Search for “free concerts in Boston” and you will find a list on the calendar of Boston.com. However, this is only a partial list. Browse the websites of the New England Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, Longy School of Music, Boston Public Library, to name a few, and you will find free concerts nearly every day in this part of New England.
What’s the catch, you say? Why are concerts free?
It’s a question of supply and demand and motivation. If the supply of eager musicians is greater than the demand for them, you would expect musicians to play for free. Not so. Don’t forget there is a need for a venue to be used. Free concerts is one of the best ways to get people to come and stay.
There is a cost to administering ticket sales. Educational institutions, churches, and libraries have a tradition of offering free concerts. Educational institutions such as conservatories and universities exist primarily to educate. Their students need to perform. And in the process, they open their doors to the public.
The church exists to serve the community. If you’re not already a member of the congregation, how else will you feel “invited” to enter its space? A free concert is a great way to attract people to enter a space otherwise used for worship. I was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming the First Baptist Church in Newton was to toddlers, preschool kids, and mothers who were still nursing their babies. I felt connected to a real community — not just those who could afford to leave their children with babysitters.
If the venue itself is not enough to attract musicians, they have a budget to pay the musicians. And then there’s effort required to get people to come to the concerts.
Whether or not the concert is free has no bearing on the quality of the performance. However, the audience is somewhat correlated with the venue.
The free Sunday afternoon concert at Newton Free Library was completely packed with local residents when I arrived on my bicycle on June 8th. After the ten minute intermission, at least two-thirds of the audience had disappeared. I didn’t mind. It meant less rustling of papers and fidgeting in chairs. I was delighted to be sitting in the front row with no distractions in front or on the sides. Afterwards, I introduced myself to the pianist and flutist who were on the faculty of Boston University. As usual, I discovered we knew someone in common.
People attend concerts for different reasons. With ample publicity, performance halls can be filled. Sometimes it requires a regularity and a sufficiently long tradition to build a following. The competition for people’s attention is fierce. It’s not just against other events but also the weather. On a sunny day, it’s hard to sit inside for long periods. Perhaps that’s why people leave after the intermission. And that is also why it’s hard to go into the basement for a free concert of Ginastera and Villa Lobos string quartet at the Boston Public Library, one that was introduced in English and Spanish.
Audience reasons for attending free concerts:
- venue is nearby (convenient)
- love the music
- know the performers
- fan of the performers
- know the music
- free time
- no better way to spend the free time
- someone else is going
- want to go with a group or be part of the social group
- want to learn or be exposed to the music
- want to get to know the performers
- want to check out the venue
- curious about the venue, the concert, the musicians, the music, etc.
- want to support the venue, concert series, artists, etc.
- want to introduce music to others — hence bring others to the concert
- want to be seen
- want to be intellectually challenged by the music
- want to be moved by the music
Can you think of other reasons?