I can’t help but think that if all these major institutions are comatose for the time being, then there’s no hope for the smaller organizations I play with. Another thought has quickly followed that and consumed me lately, which is how devastating it must be to be laid off from these major orchestras. Imagine winning a job with The Metropolitan Opera, the largest performing arts institution in the US with a budget of $300 million. To get there you would have to work incredibly hard for years, audition like crazy, and rise to the very top of your instrumental field above hundreds of others trying to do the very same. But the reward for this intense process is immense, artistic and financial security that you can rely upon for your entire life. At least, that’s what the reward is supposed to be. The Metropolitan Opera musicians are all on unemployment now, just like me, from a previous average pay of $190,000. This New York Times article delves into that situation, here’s a quote from one of the musicians that sums it up:
“I haven’t trained for any other career…I thought I had a job at the most stable orchestra in the world.”
This insecurity, joblessness, and financial stress is happening to the musicians at the richest arts organization in the US. These players are the 1% of the 1%, the best of the best. This is the musical equivalent of a high-level executive at a Fortune 500 company, except that executive isn’t suddenly drawing unemployment. Even the executives running these arts organizations aren’t drawing unemployment, their musicians are.
In 2015, Scafell Pike, the tallest mountain in England, had one inch removed off its peak by an artist/vandal(the piece is now displayed, much to the chagrin of some.)
The mountain is now without a real peak, its summit decapitated. The plains looking upon the mountain, the foothills leading up to it, the mass of earth shouldering its heavy load, the slopes buttressing its weight, they are all surging up towards this apex and yet now for all their work there is but a flat piece of stone where the pinnacle should stand.
In the same way all of our Suzuki methods, music lessons, youth orchestras, and emerging artist competitions surge towards positions at the peak of our industry. They all build towards the promise of financial success, recognition, artistic security, and a long tenure at the acme of the field. These positions are extraordinarily rare, challenging to achieve, for certain seats it can be like waiting for a Supreme Court Justice to die. Except now, it’s been revealed that the massive reward those positions offered was but an illusion. Where a successful long-term career should be there is only a small plateau of empty rock.
Now what reason have the slopes to exert themselves? What reward does the groaning earth gain by supporting this tonnage? There is no zenith towards which the might of the mountain leads, it will erode rapidly as all its support sloughs away. I myself was urged not to study music performance due to its unpredictability. From August 2019 to February 2020 I was ecstatic to have proven that wrong, earning a living as a performer straight out of college. Only to then be proven wrong myself. Six months ago, I would have encouraged promising students to attempt a climb on the mountain, showing them the footholds I’ve used so far. Now my encouragement is tinged with a shade of disingenuity.
Perhaps this collapse has been coming ever since 2008, the arts industry operates on such thin margins that our mountain was not strong enough to withstand this earthquake. It is bisected with fault lines—government funding cuts, a disinterested populace, aging audiences. Still, I find myself furious with many of the organizations linked above that seem to operate with neither business acumen nor artistic integrity. I’ve mentioned several times the idea that security for a musician is both artistic and financial. Financial security is obvious, but artistic security is essential also. A freelance musician lives a life of change, exciting but exhausting change. Sharing my work with others in a live setting is a vital part of who I am, but at the same time curating a live concert is an enormous undertaking (my last idea before quarantine was to start performing at libraries.) A performing arts organization provides a physical space to occupy, it provides audiences, it transports instruments, it provides a consistent platform for an artist to do what they love. Losing that platform comes at a psychological cost. I’m not a regular member of anything, but the loss of all the various planks I was cobbling together into a platform is now a consistent source of sorrow rather than fulfillment.
Rather than fulfill their purpose of artistic security, many organizations have abandoned it first, prioritized its removal as a liability. They have been boxed in over decades by financial worry, dwindling audiences, and public apathy to the extent that they can no longer think or operate creatively. This would be excusable if they operated well financially, but that is obviously not the case. Take the New York Philharmonic’s cancellation of their fall season. Now that their full orchestra can’t gather for Beethoven’s 7th, they’ve called it quits and forgotten that they have 100 musicians that could each put on a dazzling solo concert. Let the musicians use the stage, aid them with recording equipment, and broadcast the fine arts to New York even if you can’t fill up a concert hall.
I hope this negativity is misplaced, that in a year I can look back at this post as a relic of a darker time. But an ugly truth has been revealed, and I fear that it will raze our mountain to the ground. Musicians are nonessential. Nonessential in a pandemic of course, I don’t argue with nor am hurt by that. But we are nonessential to our own organizations, our own executives, and our own politicians.
The following is a whiplash of tweets from former UN ambassador Nikki Haley.
Despite similar outcry from other politicians, The Kennedy Center ended up receiving $25 million.
They still fired their musicians.
Pictured: The one-inch piece of Scafell Pike that was taken by Oscar Santillan for his piece (Copperfield Gallery/Oscar Santillan)
After public outcry and Congress threatening to revoke funding, the Kennedy Center reinstated their musicians with a 35% pay cut. Article