Free Music!

Alex Ross, writing in the 2 February 2009 issue of The New Yorker:

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. One day, an intrepid art director will come to a concert and discover that the classical audience is well populated by schoolteachers, proofreaders, students, retirees, and others with no entry in the Social Register. They can afford to attend because classical events aren’t nearly as expensive as most people assume, especially in comparison with the extravagant pricing schemes for élite pop acts.

Here in Tallahassee, there is an incredible amount of good concert music-making available for free or close to it. This is true of any city, regardless of size, that is home to a college or university with a major music school.

There is far more inexpensive to attend music here than there was in the far-more-populated Research Triangle area of North Carolina when I lived there. Even so, I'd be surprised if there wasn't at least a handful of free or near-free concerts every week of the academic year/music season.

To be sure, the music-making at a music school is not going to be world-class, though doctoral performance recitals can be very good indeed. At traditional music schools (like Florida State) the programming tends to be onthe conservative, standard repertoire side, though less so than when I was a student.

Most of the over 450 concerts given at Florida State every year are free, but the publicity for these concerts and recitals would require a serious upgrade to be graded "poor".* Part of a music school's responsibility these days is to teach students how to market themselves and the music they perform, using the new media that are very likely familiar to these students in their personal lives. In addition to teaching these ideas and techniques, the schools should model more aggressive marketing strategies for their students. Concert music is, as Alex Ross demonstrates in his article, generally less expensive to hear in performance than the more popular mainstream genres, but we have to let people know it's here. How else will potential audiences become actual audiences?

*A particular bugaboo for me is that it is extremelt difficult (damn near impossible, in fact) to find out in advance of a concert exactly what music is being performed. The fact that an event is a flute recital will draw flute fans. If it was publicized that the program includes Density 21.5, the Varèse fans would be there, too.


  1. It's the same thing here in Manila. There are classical music concerts every month in various venues in the Metro. The tickets are cheaper. But there are not a lot of attendees. It's mostly the musicians and the devoted classical music fans, who keep the concerts going.

  2. Re: poor recital promotion

    Don't discount the possibility that faculty are establishing weekly recital hours during the day on weekdays so that, a) they don't have to be on campus after 5pm, and b) they can reasonably require other students in the department to attend the weekly recitals essentially as if they were classes, hence ensuring an adequate number of butts (not always happily) in seats.

    Never mind that no prospective listener with a day job (even at the school) can attend without playing hooky or burning vacation time. Also never mind that the atmosphere at a recital where the majority of attendees are there because they have to be and not because they want to be is no fun at all for the performers. And furthermore, never mind that a "professional" musician would be an idiot to schedule a recital on a weekday afternoon because no amount of promotion can make it any easier for people to skip out of work or school.

    You're right that faculty certainly are not modeling "aggressive marketing strategies" for students, or at least they didn't for me when I was in school. However, on general principle, I'm still not sold on officially making this or any other business topic part of the music school curriculum. For one thing, where I got my degree, 75% of my credits were prescribed (i.e. not electives), and I was often miserable because of it. My high school treated me more like an adult than music school did. It's not clear to me how we could possibly cram more dead weight into these degree plans without making them 5- or 6-year degrees.

    Speaking more generally, given an established pattern across academic disciplines of a rift developing between "theory" and "practice," how can we be so sure that more intense training in an area as fickle and prone to human capriciousness as marketing and promotion will do any good whatsoever?

    "Personal responsibility" is a red herring, and I'm not saying that students need to be left grasping for answers to basic questions related to promotion. However, the current paradigm of micromanaging students' lives via a litany of prescribed 1- and 2-credit classes that actually require more work than their credit load designations would indicate isn't going to get us very far. More likely, it will simply lead to more disgruntled music school graduates invading the comments threads on other people's blogs to air their pent up frustration with the whole mess.