The possibility for musicians of making a local career

29th January 2021 | Concerts, Daily Life, Travel | 6 comments

I keep coming across articles about the importance of revising our approach to international travel. For the sake of the environment as well as public health, we’re told, we should be working towards the possibility of doing everything in the places where we live. City planners and architects should be thinking how to provide us with all the facilities for a satisfying life within 15 minutes’ travel from our homes.

It’s undoubtedly true that, certainly while the virus is still circulating, musicians will have to consider the risk to ourselves of travelling to perform in other countries, and the risk to them of importing us. Heedless travel will be unacceptable.

In theory, the fifteen-minute city is a lovely idea. But how would it work for artists?

Like most musicians who are predominantly performers, my whole career has been based on the necessity of going somewhere else to play concerts. As someone who was never starry-eyed about the whole airport/hotel scene, I often found it tedious that I had to keep going away. How nice it would be to have audiences at the end of one’s own street! But that was rare. And anyway, local audiences didn’t want to hear you every week. So if your aim was to play concerts and earn fees from doing so, you had to keep moving.

Concert-goers are keen on hearing performers from far away – or at least have been trained to think like that. A glance at the season’s brochure for any big orchestra will show that its concerto soloists are usually from Elsewhere. The same is true of solo recitals and chamber music seasons. Elsewhere is glamorous! (British musicians, of course, benefit from this attitude when they travel abroad and become the exciting foreign visitors.)

However, it may turn out that Elsewhere loses its glamour – at least for a while.

If we are prevented from travelling to make a living, we need to think about about how musicians could make a career by staying local. (Yes, there’s teaching, but that doesn’t suit everyone.) With things set up the way they are, there is currently no way for a concert performer to make a living within 15 minutes of home. Lots of things would have to change. Funding, for example, and promoters’ agendas, and audience’s attitudes.

Could one imagine that UK symphony orchestras would switch to a roster of UK artists for their concerto spots? Could recital and chamber series cultivate a ‘love your local artists’ ethos? It would be great for UK musicians, but would audiences and sponsors embrace the change?

There could be many positives from a new approach which slows down the merry-go-round of musicians who spend their lives whizzing about to play to one another’s home audiences.

This topic is going to be important, and I’ll return to it. Send me your thoughts!

6 Comments

  1. Paul Johnson

    It would be interesting to know more about the articles to which you refer. At a time when there is such a maelstrom of environmental, technological, political as well as pandemic related factors affecting musicians’ lives it seems bold to be predicting particular futures.

    Perhaps circumstances are now such that governments might begin to take steps that will influence travel behaviours through, for example, the introduction of carbon taxes. (Some kinds of business travel will very likely reduce because the last year has demonstrated that it is unnecessary). But I do not see politicians or planners having the appetite or the resources available to enhance the infrastructure for the arts locally to any significant extent.

    How the future for music shapes up will surely depend as much as anything on how musicians and their audiences respond to the evolving situation and very possibly on future developments which no one has yet foreseen!

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Paul, there are lots of articles about ‘the 15-minute city’ – for example
      https://www.ft.com/content/c1a53744-90d5-4560-9e3f-17ce06aba69a
      or
      https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20201214-how-15-minute-cities-will-change-the-way-we-socialise

      which explains: ‘The concept is to improve quality of life by creating cities where everything a resident needs can be reached within a quarter of an hour by foot or bike. The 15-minute city requires minimal travel among housing, offices, restaurants, parks, hospitals and cultural venues. Each neighbourhood should fulfil six social functions: living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying.’

      This sounds marvellous, but obviously requires politicians and planners to invest in local arts and artists (among other things).

      My concern is that musicians may find themselves trapped in a pincer movement between two things: on the one hand, their work-related travel is likely to become more difficult, admin-heavy, and expensive. On the other, as you point out, it is unlikely that politicians ‘will have the appetite or the resources available to enhance the infrastructure for the arts locally to any significant extent.’

      Where does that leave musicians who want a performance career that provides them with a living? Answers will evolve, but perhaps not fast enough for the present generation of musicians whose careers are hit by Brexit and by the pandemic as well.

      Reply
  2. Paul Johnson

    Thanks very much for these ’15 minute city’ links. Like you, I am concerned about the outlook for the current generation of performing musicians and the challenges they face. When I hear of artists driving through the night or snatching a flight to fulfil widely separated consecutive engagements I find myself wondering whether there is scope right now to facilitate and incentivise better networking between promoters/artistic directors, musicians and their agents to increase the number of engagements performers have in a particular area or region before they have to travel on. If that could be achieved I imagine it would be good for the well-being of the musicians as well as the planet.

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Having several engagements in the same geographical area has always been on musicians’ wishlists, but is often so hard to achieve!
      And until now, many concert venues/promoters actively take steps to discourage (or indeed contractually forbid) musicians from playing anywhere else nearby within a certain timespan – to avoid ‘splitting the audience’. This is especially so with prestigious venues who want to be able to claim exclusivity.

      Sometimes, music clubs in certain parts of the country do collaborate, eg to make the most of a visiting international artist, but even then it is tricky to find dates close together because of the different schedules music clubs have for when and how often they meet.

      You are right – travelling far afield to play just one concert is wasteful of resources. Let’s hope that new attitudes will evolve.

      Reply
  3. Tony Whatmough

    I would be interested to hear comments from professional musicians about streaming recordings. I guess most people don’t buy CDs now, and subscribe to various streaming sites. Do professional musicians miss out on income from streaming?

    Reply
  4. Susan Tomes

    Tony, the whole question of who gets income from streaming is controversial. And being discussed in Parliamentary committees at the moment! Some musicians do get income, many don’t. It depends what sort of contract, or lack of contract, a musician has with their record company.

    Reply

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