“On TV the people can see it. On radio you’ve got to create it.”
The cancel culture is out in full force. Almost every day brings news of yet another arts institution delaying the start of its season until the new year. When I began writing this series of articles, my greatest fear was that we were not going to be prepared for this eventuality. Now that it is here, what can be done to fill in the time?
Although parts of Europe have opened up, most of the organizations across the pond have taken a conservative approach. They are presenting concerts, but for the most part, caution is being exercised. Here in America, we cannot get into a concert hall, and there is a lack of product available in the video market.
What I am about to propose is radical. It requires a different way of thinking, but at least has the potential of keeping many of our orchestras in the public eye, or at least the ear. Musicians have fought long and hard to ensure that they are compensated for their services. But we now live in vastly different times than any we have ever experienced. This means, at least from my perspective, that we must reexamine how we communicate our message.
Orchestras, small and large, usually have some type of archival audio recordings, and in some cases, video material. Broadcasting of concerts began in the early part of the twentieth century. Many of those early pioneering efforts have not been preserved, but certainly from the 1940s on, plenty of tapes still exist. An orchestra is meant to be heard. If you are fortunate, it is possible to see them as well. But for generations, listening via recordings and broadcasts was the norm.
Usually the radio performances were sponsored, with the exception of WWll broadcasts, which at first did not provide revenue for the musicians. With the help of the musicians’ union, compensation for all recorded media work increased. Some orchestras worked out separate media guarantees in their contracts, and others organized this on a case-by-case basis.
When we entered the digital age of the internet, everything changed. It is now possible to see and hear content that one usually has paid for. Further, the distribution of this content seems to be out of the hands of the orchestras themselves. I have found performances of mine online that were never authorized for anything other than one-time broadcasts. It doesn’t bother me, but I can understand the frustration on the part of musicians who worked so hard to reap the benefits.
Now we have to rethink this entire concept, as we continue to be put further and further out of the cultural conscience of the nation. There is a crying need for content, but so few organizations appear to be delivering it. Subscribers are getting anxious.
Let’s get back to the good old days of radio and do it in a way that helps keep audiences engaged with the orchestra. During this crisis, it is time to put immediate compensation on hold. Mine the treasures that exist in the vaults of so many orchestras and make them available for free. For the seasoned concertgoer this could represent a reconnection to a performance from many years ago, providing memories that may have dissipated over the years. For those who are younger, it can represent an opportunity to listen to artists they only know by name.
I would love to hear performances by my own conducting teachers, most of which are unavailable to the public. What pianist would pass up the chance to listen to the great and even not-so-great keyboard artists collaborating with great and not-so-great conductors? Even current members of an orchestra might get a rare glimpse into the sonic history of their ensemble.
Since most of us are beginning to sense that our concert life will not return for almost half a year, why not try this? Each orchestra makes the content available on its own website, thereby keeping their patrons and subscribers connected. When the time comes for presenting performances again, perhaps there will be continued interest in these historical documents. At that point, a very slight fee could be applied for unrestricted access to the complete archive.
I propose that we forego some of the compensation for work we have already done and continue to engage the public in any way possible. And one of the best possibilities is sitting on shelves waiting to be rediscovered.