Tag Archives: economics

Buskin’ Bekkers with opera singer Reiche

“I am going to play on the streets of Utrecht,” Bekkers the Busker declared.

It’s not about how many coins he will collect in his guitar case.

It’s not what people think.

deh, Vieni, Non Tardar by Mozart, arranged by Robert Bekkers for guitar and voice

deh, Vieni, Non Tardar by Mozart, arranged by Robert Bekkers for guitar and voice

I recall reading articles on the economics of busking in an academic journal. After all the transaction costs of concertising in established concert venues, busking works out just as well.  An economist worked out the economics of busking in London. Here’s another one about busking in New York City. I remain skeptical how much money you can make from busking. But then, you don’t need to book a venue, do publicity, etc.

“I’m going to accompany Mirella Reiche. She has a license,” he added. Apparently you need a license to play in the streets of Utrecht, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands. “She will sing highlights from opera.”

Bekkers discovered that it was easier to arrange the guitar parts than to look for sheet music. “Most guitar arrangements,” he explained, “are written for guitar solo. I don’t have time to visit book stores or order online, if there are any at all. It’s faster for me to look at a piano accompaniment and arrange it for guitar.”

Ach, Ich Fuhl's by Mozart arranged for guitar and voice by Robert Bekkers

Ach, Ich Fuhl's by Mozart arranged for guitar and voice by Robert Bekkers

I have seen Mirella Reiche perform live on several occasions. She is very expressive when she sings. I can imagine her leading the crowd from joy to sorrow, from love to rage — all the emotions the great divas have expressed through the timeless arias of famous operas of Mozart, Puccini, and others.

Each day Robert Bekkers puts on his crisp white shirt and dark trousers and announces,”I’m going to town. I’ll be back in a few hours.” When he returns, he brings back coins which he throws into a big pickle jar. “By the end of the month,” he declares, “this jar will be full.”

Over coffee today I told a friend about Bekkers’ busking activities. “I think I heard someone sing yesterday. I was at the central library.” That’s where they were.

Bekkers (guitar) and Reiche (soprano) in central Utrecht, Netherlands 2 Aug 2011 photo: Iztok Klančar

Bekkers (guitar) and Reiche (soprano) in central Utrecht, Netherlands 2 Aug 2011 photo: Iztok Klančar

Tomorrow 3rd August 2011 at 2 pm Stadhuisbrug Utrecht (opposite the central public library) Robert Bekkers and soprano Mirella Reiche will perform the following opera arias:

Ach, Ich fühl’s
Meine lippen sie kussen so heiss
Mein Herr Marquis
Quando me vo
Mio Babbino Caro
Habanera
Dolente Imagine di fille mia (Bellini)
Tuute le Feste
Voi, Che Sapete
Deh, Vieni, Non Tardar
In Uomini, in Soldati
Je Veux Vivre

It’s the best training for a live performance, because it is a live performance in front of listeners who are free to come and go as they please and donate as they wish. In other words, a live performance is the best preparation for the next performance.

Robert Bekkers will give a solo guitar concert in the Grotekerk in the Hague (Den Haag) this Sunday 7th August 2011 at 2 pm. Free entry. Donations accepted. CDs for sale.

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Filed under arrangement, audience, composer, composition, concert, economics, guitar, personality, photos, sheet music, travel, venues

Using music to teach economics

While googling for “mathematics and music” today, I came across a useful website called “From ABBA to Led Zeppelin: using music to teach economics.

Now I love ABBA. I love the symmetry of the group’s name. I’ve been to the previews of the musical Mamma Mia when it first came out in London. I’ve seen the movie Mamma Mia in Utrecht, Netherlands. I’ve even staged my birthday party into an ABBA sing-along contest.

I love music. I love economics.

What better way to teach economics than to use musical examples? [I can’t say I can teach music using examples in economics although I am trying to write about it in this very blog: the economics of music.]

I would add Meatloaf’s “Two out of three ain’t bad” to the list of examples on that website. That’s about satisficing, i.e. not optimising. When you can’t get 100%, aim for what’s good enough.

How many of these popular tunes played at my fitness centre have lyrics that I can use for the new generation of university students? Could Black Eye Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” be about subjective probability?

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Music: a hobby or a profession?

I had an interesting conversation with our painter this afternoon. He has a portfolio career of teaching karate, sociology, and painting. Presumably being a sociologist pays the most. Karate keeps him fit. And painting? Whenever there is a demand for it.

As I’m doing my taxes right now, I complained that I have to make enough income to show that it’s not a hobby. So far, the expenses are way too high.

View in La Coruna, Spain in May 2009

View in La Coruna, Spain in May 2009

Last year, we went to Seville, Madrid, La Coruna, Ferrol, London, Paris, and Crete, not counting Venice, Florence, Rome, Dusseldorf, and Helsinki where I went without Robert.

Robert worked on a flamenco guitar project in Seville. We gave concerts in Madrid, La Coruna, and Ferrol. We went to London to check and relet my house. We took the train to Paris for a long weekend of inspiration. We spent a week in Crete, in an artist residency which culminated in an exhibition and concert in Brugge earlier this year.

We got a grant from a Dutch foundation and airfare from a Spanish electricity company for a concert.

The airfare enabled us to give the one concert (on the way) which actually paid us cash.

Airfare, accommodation, and living expenses were paid for the week in Seville, but no other income.

How can we say we’re professional musicians when it costs more to do it than to sit at home and do nothing?

Another way to look at it is to consider these activities as investment. They are necessary to scope the market.

Our painter said that he would most definitely get paid more if he was on a university payroll. But he could not conform. He preferred to freelance as a sociologist and accept the uncertainties of cashflow.

We too have to accept this income uncertainty if we want to be flexible. [See future blog about uncertainty and flexibility.] If there were an orchestra or an outfit or a conservatory or an institution that would hire us and pay us to do what we normally do, we would probably get paid more than our expenses.

Does such an institution exist? Pay us to fly to Seville, Madrid, La Coruna, Ferrol, London, Paris, and Crete?

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Filed under economics, travel

Concert economics: ticket price as a function of time

On my train journey from Leiden to Utrecht, I read an account of an economist’s ordeal in buying last minute concert tickets. It’s a fascinating tale of the way economists think and analyse scarcity and opportunity.

The price at anytime is determined by the information about supply and demand at that time. Without actual information, supply and demand is communicated through the perceptions of the price maker or his expectations.

There is never a truly sold out concert. There will always be incentives for ticket holders to sell. In this case, scalpers or touters get hold of extra tickets with the expectation that the concert will sell out and there will be people wanting to buy last minute tickets.

With plenty of time to transact, these touters ask for high prices.

The closer it gets to the concert, the more information is revealed, such as another source of tickets available for sale.

I often compare concert economics with that of airfares. Last minute airfares are expensive because airlines deliberately overbook. I tried it myself. [See The Myth of Last Minute Flights, Bon Journal, 2 January 2005] Ticket holders can’t exchange their tickets or sell back. As such, it’s rare they will cancel. As for concerts, people will cancel due to illness, new obligations, or other reasons. Concert reservations are rarely overbooked — instead, there is a waiting list.

I would love to see chamber music concerts sell out and witness the phenomenon described by the economist. More often times than not, concerts don’t sell out. Many concert producers don’t even use a pre-payment reservation system. Thus, nobody knows.

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Are house concerts profitable?

People ask me all the time if I make any money organising house concerts.

The answer is no.

Next question: why do you keep doing it?

Answer: to figure out how to make it profitable.

I don’t organise concerts because I love doing it. On the contrary, I do it for other reasons such as

  • to support musicians I like or curious about
  • to attract people to come so that I can get to know them better
  • to give something I have (a space, use of my grand piano)
  • to have an audience give attention to me when I speak about the music and the musicians or if/when I perform
  • to get more experience at producing concerts….. to eventually make it profitable.

If you were to ask if my costs are covered (i.e. all outgoing expenses), the answer is a resounding yes. I do breakeven. I don’t go into debt organising house concerts.

But that is not the meaning of profitable —- at least, not for me.

Steinway grand piano at Monument House Concert Series

Steinway grand piano at Monument House Concert Series

My definition of profitable is ample income to cover not only expenses but also time. So far, I have not been able to pay myself for the amount of time spent on making a concert happen. Neither am I able to pay those people that help me or collaborate with me. You could say it’s volunteer work. I have to give up practising, teaching, performing, or other activity that gets paid or leads to paid work.

There is a third definition of profitable in which the answer is also a resounding yes.

Profitable = the extra you get from a house concert which you didn’t have before

Some of these extras are

  • experience of collaborating with new people to make the concert happen
  • meeting new people (in the audience)
  • growing a network
  • publicity (a lot of attention is generated in the period leading up to the concert)
  • exposure to new music, composers, and musicians
  • developing better relationships
  • learning what to avoid and what to pursue next time
  • having quality conversations in a comfortable space

Is there a fourth definition of profitable?

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Filed under audience, concert, economics, research

Audio video to explain economics to an audience

After writing about the cultural economics of music tonight in “Just in time collaboration with composers and sound engineers,” I came across a tweet about online video from The Economist.

How long have these audio video presentations been available on the Economist website? How long have I been missing out?

The topics range from the economies of various countries to climate change and world population. I love the moving graphs and the clear explanations. Such video presentations make otherwise tedious reading interesting and bearable — and even entertaining.

There is a lot of good stuff in academic literature. But a lot of it is wrapped in passive tense, lost in long and winding sentences with vocabulary not in your average dictionary. I have read volumes of scholarly journals only with the help of strong coffee and tight deadlines. I have been to musicology seminars where the presenter reads from a sheet of paper on a topic that had lured a full house. The reading put us to sleep.

There is an audience. Engage them!

Do everything you can to reach the audience!

Even the Economist is trying new ways to get the message across. These “talking charts” are music to the readers’ ears.

As musicians, we cannot rely on our music to do the work. We have to establish a rapport with our audiences. The music doesn’t sell itself. We do.

Audience at Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo concert in Vestry Hall, London 30 May 2003

Audience at Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo concert in Vestry Hall, London 30 May 2003

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Just in time collaboration with composers and sound engineers

It takes just as much time to rehearse and get a string quartet of Mozart ready for performance today as it did 200 hundred years ago. But labour costs are nondecreasing, rising faster than productivity, as the economists Baumol and Bowen argued in their seminal book “The Performing Arts — the economic dilemma” (1966). Several economists, including Tyler Cowen, have refuted what has become known as the Baumol Cost Disease or the Baumol-Bowen Effect. [Read a good explanation in New Music Box.]

While it’s true that it takes just as much time to rehearse a piece now as when it was first composed or premiered, I believe there are other ways to overcome the cost disease and indeed negate its existence. One of the things I’m trying to do as a pianist is to play the same piece with different instrumentalists. Originally written for klarinet and piano, Schumann’s Fantasiestuck op. 73 works well with bassoon, horn, and cello. It’s like substituting ingredients in cooking. The result is not entirely the same but I don’t have to learn a new score.

Recently I told a composer that I had started working with a cellist. I posed the question, “I wonder how piano, guitar, and cello will sound together.” No sooner said than done, I received a new composition for this combination and shared it with the guitarist and cellist. After a few tries, we decided to record it and send to the composer as an mp3 file. This is what I call “just in time collaboration.”

Without notational software, the composer might have taken longer to compose this trio. He wouldn’t have been able to “publish” it as a PDF document and e-mail it us. Notational software such as Sibelius and Finale have become essential for composing, arranging, and transposing music.

Another example of a recent “just in time collaboration” happened today.

This morning the sound engineer who is mastering our first CD came to our home in Utrecht to set up a test recording. We had told him how difficult it was to find a suitable location for recording. We had gone to a church and found the reverberation too high. We had tried to record at a music school but got interrupted by outdoor construction. In the end, we hired a studio that was beyond our budget. He said that recording from home would save us time and stress and was eager to test our instruments and acoustics.

We played Piazzolla’s Tango number 2, originally for two guitars but arranged by English composer David Harvey for piano and guitar. We used our own Zoom recording device as well as the sound engineer’s professional close miking system. We were able to plug the results into the stereo system and listen right away.

Next we played the Fritz Kreisler version of Manuel de Falla’s Spanish Dance from the opera La Vida Breve. I was happily surprised to get the sample recording by e-mail this afternoon. Click to hear Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo play de Falla’s La Vida Breve on a 2005 Hilhorst concert guitar and 1909 New York Steinway.

I am sure there are other examples of how technology, advanced management practices, and operational research methods can reduce the high transaction costs of the performing arts. I would love to find a way to reduce the amount of administration that engulfs musicians. Please don’t tell me the obvious: hire an agent or an arts administrator!

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Filed under composer, economics, guitar, piano, recording, research, venues