Returning to NY in 2009 after 4 years abroad, I faced a pretty bleak landscape professionally. All my gigs had been taken over by others, which I had helped to facilitate in some instances and which I fully expected in the rest. What I had not expected was the radically altered landscape of the field.
When I left, the new music scene in New York City was on the rise, with more and more opportunities and more and more composers and performers creating those opportunities. That is still happening and that is amazing! We have a wonderfully vibrant and supportive scene of new music, for which I am really grateful. What is not so amazing though is that the audiences for many performances are made up only of a few friends, fellow composers and performers. For many, performance and composition fees have actually gone down. There are more venues, but fewer dollars. People seem to be willing to play and compose for next to nothing just for the opportunity to be heard, if only by their colleagues. I can relate to those desires intimately, but I cannot live if I succumb to them. No one can.
So what happened? And where is our audience?
First, I ask you to accept the idea that there IS an audience outside our group. It seems to me that what happened was we simply forgot about them. How this happened is not easily explained, and I don’t profess to understand it entirely, but I do have some theories. First, I think that in part we can look to the over-saturation of information in general, so getting the word out is at once easier and more complicated than ever before. Before the internet, one had to pay design and printing costs to send out concert notices. You had to write and type press materials and put them in the mail. Now we depend on Facebook, email and the like for those things. Anyone with an internet connection can now act as a promoter of their own work. Again, this is easier, but the shear volume of invitations that most of us receive is so enormous that it’s hard for anyone we don’t know to get our attention. Where I used to receive 10 to 15 postcard concert announcements in the mail a month, now I get 20 – 30 event invitations from around the world a week. The thinking is, I imagine, “I have more than 2500 ‘friends’ on Facebook, so I can just use that as a way to engage my audience.” And we perhaps think that we can always count on our peers, family and friends to show up. We hope that somehow we will get gigs in places that will draw an audience for us. The problem with that is that first, you have to get their attention and get booked, and then there is the additional problem that most venues no longer have a point of view. They are trying to make as much money as they can to stay in business.
The whole system seems broken to me. So how do we fix it? How do we find our audience?
For myself, I compose and perform music because I think it matters to the world that I do so. I also can’t imagine any other life for myself. Most, if not all, of us are in this category I imagine. For me, it doesn’t matter so much for my friends and colleagues to hear my music, although I am very pleased when they come, and I love working with as many different artists as I can. When I say that, it’s because my friends and colleagues already have a rich artistic life. I am creating music for those who are not really able to create it themselves, or those that feel a deep desire to connect to people like me. Artists – musicians and composers, dancers, visual artists, actors, etc – provide an emotional outlet, a balm on the soul, a respite from daily life, a means to understand. This work is essential to our health as a society. And the live experience is important on so many levels. First it is a gathering place where we humans come together and share an experience in real time. We connect to each other in important ways and build our communities in these ways. Further to that, we become an active part of any live performance as the energy in the space is exchanged, the sound waves bounce off our bodies and we all become a part of creating that sound experience. If one less person or one more person was present the sound would be different! In response to these realizations, my mission has recently become taking my music and live performance out into the world to places where I normally would not play – people’s homes.
I played my first house concert last month in Detroit, MI. Some of you reading here may have seen my posts on Facebook about that experience. If I had photos from that day, I’d post them here. It was a magical experience for me and for them. My hosts, the Wujeks were incredibly generous to invite me to perform in their home sight unseen, after only a phone call and checking out my website. They invited about 30 of their friends, I invited some people that I know out there too, and I’d guess that about 25 to 30 people came. Ed introduced me briefly and then I talked about my music in general, and explained a little about each piece before I played it. Ed wasn’t interested in hearing music that wasn’t mine, and he specifically asked for the wildest stuff I could play! – He studies boogie-woogie style piano and has a small grand in his beautiful living room. – The energy in the room was so warm, upbeat and inviting that I didn’t feel the usual nerves that I sometimes do. Not that I wasn’t nervous, because I was. The experience was already changing me.
What I learned was that it is incredibly important for me, and I believe for all of us as artists, to give our gift of music to everyone however we can and then allow them the opportunity to give something back to us. By allowing the Wujeks to invite their friends, for whom they gave the gift of my concert by acting as Presenter, all these people then showed their gratitude by giving money to me, in the time-honored tradition. The Wujeks got to feel the warmth and glow of providing a great experience to their friends and I got to feel the warmth and glow of giving a concert that was highly appreciated in every way. After I was finished playing, an impromptu Q&A started up and then many people wanted to ask me further questions on various related topics as we shared the food and drink the Wujek’s offered.
My sense was that these people were not going to come to a concert hall, at least not yet. They almost universally claimed ignorance of music, which I think they overstated, but they were clearly fascinated by what I was doing. Some said they had never heard a live piano performance before! Hopefully they will be interested in the idea and go out to a concert hall, but it may be that this is they way they want to experience music. Perhaps this is the way that is most meaningful for them right now?
There is an audience out there, happily. However, they don’t know how to get to us, so we have to go out and find them. Currently, they won’t go to the concert hall, so we have to go to them. And after such a success, I started working out how to replicate the experience in other places almost immediately by talking with people who seem like likely candidates. Ultimately, I envision a network of house-concert venues around the world with each home-owner becoming a kind of curator. At least in the beginning, I am happy to facilitate this process by paving the way with my own concerts, hopefully sharing information with others who are already doing this, and together creating a network of venues with built-in audiences of curious people hungry for a visceral, new-music experience.
If anyone reading this is interested in hosting a concert or knows someone who might be interested in hosting a concert, please let me know! By the same token, if anyone is interested in playing a house concert, let me know and I’ll start a database.
It is vitally important for the arts to engage people outside their purview. I believe that until we do that, we will, as a group, continue to lose ground economically because we are not participating in the world at large directly enough. This is kind of a new realization for me, and so I’m still figuring out how to address this most fully for myself, but the first step I took was a massive success!
Stay tuned to read about the other avenues I am actively working.