and the portability of the CD, the recording business magically turned music from an activity into a thing. Something you buy. The term "music industry" started to be thrown around, because people made a lot of their living from royalties from these music-holding things. Now these music-holding things produce little to no royalties for musicians (consider Naxos).

Before the fidelity of recorded music came near to the quality of the real live thing, people would get their musical fun from being in the very place that the music was being played. They would socialize at concerts, and they would enjoy the communal experience. The experience of listening to music has now become largely a personal one, and most of us do most of our listening privately and through earbuds that are wired to devices that hold huge libraries of music.

The amount of music we now have at our fingertips would have blown our minds during the 1970s (and, with all the innovation concerning both old and new music, we thought we had a lot of music at our fingertips then).

We are experiencing a change in our way of life. Classical Music can't be given an imperative to change anything, because it isn't a "thing" that can change. There's no "it."

Those of us who play, write, write about, study, and listen will continue to do what we do, but we will never regain the kind musical life that we (collectively) once had, unless a magnetic force comes close to the earth and wipes out all of our music-producing devices that require electricity. That would put musicians back in business.


David Guion said...

I keep hoping I'll live to see the time that people recognize what those earbuds are doing to their ears--and a time when people get lonely and dissatisfied with only electronic friends and venture out to mingle again. Meanwhile, Cleveland Orchestra members have a regular bar gig. Classical musicians need to take the music to the audience instead of waiting for the audience to come. There's still both music and money to be made. We just have to learn to do it differently.

Anna said...

I'm a musician in NYC finishing my masters degree in classical performance. I get a decent amount of freelance work and have recently started to take orchestral auditions, but I also need to think about what other options I have for employment. It is so easy for the public to copy cds and download music for free. To take that even further, the challenge is to maintain the general public's interest in classical music so that they will want to listen to it, whether or not they purchased it. Like all other young musicians, I am still brainstorming ways to create my own musical "niche," to attract audiences to classical music without sacrificing my musical integrity. It's very scary to be a classical musician in the 21st century...

Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi said...

In response to Anna's comment, I think these days one has to learn a marketable skill with something other than music, as a fall back. I've recently met so many fine players that hold actual day jobs (salaries!) and perform/teach on the side. If I had my life to start over, I'd pick up a degree or certification in another field. One can always take orchestra auditions with a degree in something other than music.

Elaine Fine said...

Absolutely. I'm very proud that both of my children have (or will have as of May) degrees in something other than music, so they have an actual education, which makes the world a much larger place. Even degrees in the humanities (linguistics and philosophy) open up more doors than a degree in performance.

My father, for example, who is retired from the position of principal violist in the Boston Symphony, has a PhD in Chemistry. He studied at Curtis when he was a kid, but he went to Penn at the same time, and got a real education, and then he went to graduate school and got a job as a chemist at the agency in Cleveland that eventually became NASA. He freelanced and had an active amateur chamber music life, and took an audition for the BSO on a lark.

Most of the people I freelance with in Illlinois (including me) have day jobs--some are in music (mostly teaching) and many more are outside of music. Rehearsals are almost always at night, and traveling to various locations is time consuming, but we all make due.

Audiences out here show up in droves for the familiar--particularly thematic pops kinds of things: a Baseball Project performance filled one house, and two Christmas-themed programs with chorus filled two different houses. Audiences seem to like their music "made easy," but at least they show up around here.

Unknown said...

I recently saw a news about how they are recording some new big commercial soundtracks with the Czech State Orchestra. The freelance opportunities for musicians in NYC has gone way down .. Everything is moving to eastern Europe. It's also harder for the younger generation musicians to make a living since the competition level is higher than the past generations.It's definitely necessary to have something stable on the side while finding an unique path out in this chaos ...