How the Recession is Impacting Music, Too

As the financial crisis ripples beyond Wall Street, the Classical music industry is being affected. Because this cultural segment relies on wealthy donors and audiences for its survival, opera houses and philharmonics are forced to cut back.

As the effects of the financial crisis ripple beyond Wall Street, there has been much talk about how various demographics will be impacted. You may have read the account of one dismayed cab driver in New York Magazine, for example, or a New York Times piece detailing the dimming of New York’s culture of greed (think lavish restaurants, pricey hotels and exclusive clubs).


Just recently, when rents skyrocketed and luxury chains gave a glossy tint to previously edgy neighborhoods, it was members of the indie music scene who declared a cultural crisis. And now, on the opposite end of the money-and hipness spectrum, classical music is being caught in the latest economic wave. Because this cultural segment relies on wealthy donors and audiences for its survival, opera houses and philharmonics are forced to cut back, Daniel J. Wakin of The New York Times reported on Monday.

“As it has everywhere else these days, the economic crisis has hit classical music, a particularly fragile corner of the nonprofit world that depends as much on donations as on ticket sales. Most managers are only in the fretting stage, but the plunge in stock prices, the credit squeeze and feelings of diminished wealth among donors and ticket buyers have begun to have concrete effects in a few places,” Wakin wrote.

These effects seem to be visible nationwide: New York City Opera, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Pasadena Symphony Orchestras have all taken cuts, whether it be in the form of canceled performances, crunched payrolls or increased borrowing costs. Some establishments, like The New York Philharmonic, saw their ever-crucial endowments drop this year.

So how are classically trained musicians, those who already work in a shrinking and brutally competitive field, affected? After all, only a small percentage of professional instrumentalists occupy a year-round orchestra seat.

Earlier this week, I exchanged emails with New York-based trombonist Marshall Gilkes, who maintains a busy recording and performance schedule domestically and abroad. Jazz is his main trade, but with a Juilliard degree under his belt, he is close to the city’s circle of classical musicians.

“Musicians always complain,” he wrote. “As a younger musician in New York, I have been hearing ever since I got to town how many gigs there used to be back in the “day”.”


Other than high gas prices increasing touring costs, he hasn’t yet felt any direct effects, Gilkes added. “Most of my gigs I have had on the books for months, and the stock market didn’t really tank until August.  I think that if I see a decline in work, it will be down the road.”

“From what I’ve heard, live music flourished during the Great Depression, but I think that these times are different.  It would be great if that happened again, but in New York it is expensive to go out and hear music.  $20 cover often plus a $10 minimum.  If people are pinching pennies, I don’t know if you’ll see them forking out to go hear music,” he wrote.