For those of you who are used to paying to attend a concert, the idea of a free concert may seem suspicious at first.
Is it free because the quality is not as good?
Is it free because there is a problem getting enough listeners?
Is it free because it takes too much effort to organise the ticket sales and seat reservations?
A concert production is not without cost for the venue owners, organisers, technicians, and performers. A composer friend of mine told me when I embarked on my composition studies that the last person to get paid is the composer, if at all. The pecking order of payments begins with the piano tuner if a piano is needed. It takes time and effort to get an audience, such as through publicity and invitations. The venue has to be cleaned and made ready for the live event. None of these costs are trivial.
At universities and conservatories, often the concerts are free because the focus is on performance. The performers matter more than the listeners. There is no budget or additional personnel assigned to revenue management.
Although having appreciative listeners is important to a performance, performers also need real-time opportunities to perfect their art. The optimal conditions under which we practise and rehearse do not necessarily help us when we go on stage. The concert hall may not be as quiet as our rehearsal room which has no audience to interrupt us. We don’t always get a chance to warm up or test the acoustics or instruments. A performance becomes a case of battling what could go wrong, i.e. what was not present when we were rehearsing.
In other words, musicians need risk-free opportunities to perform, make mistakes, and get trained in live concert situations. By risk-free, I mean, where their reputations do not risk getting tarnished.
Some unpaid concerts could be considered “tryouts” or practice concerts. Before a competition or an important concert, performers need an audience to “try out” their programme. Equally performers may need an audience to “experiment” their repertoire or ideas.
I once brought some colleagues and industry contacts to a full house concert in Houston for an improvisation by various pianists and a violinist. Wine was free flowing afterwards. My guests were overwhelmed and greatly inspired. They wanted to thank the hosts and performers but there was no mention of payment or donation.
I am sure they were all thinking “What a pity! I would have gladly paid to go to that free concert.” I have said that often when I lived in London and chanced upon a free concert which improved my day. At that Houston concert, as I learned later, the organiser wanted to test his ideas about improvisation. He invited me to participate in the performance, and I duly recruited half the audience.
Another reason for free concerts could be that tickets sales are not allowed. I was able to book the concert hall at the university in London for free because I taught there. The concerts had to be free.
Shortly afterwards I wrote to those who came to our free concert in London to answer questions about their experience of our concert. They were eager to give us constructive feedback which helped greatly in future performances.
So you could say that people who have enjoyed a free concert (in this case, the London audience were also fed an 8-course oriental gourmet buffet by a local restaurant who sponsored the event) would reciprocate in other ways, such as responding to a survey.
In public festivals like the Utrecht Uitfeest and the Open Monumentendag on 12 and 13 September in Utrecht, all performances were free. We were honoured to be invited to participate. Like others, we didn’t expect to be paid. And if we had asked to be paid, I’m sure the organisers would have found someone else more eager than we to take our place on stage.
What did we get out of playing for free this past weekend in Utrecht? Publicity. Feedback. Opportunity to play at new venues. Involvement in the local community. Sharing our music with people who otherwise wouldn’t come (or won’t pay for a concert).
How then do performers make a living if they play for free?
I don’t believe in performing without getting paid. There must be some kind of return, whether it be publicity, feedback, collaboration, or future performance opportunity. The best kind of reward, of course, is to be paid handsomely in cash before or just after the concert! And get another gig as a result of it.
We like those concerts that are free to attend, but we get paid well for it. This Sunday 20th September 2009 at noon, for instance, we will be playing a mixed programme at the Oosterkerk in Amsterdam. The two free (unpaid) concerts we gave in Utrecht last weekend could be considered “tryouts” for Amsterdam. But then, every concert is a tryout for the next one.