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Is classical music dying? Actually, it's finding new life online

Robert Niles

Written by
Published: September 14, 2014 at 5:03 PM [UTC]

Can classical music survive? The future seems grim, with so many record stores having closed and classical music labels cutting back their rosters and promotional budgets. Every year brings a new round of orchestras locked out or on strike, it seems, as pay for musicians in many surviving orchestras declines. And a drive to bring private-sector-style "competition" to public education is forcing districts to drop school music programs, despite music education's proven benefit in raising student test scores.

What terrible time to be a violinist, you might think.

I disagree. While the music business has descended into a period of great turmoil, that disruption also has provided an opportunity to build a better, more sustainable music business. For centuries, classical musicians have depended upon the whims of patrons. But under that system, while classical music lives by their largess, it dies by their indifference.

It's not necessary to go on living that way. The same economic challenges that have the potential to drive musicians apart also have the potential to bring musicians together. Technological change empowers musicians to build a music business that relies upon the support of musicians and music fans, instead of the tax write-offs of corporations and socialites, many who really couldn't tell Sibelius from Schumann.

YouTube
Making connections on YouTube

No, young prodigies aren't going to find many lucrative recording contracts awaiting them on the other side of the competition circuit any more. But they have a global network of social media available to them — allowing artists to build an audience without ever having to go through a recording company A&R rep. Record stores might be closing, but fans now can buy music anywhere at any time, from a wider range of artists than ever available before.

This has created an unprecedented opportunity for entrepreneurial musicians. If you have the talent, and the ability to connect with an audience, you can begin your professional career right now. No need to wait for a "big break" — you can make that break happen, yourself.

Pop musicians are showing the way, such as violinist Lindsey Stirling, who built a wildly popular channel on YouTube into an emerging performing and recording career. If working the competition circuit and making connections with New York labels was the old template for a soloist's career, the new one is growing equally clear. Launch a YouTube channel. Connect with an audience. Raise money with a Kickstarter. Use that money to produce recordings, then sell them online.

Of course, that's easier written than done. Aspiring artists face the age-old chicken-or-the-egg dilemma in trying to attract attention on forums such as YouTube and Kickstarter. You can't get YouTube to suggest your videos to others if no one's watching them in the first place. And crowd-funding campaigns works great where you've already built a crowd of supportive fans. What do you do when you're just starting? What can you do to attract attention to your work when you don't have music label's PR department working on your behalf?

Well, that's where we come in, at Violinist.com. We've already built a large, global audience of violinists and violin fans, and we would love to help aspiring world-class violinists to use this community to help launch their professional careers. I've written a post on this topic called How to get publicity on Violinist.com, and stand by its advice.

The TL/DR? Join our Performer Directory. Then start blogging on Violinist.com. Use your blog here to introduce yourself and to embed your latest YouTube video. Treat the blog entry as previous generations would their album "liner notes" or a pre-concert audience talk. Tell us about yourself and the piece you are playing. Why this piece? And why should we care? Engage us with a story or two — get us excited about watching your work. When the time comes, tell us about your Kickstarter and how funding it will give us something that we will ultimately enjoy. Then tell us about your new music download for sale, and why it's worth our money to buy the piece.

When posting to Violinist.com — or anywhere else on the Internet — remember that your work should not just be about helping yourself. Everything you do as an artist — from recordings to performances to blog posts — should meet some need for your audience, instead. Be instructive. Be inspirational. But always give something back to your audience in return for your fans' time. If you work only to promote yourself, you'll remain forever in the margins, never building the community of fans that will bring you ad revenue on YouTube, donations on Kickstarter, and paid downloads on iTunes. Work instead to serve the classical community, in whatever way you can, and you will win the fans that your talent and skills allow you.

And, as fans, we ought to return the favor. Let's use forums such as this to spread the word about new artists we're discovering. Let's reward new talent now just with our time and attention, but with our recommendations to other fans, friends and family, as well.

That's the spirit of cooperation and service that we need to bring to music education, too. Laurie Niles, Violinist.com's editor, has posted 12 Ways To Be a Supportive Teaching Colleague. It's essential reading for music educators — instructive in cultivating a supportive environment that can help us work together to promote the violin as a worthwhile activity for all.

Public schools don't have money or class time to introduce musical instruments such the violin to students en masse anymore, despite the growing evidence of music education's value, especially for low-income students. In addition to working together for the education of the students we have already, we must collaborate in developing community programs to introduce new generations of students to the violin, if we're to ensure its future. Perhaps we stage events that include the siblings and classmates of current students. Or we build our own in-school music programs. But we must do something, or else watch our beloved violin community wither without replacement.

A more collaborative spirit can save and revitalize live, professional music in our communities, as well. Perhaps that attitude might help repair the frayed relationships between orchestra boards and their musicians. When a love of music motivates board members, patrons and musicians alike, such as in Los Angeles, orchestras continue to do great things, thriving even in a challenging economy. But when anti-union fervor consumes board members, or when bloated organizations become more focused with debutante balls and home showcase tours than cultivating classical music, musicians need to work together with those patrons who do put music first and create new opportunities for live performance in their communities. Sometimes, the only way forward is to set aside that which holds us back.

One of those things, regrettably, is the world's largest music marketplace: iTunes. Apple's music download store provides a great opportunity for independent artists, as anyone can upload and sell music and media there. (Full disclosure: I have three eBooks for sale through iTunes' bookstore.) But Apple built iTunes around the song as its core musical format. While that's great for the pop genres, the song is far from the dominant format of classical music. Ever hit "shuffle" on your iPhone when you're on a classical playlist? You get individual movements from all your symphonies and concertos, blended together, with no option to simply shuffle the various whole compositions, keeping their movements together in their proper order.

We need an iTunes-like marketplace (and app) that supports the sale and playback of music in the multi-movement symphony and concerto formats, in addition to individual tracks such as songs. But this unmet need can't shake my optimism about the future of classical music. While iTunes might not be perfect for classical music, it's still a multi-billion dollar forum, open to all. So long as we work together, building and growing our community, we'll keep supporting violinists there. And, who knows? Maybe along the way we'll encourage some violinist with a knack for computer coding to build the online marketplace that can take digital classical music sales to the next level. (Maybe she or he will get a job with Apple, too!)

We don't need to pine for a financial savior. We don't need to long for the record labels to come back. We don't need to use gimmicks to win over donors who haven't developed a love for music first. With the Internet uniting the world in communication, we can build a violin community that can grow a sustain a classical music economy stronger than ever before. So let's do it.

The old classical music industry is dying. Long live the new classical music business.


From Daniel Broniatowski
Posted on September 15, 2014 at 4:35 PM
"We don't need to pine for a financial savior. We don't need to long for the record labels to come back. We don't need to use gimmicks to win over donors who haven't developed a love for music first. With the Internet uniting the world in communication, we can build a violin community that can grow a sustain a classical music economy stronger than ever before. So let's do it."

Robert, I love your optimism and faith in the future. I also love the fact that you, and like-minded individuals, are preaching self-reliance in the face of adversity. The above paragraph says it all and is so true. The future of classical music lies not in musicians who wait but in musicians who "do". In order for this to happen, we need a psychological breakthrough in our collective mentality.

I believe that this must be cultivated at the conservatory level. The last few generations of violinists have bequeathed us a phenomenal tradition but, largely due to economic conditions of the past, have made us reliant on the opinions and judgements of musicians in positions of power. We were told "practice so that you are perfect because your value is based on sounding better than the rest".

In the past, this model worked. A world-class soloist could deem the next Joshua Bell to be his successor after winning competitions. Today, however, there are many "Joshua Bells" and an audience that is no longer wowed by virtuosity. Winning competitions is great but then what?

It is my belief that it is genuine communication that our audience craves today. This needs to happen because the artist has an overwhelming desire to tell us a story. That story can only come from the heart and mind of the artist.

Interestingly, it is worth noting that the older generation from Kreisler to Heifetz, at the beginning unsullied by the trials and tribulations of a mature recording industry, DID bless the audience with genuine communication.

Therefore, rather than teaching the musicians of tomorrow solely to win competitions or win auditions, our conservatories need to encourage personal development and artistic growth, along with business skills that involve communication with a target audience.

In other words, playing "perfectly", which is often the end-goal (and leading to destructive personalities), should not be the ends but rather the means.

Robert, what you are doing is great, and I wish you success in your endeavors.

From Scott Cole
Posted on September 15, 2014 at 5:16 PM
"What terrible time to be a violinist, you might think.

I disagree"

Robert, while I love your optimism, I wish I could share it. The new model you espouse is great...for a certain level of talent. The problem is, the vast, vast legions of string players graduating from conservatories today will not find much success in recording and selling recordings via ANY outlet, including iTunes or any other social media. For one thing, the world is filled to the brim with recordings of the most beloved works. Does the world really need another recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto? So people will then look to the more marginal repertoire, like concertos by 2nd rate composers. Or they can aggressively court modern composers in the way that pianist Jeffrey Biegel has been able to do. Unfortunately, though, the performance and recording of either of the above are of marginal value to most performers.

But apart from the highest level of string players, what about the rest of us, the multitudes who need to make a living? I believe they're mostly like myself: the journeyman musician trying to cobble together a living by gigging and teaching. Most of us will not produce salable recordings. We play well, but not at an artist level. And yet our participation is absolutely necessary in the world of classical music. As the footsoldiers, we fill the ranks of orchestras everywhere, we play the world's weddings, we teach the world's children.

So the question is, for the journeyman string player, is classical music dying? Or more succinctly put, would we string players advise our children and students--even our best students--to aspire to a career? My answer at this point is, for most, no. Since I went into music a couple of decades ago, many things have changed:
-the expense of being a musician: gas, health insurance, food, instruments, even strings. The cost of preschool has almost doubled in just a few years.

(When I started, gas was 99 cents and my health insurance was $25.)

-BUT the pay for most musicians has barely budged. I haven't felt comfortable to raise my teaching rate in over 10 years. Few in my area have. One only read the national news to find major orchestras suffering major setbacks in pay.

What about opportunities?
-college teaching: since 1999, the number of advertised positions has practically collapsed. Colleges are trying to hire only adjuncts if they can in place of full-timers.
Most doctoral programs should at this point be closed down.

-even 3rd tier orchestras are being deluged by resumes and regularly have 100 applicants show up for a single spot.

So while certain types of musicians can thrive in these times, I'd say that the new model of entrepreneurialism won't help the vast majority.

From Robert Niles
Posted on September 15, 2014 at 6:40 PM
The Oatmeal posted a relevant comic this morning: The state of the music industry
From Scott Cole
Posted on September 15, 2014 at 8:25 PM
Robert,
The Oatmeal's view is rather simplistic, and assumes that classical musicians in general have made their livings via recordings, which, as I've pointed out, may be valid for the 1%, but not the rest of us. And concert tickets, even for the Cleveland Orchestra, were NOT $175 in 1999.

The real issue is that the field of music has paralleled that of other jobs in this country: stagnant wages and rising prices. In other words, stagflation.

But music has probably done worse than other fields because it has always, relative to the amount of education necessary, paid much lower salaries.

In some sense, while the internet has given us opportunities, those opportunities are still likely to be dominated by the few. The opportunities are democratic, but the rewards are not. One only look to authors and Amazon: yes, everyone can now self-publish and put out an Ebook for $5. But only the most famous authors will really gain anything--for the rest of them, it's more like a vanity press.

From Michael Baumgardner
Posted on September 16, 2014 at 12:29 PM
"...socialites, many who really couldn't tell Sibelius from Schumann." No offense, but throwing out insults at monied people who support the arts but perhaps aren't experts in the field is not the type of attitude that attracts more supporters.

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