A Canadian composer living abroad emailed me a few days ago looking for advice. That person is interested in reviewing concerts for an online site with global reach. The site sells ads, yet it won’t pay for reviews. The composer was wondering about the ethics of this situation.
This hit home. Hard.
As one of the rare online writers who has been able to sell ads, yet who can’t pay contributors, I know where the global review site is coming from.
As someone who needs more income yet can’t find outlets who can afford to pay for content, I know where this highly qualified, would-be critic is coming from.
The common denominator is a painful truth. There is no point in moaning or groaning over it, because that isn’t going to change anything: the era of the man or woman who can make a good living doing nothing but music criticism will be over within the next decade.
As it is, there is only a small handful of men and women in North America who still work full-time as music critics and don’t need another job to supplement their income.
It’s not that there aren’t eager readers for well-written reviews. It’s just that we’re right back where we started in the 18th century.
Charles Avison (1709-1770), regarded as the first major critic in the English language, earned his living as a church organist and as a composer. He published his Essay on Musical Expression in 1752 (with his own money), setting off a chain reaction of responses that turned into the long and lively history of debate in words about music that continues to this day.
Even the arguments presented by Avison in his tract are, essentially, the same ones we talk about today.
As the publisher of a new critical edition of Avison’s book declared in 2004: “Beyond matters of taste, what was at stake in Avison’s theoretical contribution was the assertion that the individual’s response to music ultimately mattered more than the dry rules established by professional musicians.”
The most illustrious writer about music in the 18th century, Charles Burney (1726-1814), was not a critic but a historian, a great contextualizer and, above all, a great observer of the society of his day. He was probably as much a travel writer as a music historian. It happened that he had trained as a composer (with Thomas Arne, among others), so was able to write insightfully about it.
Robert Schumann, who founded a music magazine in 1834, was a composer first.
It wasn’t until Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) became the critic of record in Vienna in the mid-19th century that we see someone living almost entirely from music criticism (but even he taught at the University of Vienna, earning an extra salary).
It’s the advent of mass communication through daily newspapers that brought critics like Hanslick to a growing middle class eager to sample and share the pleasures of concerts, opera and ballet. As the one and only form of mass communication until the popularization of radio after World War I, newspapers were also magnets for advertising.
The reason there were so many newspapers being published in the late 19th century was that there was big money to be made. The world is ever thus.
Fast forward to the 21st century and the newspaper, print or online, represents an ever-smaller sphere of influence. Besides the big 20th century mass mediums radio and television, we have the Internet and its 4 million-and-counting blogs, Facebook pages, Pinterest posts and ….
Anyone with something to say can say it. The question becomes, is anyone listening — or reading.
The answer is yes, as more and more people fine-tune their RSS feeds and social media filters to bring them the kinds of news and information they are most interested in.
To use an old-media analogy, most people’s online information these days appears as if, back in the newspaper-only days, a personal assistant were to come along every morning, sit down with the paper, cut out only those articles their boss is interested in, and glue them down on a daily scrapbook page (the new Twitter hashtag-based daily newsletters are exactly this).
In this environment, strong voices still count for something and draw readers. But advertisers, who want to know exactly who is seeing their commercials, don’t know where to turn. And it’s not like they can ignore traditional media yet, either, because there are still hundreds of thousands of over-45-year-old readers who like getting a physical daily newspaper.
It’s a long way of saying that there is little money in online advertising. Yet there are expenses in maintaining a website even before a single fresh word has appeared onscreen.
Newspapers are experimenting with paywalls on their online offerings. That may be an option for sites that bring in tens of thousands of eyeballs every day. But, in a world increasingly focused on the free sharing of information and music and games and just about everything else, asking people to pay to read an interview with a local artist or a review of a chamber music concert is not realistic.
So I sell ads on Musical Toronto. They now have, after five months, finally paid for the cost of redesigning the site last summer. I treat my work here as a full-time job, but, now that the advertising is steady, it pays approximately one third of my cost of living in Toronto — and that’s with a rule of only eating out once a week at a limit of $20 per person.
I have two other sources of income, besides savings and a blessedly supportive partner, to keep me going.
Anyone looking at this situation from the outside would say that this is insanity. Perhaps it is. But I also wake up every morning looking forward to my day’s work.
That, according to the MasterCard commercials, is priceless.
I have decided it’s okay to be a full-time critic on a part-time salary. Others will make the same decision. Over time, the media landscape will hopefully settle into something more clear and predictable, making it easier for advertisers to understand and appreciate the value of a focused audience.
The big, ambitious internationally minded sites focused on classical music and opera hope that their very scale will one day pay off. In the meantime, they are building their readership on the backs of unpaid writers.
So we face this terrible dilemma: Do we stop writing until someone can pay and risk having little bits of our culture fall into obscurity, or do we toil for free, hoping for a greater individual as well as collective reward in the future?
There are many valid reasons to chose either course of action.
I’m all for Option B.
As for the Canadian living in a foreign land, I had to smile at the thought of them already being a composer. It appears to be the best sort of start.
As for you, gentle reader, no matter where you are in the world, please do whatever you can to encourage those people and businesses in your community who care to do their bit to support a lively conversation and the colourful debates that have been a companion to a night at the opera, or an afternoon with a new piece of music for 250 years.