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Deconstructing “Free” Concerts

I’ve been obsessing over and worrying about one of my favorite subjects lately: how to get more arts stuff for free. (I’ve written about this topic at SundayArts before: here and here and here and here.) With the economy in its current state, “free” of course is a big topic this year—just look at all the attention Chris Anderson’s new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. I’ve been reading that book, whose message boils down to: yes, a lot in the media and tech industries is being given away free that used to be paid for (Hulu/YouTube, Google searches and applications, Facebook pages, webmail accounts, newspapers). And you—the consumer—are the beneficiary. (Another, decidedly less upbeat book on the topic, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell, just came out, though that’s more about physical products like food and clothing than Anderson’s Web and other tech products.)

It is Juilliard’s 2009-10 season announcement that prompted my most recent round of obsessing, with its phrase “almost 700 dance, drama, and music events—most of them are free.” All kinds of great (free and nearly free) events are set for their season, such as pianist Alfred Brendel lecturing and coaching during a four-day residency in November; concerts by the brand-new ensemble Juilliard Baroque, featuring faculty from the school’s new Historical Performance Program; Handel’s Ariodante, Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, Conrad Susa’s Transformations, and Copland’s The Tender Land. The world premiere of Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky’s Paths of Parables II: Woody Allen’s Hasidic Tales with a Guide to Their Interpretation by the Noted Scholar with texts by Woody Allen, for narrator and chamber orchestra. Good stuff, and I plan to get to as many of these events as time permits.

Yes, we New Yorkers are the lucky beneficiaries of all these high-level artistic offerings, for free or for close to the price of a movie in the theater. As I am before the start of every season, I am happy to see the breadth and quality of these performances, and to welcome to New York the next crop of aspiring artists.

Julliard FacadeBut I am also worrying about this. I’ve been perusing the July-August issue of Chamber Music, which publishes an annual advertising section on conservatories and schools of music. And the tuition numbers published there are truly scary, if you’re a music student. Among the schools listed there: Bard College Conservatory of Music ($39,080), Boston University School of Music ($37,910), Cal Arts School of Music ($34,830), Juilliard ($28,640), Manhattan School of Music ($31,400), and Mannes College The New School for Music ($31,440). (A couple of music schools—Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and Los Angeles’s Colburn School—are all-scholarship and do not charge tuition.) Even given that these schools overwhelmingly offer scholarship money to students—most offer more than 80 percent of students some scholarship aid—it’s pretty certain that by the time room and board and books/supplies are factored in some of these students will come out of a four-year education with somewhere between $80,000 and $200,000 in debt. Not factoring in inflation.

So, to vastly oversimplify, these talented students (or their parents) are, in some sense, subsidizing their own performances. Obviously, ticket sales wouldn’t even come close to covering their tuition cost, and that’s not the point here. But it’s one thing to be a poor musician with a student loan like the one I had to pay back after attending an expensive four-year college ($10,000 at $112.63 per month for ten years) and having to pay off a minimum of $80,000. I am pretty sure wages have not gone up eightfold in the years since I graduated from college—I’m old but not that old.

But another scenario—to contrast the post-conservatory debt prediction above—is the one produced by the combination of tighter available credit from lending institutions and shrunken nonprofit endowments. Your average up-and-comer who attends Juilliard is a lot more likely to have a family who can afford the tab than a lower-class or middle-class background. And that is too bad, especially because there is a genuine nonmonetary benefit to pursuing a career in music or art or theater—even if a student doesn’t end up with the sort of performance career he or she originally envisioned. The benefit is that these students are learning to produce an actual product—music—that has value and worth, both to themselves and to the people to come to hear it. And that worth should not be taken lightly. So the next time you go to a free concert, just think about exactly what it is that you are getting for free, and who is paying for it.

Image: Photograph of the renovated facade of the Juilliard School building, at 65th and Broadway, New York City. Photo by Paul Masck.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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