‘Character head’ by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783)

I really don’t have time to write this posting — as a certain magazine editor anxious about last-minute copy will undoubtedly confirm! — but I’m annoyed and unhappy now, so I’m going to make time…

What’s got my dander up on an otherwise pleasant Monday evening is that twice in the last 24 hours I’ve come across individuals on ‘social media’ who were publicly swapping illusions with each other about that great non-existent problem of our culture, ‘the off-puttingly high cost of attending classical music events’. And the fact is that I really, really wish people would just give over with all this junk about ‘live’ classical music — chamber music, orchestral concerts, operas, and all the rest — being stuff that ‘only the wealthy’ can afford to go to: it’s not true, and repeating the falsehood does absolutely nobody any good.

Of course, I am perfectly aware that modern Britain — a fundamentally vicious and socially backward polity whose endemic corruption and entrenched class system conspire to prevent intelligent reform and perpetuate a historical legacy of gross injustice and privilege — is a place in which 1 million people currently eat from ‘foodbanks’, one household is evicted every 13 minutes, and cancer sufferers claiming benefits find themselves declared ‘fit for work’ in the very week that they die. In such a society — sick, dysfunctional and doomed — many millions of people will inevitably live lives in which any urge to spend money exploring the classical repertoire in the nearest concert hall comes a very, very poor second to the need to avoid a court summons over their Council Tax.

But even with that unforgivably obscene set of elite-imposed political choices acknowledged, the fact remains that, in comparison with other, more obviously ‘popular’ spectacles and entertainments, many classical music events are not in purely relative terms ‘expensive’ at all.

Let’s imagine you live within easy reach of London; want to explore so-called ‘Premier League’ football; and are thinking of going to the Emirates Stadium one Saturday afternoon to see Arsenal play at home. If you’re not going to pay up-front to become a ‘club member’ (and why the hell should you, since you just want to see what it’s like?), these are the seat prices you’ll be faced with:


[For membership details and costs, see here; for details of prices charged to members, see here.]

Now, as a comparison, let’s imagine that you live within easy reach of London; want to explore world-class orchestral performance; and are thinking of going to the South Bank one Friday evening to see the London Philharmonic playing at home. You’ll find that you don’t need even to consider paying up-front to be a ‘club member’ — and that the prices that apply on the day are these…


Do, please, take a moment to compare the two — because this is important

I’m telling you straight: never in your life have you heard anyone say that the cost of attending Premier League matches is so high that ‘it rules out top-class professional football as a ‘live’ experience for all but the wealthy’ — and yet, in spite of that, the following two facts shine out as clear as day. First, there is no seat at our concert in the Royal Festival Hall that is as expensive as the dearest seat at the Emirates Stadium. (Pause, then read on…) Secondly, there is no seat at the Emirates Stadium that is as cheap as the cheapest seat at the Festival Hall. In fact, while there’s nowhere at all you can sit to watch Arsenal that’ll cost you less than £27, the South Bank concert actually offers four different grades of seating for less than that amount. What’s more, the concert even offers ‘concessionary’ prices to people who qualify by virtue of receiving Pension Credit, Jobseeker’s Allowance or Universal Credit, or by being full-time students, school or college pupils, or aged under 16. My shy suggestion at this point is that you try telling the Arsenal ticket office that you’re studying sociology at London Metropolitan University and would like a cut-price seat — and let us all know how that turns out…

Let’s cut to the chase here. I chose that LPO concert completely at random — it was, literally, the first one that came up when I googled (as I said, I don’t have time to spend on this) — and since I have no idea what are the precise musical tastes of the vast majority of this blog’s readers, I’ve no way of knowing whether the programme will widely be regarded as ‘appealing’. But here, pasted into this posting, are four YouTube videos corresponding to the entire content of that concert — a concert to which you or I could gain admission for, literally, £10. If you want to play all four of those videos when you have the time free, please do so — and then come back and tell me something. Don’t feel that you have to go reading about the pieces in advance or spend time worrying about what they are, or who they’re by, or what they’re supposed to ‘mean’ — just give them a spin as sheer musical thought that either you enjoy following or you don’t. Then, think about that amount of music, that amount of first-rate professional playing, that amount of ‘live’, real-time access to the staggering legacy of Western musical creativity that is your birthright and mine — and then tell me: is that worth £10 of the ‘discretionary income’ of someone currently lucky enough to have such a thing?

Come on: is that worth a tenner…?

Seriously: you tell me.





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5 thoughts on “Oi!

  1. Another impressive post. I agree with the premise. What also needs to be said, is that unlike a football match, when you pay to see a concert or go to the theatre you roughly know what to expect at the point at which payment is made. If Arsenal play a crap game and lose at their stadium, home supporters will leave the venue disappointed, wanting invariably, to punch an opposing fan in the mouth. If you appreciate a quality ensemble cast, including the acting skills of Kevin Spacey reciting a brilliant script, then you will almost certainly think it was money well spent to have paid £50 to see ‘Twelve Angry Men’ at a West End theatre,


  2. Thanks, Daniel.
    Actually, though, me and my pals are very demanding when we go to concerts: if a classical symphony is being played, and the conductor leaves out the first movement exposition repeat, we go and smash up the toilets…


  3. Speaking for London at least, the ticket prices for the major venues are incredibly reasonable, both for the more ‘populist’ (The Southbank and the Barbican) and the more serious (Wigmore Hall, and even, notwithstanding Harper-Scott’s suggestion of its being an outlier, Covent Garden[1]) ones. It should also be added that, by and large, revenue from ticket sales — even for a sold-out concert — comes nowhere close to covering the costs of putting on a classical concert; depending on the promoter and the venue, the shortfall would be covered by a mixture of private sponsorship/patronage, public subsidy, and/or underpaying the performers (the “we cannot pay you much/anything, but it is good exposure” myth is alive and well in classical music!).

    I observed a particularly apposite metonymy for this at one of the few Proms concerts I attended this year. As I was leaving the Albert Hall after the last ever concert of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra[2] (it has just been merged with the Sudwestrundfunk Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, the latter of which I had been fortunate enough to hear in its last ever Proms appearence, a year earlier[3]), I overheard someone complaining about the ticket prices (I paid only £6 for a standing place, having turned up on the day less than half-an-hour before the concert) — it struck me as a superlatively ironic complaint in a context where half the orchestra had just lost their jobs, notwithstanding the standing ovation at the end which persisted until the last player had left the stage. I make this point to demonstrate that it was not lack of appreciation on the part of audiences that drove this merger — the Sudwestrundfunk Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg had received a similar reception at the Proms last year, and that with a far less ‘mainstream’ programme, notwithstanding the *relatively*, for twentieth-century orchestral repertoire, mainstream nature of the Bartók /Concerto for Orchestra/, and maybe, at a stretch, Ligeti’s /Lontano/, therewithin. Rather, it was the management of a German broadcasting company which decided that they no longer wanted to fund both orchestras (this should be an object lesson for those who short-sightedly support the BBC on the grounds of its presently being a major UK employer of orchestral players — such people should question whether the BBC can be trusted to maintain a commitment to all of its performing groups and to broadcasting a variety of serious classical repertoire, as opposed to the disgracefully myopic diet of ‘Ten Pieces’ / ‘classical charts’ with a bit of half-baked ‘crossover’ the sole representative for ‘contemporary music’, in the long-term?).

    If anything, I am starting to wonder whether cheap tickets are part of the problem, not the solution. In a consumerist society, the association of intrinsic value with money is inculcated to us almost from birth. The uninitiated assume that concert tickets are expensive because classical music is widely perceived as holding a high self-esteem. When they discover that concert tickets are cheap, they stop taking the experience seriously, and I think that some of the despicable audience behaviour in concert halls is attributable to such a non-serious attitude on the part of some. If someone has paid a lot of money for something, he/she might make an extra effort to ensure that he/she really gets absorbed in the event. In other words there needs to be a sense of special occasion for each concert, and that seems to be absent all too often. Of course, speaking personally, I am grateful for all the cheap tickets from which I have benefitted over the years, but I am starting to wonder whether it might be better for the major venues to go down the route of the small (often ‘provincial’) festivals (whose access to public funding is considerably less than that of the major venues), and charge more. Too much has been sacrificed at the alter of ostensible ‘accessibility’ (I say “ostensible” because I suspect the real motivation for prioritising ‘accessibility’ is to facilitate access to public money).

    I also think that Margrain’s observation that, in a classical concert, “you roughly know what to expect”,[4] is precisely the problem — too much predictability runs the risk of becoming routine. Unfortunately, the obsession — fomented by the recording industry and the easy availability of records which have been surgically enhanced through repeated takes and other techniques — with perfectionism has resulted in a very risk-averse approach to performance. Personally, I long for the mythical days when you would *not* know quite what to expect in a concert, or where something familiar is given a more-than-tokenistic twist: at the aforementioned Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra concert, I found Robert Levin’s improvised cadenzas for the Beethoven 4th Pianoforte Concerto truly inspiring. I think I recall reading somewhere that Schoenberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen did not publish the programme in advance, so people had to just trust the performers to give them a treat — the question is, are there any promoters and performers out there who can win our trust in this way (yes, I know that some superstar recitalists can get away with saying “programme to be announced”, but that is a minority, and the programme is, invariably, announced in advance of the event)?

    [1] https://web.archive.org/web/20160912205559/http://www.jpehs.co.uk/2012/07/14/is-opera-really-all-that-expensive/

    [2] https://web.archive.org/web/20160911005054/http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/epnbp6

    [3] https://web.archive.org/web/20151112144723/http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/emdc8g

    [4] https://markdoran.wordpress.com/2016/09/12/oi/#comment-340


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