A friend of mine has been musing on this question:
How many other professionals are subjected to continual public assessment the way musicians are?
For a long time, musicians have put up with being publicly reviewed because good reviews can bring them quickly to the attention of ‘movers and shakers’ around the world. At least, this used to be the case when classical music was in a healthier state and there were more concert series, clubs, festivals and radio programmes functioning as potential employers.
A successful concert, praised by a respected critic, could trigger an array of invitations to perform elsewhere. Freelance musicians relied on this mysterious but lively network. The effect has faded in recent years, as the strength of the classical music scene has weakened. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that a five-star review may now be a stand-alone event, not the start of a ripple effect.
When you think about it, there can’t be many professions where your work is described, assessed and judgement passed in the pages of national newspapers. Most people, once trained, can rely on going about their business in peace unless something goes drastically wrong. Actors have to put up with reviews as well, of course, but musicians are perhaps uniquely burdened by the existence of 100 years of recordings, mostly edited to within an inch of their lives to diguise, correct and eliminate flaws.
Now that recorded music is so easily accessible and everyone has their own playlists, a lot of repertoire has become fixed in people’s minds in famous interpretations. The standard of performance on record has become the marker that live musicians must match and try to surpass, even when tired or stressed. In the past, before recordings, audiences were much more open-minded about what pleased them.
In the music world, continual assessment goes on right through one’s career (though as my friend said, there’s no compensation in the form of high fees – not in the classical field anyway). There never seems to be a point where an individual musician can rest easy, rising above the chatter. You’re only as good as your last performance; if an artist has an off-day, commentators – professional or otherwise – will point it out. How many other jobs are subjected to such scrutiny?