What happens to classical musicians in the Age of Corona?

The audience for live classical music and opera is perilously close to the 82-year-old average age of a Covid-19 victim in Massachusetts (source). Concert venues are shut down by orders of the governor, First Amendment right to assemble notwithstanding. Even if it were legal to host a concert, would the core of elderly patrons show up?

This means that classical music and opera must be experienced via recordings and/or live audio/video streams. But what is the market for a new performance of Carmen or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? If you’re going to sit at home and watch it on a screen, why it is better to experience a 2020 performance of an 18th or 19th century work than a 1995, 2006, or 2017 performance that was recorded?

With pop music, it makes sense that we could have a market for new performances. People would pay to hear a new song by Kanye West, performed by Kanye West. They don’t just want to listen to “Gold Digger” over and over. Pop musicians should be able to do roughly as well as the movie industry, i.e., by selling tickets to people watching from home.

Classical music and opera depend on donations and ticket sales tied to live performance. Due to high costs under union agreements, American orchestras have typically lost money on recordings. Even if the governor of Massachusetts and his License Raj would permit the Boston Symphony Orchestra to assemble long enough to make a recording, how could that possibly yield enough revenue to keep the institution going? Who is going to donate to an enterprise that is not legal to operate?

Maybe the institutions that have streaming services, such as the Metropolitan Opera and the ever-entrepreneurial musician-owned London Symphony Orchestra, can continue to exist. But what about the average player who would ordinarily be playing in the average city orchestra?

16 thoughts on “What happens to classical musicians in the Age of Corona?

  1. I think this and similar events will be used as the excuse to permanently shut down a good deal of economic and civil activity. But much of said activity, live classical music performances, were on their way out anyway.

    My understanding is this is how the Dark Ages came to Western Europe, one by one practices associated with classical urban civilization were just abandoned. The period was also associated with plagues, however these were plagues that actually killed large numbers of people.

  2. What a great question for All Things Considered!

    Federal funds? How many professional classical musicians are there in the United States, including those still in schools and conservatories? In a very cursory search, I saw numbers indicating < 100,000 including conductors, but when you start expanding the net to other musicians you run into numbers like 25 million and then even more to 40 or 50% of the population who play some kind of instrument. Someone at a big music school must have a much better idea of the total numbers.

    The Steamship Authority in Massachusetts is relying on federal funding in the neighborhood of $3 billion a year nationwide to keep operating the ferries to Martha's Vineyard, etc. I'm surprised we haven't seen some attempt to earmark funds in the next stimulus package for more cultural institutions and musicians. Maybe I haven't looked hard enough.

    I'm not being glib or cynical; I know they're in trouble, and classical musicians are probably some of the worst off. They really need public events to sustain their ecosystem. But if you start "bailing out" classical music and don't include other genres, whew! just imagine the political firestorm.

    • Alex – without looking it up, I believe the money for the Martha’s Vineyard SSA was something like $15 million. The $3 BILLION was for ALL ferry business in the US… I believe it was the typical Philip post headline (and a little deceptive): Large dollars for rich people + Pocahontas!

    • @LinePilot, yeah I understand, I didn’t make it clear enough, I know the money is nationwide.

  3. I think of Professional Classical Music like Professional Sports. It’s not something that has any critical survival value for humanity, but is worse because it has been turned into some kind of public subsidy for a small fraction of the population of fans. If people want to entertain themselves, go for it. But it’s not something that needs to be subsidized. When a city spends $1 billion for a stadium, I think it’s a form of corruption, taking public money to subsidize massive private profit-making corporations. If people want to get together and play a symphony, great, but if it doesn’t pay a full time salary, then maybe we have less performances, and that’s OK cuz of recording and YouTube.

    Centers for the arts are nice, but we should support art where it makes sense, which is more at the local level. If nobody wants to attend or pay for it, and we have recordings, then how about letting people pay for what they actually want. I support lots of artists by directly donating, and only have ever watched them on YouTube. Seems like a reasonable model, in today’s technology era when anyone can make their performance available to everyone in the world for practically zero marginal cost.

    • Agreed. I wouldn’t spend a dime of tax money on professional sports, university sports or symphonies, either.

      I realize this isn’t a popular opinion, but I don’t want my tax dollars going for any of these strictly private goods.

      If the people who enjoy these things are willing to pay the entire cost, that’s fine.

  4. Harder numbers from the League of American Orchestras:

    Part of:

    “In 2016-17 an estimated 160,000 musicians performed in some 1,600 orchestras across the United States…” and “Orchestra expenses totaled more than $2.1 billion in 2017.”

    Note that these numbers are based on the 138 responses to their survey; they extrapolate the rest. They estimate that 36% of orchestra revenue comes from performance and another 8% from “other earned income” with 3% coming from the government. 91% of orchestras had annual budgets of less than $2 million, and two thirds (66%) had budgets of less than $300,000.

    How much do violinists get paid? For some, as little as $14 per hour, but most in the range of $30-50 per hour. This isn’t a particularly high-paying field given the amount of skill required. I’m not familiar with the union rules.


    Anyway, it suggests that Uncle Sam could float the operating expenses of every orchestra in the United States for $3 billion and still have enough left over to give all 160,000 musicians about $5,000 each. Since the big question in Washington right now seems to be how many more dozens of hundreds of billions we’re going to spend on COVID, what’s a few billion more in the scheme of things?

  5. My first hand knowledge says musicians of all varieties are now unemployed and likely to stay that way for a LONG time. It is really a bad situation . My brother in law is a rock and roll drummer for a cover show band. His band shut down last week. They were scheduled to work 3-4 times a month all summer at various resorts and venues. Now everything is canceled. He got paid about $1k per show. Another lady friend is first violin in the Reno Philharmonic. She normally works several nights a week all summer in various shows around Tahoe and Reno but now everything is cancelled. Another friend is a Emmy award winning guitar player and singer. He normally works around Tahoe and Reno in shows a few times a week all summer. Right now all his shows are cancelled.

    All the Tahoe casino concerts and shows are cancelled for the whole summer. There is no live music at the bars due to big crowds. So no music and no work for musicians.

    I could go on but it is just a mess. I normally go to 1-3 live music shows a week all summer in Tahoe. I am still going to Tahoe but will spend a lot of time just listening to my Bose….. I do not know how all the musicians I know will get paid all summer and fall.

    • Hi Bill,

      It seems like you have many friends and that is just excellent. I am currently sheltered in place here in Lake Tahoe. There is a daily free concert in the meadow across the kahle community center every day at 6pm right by where the bridge crossed the stream.

  6. Not all classical musicians are unionized. The supply of good classically-trained musicians vastly outnumbers demand.

    I work with those that are not unionized. For $600 bucks you can probably get a trio to play whatever you and your guests want for an evening.

    So get two more couples and you have a group of nine for a personal concert at less than the cost of nice orchestra section tickets.

  7. Don’t forget $115 Million so far in 2020 on presidential golf. It’s just a matter of priorities.

  8. I’m paying donations directly to musicians I like on YouTube.
    I feel guilty watching their content without paying, and I don’t go to a lot of live shows, and won’t be going to any for a while now.

  9. There actually is an argument for taxpayers subsidies for classical music and NOT for sports stadiums. Classical music is cheaper to subsidize! There is more likely to be room in the budget, once you pay for police pensions, for the symphony orchestras.

    Government will tax people (though most public finance these days seems to be debt) and pay for things, and not everyone will use those things. Its the nature of government. Some people will get more return from government services and others will have less. Sometimes it will just be a matter of who can get more representatives on the local council.

    Plus governments will want to, or used to want to before 2020, have stuff to encourage taxpayers to move to their towns and cities and, well, be taxed and otherwise spend money.

    I don’t have a huge problem with the professional sports teams subsidies except there is a good deal of evidence that they are really not cost effective. In fact we have real world examples of cities (LA being the most notable example) losing their professional sports teams and doing fine. Classical symphony orchestras are a similar case, except they are a lot cheaper so are probably more cost effective.

  10. Colin McEvedy’s book surveying cities of the classical worlds (forget the title) is well worth reading, but of note that it was standard for cities in the Roman and Greek empires to have an amphitheater, a theater, and a temple, all paid for the local governments. Also baths/ gyms. Even small cities had this and no one suggested that they shouldn’t be doing this.

    While philistinism did increase with the rise of Christianity and then Islam, the main reason these things fell into ruin was simply economic collapse that coincided or followed demographic collapse (a series of plagues being the most likely culprit) and they couldn’t be maintained anymore. And personal spending works the same way! If you get wealthier, purchases that would be really wasteful for a poorer person seem like good value and vice versa.

  11. A lot of the case for public subsidy (or really government in general) is that it is good for me to have something around even if I will never use it personally.

    So I will probably never visit Martha’s Vineyard in my life. Does it benefit me to have a ferry that goes there, assuming it requires more than fare revenue to keep in operation? What would happen if there was no ferry to Martha’s Vineyard at all? Presumably the island would only be reachable by air, or uninhabited. Do I want Martha’s Vineyard to be a summer resort for wealthy people, and not some other town. If we have a budget for ferries to offshore islands, what are the arguments for including Martha’s Vineyard and not some other island?

    If the ferry scheme is some elaborate con to transfer taxpayer money to wealthy people (who would otherwise pay for their on boats to get on the island?), why this scheme and not some other scheme?

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