Thursday, February 12, 2009

Is Cost of Classical Music Making It Elitist?

There are lots of discussions on how elitist Classical Music is, and yet in terms of cost verses product, Classical Music is far and away the best deal in town. Alex Ross wrote a nice article for the New Yorker on how far money goes in terms of Classical Music. He does a nice job of comparing various forms of entertainment.

The cheapest seats at the Metropolitan Opera are fifteen dollars, slightly more than the bleachers at Yankee Stadium. Chamber-music concerts at the Frick, the Met Museum, Tully Hall, and Bargemusic are in the twenty-to-fifty-dollar range; most new-music events go for ten to twenty. Concerts at churches and music schools are usually free. Students can get in to the New York Philharmonic for the price of a movie.

Oddly enough he didn't talk about pop concerts which can see tickets for $30-80, festivals in the UK can range in the hundreds of pounds. Add to this the mega stars of the pop world who can earn millions with tours, record contracts and promotional sponsors, compared to the shock at a classical vocalist getting a $11.8 million contract (a rarity in the classical world). A family of four can't go to the cinema for less than $40 and if they want snacks or drinks the price could easily double. Yet, many classical concerts have reduced prices (or even free) for students and/or children.

Then consider all that goes into a Classical Music concert. An orchestra, even a small one, has 70+ players. Professional players are somewhat like doctors: They spend 4 years getting a degree and then another 2-4 in post graduate study (just to compete with the other professional performers out there). Then they continue to study and hone their skills. It's a never ending process. And for what? To be paid $20-50k a year, often having to supplement the orchestral salary with teaching. Not a career to make an individual rich, yet, when you add all those salaries together, an orchestra is expensive.

An female opera singer is rather like a professional baseball pitcher; the span of their career is likely to be short. Even if they continue into their 40's (as a very few have done), they do not tend to get the ingenue parts that pay the big bucks (still nothing in comparison to what a baseball pitcher can earn). Adding to the expense in an opera like Puccini's "Turandot" is the large chorus and again you have a large expenditure - and we've not even started with the costumes, sets, lighting or house expenses.

If Classical Music is Elitist, it isn't because it's too expensive. Perhaps the general attitude of Classical Music is that it ought to be expensive, when in fact it is really quite a bargain. It's all a matter of perception, and, as Alex starts his article "The image of the classical concert hall as a playground for the rich is planted deep in the cultural psyche. When Hollywood filmmakers set a scene at the symphony, twits in evening wear fill the frame, their jaws tight and their noses held high. The monocle returns to fashion for the first time since the death of Erich von Stroheim," it seems this impression is doing more harm than good. The general audience of classical concerts now is filled with people wearing jeans, relaxed attire and attitude. Perhaps if we can correct this mis-perception of what Classical Music is (and who actually attends), then the perceived value of what our audiences get will go up (as will the attendance).

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