Thursday, November 07, 2013

The cost of music

The other day I was thinking of something that I have long been bothered by: why is going to a classical music concert so darned expensive?  And the more I thought of it the more I realized that at one time, the Church was the place for musical performance and it was often free.

I am not so naive to think that a concert by the Pacific Chorale, one of the most prestigious choral groups in the country and based here in affluent Orange County, can sell tickets for next to nothing.  I am aware of how much it costs to rent the new Segerstrom Hall ($250,000 as John Alexander mentioned during the 2011 Choral Festival).  The Pacific Symphony is a contracted orchestra, so I'm sure that the cost for that is also steep.  There are the core, paid members of the Chorale, as well as the costs associated with putting on the concert (the programs, singer perks, etc.), and then there is the overhead of the Chorale, from the rent of their offices, salaries, and other costs just to make the Chorale stay solvent.  I do not know the budget for the Chorale, but I'm sure it's close to a million dollars a year or more.  They do receive donations and grant funds, but I would assume that ticket revenue is not the major source of their funding.  But still, for someone of limited means, $25 for a cheap nose-bleed seat is an expense that one cannot always afford.

When I was single and sang in the Pacific Chorale, our prices were more moderate at $18 per ticket, and I could afford to purchase tickets for family and friends (I also received at 10% member discount).  But now, with a single income, kids, and other family expenses, that $25 for cheap nose bleeds seats is steep.  But what really surprises me is when smaller groups that don't have the overhead, salaries, or direct costs related to a performance, also charge $25!  Or when one of the local liberal arts universities also charge $25 for a ticket.  There is one private university here in Orange County that charges that price for tickets, when the venue is owned by the school, the musicians are non-paid students, and the only paid folk are the instructors and the staff needed for the event.  Why on earth, then, do they charge a high ticket price?  That really concerns me.

You see, at one time, there was music in our schools, with fine orchestral, choral and even bell choir programs.  My mother in law and wife are products of that level of musical sophistication in their high school.  But with so much cuts in funding for education, the Arts and Music programs that have suffered.  Or, in order to keep the students engaged, the choral program makes the music more pop than classical.  In either case, the quality of the music suffers.  And so our children and young people don't develop a love for the music.  And they don't go to concerts.  And even if they were interested, they'd be hesitant to pay the student ticket prices since it's still high.

And then the Church, which used to have music programs with choirs and highly educated choral directors, have found that they cannot maintain that level of sophistication due to the growth of popularity of contemporary worship.  The budgets for these programs dwindle as more folk seem to be drawn by guitars, keyboards and drums, rather than an organ and a 40-voice choir.  So, the church no longer put on concerts of sacred classical works (like the "Faure Requiem") because they don't have the singers or the resources for such a work, unless it's a large church.  And it used to be that those kinds of concerts were done with "free-will offerings" to help defray the expenses of the concert, or tickets for only $5 or $10 each.  However, most of the expense for these concerts are covered in the church's budget, because they were thought of as a ministry or outreach to the community.

It seems to me that the arts, particularly classical music, is in a dilemma that they don't know about.  They cannot maintain or grow an audience if they price themselves out of that audience's financial means.  They court the wealthy to donate, be on the board, and host lavish parties with valet parking.  That gets the affluent in the doors.  But it doesn't get the general  public.  They cannot see to do concerts for free, or at least for a minimal charge.  Until they do, they are losing out on a broader audience that WANTS to hear them sing or play, but simply can't afford it.  I also wonder if they do it intentionally: make it such that only the wealthy or those with no major financial entanglements can come to performances.  They sell to a narrow demographic because they know that demographic will pay for the privilege to hear them sing or perform.

Again, I'm not so naive to think that some of the larger groups can have such a community outreach, but they really should.  There needs to be outlets of high quality music, be it smaller groups with small orchestras or a capella, or just piano.  There needs to be a way that those with limited means can attend a music performance, rather than just watch it on YouTube.

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