In an interesting new piece in The Atlantic, Edward Tenner discusses the rapid increase in musical virtuosity over the past generation, to the point where bygone masters would have trouble simply gaining acceptance to Julliard today. There is a downside, however — the flowering of new talent has been accompanied by a contraction in job opportunities:
[t]he vast number of people with the desire to perform will continue to greatly exceed the number of openings. New musicians or singers will have their best chance of landing a job with smaller, community-based performing arts groups or as freelance artists. Instrumentalists should have better opportunities than singers because of a larger pool of work. Talented individuals who are skilled in multiple instruments or musical styles will have the best job prospects. However, talent alone is no guarantee of success: many people start out to become musicians or singers but leave the profession because they find the work difficult, the discipline demanding, and the long periods of intermittent unemployment a hardship.
Bad as things are in the US, it bears no relationship to conditions in many developing countries where extremely talented classical musicians can be found playing in hotel lobbies: concert quality pianists and heartbreakingly good string quartets provide background music for the cocktail hour. In Thailand, I’ve heard beautiful pieces echoing through a mall as wonderful pianists performed in the midst of unheeding crowds. Life in Russia is also tough for the dedicated musicians determined to carry on one of the world’s great musical traditions.Teaching at Bard I have the opportunity to spend time with incredibly talented and dedicated young musicians from all over the world. These kids know very well what kind of competitive firestorm lies ahead and some of them are thinking about alternative careers. Others are thinking about alternative ways of managing a musical career.Every artist — even a lowly hack blogger — has to face a basic and ugly truth: the arts are a risky career. Blue model countries try to bureaucratize and systematize the arts as they do everything else: orchestra members joined unions, got steady pay raises, and government subsidies topped up any shortfall in the earnings.This is all passing away now; artists are going to have to make their way in a very different world.Great artists create the taste by which they are appreciated; they also change society by the way they live and make their livings. They often have to take great risks and great suffering and sacrifice is part of the package more often than not. The millennial generation is called to greatness and its artists are not exempt.