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Reflections on the Classical Music Market
While this Ensemble’s financial picture is unique, there are a number of findings that help us understand the landscape for chamber music groups and classical performers.
The environment for classical players is extremely competitive.
This Contemporary Chamber Ensemble operates in the same general landscape as the Professional Orchestral Player
. Thousands of highly skilled players graduate from conservatories and music schools
every year. Many of them teach, pick up freelance work, and hope to secure a position in an established ensemble or orchestra. A few try to build solo careers, or break through with a new ensemble. While the rewards can be great for those who succeed as performers – a comfortable middle-class life – the environment is extremely competitive.
The fact that this chamber music group has succeeded in such a demanding marketplace is a testament not only to their skills as performers, but also the efforts of their management and record label to promote their work.
There are a handful of key decision makers that can make or break a classical ensemble’s career. Most of them are curators or presenters.
For small ensembles and soloists, the key decision-makers that influence their careers are curators and presenters. These are the people who book concert halls, theaters and festivals, and curate subscription series that present a carefully chosen array of concert music experiences for ‘discriminating’ audiences. Even for the largest presenters, unless they exclusively focus on classical chamber music, there will only be one or two slots allotted for chamber ensembles on their season’s schedule.
But, as we see above, payment for performances is the core revenue stream for this ensemble, and others like it. Ensembles who are lucky enough to obtain professional management will usually focus exclusively on influencing presenters and obtaining engagements on various concert series and festivals in the US and abroad.
For most artists, CDs sold at shows will far exceed record royalties paid by a label.
Recordings play an interesting role in classical music. First, it’s a more straightforward process. Classical performers generally don’t write their own material, so they don’t need to spend weeks and months rehearsing or writing new pieces for a recording session. They are all such skilled players that a recording session is almost perfunctory, there are no overdubs, and it is all done live. Second, unlike rock or pop bands, classical ensembles don’t “tour the album.” Whereas a rock band might write and record a record one year and then tour on that record for 18-24 months, the album cycle has less of an impact on the touring schedule for classical players. Third, the potential financial return on a recording is limited. A successful classical record today might sell a few thousand copies, maybe 10,000 or 20,000 if it’s very well received, so income from traditional sales will be limited. In fact, for most artists, income from sales of CDs at their own shows far exceeds sales royalties paid by a label. But, for chamber music groups, low sales are not a reason to quit recording. For chamber music groups, CDs are marketing tools that keep them on presenters’ radars.
Teaching and mentoring is built into the fabric of classical music, and is considered by many artists to be part of a successful musician’s responsibility to the field.
The case study notes that, in 2010, the Ensemble took on a new teaching role, formalizing some mentoring and educational work they had undertaken in previous years. But why would a busy ensemble carve time out of its tour schedule to teach?
Teaching has a special role in classical music. Every classical artist – even the most successful ones – has taught. Some have teaching positions at conservatories or music schools, or give private lessons. Others conduct prestigious master classes. Most concert presenters ask classical artists to take time to do an educational activity in addition to the concert performance date. And, many music festivals have a mentoring or coaching program for younger artists and ensembles to learn from older more experienced and established artists and ensembles.
The Ensemble’s formalization of an educational curriculum marks their contribution to the field. While they earn some money from the endeavor, it also reflects a tradition in the classical world of established artists giving back to develop future players.
This case study of a Contemporary Chamber Ensemble provides a glimpse into this world – one where highly skilled performers compete for a relative handful of performance opportunities, and where sound recordings and past performances are used to influence powerful presenters. Lacking composition income and merchandise sales, their income is remarkably dependent on live performance fees. This is a difficult world to navigate, and one in which the economic pressures and competition never cease. By being highly skilled and strategic, this chamber music group is successfully carving out a livelihood.
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