Sunday, December 05, 2010

Growing Pains

Perhaps it is because Liz Mann and I grew up in the same musical environment (we grew up in same town, played the same instrument, and had the same Juilliard education at the same time) that I want to agree with her statement that perhaps the musical world is, like the rest of the world, going through growing pains. It was pretty exciting for me to see and hear her in this New York Times interview, so I thought I'd share it here. Unfortunately, everything else I hear, read, and experience tells me that there is nothing positive about the prospects for a professional orchestral musician in a major city (like New York) to make a living by freelancing.

The parent article in the Times makes it very clear that the freelance world is really experiencing the "pain" part of these "growing pains." The current Broadway theater seems to call for more of a rock-based set of instruments than the Broadway theater of 20 years ago. When synthesizers made their way into the Broadway pits around 30 years ago, I knew that it was the beginning of the end for freelance musicians. Now, from my Midwestern perch and through the window of the internet, I feel like I'm watching a whole way of life crumble.

There are more competent orchestral musicians around now than there have ever been, and budgets for Broadway shows, even in this economy are breaking records. The cost of producing the first run of Spiderman on Broadway, for example, is $65 million. The music for it, written by Bono and "The Edge," is probably intended to be played by a rock band ("The Edge," from what I can understand, is an electric guitar player). I can't imagine that the music is scored for a very large ensemble, and I can't imagine that any of the musicians would be orchestral freelance musicians (unless they double on instruments appropriate for a rock band).

I suppose that the producers of shows like this one feel like they will get more of a return on their investment if they present their work to particularly proven target audiences: people who loved the Spiderman movie, people who are nostalgic about U2, people who like going to rock concerts, and people who like seeing shows that have special effects. We can't forget that comic book characters also appeal to children. If the money rolls in, this trend will certainly continue.

Part of the experience of watching dance used to involve the relationship between the musicians and the dancers. Too many dance companies now perform with recorded music, and audiences seem to accept it. Perhaps they believe that the state of the economy dictates that it is just too expensive for dance companies to perform and tour with actual musicians that they have to pay. Perhaps audiences have become numb, or perhaps they have simply become complacent.

Perhaps these growing pains are really shrinking pains. Perhaps the notion of being a professional freelance musician in a major city is going the way of the wheelwright or the cooper.


Lisa Hirsch said...

This is the tail end of a process that started decades ago. I read about musical life until the 50s, and there were many more clubs, dance halls, and other places where live musicians played. Here's the NY Times obit for Frances Blaisdell, which sidelights the 30s through 50s.

Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi said...

I just finished reading the NY Times article. I think it's unconscionable for music teachers to mislead students into thinking that free-lancing is a viable option as full-time work, or allowing them to dream of a solo career when it's an impossibility.

I do believe there will always be gigs out there, and for those fortunate ones, a good source of supplemental income.

In today's world, it's essential to

Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi said...

Oy, I got cut off. In today's world, it's essential to be informed about the realities of the classical music industry.

Anna said...

I just made a comment about this issue on another of your posts, and I completely agree with Marjorie; today, freelancers need to find other ways to supplement their finances. I can imagine that this is a particularly stressful situation for those musicians who, until recently, have been able to support themselves solely on their freelancing careers. As a young musician just entering the scene, I understand that I will most likely have to make teaching a priority and perhaps get a non-music related job. Freelancing would, like Marjorie said, become "a good source of supplemental income" but at this point they are just too inconsistent.