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North American music critics fight cuts in traditional media with their own website -- but are they getting paid?

By John Terauds on September 21, 2013

Colin Eatock
Colin Eatock

Quietly unveiled on Thursday, a new website aims to provide commentary and criticism on art music and opera backed up with a professional seal of approval: the Music Critics Association of North America.

Classical Voice North America, the Association’s new online journal, is edited by American critic Barbara Jepson. The Canadian editor is Toronto composer and critic Colin Eatock.

Jepson’s message to readers is straightforward: “We hope to convey the variety and richness of musical life in the U.S. and Canada at a time when classical music coverage in traditional print media is shrinking.”

Over the past 15 years, the Association’s membership (of which I have never been a part) has gone from being chiefly made up of staff critics in traditional media to largely a collection of freelancers. The Association has no clout with the media outlets themselves, so it is fighting back with its own web presence, hoping that professional experience, knowledge and journalistic integrity will stand for something in a choppy and poorly charted sea of gentleman and gentlewoman bloggers.

During a short intermission chat at Tafelmusik’s Thursday-night concert, Eatock explained how Classical Voice North America is modelled after San Francisco Classical Voice, the continent’s pioneering online art music and opera site. It was founded by veteran San Francisco critic Robert Commanday, who is also present and accounted for on the new site.

There are other successful precedents involving professional writers and critics, including ArtsAtl, an excellent online publication covering the full performing arts spectrum in Georgia’s biggest metropolitan area, and ClevelandClassical, a five-year-old site devoted to art music and opera in Northeast Ohio.

In Canada, two veteran print magazines have increasingly fine online presences, Montreal-based La Scena Musicale and Toronto’s The WholeNote (the only consistent, comprehensive source of concert listings in Greater Toronto).

All but WholeNote Media are registered not-for-profit organizations that rely on donations to sustain their operations, while also carrying advertising.

Classical Voice North America doesn’t currently have any advertisers. I asked Eatock if he was getting paid for his work. “A little bit,” he replied, adding that the music critic’s association is actively looking for large philanthropic grants to make their work possible.

San Francisco Classical Voice’s current website design and operations were made possible by a $150,000 seed grant from that city’s Getty Foundation. I didn’t ask where the funds to set up Classical Voice North America had come from.

It’s fantastic that professional music critics think they can use their combined clout to get recognition in the cluttered online world. But how fantastic is it that these educated, experienced and qualified men and women can’t expect a living wage in return?

In Toronto, all — I do mean all — of the art music and opera criticism is written by gentleman and gentlewoman critics, people who need to do other things as well in order to put pasta on the table.

Opera companies and music presenters wouldn’t survive without constant fundraising. Now the people who write about music are standing up and saying that they, too, can’t survive without constant fundraising.

In other words, if ticket sales alone had to pay for the Canadian Opera Company’s productions, there wouldn’t be any. If ticket sales alone had to pay for the Toronto Symphony’s concert with Lang Lang tonight, Roy Thomson Hall would be dark.

If freelance payments had to entirely sustain me or Robert Harris or Colin Eatock or Tamara Bernstein or Arthur Kaptainis or Rick Phillips or John Gilks or Leslie Barcza, we would all be lined up for overnight shelter on George St.

That is the plain truth of the situation in 2013. A sharp businessperson would shake their heads, say “shut it down,” and walk away.

But for all the MBA learning that walks arts’ halls these days, we are not about business but about a silly passion willing to accept less money in return for more soul-stirring pleasure in our very short time here on Earth.

Why else would our arts organizations be able to raise their millions year after year after year? Investments worth nothing in a financial exchange continue to bear rich dividends for our individual and collective psyches.

All the high-falutin’ language aside, I and my colleagues both on stage and in the audience wake up every morning hopeful that we will continue to find new and creative ways of keeping on.

You can check out Classical Voice North America here.

John Terauds

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