Opinion: Don’t make performing arts free online

Opinion: Don’t make performing arts free online


norman lebrecht

June 04, 2020

Australian academic Caitlin Vincent argues against putting performances online for free. That, she says, was how the newspaper industry was almost destroyed.

There’s a long-running adage about working for free in the performing arts. “The problem with working for exposure,” it goes, “is you can die from exposure”.

Only partly a joke, the saying is also a sober warning to performers. Work in the cultural industries is precarious, and performers rely on a combination of short-term gigs, casual contracts, and “day jobs” to make ends meet. Unpaid work is a common feature of the market, and performers often find themselves working without remuneration in order to make connections or add a line to their resume.

COVID-19 has exposed the true insecurity of the cultural workforce, and now we’re seeing the double-edged sword of “exposure” also extending to arts organisations.

Since March 2020, there has been a worldwide influx of digital arts content. Forced to shutter live seasons, performing arts organisations collectively jumped on the digital bandwagon. From live-streaming events to archival production footage, audiences are inundated with virtual performance events….

Read on here.



  • Mathias Broucek says:

    Yes, this. When the BPO digital concert hall is free (albeit temporarily) then what chance does any other orchestra have of SELLING content?

    Free/pirated music on YouTube plus the stupidly low royalties paid by many “respectable” streaming sites were already a huge area of risk

    • Henry williams says:

      I agree as i once wrote. I buy cds in order to help artists .record companies and
      Retailers earn a living also the audio retailer where i purchase my hi fi.

    • the Concertgebouw gave some concerts and documentaries online free during the lockdown and the RCO is used to do that on his wonderful website. And it’s a good publicity for the RCO, the service of the BPO is too expensive.

    • Tuba Minimum says:

      I’d argue the ship has already sailed on this. Just look at the mainstream music industry. Recordings and videos are not where they make their money. Those are just tools to keep the fan base connected and eager to go get the in-person experience. The recording is not the product. Not any more. It is the marketing and publicity for the product.

      This is probably even more necessary with classical music where we need more converts. You want the audience to be able to sing every note of Mahler 2 in their head to become such fans that they want the near religious experience of sitting in that seat. You want them hearing one piece that sparks them to go down an hours-long YouTube rabbit hole of listening to another and another. We need more people hearing this music. Plus if there is going to be public subsidy for these organizations through state support, that’s even more of a reason to give some of that music experience back to the public gratis.

  • FrauGeigerin says:

    Agree 100%. If we, musicians, don’t show people what the value of art and culture is by not handing out or work for free (online or otherwise), who is going to do it?

    • Anon says:

      Disagree. If the taxpayer is to be paying for the arts, the taxpayer deserves to be able to access the arts. No-one complains about museums and galleries being free to enter, this is seen as desirable. An orchestra which does not take state subsidy is free to make content free or charge for it. An orchestra which is heavily state-funded should surely do everything it can to get the art is creates to those who pay for it.

      • Edward says:

        Most ‘free’ museums and galleries will have a ‘suggested donation’ box at entry/exit, and also have gift shops and cafes to increase revenue. Do you think state schools shouldn’t charge entry for a school fete because they are taxpayer funded?

        • Anon says:

          @ Edward, most orchestras will also have a donation request writ large in their concert programmes, sometimes made in person from the stage. Many of those streaming content for ‘free’ online right now have a donation request in text form, around the video, or embedded as part of it. No difference, really.

          (A school fete (which typically don’t charge an entry fee, it’s more usually a ‘suggested donation’) is a distraction here. It is an additional event designed to raise funds, and not a core part of the school offering which the taxpayer is paying for. It’s the equivalent of an orchestra’s annual fundraising gala, or a special donor event.)

      • comment says:

        The importance of art remaining accessible to the largest audience is not to be questioned. But when a museum is free to enter, the people working there are still paid. This may be true also for the performers of a freely shared online performance (if they are permanent members of an orchestra for example), but for many freelancers who supplement permanent orchestras on a per project basis, this is not the case. So the question of devaluating the “cultural product” by sharing it for free without giving the possibility to the (online) audience to show appreciation for it by giving money that would eventually reach the performers remains relevant to me.

        • Tuba Minimum says:

          Strategically speaking, recordings are not what pay orchestra salaries, or at least they haven’t bee a significant line item in decades. Most orchestras never recoup recording costs. But they do so for prestige and brand. I think this debate comes down to rethinking what is your product, and what is actually the advertising for it.

        • Anon says:

          For sure. But freelancers -are- paid for their time and expertise playing their instrument in a concert, just as the contract players are. This is the same as a museum curator, host, researcher or other staff, all of whom continue to be paid for their time and expertise regardless of a fee-or-free entry charge.

      • Equally says:

        It’s refreshing to see a fellow Republican on this type of blog Anon…


      • FrauGeigerin says:

        You are assuming that all music performances are state founded, and that is unfortunately not the case.

  • Tamino says:

    Absolutely right.
    Beyond the non-tangible role of the arts, in the economical perspective the arts are a service to society like many others.
    Every Dollar or Euro invested into the arts comes back multiple times, as several studies have shown again and again.
    Since the point of sales of said services is detached though from the beneficiaries (not only audience but whole society), it requires well educated and cultured minds in governments, to understand the indirect effects and support the arts accordingly.
    Investing into art is very good business for society as a whole.

  • jk says:

    There is plenty of data and studies, especially from the US, about charging for the arts and all of them show that audiences and visitors want, should, and do pay willingly for its services. Look at the data…

    In the few cases where it does make sense to provide free services, patron/donor information should still be collected.

  • Fiddlist says:

    There’s nothing like a live concert experience. When it’s safe to perform live again, people will come back in droves, regardless of what happened in the interim. People need to chill out and stop telling other people not to share their music in the only way possible right now.

    • Henry williams says:

      There is nothing like a live concert. If you have the most expensive hi fi you still
      Will not here every instrument in a symphony clearly especially the cello section.

  • Giovanni says:

    If organizations are receiving funding from governments, as many do in many countries, the organizations have to do something to justify their continuing receipt of the funding. Offering free content online would seem to justify public funding.

  • Anon says:

    I’d disagree with this. Concerts, the traditional way of making music available, do not earn an arts organisation a profit – they cost money and make a loss. Recordings rarely make money either (generally, any more), they make a loss. Both activities are about getting great art to people who want to experience it, and both are funded by a combination of state and local subsidies, sponsorships, and donors.

    Whether online content is free to access, or comes with a barrier charge, it will generally need the funding mix above to exist. The only substantive difference will be the number of people who access and experience it.

    State subsidy is about making arts available for all; corporate sponsorship can be a mix of that same goal and getting a company’s logo or brand seen by association, preferably by as many potential clients as possible; and donors largely give because they want to support great art, and have it available for others.

    Restricting those who can see content online by charging for it simply removes much of the rationale for any of those funders to bother supporting the art-form in the first place. Classical music as a whole is not a commercial marketplace, and it may well be that ‘free’ content, available to all (in the same way that many architectural masterpieces from Cathedrals onwards; and art galleries; and museums are free to enter) is what helps underpin a strength of subsidy necessary for these organisations to survive.

  • MacroV says:

    I understand the point, and at least with the Digital Concert Hall I’m paying for that particular content. But from a convenience standpoint it would be quite difficult to pay every different site where I may stream – maybe if everyone posted on Youtube’s paid site you’d have a solution.

    That said, I’m hopeful that when live performance is safe again, people will stream back to the concert hall; watching things on the internet just isn’t the same as being there.

    • SVM says:

      Bad idea to concentrate all offerings on one site. Google (which owns Youtube) already has a quasi-monopoly as matters stand, and can thus already censor or underpay artists at will (the details of Youtube’s licence deal with PRS are kept secret even from PRS members); if anything, we need *more* platforms, not fewer… and a better infrastructure for ensuring that royalties actually reach the right people (Youtube’s ContentID system may work for illegal uploads of commercial albums, but is useless for self-published classical music — I have seen too many mistaen attributions *even* when superstar artists are involved).

    • Tamino says:

      Why should it be difficult? Is it difficult for you to pay on every website where you shop online? I don’t see the problem.
      It’s not like you have to go to the post office to mail them a cheque. Or do you have to do that?

  • Charles says:

    The current issues facing live music and other cultural events are so huge. Surely they are not going to be sorted in any way by removing a few Youtube performances that are usually free for only a few days?

  • Always the same says:

    I was never interested before but inthisspecialtimes™️ I checked the Met catalogue and was disgusted. Multiple streams of the same old productions, Otto Schenk costume parties, changing singer stars and conductors, 70something operas with Levine conducting, etc. I feel this will be the outcome of buyers programs. Pay to play will stop any classical music after 1920.

  • Theodora says:

    Artists receive nothing if they do not perform live as scheduled whether the orchestra / opera company has received state subsidy or not. They are then being expected to freely grant streaming rights to ‘justify’ the subsidy an organisation has received. The artist is subsidising the art form for the benefit of the audience / society so is actually part of the funding mix that no one mentions.

    • Anon says:

      By this logic, there’s a choice for an artist, which is (a) no performances = no icon. Refuse to have performances streamed, still no income. Hope for the best.
      (b) no performance = no income. Allow performances to be streamed, still no income. Hope for the best.
      Surely (b) provides a greater likelihood of ‘the best’ happening after lock-down, if those streams have either generated an income which has helped sustain the organisation centrally, or have been part of a programme which has kept donors close and the money coming in to fund future performances? Scenario (a) sticks two fingers up at those who fund the artist in the first place, and isn’t likely to give a warm glow of appreciation. And when your competitors are doing it, staying silent isn’t a good option.

  • IntBaritone says:

    Sorry folks, but if the music is online, I will choose a recording of Pavarotti or Corelli or Carreras in Tosca over any tenor today. And since the former is already free on Youtube, there’s no way I would pay for the latter.

  • Dave says:

    For now make viewing of orchestras and operas free. Keep an interest in those institutions. When “normalcy” returns, whatever that will mean, return to a pay per view. Those who want such things will pay to watch.

  • Sharon says:

    I have not been watching or listening to online orchestral content but I have been watching on line theater and dance. What I see mainly are videos of previous performances most of which are at least a couple of years old, some of which require an under $20 fee but many are free and as are clips of other performances. There are also a lot of free interviews, lectures, classes etc.

    In addition I am getting many emails mainly for fund raising but also describing their on line programming from theater and dance companies every day.

    Personally, as someone who attended off Broadway and off-off Broadway performances pretty much every week I would prefer more on line videos of full performances but I understand how companies are afraid to put out a lot full performance videos for free.

    With regard to live content there are technical issues with performing when people are in different locations. I don’t know how the orchestras are doing it but when my virtual college reunion tried something as simple as a group zoom “sing” of college songs there were problems with “lags” I know that there are ways around this but they require a lot of technical know how and equipment that many small arts organizations do not have the know how, especially right now, to buy.

    Although it may not be of interest to everyone there is something to be said for promoting “aesthetic appreciation” through these programs. People appreciate the arts more if they know more about it, the history of it, how it is produced technically etc.

    Most major arts organizations always did some of this anyway. For ex the New York City Ballet has some sort of educational program affiliated with every major performance for its members (donors) as well as “First Position” talks during intermissions and occasionally hour long lectures prior to the performance for selected performances open to all ticket holders. Others put out booklets or have educational content on their websites.

    Right now smaller organizations such as off – off Broadway theater companies are doing this as well on line.

    By doing this education now online they are keeping themselves in the public’s mind and hopefully increasing people’s interest in their performances when they reopen. Let’s hope so.