Kate Maroney: Bring Back the Federal Music Project for the Digital Era.
Music in the Time of Corona A month ago, the plague that ravaged 14th-century Italy was far from most Americans’ minds. But on March 8 at St. Mark’s on Washington’s Capitol Hill, the Folger Consort and Modern Medieval Voices transported its audience to 1348 and a world unmoored by disease. The vocal work, set to Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” was written in the shadow of the Black Death. “To diminish the suffering, I would die,” reads one of the lines. “Life weighs on me.”
It was the last concert I sang in front of a live audience. Little did I know that in a few short weeks, our country would face a terrifying plague of its own—and that the isolation forced on us could end my career as a performing musician.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the extreme financial vulnerability of even the busiest freelance classical musician. Now singers and instrumentalists—along with the rest of the world—are isolated at home, cut off from our livelihoods. As we protect ourselves, our music fades away. It is time for the government to throw us a lifeline.
Performer contracts include a “force majeure” clause: if a performance is canceled because of an uncontrollable event, the employer is not obligated to pay the performer. In addition, the freelance artist, lacking traditional unemployment and health benefits, has little margin of safety. We can absorb the occasional invocation of “force majeure” in a blizzard. But with gigs canceled for months with no end in sight, we are in free fall.
Yet rarely has the world needed us more. Isolation affirms music as a universal basic human need. In an effort to connect with listeners despite the lockdown, a growing number of performers are live-streaming their art.
The gesture is well-meant by musicians, and well-received by audiences and critics. Performers are streaming recital series and creating ad hoc relief funds for colleagues and themselves. Churches are streaming music to their congregations on Sunday mornings. Orchestras, music conservatories, and opera companies are streaming past performances to stay relevant and provide content and comfort to their fan base.
But unless artists are compensated for their service, the digital concert is a fatal mistake.
Musicians have lost the battle to monetize recordings. With the internet awash in cheap streaming and free videos, our income now comes from live performance alone. Even if livestreams end up being only a short stopgap, offering them up for free on a large scale sets a dangerous precedent. Forced to be pioneers in this nuanced, digital field, we need to set the standard now—past performance footage is different than creating totally new content, for example. How do we assign value in an array of contexts?
How can we restore the viability of a performing career, with live performances cancelled and streaming unable to provide a living wage?
The answer is a public-private alliance inspired by the Federal Music Project of the Great Depression.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) helped American workers back on their feet after the Great Depression. Alongside the well-known infrastructure projects that created countless jobs, the administration created a branch entirely dedicated to music.
The Federal Music Project subsidized low-cost or free performances, commissioned new works, supported music education, and even created an archive of American folk culture. The FMP improved the quality of life for many American households during dark times, by financially supporting broadcasts. These were distributed to radio stations and transmitted directly into living rooms from coast to coast. Does this sound familiar?
It’s time to bring back the FMP, adapted to the digital era. Musicians and arts organizations who put content online should be given a base fee per livestream, and additional dollars per click. Professional musicians should be paid to create backing tracks so that those isolated at home can practice, learn, and create music in community.
Consumers will benefit, too. As many households face financial hardship, federal funding will help alleviate the emotional burden by supporting the delivery of music to personal devices, just as it underwrote radio broadcasts in the 1930s.
Big Tech, as the new gatekeeper of online music, has a necessary role to play in partnership with the government to support artists. As the winners of the streaming wars, companies like Apple, Amazon, and Spotify provide easily available, free or low-cost streaming with almost nothing in return for artists. Spotify pays artists three-tenths of one cent per stream. The rates top out at Amazon, who pays just over one cent. With a massive investment on the table from a new Federal Music Project, we have an opportunity to renegotiate the ground we’ve lost.
We are entering a period of immense suffering, as we are forced to isolate in order to survive. In the Decameron, Boccaccio describes a shuttered Florence with closed shops, spouses sitting in separate rooms to avoid infection, and people dying alone in the street. Art helps to alleviate and make sense of the suffering.
We do not know what the post-pandemic world will look like, or when we will again feel comfortable sitting together in concert halls with the artists who bring us food for our souls. If we want to experience live music in the future, it is urgent that we create funding and support so that musicians can survive today. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented solutions, but one thing is clear: the world needs music, and musicians need support. Our society must come together to keep the arts from dying.
Kate Maroney is a freelance mezzo-soprano active in New York City. She performs with dozens of groups around the country and is on faculty at the Mannes School of Music.