Norman Lebrecht – Stuart Challender lecture

Last week I went to see Norman Lebrecht give the Stuart Challender Memorial Lecture, organised by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in association with the City of Sydney and, judging from the books laid out on tables on the foyer and a subsequent book-signing session, Norman Lebrecht’s publisher.

Somewhat bizarrely for a talk on classical music, Lebrecht was assisted by an Auslan signer.  

Lebrecht entitled his talk the “State of the Arts in the 21st Century” but I think it could have been more accurately entitled “State of the classical music industry (and yes, he used this term) and specifically orchestras and opera companies and specifically those in London and other global centres in the 21st century.”

Lebrecht is known as a pot-, if not shit-, stirrer.  He warned us that his address would have a “not happy” first half.  He boldly announced that the “state of the arts” was “critical.”  This was by reference to what he identified as “the arts'” “five economic pillars,” viz:

  1. Public funding
  2. Private and corporate funding
  3. Attendance and box office
  4. Touring
  5. Recording

Taking these in turn, he claimed:

  1. Public funding was being diverted from the arts (at least in Europe – in America there is little) or increasingly being offered with strings attached
  2. Private funding was volatile and not stable
  3. 9/11 and 7/7 (apparently that’s the London one) have played havoc with the box office – people are now nervous to go out
  4. Touring has been taken over by cheap Eastern European orchestras
  5. Classical recording has gone pffft, depriving orchestras of revenue and artists and the industry of a star system and the infrastructural oxygen of publicity.

My own brief thoughts are:

  1. True, but in Australia it was never particularly high and the imposition of conditions on classical music organisations and orchestras in particular has not been onerous, apart from the eroding of work conditions for players pursuant to the Strong report – we are not talking a European retrenchment here.
  2. It was ever thus.
  3. Overstated and not applicable in Australia, despite the melodramatic security measures adopted at the Opera House.
  4. Not applicable to Australia – Australian orchestras have never derived income from touring.
  5. Insignificant in Australia –  our orchestras record little and derive little revenue from it; and the relevance of the global star system out here in the importing musical provinces (as opposed to the exporting metropolis) is precisely the opposite.  Anyway, it is a long time since global classical stars toured to Australia with any frequency – we have already been priced out of that market for most at least serious music purposes.

The second half of the talk was all about the internet and the opportunities this offered the music industry.  To the extent that this focussed on means of compensating for the threats to the five pillars which Lebrecht had already identified, it was also necessarily London[etc]-centric.  The challenge for the SSO is not to shift musical product or to substitute income earned from its previously favourable position in the classical music and recordings industry, but to maintain and replenish its live concert-going audience together with any supplementary income it might raise from auxiliary activities or from public or private sponsorship.  As I read Lebrecht, the decline of the big-label recording industry is something which has opened up some opportunities for non-name orchestras (and the SSO is definitely this), though these opportunities are obviously limited by the entrenched competition of the by now substantial back-catalogue of recorded music.

There were some fatuous moments.  Probably the most fatuous was the announcement that arts organisations could and can operate without subsidy – for which the example of Glyndebourne was urged on us. 

To say that Glyndebourne operates without subsidy is accurate in form but not, I think, in substance. Glyndebourne is a registered charity, so it obtains the benefit of public funding in two ways.  First, it is exempt from tax itself, so derives the use of publicly funded infrastructure without contributing to it by paying taxes.  Secondly, gifts to it are tax deductible: part of every donation received by it from someone who claims a deduction includes an amount which has been released from having otherwise to be paid in tax by the donor.  This is not so unusual: most non-profit arts organisations can obtain these benefits in both Australia and the UK, so perhaps I am being a bit harsh on Lebrecht for not adverting to this.

The real reason that I think Glyndebourne is a laughable example for Australia is that we just don’t have the depth of really rich people interested performing arts to sustain this. Nor do our musical institutions have the same cachet, save for the Opera House itself – and God knows, the groups that perform there already rely on that substantially. In classical musical terms, Australia is provincial. 

We already know that performances can be mounted at a price: there are, after all, even some commercial classical musical performances which can make a profit in Australia.  But the sort of one-off things which are done this way – such as the numerous events in vineyards with touring stars – indicate the relative shallowness of this sector. 

In the orchestral field, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra comes closest to a Glyndebourne model.  With relatively little direct government funding (but a healthy sponsorship from Optus) they have built up a successful and well-attended concert series.  Their success in building up such a following is in itself an exceptional byproduct of recent musical history concerning the “authentic instruments” movement (in which recordings played a big part) about which I will have to write on another occasion.  But the ABO is far from a permanent ensemble.  Only a very few players are permanently employed, which means it lives off the casually-employed musicians’ other sources of employment.  Its concerts are expensive.  Concerts of larger ensembles mounted on a similar basis would be prohibitively so.

Expensiveness is very much on my mind just now.  It is the time that next year’s subscriptions start to be solicited. 

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