Do free online concerts undermine musicians' professional worth?

International Piano
Thursday, November 5, 2020

In their rush to give free concerts online during lockdown, are musicians undermining their professional value?

I phoned my dentist last week. The surgery has been closed since lockdown, of course, but a filling had dropped out of an upper rear molar and left me with an uncomfortable sharp edge at the back of my mouth. I managed to get through to him. He’s a private dentist, and a very good one. I’ve been a patient/customer (?) for many years even though he charges £10 every time he takes a breath. Or so it seems when I get the bill. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘That’s quite all right. Do come along. I’ll open up the surgery for you. I need to keep my hand in, anyway. So don’t worry – the treatment will be quite free. No need to pay.’                                             

How lucky I am, I thought, to have such an accommodating, expert, generous professional on hand in these grim days of social distancing. How amazing that I can benefit from free dental treatment at a time when he is unable to work normally because of the pandemic.                                                                                        

What? You mean you believe all that? Sorry to disabuse you but, no, that dentist story is a load of baloney. I merely wanted to illustrate a point. Musicians all over the world have no platform and, therefore, no income from paying gigs. So what do they do? They give free concerts to everyone via the internet and social media. All of a sudden, they have changed from being a Professional Pianist into Father Christmas.

Why? Let us talk about just the piano and pianists. At least the piano can deliver a satisfying musical experience without the involvement of another instrument. (A recital for solo trumpet or clarinet? I don’t think so. And, despite what record companies and some exponents think, no solo violin or cello for more than 10 minutes at a time, please.) We are now awash with pianists of every level of accomplishment vying for attention, recording recitals in their homes.

Discounting the endless attempts of amateurs to stagger through Für Elise (have these people no self-awareness?), I am talking about fully-fledged, expensively-trained concert pianists, musicians who, in normal times, you can only hear by paying substantial sums of money (travel to and from venue, tickets for concert, programmes, et al). Now they are offering the same thing for free. Agents and managers who have spent years building up their clients’ fees, negotiating contracts, getting the best possible terms – gone! When push comes to shove, they’ll do it for nothing. Madness!          

There are two means by which we hear pianists: recordings and concerts. Recordings, generally, allow us to hear considered, highly polished performances in excellent sound, played on well-regulated, beautifully-voiced instruments and in a natural acoustic, all produced with the idea of rewarding, repeated listening. Or we go to a concert where the music is as important an element as the social aspect: the frisson of the live event, its uniqueness, its collective, collaborative nature, the shared experience and, yes, the discussion over interval drinks.   


My dentist would never dream of working for nothing, just as I would never dream of asking him to do so


Streaming from one’s own living room is neither one thing nor the other. It’s not even a poor substitute for both. A duff acoustic, an indifferent microphone and music played on a piano that usually needs some attention (it amazes me, the number of professional pianists whose pianos are out of tune or poorly maintained). Why this need to communicate at this reduced level of excellence? And why do it for free? True, some are offering their recitals to raise money for charity (noble, to be applauded). Some suggest a personal donation (Facebook, in its omniscient way, now allows this – well, good luck with that). Others with better business sense or more clout or more pride in their craft attract a sponsor, allowing them to play on a decent piano in a good acoustic, albeit in the arid atmosphere of an empty hall with an audience of one – the camera operator.                                                        

Free concerts are a mistake. First, they undermine the market by flooding it with material. They cheapen the brand by providing premium goods as a giveaway. Second, I might resent having to pay to hear you after things return to normal when I know you are quite happy to parade your art online for nothing. Why do you do it? To keep your name in the frame? Narcissism? Because your existence seems otherwise purposeless?                                                                                                          

My dentist would never dream of working for nothing, just as I would never dream of asking him to do so. Why should pianists be any different? And, by the way, in case the editor of this magazine thinks he is getting this column for free because I’m self-isolating, then he can think again.