This opinion post by Xenia Pestova was originally published in Issue 2 of our magazine and is offered here in its entirety.
In a recent video interview, pianist Mitsuko Uchida raises an important point, albeit in passing: while being a musician is a vocation and privilege, we still need to make a living. Although Ms. Uchida is not likely to starve for lack of concert opportunities in the near future, many other professional performers are obliged to have a “day job” of some description, and would indeed find it a privilege to focus their energies entirely on making music. Echoing this concern in stronger terms, Norman LeBrecht expresses outrage when young orchestra musicians are paid less than the UK national minimal wage for an engagement. In an eloquent if somewhat baffling response, a young freelancer claims that experience is more important than the pay.
This complex debate has been raging for a long time, with many possible points of view. Take the example of a major contemporary music festival that has established a successful platform of performance opportunities for up-and-coming artists. The application page asks for proposal details with the usual biography and program. It is only after downloading the application form that applicants realize that the festival is not able to provide any financial support— not even travel or accommodation assistance—which would mean a major investment for a young ensemble consisting of several musicians and not resident in the city where the festival takes place. While it can be standard practice for smaller operations programming “niche” music to have performers play for only a proportion of the door costs (and many exciting underground events would not be possible without mutual support and understanding between the organizers and the performers), it does raise questions when a festival offers professional fees to some artists, but not to others.
Following a heated comment thread on Twitter, artistic director Graham McKenzie responds to comments from the music community:
“I totally refute your accusation of exploitation… you may have a case if we charged for any of the performances [,] however [,] all are free… we ensure a host of international Festival Directors and industry specialists are present. [We provide] a valuable platform and we support those emerging artists into the future.”
At least one young musician I spoke with agrees that this is a worthwhile investment into future career opportunities; while essentially they have to pay to play, if things go well, they can get a paid gig or two from the experience.
We have to ask if this trend is a relatively recent development. Last year, I served on a competition jury with a well-known British pianist. I was compelled to ask the customary question of a relative youngster to someone whose career spans over fifty years: what was it like to be a “young” musician then, compared to how it is now? In a predictable response, according to my established colleague, life for emerging performers is much more difficult today. There are fewer opportunities, more competition, less support for the arts, and smaller audiences for classical music concerts. Needless to say, by taking the equation to the world of contemporary classical music, we magnify it further.
Let us now take an imaginary leap across the North Sea from the UK to Holland, where artists have been suffering from brutal funding cuts for some time. In a recent “off-the-record” conversation with a thirty-something (and therefore, relatively young) contemporary music specialist, I was told about the situation of being offered a rather low fee to premiere a concerto. The soloist in question accepted, even though it was below standard. The rationale? “I can’t stand up because I am not influential enough.” If our performer turns down the opportunity, it will go directly to someone else already standing in the wings: younger, hungry for exposure and willing to play for less. As young musicians, we frequently accept less-than-ideal working conditions for fear of losing out. So, where do we draw the line, and when do we finally “emerge” into fully-fledged professional artists, worthy of playing for professional fees? Maybe by continuing to accept subpar conditions over and over again, we also continue to endorse and encourage the proliferation of poorly paid or even completely unpaid engagements, and do a disservice to ourselves and to other musicians.
Another opinion would be that we need to swallow our pride and persevere in delivering music to our audiences no matter what the personal cost, and one day we may get lucky and snatch a career break (according to Mitsuko Uchida, luck is just an elusive ingredient in the qualities that add up to “talent”, something ephemeral, out of our control: we either have it, or we don’t). It is true that music is more than a profession. It is a special calling, and many of us would undoubtedly be looking for ways of continuing to perform (or compose) even if we are not paid. At the same time, our society must take some accountability for its artists and musicians; luck alone simply won’t cut it. As Susan Jones asks in her excellent piece in The Guardian, while “art feeds the soul… who feeds the artist?”
Perhaps it is time to accept responsibility and to open a discussion with each other, our concert organizers, and our public. This conversation might be a difficult one to have, and it is doubtful that it will radically change engrained professional standards and expectations in the near future. We may even singe a few bridges in the process. However, I invite you to join me and take that risk. If nothing else, it can provide us with an opportunity to pave the path for the young professionals who will inevitably follow in our footsteps.