• James Dargan

James Dargan: The World We Want

By now, most of us have spent a while inside, cooped up with family, roommates, pets, or even just our own thoughts. In all the restlessness and worry, sometimes my brain wanders to all of the things I thought I needed, before Corona (or as Black Twitter says, Rona), and can't have now. Ample food delivery options, subway trains that fit my schedule, easily accessible museums and libraries; I thought these were necessary parts of my spoiled New Yorker life, but now they are near the bottom of my priorities.


I'm sure that you all can make your own mental lists of things you miss, things you don't need, and things you're anxious to get back to, in whatever world we have after COVID-19. 

What if some of the constants of our music industry are similarly unessential? What if we can replace these constants from our old industry with something new and sustainable? What if--when we're allowed back in our concert venues--we can make a better musical world than the one that's currently stalled?

Pre-Rona, conductors like James Levine, and singers like David Daniels and Placido Domingo showed us the danger of unfettered star worship. Levine's talent was enough for many musicians (and the whole PR machine of the Met) to excuse his decades of assaulting men and boys, while Daniels and Domingo also leveraged their fame to assault and harass their students and colleagues; their behaviour was an open secret turned mainstream news indictment of the power imbalances in our business. As a community, we should be more deliberate about believing victims of sexism and racism, be more rigorous about holding leaders like Levine, Daniels, and Domingo to higher behavioral standards, and make consent non-negotiable, no matter what.


Although we've started to call out the sexism and racism built into our training and hiring systems,we can do better. A pervasive misogyny emanates from every echelon of our industry. Though it has absolutely nothing to with vocal quality, female auditioners are still held to the outdated 'rule' that they should only wear jewel-toned wrap dresses, and even non-singers recognize the fat shaming opera singer stereotype of the large woman with a horned helmet. The mostly white male composers of our most frequently performed repertoire, the white male conductors, and the overwhelmingly white donors that prop up this whole system are all products of this sexism, and reinforce it. We have made only tiny steps towards fighting this, and arguably even smaller movements against racism in music: a simple look at the orchestras and choirs, even in metropolitan areas, reveals how few Black and non-Black musicians of color there are on stage, and the absence of melanin up and down the chain of command means that blackface, brownface, and yellowface are still somehow a thing in opera. We cannot in good conscience say that the music we make is a necessary gift to humanity if the way we present it just reinforces age-old inequalities.

When it comes to issues of diversity, equality, and inclusion, keeping implicit bias out of the audition process is difficult. I and many of my Black friends have sung our favorite Bach or Handel in choral auditions, been told how surprising it was to hear us sing early music so well, then complimented on our ‘soulfulness’, before we were ushered out. Those on audition panels have preconceptions of everything based on physical appearance, including voice type, musicianship, and level of professionalism. Subverting those expectations often gets you nowhere. People are conditioned to make these assumptions about each other, and similarity bias means they will also favor (and hire) those with whom they feel they have the most in common. Surprisingly, blind auditions don’t completely solve this problem, especially when it comes to female auditioners; a segment on vocal fry from NPR’s This American Life has a particularly enlightening section on sexism over the radio, the ultimate non-visual medium. Publicly posting auditions online seems like a good strategy, until we consider that all our social media feeds are filtered, so that the groups with the least diversity are also likely to have homogeneous friend groups.


This is why I’m in favor of ensembles aggressively recruiting Black and POC musicians, because tiptoeing around the problem has gotten us nowhere. There is no shortage of Black and POC classical music talent if presenters are willing to look. The ultimate criteria for a musician should be their musical ability, not their gender, skin color, or anything else. When we are once again allowed to give concerts, all white or all male ensembles should be left in the past. 

Every musician has many stories of being paid less than a fair wage. Early in my career, I accepted a couple hundred dollars to record some baroque motets, over four hours of rehearsal and a three hour recording session. The contractor/conductor/ensemble founder blew past the end time of our session, and though we managed to lobby for a short break, we ended up singing for an extra hour at least. When I brought up these concerns, the conductor told me that if I didn’t want to sing anymore, then I didn’t have to, but that I was “very rude and unprofessional”. We were never paid for our overtime, and that conductor never spoke to me again in public, even going so far as to shove me out of the way during a group conversation.

Our musical industry is built on paying 'management positions' (conductors, general managers, executives) much more than performers producing the soundwaves, and when COVID hit, those performers were let go with brutal efficiency. 


After this crisis, we can make a fresh start with how we show the value of our time, by knowing our worth and clarifying the unpaid preparation that goes into learning music, particularly for time-intensive solo contracts. Every gig requires a constantly evolving skillset, and when we negotiate we should include gig-specific work (coaching, lessons, memorization time) in our decision making process. Showing up for a first rehearsal with music unlearned or unmemorized is rightly seen as unprofessional, but we aren’t paid for anything we do before we show up to the gig. Building these pre-call expenses into our individual fees will help our whole community, since contractors who want the best performances will pay for the best pre-concert training and preparation. 

Some of the first arts casualties of this pandemic were the so-called 'big houses': Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and many other home bases of storied ensembles were forced to close, and so those ensembles have taken heavy financial losses. What projections we have say that it'll take at least until 2021 for large gatherings to convene again, and that social distancing might be part of our lives until 2022. No matter how robust the online presence of major presenters, their bloated budgets and high fixed costs ensure heavy financial losses during social distancing, and their size exacerbates the challenge of recovery. 

In the post-pandemic landscape, we must learn and adapt from the failures of these organizational behemoths. If we want to attract audiences of any size, we must emphasize what will draw them in, not just what we want to hear; the number of staff and performers involved does not determine the artistic calibre of what we do, and erring on the side of nimbleness will benefit us, after governments relax social distancing.


Boston-based ensemble Dunamis is one example of a group built on some of these next-gen organizational principles. They intentionally prioritize ‘training and empowering professionally-competent emerging artists of color,’ with a mandate of ‘building diverse audiences and creating arts patrons (modified from their own website).”


Dunamis offers a variety of performances and interactive events, and by listening to feedback from their audiences, they’ve created a loyal fanbase with a rate of return guests above ninety percent. They have a lean group of staff and board members, mostly working musicians, and they give concerts in a variety of in-person and online platforms, so they are well set up to weather this storm and thrive when it clears.

I know some of us are used to presenting masterpieces with a horde of our colleagues around us, and see the biggest pieces of music as the greatest. But going forward, we should grow in the direction of our audiences, choosing our repertoire based on what will move them, and presenting it in a way they will enjoy! An ultra-modern piece can be thrilling for any audience, if it's well performed and contextualized, and a solo instrument or voice is as capable of bringing someone to tears as a symphony. 


Whatever happens, however much the novel coronavirus halts the music industry machine, we cannot let it stop musicians. The music needs to be heard, and people will need to hear it even more than before. Let's make sure that--when our audiences return--we greet them with kindness, empathy, and the joy of being together again. 


James Dargan is an aggressively nerdy baritone, violinist, and composer, who writes about Black music, and race in classical music.


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