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Performing Artists Compete, Move, Adapt in Tough Economy

A new report shows 45 percent of young adults who recently got a college degree are underemployed, and the next generation of classical performers are no exception. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on how artists are adapting to hard economic times and an incredibly competitive job market.

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    And now: the tough labor market for younger workers.

    A new report finds underemployment among recent college graduates — that is, young adults working in a job that does not require a degree — has jumped to 45 percent.

    The terrain is especially rough in the arts these days, as NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman learned, part of his reporting on "Making Sen$e of Financial News."


    Gustav Mahler's "Fourth Symphony," conducted by James Gaffigan, played by the orchestra of perhaps the world's foremost college of the performing arts, Juilliard, which costs $55,000 dollars a year to attend.

    Though many are still undergrads, these kids make world-class music. No surprise, since they're immensely talented and most of them have been practicing practically all day, every day, since they were tots and were admitted to one of the world's most selective schools. Some Juilliard departments have less than a one percent acceptance rate.

    So, what are the job prospects of some the world's most gifted and motivated young college grads?

  • DIANE WITTRY, Conductor, Allentown Symphony:

    For any orchestral opening in the United States, you might have, for one violin opening, 300 people applying that are all completely qualified to do that job.


    That includes the Allentown, Penn., orchestra, which Diane Wittry conducts.


    They play great. They have fabulous technique, great sound, great intonation.


    So then the obvious question: How do you decide whom to hire?


    It's almost like the Olympics. My harp player, I was just talking to her during rehearsal, and she had recently taken an audition. They give you a piece that's really hard, and if you do really well on that one, you get to play another piece, and then maybe you do really well on that one, you get to play another piece.

    And she was on the sixth excerpt, and then she messed up and missed a note. And then it's like, thank you very much.


    Come on, one note?


    Yes, you make a mistake and you're out. And that's how competitive it is in the audition process.


    And if you think it's tough for instrumentalists, what about dancers?

    Each dance class at Juilliard starts small, 24 students or so, and gets even smaller, through attrition. There are job opportunities for male dancers, less competition for each slot. The women, however, face almost impossible odds.

    Gallim Dance Company, a small and upcoming modern dance troupe based in Brooklyn, recently advertised an opening.

  • MEREDITH MAX HODGES, Executive Director, Gallim Dance:

    And we had 700 dancers audition for the slot.


    Seven hundred.


    Seven Hundred.


    Meredith Max Hodges is Gallim's executive director.


    Many of these dancers were graduates of conservatories, full-time dance programs. These were serious candidates. PAUL SOLMAN: But no matter how serious, how talented, in today's job market for the arts, there is no guarantee, or even much likelihood, of success.

    Who's to blame? A familiar culprit has had a hand: the great recession. According to one survey, 75 percent of New York's nonprofit performing arts groups, those most likely to employ the classically trained, slashed budgets in 2009 and few, if any, are back to pre-crash levels.

    A second villain of the piece is technology. When this Mahler work premiered in 1901, there was one way to hear it, in person, meaning dozens of people had to be paid to perform it over and over again. That same year, however, the Victor Talking Machine Company was established, allowing one recorded performance, or a few, to replace many hundreds of live ones.

    A century later, searching online for video of Mahler's "Fourth Symphony" yields 25 million hits. So why leave home, pay real money to sit uncomfortably, so you can hear and see the same thing?

  • GREG SANDOW, Juilliard:

    We are in the business of selling buggy whips in the age of the automobile.


    Greg Sandow teaches a Juilliard course on the grim future of an art form that he says simply hasn't kept up with the times.


    The audience has been aging for around 50 years, so this is not sustainable. The people who are listening to classical music are getting older and are not being replaced by an equivalent number of younger people.


    One hope is that an aging population will continue to patronize work like this, and the musicians who perform it, for a while longer, though, for some older people, even works like this Bela Bartok violin concerto can be a challenge, and it was written 75 years ago.

    But a 2009 National Endowment for the Arts study summed up the larger trend. Between 1982 and 2008, attendance at performing arts such as classical music, opera, ballet, has seen double-digit rates of decline, in short, fewer and fewer jobs for highly skilled classical performing artists, which means, by the cold law of supply and demand, stagnant or falling wages, except for the brand names who can still draw a crowd.


    It's not like, well, you hoped you were going to be a world-beating entrepreneur, but you end with a solid mid-level job in a corporation. In the arts, it doesn't really work out that way. You have 20-odd orchestras in what the League of American orchestras calls group one, and the minimum salary is quite respectable.

    But then, beneath that, you have orchestras playing four, five, six concerts a year, and the musicians who play in those orchestras are racking up untold miles on their cars, going from gig to gig.


    And a player in Allentown might make $6,000 to $7,000 dollars a year.


    Six or seven thousand dollars a year? What else do they do?


    What they do is they play in Reading, in Harrisburg, and they play in the Philadelphia Opera, and they play in Delaware Symphony. And then many of them also teach privately and have teaching studios.


    So we're creating more and more musicians who, in order to earn a living, have to teach, creating more and more really great students, who then have to do the same thing. It's like a Ponzi scheme now.


    Because you're thinking of it like an economist. But we, as musicians, we don't go into music for the money. We go into music because it's part of our soul. It's part of who we are. It's what we have to do.

    We want to share music with the world, and we would do it whether we got paid or not.


    Now, of course — and Sandow and Wittry agree — it was in a sense ever thus. "La Boheme," act one, scene one, Rodolfo burns the pages of his new play to keep himself and roommate Marcello from freezing.


    But now the problem is worse, because there are fewer of the jobs that used to exist. And many of the ones that still exist, like those in orchestras, they feel precarious and musicians are taking pay cuts.


    Moreover, though Puccini's 19th century Bohemians were behind on the rent, even they weren't in the hole for tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, not unusual for today's fine arts grads, like 28-year old dancer Caroline Fermin, who says the market salary of $28,000 dollars that she earns from her highly coveted full-time job at Gallim Dance barely allows her to keep up with the payments on the $60,000 dollars she borrowed to attend Juilliard.

    Indeed, many artists are calling it quits here in the U.S. and heading abroad.

  • CAROLINE FERMIN, Gallim Dance:

    I have a lot of friends that move somewhere to Europe or likewise to have a job that's supported by the government, that gives more money to the dancers.


    What percentage of the dancers you know or friendly with are now primarily abroad?


    Maybe 50 percent.

  • EMILY TERNDRUP, Gallim Dance:

    Fifty sounds right.


    Twenty-four-year-old Emily Terndrup, graduated from the University of Utah, dances in an off-off-Broadway show to help make ends meet.


    It seems like the work is getting divorced from the pay a lot here in America, where, if you like to do this, you should do this for free, where, in Europe, I still feel like it's, if we're asking you to come and do this, we will pay you for the time we are taking. It's disappearing in America.


    A common lament, though, of course, not just in the arts. But why do performing artists here still stick it out?

  • WOMAN:

    If you're doing something you love, you figure out how to keep it alive. If it's you and if it's your truth, you just keep on going.


    But chances are also that you won't necessarily make enough to live on.

  • FITZHUGH GARY, Student, Juilliard:

    All the more reason to create your job, your own job. Create your own project. Go out there and be your own boss, and figure out something that hasn't been done before, and chances are you will love it.


    But how does a performing artist who practices all day every day learn how to practice entrepreneurship as well? That is a story for another day, a story we intend to tell soon.


    Online, conductor Diane Wittry gives Paul a lesson in leading an orchestra. You can watch that on our home page.

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