This thing caught us all unawares. Disney were preparing to launch their new subscription TV channel on March 24th in many European countries, including the UK, just as those countries headed into lockdown. Disney’s course of action was clear – they immediately stopped production on their new content, told the content creators they couldn’t afford to pay them and laid them off, put all their existing content online for free, and appealed to the public for donations to help them through the current crisis.
Just kidding. Obviously.
What Disney in fact did was to keep producing their new content, increased their marketing, and heavily promoted an attractive offer of around 12% off for early subscribers. Speaking anecdotally, it was more than enough to make me sign up, with the prospect of several weeks at home and a lot of spare time suddenly looming.
Disney already had a viable business model for home entertainment set up, and so they were well-placed to cash in on a newly captive audience. And it’s to mutual advantage: subscribers can stump up £5 a week or so, knowing that their contribution will lead to more of the content that they enjoy. It really doesn’t take much – one or two flagship shows in most cases. I’m happy that my contribution to Netflix will help finish Better Call Saul, and similarly with NOW TV and Westworld.
So where did I get that nonsensical example in paragraph one? Say hello, ladies and gentlemen, to the fairytale world of classical music.
I’m combining separate examples for dramatic effect of course, although there are a few companies who have reacted in pretty much all of these ways. Elements of this response are apparent across the industry – freelance artists have been instantly laid off with minimal or no compensation, the cap has been passed round to the usual long-suffering and endlessly generous supporters, and most bizarrely, vast archives of digital content have been put online for free.
Now, if we are to assume that the current crisis will last a matter of a few weeks, and that we’ll all be back to normal by the beginning of the autumn season, this approach might make some sense. With strong hints over the last few days from the UK and Scottish governments, Angela Merkel, Bill Gates and others, that realistically we need to think in terms of months and years rather than weeks – in other words, well into 2021 if not beyond – the penny should be beginning to drop that the wait to get back to “normal” may be a far longer one. There is even a non-negligible chance that this could be a permanent new “normal”.
For companies, a theatrical lockdown which reaches into next year means a long time to go without ticket income, or to rely on audience generosity with nothing to offer in return. For individual artists, it would take most of us beyond the period for which we had confirmed contracts, leaving us without even the support those might have offered, and truly out on a limb.
What then for an industry which has over the last few decades, rightly or wrongly, put all its eggs in the basket of live performance?
This business of releasing digital content free of charge was not without a certain logic, after all. The idea (I infer) was to treat it as a loss leader, to drum up interest (albeit often via a mechanism which was so vague that one suspected it didn’t necessarily exist in any genuine detail at all) in buying tickets for live performances – some of which might, with a bit of luck, turn out to be profitable.
But there was always a flaw in the reasoning here. A video recording of a live performance is, in itself, an artistic product, and there was really never any reason why, with some marketing legwork, a viable paying audience couldn’t have been built up for it over time. The era when people were used to getting movies and TV shows (as opposed to music – that’s a separate set of problems) online for nothing is very much over. If you’re not a Disney+ subscriber, and decide you want to watch Return of the Jedi on YouTube this evening, it’ll set you back £6.99. Would it really take much for classical music audiences to undergo the same paradigm shift? Almost all of the freelance artists we’re watching in those classical broadcasts are currently unemployed and trying to figure out how they’re going to survive the next couple of years. Most of them will not be being paid for these broadcasts, and many would have received next to nothing for them in the first place. Would it be too much to ask that we take the opportunity to invite current viewers to contribute to their livelihoods? In fact, had we already done the work to establish the principle of paying for getting classical music on your TV screen, this could have been a genuine boom time for the industry.
Let me give you a concrete example. My YouTube channel contains a song recital playlist, which I made at my own expense a couple of years ago and which, between the various tracks, now has over 10,000 views. While I make no comment on the singer’s performance, the quality of audio and video is high, and at, say, 49p a view I could not only make a decent profit, but more to the point have the financial capacity to produce similar content once or twice a year at least – even under the current restrictions on social distancing and so on. However, the reality is that my huge, and in many cases hugely subsidised, competitors have set the going rate for viewing online classical music content at precisely zero. So I make a loss, and viewers are denied the ongoing production of new high-quality content. It’s the artistic equivalent of burning fossil fuel. And as with the boar seller in Asterix and the Cauldron, everybody loses.
This moment in history could be an opportunity to think about the most fundamental basis of how our industry works. Without going into the personal details of the Placido Domingo affair and similar recent scandals, a business which sets itself up such that it relies on huge corporate and individual donations, and therefore needs to give them in return, among other things, some special sort of privileged access to “stars” which it is then obliged to create and place in positions of unassailable power, has created an almost-inevitable problem for itself. We lean on subsidies so that a proportion of our tickets can be sold below cost price, allowing the entire industry to adopt a head-in-the-sand attitude to the fact that ours is an expensive product to make. At some point it’s surely not a moral outrage to ask those who consume it to pay for it. What might a truly egalitarian opera industry – where audiences are invited to make a grown-up decision to pay for what they’re getting – look like?
And let’s think again about that expense. Our productions are expensive – but on the scale of television and cinema budgets, not impossibly so, especially if we begin to apply ourselves seriously to the idea of a potential global, at-home paying audience.
When we come to live theatrical performance, there’s no getting away from the challenges presented. If we’re honest, theatre was already approaching something of a watershed regarding audience expectations of mutually acceptable behaviour and how to share a space in the modern world. Will we need to rethink venues entirely – around a comfort-based individual experience, rather than cramming ‘em in? Will theatrical boxes make a serious comeback? Stuart Murphy’s latest brainstorm for ENO, touting the idea of drive-in opera, raises more questions than it answers. But at least it’s a sign that the industry may be willing to go back to first principles, which is surely the least the situation will demand – and this is not to mention how we might configure our singers and orchestra members at a safe distance from each other. Perhaps it’ll be like the post-AIDS porn industry, and we’ll need medical certificates before we can perform together without protection.
Let’s take the worst-case scenario, and say that the idea of staging a show in front of a live audience of thousands is a thing of the past. We’d all take a moment to mourn that loss. But as grown-up professional artists, our job is to imagine these scenarios, and prepare to meet these challenges. Opera and classical music on video has almost always been hamstrung by the limitations of pointing cameras at a stage, filming something with the pace and scale of theatre and concert hall rather than cinema or TV. It may be time to revisit seriously what we might be able to achieve by designing pieces from the ground up for screen rather than stage.
Being restricted by the parameters of works designed for theatrical audiences two centuries ago is a choice we make, and other routes are available. If the ideal material to take advantage of a home broadcast format is limited or unavailable, we have a vast number of hugely talented composers, librettists, directors and designers who could produce it afresh. Acting styles might need to adapt, but they always have done in response to the dramatic tastes of the day. In addition, the quality of video and audio equipment people have at home is, in general, unrecognisably superior to what was available when these questions were first being addressed half a century ago. How do we make opera relevant to now? Making it now, for now, is always a good start.
This thing caught us all unawares. We’ve had a chance to grieve for the art that we’ve already lost. Take another moment to do so if you need it. But at some point we either choose to give up, or to get our thinking caps on and embrace this grimly terrifying, weird, and yet potentially wonderful new world, and ask whether it holds a place for those who seek to make viable, sustainable, profitable art. Are we up for it?