The Column: Is Kickstarter Bad for Classical Music?

By James Inverne on Sep 18, 2013 06:53 AM EDT

Hear, all ye who would be enlightened: There is a new Messiah, and his name is Kickstarter. For the far-seeing prophets of the classical music world are turning to this new son of man in order to fund their musical worship. But be warned, this Messiah could be a false Messiah, verily a golden calf, and if the masses worship a false god they should beware, lest they be smited and just basically left up the creek without a paddle.

All of which is a way of saying, crowd-sourcing is in. Online schemes like Kickstarter are becoming ever more popular, and not just with niche artists. New York City Opera are among those who have taken to the promise of a pot of gold at the end of the Kickstarter rainbow, amid some criticism at what seems to some to be a haphazard, uncertain way of doing business.

It is both of those things. But NYCO are presumably in dire need, figure they have nothing to lose by asking the great public for some readies and might benefit from the publicity of being one of the first big companies to go this route. What could possibly be the danger, aside from not actually achieving the financial targets they have set for their campaign? It has worked for some big projects in other areas of the arts, not least the indie film sector.

In fact, the dangers are myriad. Look, Europe, the U.K. and the U.S. by and large employ three different models of funding live classical music (other than prayer, which I suspect is common to all). In Europe, a tradition of lavish state funding has left some arts organizations in confusion, as the recession caused a great reining in of that government-bestowed gift (which has in many states been greatly reduced, though in countries such as Spain it remains high compared to the U.K.). In Britain, arts funding has rarely been lavish, but it has usually been just about enough to get by with ticket sales and sponsorships thrown into the mix. In the U.S., the government funding of classical music is miserly by European standards, so patronage bears the heaviest load.

Each of these systems has pros and cons. The greatest risk with the American system has been that managements assume that patrons want endless retreads of a small number of old favorites--Bohèmes, Pathétiques, Eroicas. In fact, though there is an element of truth to that, quite often sponsors, both private and corporate, realize that to be artistically healthy and to be perceived as relevant, new and challenging work should, to an extent, be encouraged. Not too much mind, but it's there. Usually.

But with the crowd-source model, who the heck knows what the funders--the nameless, faceless, seething multitude--actually want? Nobody knows who they are, so they don't know what they really want. If what they are being asked to fund is an organization's very existence, that is so general as to potentially engender terrified paralysis in a programmer. Would you really risk programming Berio if you know that your organization's very continuation relies on the ongoing, but unstated approval of a large mass of people, each ready to donate a small amount (or not) that adds up to a crucial sum? Well, you might, but you might equally reason that Berio is great but divisive, whereas everybody loves the Bruch Violin Concerto, as long as it's well done and with a starry violinist.

It's terrifying. In saving some of our musical institutions, crowd-sourcing might just destroy them.

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TagsJames Inverne, The Column, Kickstarter, New York City Opera, La Boheme, Pathétique Sonata, Eroica Symhphony, Berio, Bruch, Violin Concerto

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