Keeping music alive in a time of crisis: How the New York Philharmonic worked with their musicians and audiences.

Image by Tharindu Nanayakkara from Pixabay

We have arrived at the one-year mark of living with the Coronavirus. Last April, I wrote an Op-Ed article titled “Choir Interrupted” about how the shutdown changed live music performance landscape drastically. By now, we, as music consumers and listeners, might have learned to manage the absence of live in-person performances by transitioning to live performances online or through other creative electronic mediums.

Now I wonder, how have major music performance organizations managed to continue helping musicians make a living doing something that requires bringing communities together in what is traditionally a physical space? On March 9th 2021, I got the opportunity to attend a webinar hosted by my alma mater, the Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College. This live virtual event titled “The New York Philharmonic: Managing a Crisis” included Baruch alumnus Larry Zicklin (’57), who interviewed the Linda and Mitch Hart President and CEO of the New York Philharmonic Deborah Borda and Co-Chairman of the New York Philharmonic Peter May. Later in the event, the panel took time to answer questions fielded from attendees in advance. You can find these questions and answers from delegates who tuned in to listen on the Q&A page of Music Historian’s blog, Hear, Let’s Listen.

If you play or have played an instrument professionally within an orchestra, you are familiar with the process of making a career out of performing. As you work on getting your degree from a conservatory or a performance program at a college or university, you then must audition for a seat within a group. Larry Zicklin was curious about how the NY Philharmonic hired players.

Deborah explained. It begins with a committee made up of nine members of the orchestra listening to a tape of the player. “There are [multiple] rounds of auditions, with the music director joining the committee. If a person is hired, they enter a year-and-a-half probationary period. If you [the player] are offered tenure, you are there for a while.

Larry then asked the question, “How did the pandemic affect performers?” Peter responded:

“On March 10, 2020, [Deborah and I] looked down from one of the boxes [in David Geffen Hall] and saw 30% of people who purchased tickets for the performance were not there.”

Peter thought that was the end. Deborah initiated daily phone conferences with other CEOs in the arts, including Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera and Clive Gillinson of Carnegie Hall. A week before Gov. Cuomo’s announcement of an official shutdown, the NY Philharmonic had informed the Mayor’s Office of NYC of their shutdown in response to the virus.

Residual economic issues also affected the NY Philharmonic. Before COVID, the institution had not thoroughly addressed running deficits, which, coupled with the loss of income by the cancelation of concerts because of the pandemic, led to a 40% reduction of the organization’s staff.

Layoffs seemed to have been on the horizon for many arts institutions as the Coronavirus spread in NYC. The Metropolitan Opera would eventually furlough all its musicians and workers. A week into the shutdown, Deborah tackled the challenge of keeping the musicians on payroll head-on.

The NY Philharmonic has 100+ unionized musicians. Deborah entered intense negotiations with the union. She asserted to the musicians, “We have to work together to keep audiences connected to you. We need access to your past performances. You will get paid but at a hibernation rate.” She added, “The board was super supportive in helping the musicians stay paid. No Philharmonic musicians were laid off.”  

According to Peter, historically, the union had never been involved in directly negotiating with the board. From what I understood from his talk, the orchestra was not in a bargaining position as they were not playing. However, the committee made sure that the players got 75% of their base pay, even when there was no revenue.

“When you shut down, there are no performances,” he confirmed. “The union allowed us to use our archives to stay in touch with audiences… This negotiation with the union benefited all parties. It was more of a partnership than anything else.”

Many not-for-profit arts organizations have a board. What role do they play? Peter explained:

“The NY Philharmonic board is 55 people. The members are philanthropic, and they are responsible for the funding of the company. In the arts, 50-60% of funding comes from ticket sales. The rest comes from philanthropy.”

He adds, “A good board needs to get involved in the business strategy.” During the pandemic shutdown, the leadership requirements got varied, as they also focused on an additional endeavor, the rebuilding the David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center.

As the webinar continued, Deborah and Peter talked about the renovations of the hall in greater detail.

“It will have more advanced acoustics than the Disney Hall [in Los Angeles],” said Deborah. “When David Geffen Hall opens, it will have 2,200 seats. They will get rid of 600 seats. [They are] taking out a large portion of the third tier, refurbishing the reverberation, and it will all be made of wood.”

Larry asked, “What will the elimination of 600 seats do for the business?”

“Our expectation,” replied Peter, “[is that] it will 1) run at full capacity, 2) [enable us to] raise ticket prices, and 3) [allow us to] use the hall for other types of events to generate additional revenue.”

After completing market research, Deborah learned that the reduction of seats in similar renovations of other halls increased revenue. Larry also added that the NY Philharmonic is a bargain compared to the MET or a Yankee game. Deborah concurred, “Yeah, it is a third [of the price].”

Listening to the conversation between Deborah, Peter, and Larry, I understood their awareness of the public’s need to return to live performances. Deborah also emphasized that knowing there were contractual issues and how it affected their need to perform made the experience depressing from the musician’s perspective.

Larry also did not shy away from expressing the gravity of the pandemic. Now that it is a year later, the partnership between the union and the NY Philharmonic board helped musicians. Larry emphasized that in Europe, many orchestras play to small audiences. In the US, that is not happening. He asked, “Why is that?”

“It is very expensive here,” Deborah said. “In the Berlin Philharmonic, players are funded 80-90% by the government. For the NY Philharmonic, only 2% of overall funding comes from the government. Also, due to New York City’s COVID health and safety regulation, concert halls have been prohibited from letting in a live audience.”

While I also miss the experience and the feeling of hearing music in-person, I remain cautious. Recalling my conversation with Gypsy George last May, I believe the premise we might not expect live performances to resume until the Fall of 2021 has not changed.

The vaccines do present what Deborah would call “A light at the end of the tunnel.” However, even then, concerns of re-opening still loom in the foreground. Larry then asked Deborah and Peter about these worries.

“We have specific rules,” Deborah answered. “When it comes to playing to record a livestream, [players] must be up to 12 feet apart and separated by plexiglass. Also, the NY Philharmonic will not host the large orchestra needed to play Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring but instead have more Beethoven-sized ensembles. They will also have intermission-less performances.”

“They also did pop-up performances,” Peter added.

Deborah elaborates, “For NY Phil Bandwagon we branded a pick-up truck with sported the NY Philharmonic colors, red, white, and black, which traveled with singers and players, and did not announce pop-ups ahead of time. Audiences were happy to see them. Many of them sang along or danced. Some laughed and cried. There was also a waiting list where musicians could sign-up to participate.”

I felt relieved to learn that the NY Philharmonic had also found creative ways to keep the spirit of live performance alive in a manner that would not interfere with safety precautions. Like I had also mentioned before in prior articles and interviews with musicians, live performances also moved to the virtual space. Larry also posed a question that helps us better understand a possible negative outcome of relying on technology to get live music:

“Technology only gets better. Will that prevent people from coming out?”  

Peter says, “I think people want to be together, and the experience of listening together… there is nothing better than being at a live performance.”

“When you have a great night,” added Deborah, “people respond, and they share that experience.”

As more individuals get vaccinated, many seem to get more hopeful. On this note, I should also emphasize that as the NY Philharmonic anticipates a re-opening to live in-person performances, this does not mean that virtual performances will no longer be a viable option for more cautious attendees. Deborah reassured delegates of the webinar that the NY Philharmonic is highly active in streaming. The institution reaches more than one million viewers per year through broadcasts, and recently introduced NYPhil+, a concert-streaming platform.  

I encourage you to read the Q & A’s here about how attendees feel about re-opening and how the NY Philharmonic kept the music alive while managing a crisis. You can also scroll to the top of the landing page and click on the “Q & A” tab.

Don’t Give Up: An uplifting video interview with Erin Walter, lead singer of band, Parker Woodland

Album cover art from Parker Woodland’s 2019 EP The World’s On Fire (and We Still Fall in Love).

Earlier this month, I chatted with Erin Walter, lead singer of Austin, Texas punk-rock band Parker Woodland. From our conversation, I learned that virtual performances have made the touring process for musicians more comfortable. However, due to the increased accessibility of putting on remote performances, virtual tours can also quickly increase fatigue. Musicians can tire from balancing work and performance – even when it is all being completed from their home. Thus, Erin encourages self-care and taking breaks when necessary. Erin says, “To all the creative folks out there, take it one step at a time, rest when you need to rest, and don’t give up. Get your art out there when you are able. Whatever your timeline is, that is the right time.”       

My conversation with Erin indeed raised my spirits, and I know it will lift yours too. I have video recorded our discussion here. I share it with you in the first video interview for 2021 on Music Historian’s blog, Hear, Let’s Listen.

A lyric within the chorus of Parker Woodland’s title track from their 4-song EP, The World’s On Fire (and We Still Fall in Love)is “the world’s on fire, and we’re not giving up.” I draw attention to this lyric and song as a whole because for many of us, the world, especially in early 2021, felt like it was set ablaze. Yet, despite the tragedies we continue to endure – whether it is the shocks that come from the Nation’s capital, the realities of economic setbacks, or dealing directly with the coronavirus – as a collective, we persevere. More Americans, those who qualify, get vaccinated for the coronavirus. This event, I personally hope, will open the path to economic recovery.

When it comes to music and the arts, people still make an effort to: promote virtual performances; and attend those online concerts. I now do my part to increase visibility around independent musicians, many of whom work one or multiple jobs and still perform music and share their art with the world. My reason for doing this is because the independent music I discover, including Parker Woodland’s The World’s On Fire (and We Still Fall in Love), is undeniably uplifting. This marriage between lyrics that inspire catharsis and driving guitar riffs creates an imagery of a physical concert space from a pre-pandemic world. If this is what you seek, this record with the same title as the track is for you. Listen to The World’s On Fire (and We Still Fall in Love) on Parker Woodland’s Bandcamp page and other music streaming services, which you can access on their website, parkerwoodland.com.

The road ahead: Music Historian’s perspective

Photo taken by me at Mt. Washington, NH, Sept. 25th 2020

Life is changing not just for bloggers but also for musicians. Live performances might not be permitted in public until Fall 2021, depending on Coronavirus cases’ status. The shutdown earlier in the year greatly affected the promotional plans for many performers ready to release a new record.

Luckily, many musicians had taken to social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to showcase live performances to their fanbases. Some have even found the opportunity to record new music and work towards putting out a new record. Then, significant events, such as the general elections 2020, inspired creative and civic organizations to put together virtual performances to encourage citizens to vote. An example included Harmony on the Horizons, a filmed music series recorded at The Caverns, a cave system-turned-concert venue in Pelham, Tennessee. (Read more about it in Event Diary). Such events helped musicians increase their exposure among new audiences and become involved in a worthwhile cause.

As we continue to experience the abrupt halt’s residual economic effects caused by the shutdown in March 2020, the road ahead might look brighter. The United States, although not the first country to do so, has already started distributing vaccines for select workers. Also, the U.S. has a new president-elect to help govern the country for the next four years. I certainly hope that over time these developments will create a positive ripple effect, both socially and economically, that will reach everyone in our country.

For now, I will do my best to create valuable content that my cherished readers and interview subjects can appreciate. Thank you, musicians, for sharing your experiences, your world, and your thoughts about why you make music. To my readers, thank you for stopping by, and please be sure to show your support by liking content, following the blog on Facebook, or following it on WordPress.com. Keep calm and write on!

Challenging the Status Quo: Music Historian’s 10th Year

Image by Anja🤗#helpinghands #solidarity#stays healthy🙏 from Pixabay

Here we are, close to the end of December 2020. Penning that the Coronavirus has changed the world might feel overused. Then, how do I describe the pandemic that caused so much destruction in nine months? People worldwide went into social isolation, became more vigilant about their own health and the physical well-being of their own family members, lost jobs, and entered periods of financial hardships. Many experienced the premature loss of loved ones. If you are reading this, I predict that you have experienced at least one of the events I described above.

When we experience hardships in our lives, it truly helps to have constant or many constants. Those constants can exist in the form of a person or a group of people. Then, there will always be one constant that will stay with us until our very last breath – ourselves.

In my own naivety, I had thought that my blog, Music Historian, would always be my constant. In reality, if I did not jump head-first into creating a blog, Music Historian would not exist today. Music Historian is not the continuous keeping me going; I am the constant keeping it going. Now that I realize this, where do I go from here?

Challenge the status quo that I have created for Music Historian over the years, of course. What do I mean by this? Besides continuing the thoughtful interviews that I eventually transform into quality articles, I explore the op-ed. Check out the article, “Choir Interrupted: An Op-Ed.” Then, I took a creative risk in making video interviews, teaching myself video editing with available software. Finally, 2020 was the year I shared with the world what I learned from being a music blogger and why this blog is so unique to me. I certainly hope you, as the reader, understand it too.

I still thoroughly enjoy the craft of interviewing and writing. Please do not think that I will throw away the long-form interview article. I will always publish such stories, but they won’t be the only prose styles on the site. Expect video interviews, shorter prose, and hopefully, where time and opportunity permits, more.

Accepting Limitations: Music Historian’s 9th Year

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

The year 2019 for Music Historian started with me making amends. I had been delayed in publishing a few interview articles for artists—one of the reasons being that life really got in the way. I even let it consume me.

By the time I came back around to completing these delayed projects, I had spent three weeks on bed rest from a significant and much-needed operation. Besides taking the time to complete work for my day-job from home, while I healed, I decided to dedicate my free time to completing outstanding projects for Music Historian; they included interview articles with Kim Ware and Gypsy George.

Rather than wallowing in self-pity, I focused on gratitude. I had been in the company of interview subjects who displayed kindness and understanding for some of the difficult times I had experienced. In return, I produced quality articles, something which I would like to think has become a staple for Music Historian.

Luckily, I had time in 2019 for one more interview article. That was with MC Frontalot about his new record, Net Split. The rest of 2019 would turn out to be a crazy year filled with significant changes, including uphill battles, healing from physical complications, a break-up, and relocating. Life is hard, life will bring you down, and it is crucial to accept limitations. My barriers for 2019 meant that I would not be able to publish as much content on my blog. Nevertheless, I fed the fire in my belly to continue attentively listening to music and nurturing the art of a great interview would feed the passion behind the content on Music Historian.

Completing a cycle: Music Historian’s 8th year

Eight, to me, as a number, holds a unique meaning. Draw it, and you will see that it loops both up and down. The number eight in the west numerical system, to me, resembles a cycle. How did I come to this conclusion? Consider this: the year 2017 marked eight years since I finished my undergraduate degree in Music History; and the eighth year of the Music Historian blog.

As I dedicated my time to a full-time job at the time, I still had found time to sing in front of small audiences (some solos and as part of a choir). I also completed ethnographic interviews with musicians such as Marla Mase and Nathan Bell. I learned about these two artists from a boutique PR firm, Baby Robot Media. I would eventually meet the Baby Robot Media crew later in 2017 at a showcase they were doing at Pianos in the Lower East Side. In the same place, in 2012, I saw Imagine Dragons perform. (Do you know what I mean by cycles?)

What is so essential about completing a cycle? It allows you to see how far you have come in your endeavors, whether that be a project, a career, a family, anything. “Putting Faces to Names, and Coverage on Performances: Baby Robot Media’s Set at Pianos” is an article that helped mark the completion of one cycle.
What happens when a cycle comes to an end? Naturally, another begins. In the article I just mentioned in the last paragraph, the conclusion I wrote really helps sum up my hopes for the beginning of a new cycle. I hope you take a little time to read my blog on this Monday afternoon in December. If you have already done this and are a loyal reader, thank you for stopping by.

Dealing with personal hardships: Tender Creature talks about new EP, An Offering, in video interview

Tender Creature (l-r: Steph Bishop and Robert Maril), press photo by Emilio Mendoza

Although this electro folk-pop duo, Tender Creature, released the EP, An Offering, back in September, reviving the conversation with this group now proves timely. Together in their new record, Steph Bishop and Robert Meril convey that confronting emotional trauma is better than letting it fester. Through lyrics informed by the wisdom that comes from hindsight, Steph’s lifting vocals summon frissons of personal nostalgia in thematically heavy songs. Maril is playful in his digital production, contributing certain electricity, voltage varying to every track. 

An Offering explores the detailed work required to untangle your hardships, burdens, and heartbreak. What I wanted to learn from Steph and Robert is the moment that motivated them to come together as a group after spending so many years apart working on other musical projects. More importantly, I sought to understand why they feel that now is the right time to release their new EP and what challenges the Coronavirus shutdown had brought with promoting the record. 

I bring you the answers and more from Steph and Robert in this video interview. This video is less than 15 minutes in length and is made with Zoom technology. You can watch this video below, or visit the URL to my YouTube page, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIVT636geV8&t=31s

Video interview with Steph Bishop and Robert Meril of Tender Creature

I hope you enjoy my video interview with Tender Creature. If you should have any feedback, please leave a comment below this article. Thank you for stopping by.

Quality not Quantity: Music Historian’s 7th Year

This photo is by me, Patricia Trutescu

In 2016, I only published two posts on Music Historian. This first was an article in January, of the most read posts in 2015. In October, I published an interview article that happened to come out at the right place and the right time (the election) titled “A Love Shaken by War: Becky Warren returns to music with a solo record that tells a fictional story inspired by real-life events.”

The opportunity to write about Becky Warren’s record War Surplus humbled me. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter was getting ready to promote her album on the road as the opening act for the Indigo Girls. Further, this record is near and dear to the artist’s heart. If you want to know why, please read the article. 

While my blog did not get a lot of love this year – mostly because I was well into my first full-time permanent position and did not have a lot of free time to dedicate to interviewing and writing – I experienced moments of gratitude. I felt grateful as I reminded myself of all the people I had met and all the connections I made throughout the years I managed Music Historian. For me, it is quality, not quantity, that makes a music blog one worth reading. Of course, I understand that not every blogger would agree with my thoughts, but these opinions are mine. Feel free to take what works, and leave the rest behind.  

Remember your Connections: Music Historian’s Sixth Year

This pic is provided by Pixabay
This is a photo provided by Pixabay

Much like starting your career, a professional has an easier time networking after building a foundation for themselves. The same holds for a blog. Years of consistent writing and publishing help create a repository of stories and, hopefully, to some degree, a level of expertise.

In early 2015, I went to a party held by my piano teacher, Isabella. Community members who knew her through Opera Night and took lessons with her stopped by to play music together and to mingle. At this party, I met someone who had a connection to Arlen Roth, the guitar player who has influenced and taught many. That connection led me to an interview with Arlen.

A couple of years prior, I also started to incorporate Question and Answer styled interviews onto Music Historian. The first story which had this format was my interview with Daylle Deanna Schwartz, NYC’s first white-female rapper. Through Daylle’s family, I met Julie Coulter, a seasoned insurance broker and consultant for musicians.

If you had read my post from yesterday about how I got acquainted with Workman Group PR, that professional relationship continued. In 2015, through Workman Group PR, I would be invited to cover the SESAC Pop Music Awards, which celebrated publishers and songwriters who contributed to the hits that year. Later that year, through the same PR firm, I would hear about the opportunity to cover the Northside Festival.

At that moment, I was living—an event such as the Northside Festival was a place to learn and network. Interviewing Femi Kuti, the son of Fela Kuti, for a full-length article on Music Historian, I learned a lot about how the artist used Afrobeat to address some of the unmet needs of African citizens; including more stabilized journalism and reporting by Africans for Africans, and better economic conditions. Talking with Gypsy George for a full-length interview article, I learned about the entrepreneurial mindset and spirit required of a musician to make it in today’s creative business. That article with Gypsy George helped lay the foundation for a professional connection. Years later, I would invite him back to Music Historian to do a video interview.

Each professional will provide their thoughts about how to nurture a network. In my experience, some connections I have kept in touch with much more quickly than others. Most importantly, never forget who you meet because that contact may help you open the door to your next opportunity, whether creative or professional.

Work and play: Music Historian’s Fifth year

Image by Claudia Alejandra Sanchez Vega from Pixabay
Image by Claudia Alejandra Sanchez Vega from Pixabay 

Throughout 2014, my schedule was rigorous. I was in the middle of pursuing my Masters in Marketing at Baruch College full time. For part of the year, I was working 30 to 35 hours a week while attending school. I managed to also include Music Historian in this regimen.

Some of the most-read articles from that year included interviews with Kim Logan, The Blackfoot Gypsies, Yuzima, Juicebox, and The Dirty Gems. Four out of these five subjects I met at the New Music Seminar. This experience introduced me to the idea that a blogger could learn serious business and play.

During my busy Spring semester, Alyson Greenfield sent me an email to ask me whether I would be interested in a press pass to the New Music Seminar. I learned that she was hired by the boutique PR agency, Workman PR, to help promote the event. I said yes to her invitation.

The day came when I had to attend the first day of the three-day conference. I went to Webster Hall in NYC to pick up my badge and see the opening day, where I would have plenty of photo opportunities. When I went to pick up my badge from the stand run by Workman Group PR, I met a representative who asked me for my name. I told him what it was, and he responded, “Music Historian.” In addition to getting the opportunity to pick from a roster of musicians to interview who were invited to perform as part of this conference, I still had to write about some of the business-portions.

I captured several wonderful red carpet moments, including Alyson, along with the Workman Group PR team, the creator of NMS, Tom Silverman, and plenty of the bands, not excluding those who were up for the Artist on the Verge Award in photos. The highlight of the first day involved enjoying Meg Myers performing an electrifying set along with Alyson. The second day mostly consisted of panels to attend, interviews to be held with the artists I chose to write about and visiting the different exhibits on the floor.

I wrote about the following panels, The A&R Movement: Where music is headed, Music XRAY Presents A&R Live – Music Critique and Sound Selector Sessions, and Online Media Music Discovery. My review about these panels and opening day is all in this article, “Dive into the minds of industry players.” These panels provided sound advice to musicians, music publicists, and industry professionals who wanted to understand more about the music business trends.

More importantly, I wrote about the bands which I mentioned earlier in the article. Please don’t wait – read them now, and enjoy the conversations and the images, some of which I personally took. Happy Reading!