So who's slashing artist fees?

So who's slashing artist fees?


norman lebrecht

March 19, 2010

In the second episode of my conversation with the strings world in The Strad magazine, I discuss what has been happening to musicians’ fees in this third season of recession. The trend, as you’d expect, is sharply down, but how, where and by how much is more than a little interesting.

The conversation is a private one and I am keeping it off-line. You can enter it by picking up a copy of The Strad in any music shop or subscribing for the longterm at Word seems to be getting around and my mailbox is filling with responses from fiddlers, cellists, luthiers, teachers, string quartets, and even the odd oud-player.

Two alarming new trends have come to my attention since I sent the present episode to print. At one famous venue, an artist was told that his date next season has been cancelled ‘due to reorganisation’ – meaning cutbacks. The curtness of the email and the absence of any of the usual bromides promising copious engagements in the unspecified future suggests a change of tone in the transactions between artists and bookers. 

At another venue, less famous, the cancellation iwas accompanied by a hint of reinstatement should the artist come back with a lower offer on an already modest fee. These are troubling times for many people but music has, in past depressions, managed to preserve an illusion of courtesy and respect. Those niceties, I suspect, are the first casualties of this recession.

Do let me know, in confidence, if you are an artist who has been the victim of rough handling. I will not hesistate to name and shame venues that treat artists badly.


  • Halldor says:

    One hopes that promoters would be polite about it, at least, but (and haven’t you written at least two books arguing essentially this?) isn’t this just what the commercial sector would call an overdue “correction” in the market?
    Most UK promoters are spending public money. How is it possible – when their own employees are accepting pay freezes on salaries that are already in the 18-24k range – to justify sending a limo to carry Maestro 500 yards from hotel to concert hall? To pay artist fees that wipe out any chance of breaking even on a sold-out concert? To pay (admittedly fine) artists superstar fees, when market research shows that the presence of their name on the programme will sell no more than a handful of additional tickets?
    When a venue honestly tells an artist that it canot afford their fee, who is really being unreasonable here? The people charged with keeping the whole enterprise running, for the benefit of their public, their funders,and every other artist who relies on them for work? Or the agent who’s been charging unjustifiable fees for so long (and, to be fair, has never before been challenged on this)that they’ve come to regard them as a realistic market rate?
    (Admittedly, that “market” continues to be distorted by heavily-subsidised continental promoters; and indeed, wouldn’t we all rather be operating in an environment awash with abundant public arts funding? Tom Service is absolutely right; the UK needs at least 22 opera houses. But I think we have to accept that at this moment in time, in the UK at least, that simply isn’t going to happen.)
    If negotiations can be managed without ruffling any feathers, good – common courtesy costs nothing, and rudeness is simply unprofessional. As is breach of contract. But the sooner that the elite of the classical music world (pretty much anyone represented by an agent) accept that they’re first amongst equals in a collaborative enterprise, not an economic breed apart, the sooner we will all be able to stop thinking about money, and start thinking about music. The best artists already recognise this.
    NL replies: I’m afraid the correction is hapening in the wrong place – at the lower levels rather than the top. You’ll see an example or two in The Strad. The people who run classical enterprises are con vinced they need the big names and some are still prepared to pay any pirce. Meanwhile, an outstanding string quartet which once shared $2,000 a night is being pressured to settle for half, or sacked.

  • M.Villeger says:

    Dear Norman, these examples are indeed very polite. From our experience, despite sending a cover letter, a CD, suggesting a recital/concert proposal, presenters/broadcasters do not even bother to say “thanks but no thanks”. Yet they all call in the evening to ask that we renew our subscriptions… Not a chance.
    Dear Mark, Those cold calls are just intolerable. Lucky we’re out most evenings at live performance. best, Norman