A Crystal Flute? In THIS Economy?
The New York Times recently asked its readers, “How much would you pay to hear great music?”
I don't have any disagreements with this piece. But one repeated refrain in the conversation surrounding it was “ticket prices are too high.”
Why is classical music the only genre called upon to have a conscience about its ticket prices? Historically it’s always been a tight balance. Performers have to be paid, as do crew, support staff, and the venue itself. And these experiences have value, so charging a price seems reasonable and fair. But the call for access is also strong.
And now the call is coming from inside the concert hall.
Next to the music itself, one of the great things about classical today is when it embraces its place as a public service. It's a calling and a joy and should be accessible to everyone. That accountability is authentic to what we do. But it’s not universal yet, and conversations around ticket prices are far from the only relevant subject for accessibility to the genre.
The Boston Globe’s Jeremy Eichler wrote about applause and etiquette at classical concerts - specifically orchestral concerts.
When is one “supposed to” applaud? Are we still debating this subject? Those who want to uphold rules about such a thing don’t have any interest in a lively experience, and certainly not an adherence to tradition. Concert etiquette rules aren't as old as we might think - applause between movements began to be frowned upon in the Romantic period and became non grata once concerts started being recorded. There’s a reason outdoor concerts are a draw - and it’s not just the repertoire. People can relax, they can get up when they need to, and they can eat and drink during the performance. They can make a little noise.
In case you’re wondering whether to applaud or not, The Sound of 13 host Garrett McQueen puts it quite succinctly:
Good morning everyone. If you’re going to an orchestra concert this week please clap between movements.— Bassooncé (@GarrettMcQueen) May 16, 2022
Ticket price isn’t even the only fiscal barrier to concert attendance. Going downtown is expensive - both in time cost, and in cities without robust mass transit, in parking cost. This season the Louisville Orchestra has several concerts scheduled at various community centers around the city. But on the whole most orchestras and opera companies have their homes downtown in major cities.
Fundamentally, people who can pay will pay when they want to be at a concert. This requires that they know the concert is happening, that they feel connected to the organization, and that they feel like they belong there. That's not just about cost - it's about awareness, which is related to the city's overall arts and culture ecosystem, with multiple organizations engaging in the local community.
A little creativity can gain a lot of attention - just look at the public interest the Library of Congress raised with a tweet at a superstar. How many of us knew about their musical instruments collection before now? The current Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden invited Lizzo to view the collection, leading to the crystal James Madison flute being played publicly at one of her shows.
The added layer of power on top of the joy was noteworthy. Lizzo, a Black woman, was the first to publicly play an instrument previously owned by James Madison, who spent the end of his career defending the expansion of slavery. Despite a small amount of anxiety (performative though it may be) over the use of an historic artifact, the public response was overall positive.
It’s the collaboration we didn’t know we needed. In a week where our country literally launched a satellite into an asteroid, disaster-movie style, Lizzo and the LoC still took the spotlight. All because the flutes came out of a drawer, and off of a metaphorical pedestal as Lizzo was her wonderful self throughout the experience (disclaimer: language and all).
What do we want? "Big audiences." How do we get it? "Lower the ticket price." doesn’t have the same ring as “History is FREAKING COOL you guys,” to quote Lizzo. Generating the authentic enthusiasm that can come from the deep experience of a wholehearted performance is at least as important as lowering ticket prices. As guitarist Julian Bream said “If the orchestra’s not enjoying itself, the concerto will not succeed.” He’s right, and taken further: if the audience isn’t enjoying itself, why bother?
There’s some risk in relying on donors over ticket prices. A modern orchestra and opera company cannot only answer to the wealthy. That will leave them with a vested interest in the status quo, when leaving behind many aspects of the current state are long overdue. Instead, a large base of donors at smaller amounts will create a more artistically healthy organization. Yes, it's similar to asking for a ticket price. But it's still not quite the same thing.
Asking an audience member to “pay what they can” is not as exciting as asking them to “invest what they can” because the dividends belong to the audience! Blake-Anthony Johnson of the Chicago Sinfonietta cuts right to the heart of this in the New York Times article, unequivocally defining the role of the orchestra saying, "we are a public service and want to be a part of your life regardless of whether you’re giving us money.”
The pitch for this particular type of dynamic pricing (as opposed to Ticketmaster’s recent peak-demand dynamic pricing) isn’t just that it fills seats. It that it makes the audience the stakeholders in the music itself. And that is good for the growth of a genre. It's music for their community, thanks to the community’s own support. Classical music, for everyone who wants it.
This sounds like a public radio fundraising pitch for good reason. Classical radio is living proof of the joy that can come to a city through communal investment. What happens if classical music as a whole leans even farther into its public nature? Truly seeing and therefore serving the local audience? Yet again: it's an investment that pays dividends.
Classical music has been “dying” for as long as I can remember. While I wholeheartedly believe that rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated, it was a relief this week to hear administrators, writers, scholars, and performers explicitly agree with me that it needs to be affordable, affable, and visibly alive. But that means that the art form has a choice to make.
Is classical music a luxury industry? Holding experiences dear as precious moments of extravagance? Or are we a community service? With access points for everyone and art that reflects who we are? The classical genre as a whole must answer these questions honestly. Our future depends on it.