I’ve been in my position with the Oregon Symphony since 1995. Twenty-five years. Nothing has happened during that time which has made me so worried about the future of my workplace than this current epidemic. SARS-Co-V2 (the virus itself), and COVID-19 (the illness caused by the virus) have caused an upheaval of the music and entertainment industry unrivaled since World War II. Only the aftermath of 9/11 comes even remotely close in the context of most living memories.
Why am I scared? The orchestra has no revenue coming in, and stands to lose nearly $5M by June if things don’t change and we can get back to giving concerts. Many of my colleagues teach extensively – they can rely on that income stream to help pay for essentials – but I don’t have an established studio. My extra income comes from – wait for it – playing additional concerts outside of the orchestra. Within the orchestra there is a collection of smaller ensembles that have sprung up, among them 45th Parallel Universe, Pyxis Quartet, Arnica Quartet, Mousai Remix, Arcturus Quintet, and the outreach concert series Classical Up Close. Planned concerts for many of these groups have also been canceled or postponed. In other sorts of work stoppages – strikes or lockouts – it is common for musicians to see temporary work in other ensembles. That’s not possible in this case – all performing organizations in our time zone are also under the same restrictions, and their concerts and tours have also been canceled. Rules on claiming unemployment have been relaxed, and that offers some relief, but there’s little I can do to make up the difference at this point. And on top of all of this, I don’t know if the orchestra I eventually return to will be anything like the one that ceased giving concerts three days ago. So much is unknown. It’s a Rumsfeldian situation where the known unknowns outnumber the known by a wide margin, and the unknown unknowns lurk beyond my ability to foresee.
But even more importantly I’m unable to do what I love, which is to play live concerts for people. It’s a helpless feeling. What I most want to do in situations like this is to play music in order to give comfort, and also gain reassurance. I remember playing a concert very shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and how much solace we were able to give our audience and ourselves. That’s just not possible now, because those concerts held everyone in the same communal space, providing fellowship. Our current predicament is isolating, frustrating, and demoralizing. But not insurmountable – there are some options available to smaller ensembles which I’ll get to in a bit.
For the time being, the staff and orchestra is being paid, and health insurance is being maintained. But I don’t know how long that can last. Our orchestra earns around 50 percent of its budget through earned income – that is by selling tickets to people who are paying to sit in the concert hall with thousands of other like-minded people. When people are not allowed to congregate in public groups larger than 250 people, then we have a serious problem. We can’t deliver take-out concerts. I mean, we could live stream concerts, but we couldn’t reasonably be required to charge for those streams, could we? Could we charge the median price for a live concert ticket? People don’t even want to watch 30 second ads or see banner advertising in order to view ‘free’ content – which is never free to produce. Far from it. Our entire business model is a large number of people paying to have a shared communal experience of great symphonic music in the same room. And the way orchestras and other non-profits use cash flow is different than other businesses, too. We are earning and fundraising all during the season, in many cases using revenue from sales of the following season’s concerts to fund the current one. So losing four weeks (at a minimum) of concert income is a devastating blow.
I want to circle around to the topic of streaming concerts. I’ve long been a fan of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall streaming platform. The site live streams concerts several times each month, then archives them permanently for future viewing. It uses a tiered model where one can buy a ticket for a single concert, or a weekly, monthly, season-length pass. I sometimes buy a one month subscription to do study before performances of less-familiar repertoire, and then binge on the archives until my pass runs out. It’s a great way to see one of the great orchestras of the world outside of traveling to Berlin and hoping to get a rare available ticket. It is, however, just not the same as a live performance. An ensemble relies not just on itself, but on that peculiar synergy between itself and its audience, a tension of watching and being watched – not remotely – with all the terror and exultation that can bring for performer and audience member alike.
Those living, breathing, sitting in auditorium seats people don’t just spend money on concert tickets. According to the 2017 Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 [pdf] study by RACC/Americans for the Arts, the economic contribution of non-profit audiences to the Greater Portland Metro area was nearly $116M. Add to that the spending of the arts organizations themselves and you get just over $330M. Not to mention local government revenue of $13.6M. Something like $25 per person [pdf] is spent outside of the cost of a symphony ticket every time a concertgoer comes downtown to the Schnitz to see a show. That’s money that restaurants won’t make when the hall is dark – and the Oregon Symphony plays 110 concerts each season.
So, what can I do, as a performer in this situation? I, and many of my colleagues will set out to see what we can do together – in smaller ensembles – to provide music for ourselves and our vital audience. We don’t know what that will look like yet, but as soon as I do, I will write about it here. It’s so important. Meanwhile, our heroic senior management team and staff are working around the clock to try to secure additional funding, take care of myriad ticketing concerns such as refunds, exchanges, etc. People in the audience see next to nothing of them, except for when President Scott Showalter comes to the front of the stage before each concert, but the orchestra could not do anything without their dedicated support and passion for the music and the institution.
The morning that we had our management/players meeting on the morning the governor’s ban went into effect, one of our flutists went over to the symphony’s offices and played an impromptu concert for the staff. I was told that it was so appreciated – I know the power that music has when life seems out of control. It takes us out of ourselves. Out of our headspace in which we so often get stuck. It performs this strange alchemy of taking fear and turning it into hope, or at least into cathartic tears. That’s what we musicians can do. Make art. We’ll try to bring it to you as best we can under the constraints in which we find ourselves. But here’s the most important question:
What can YOU do?
What is going to save the Oregon Symphony is you getting on the phone or computer and calling (this is the single most powerful point of contact – one call is worth at least 10 emails), emailing, or flooding the Twitter accounts of the following elected officials who have the power to grant or seek emergency funding: