I’ve noticed that every month or so I run across another article lauding an ambitious group of young chamber musicians for forging their own non-traditional path: playing in nightclubs and bars, using non-standard setups, playing amplified, writing/commissioning all-original repertoire, etc. This is what indie rock bands have done for decades, hence the oft-used labels “indie classical” or “alt classical”. And I think it’s great that classically trained musicians are doing this—what better proof of the vibrancy of chamber music?

But… most of the articles I’ve seen focus either on (1) “Isn’t it great what those kids are doing?” or (2) “Does this qualify as classical music?” I personally think those are two of the least interesting questions to ask about the “indie rock”-ification of chamber music. There’s a lot to learn by taking a critical look at this trend, weighing the pros and cons, and trying to figure out what this means for music and musicians at large.

Everyone loves entrepreneurs right now

Top of my list of pros for the indie classical trend is that young musicians are taking their destinies into their own hands. Gone are the days of secure music gigs (or of job security more generally). Cultural critics of the ‘90s predicted that the trend toward defunding classical music would lead to the death of the genre, and that classical musicians would either find other jobs or jump ship into wholly popular music forms. This hasn’t happened. Instead of giving up, young musicians are innovating, finding new ways to make the music they love. This is entrepreneurialism in its purest form.

In a sense, the entrepreneurial solution isn’t that surprising given the political discourse that surrounds us (or at least Americans, where the indie classical scene is most visible). From the tech bubble of the late ‘90s through the boom years of the early ‘00s and the 2008 crash and subsequent recession, the underlying message is that people should be looking out for themselves: start a company, invest your money (stock market or sub-prime mortgage, depending on the year), support local businesses, use ingenuity and innovation to solve difficult problems. Of course young musicians coming of age in this environment are going to apply these ideas to their music making. And it’s even more to be expected from classically trained musicians, who have already proven they have the discipline and perseverance to make it through the cut-throat world of the conservatory. Not that it’s easy to make your three-chord punk band into an international sensation of course, but it usually doesn’t require 15 years of preparatory training on the guitar.

Indie classical as small business

I think it’s fairly accurate to consider indie classical to be basically a type of small-business model for chamber music. As such, we also need to look at the economic realities of small businesses. Studies have shown that they’re not usually the amazing innovators that the politicians would have us believe. The vast majority fail. Small businesses are also usually less efficient than established competitors. Walmart has lower prices than the corner-store bodega partially because it can create efficiencies of scale that smaller stores can’t (among other reasons, and at other costs). Of course, you might still decide to boycott Walmart (as I do) for very legitimate reasons, and cultural products are not the same as manufactured goods on a fundamental level.

Yet the trend in entrepreneurialism, at least the successful forms of it, has been toward collective efforts for at least the past 100 years. Some 80% of Bangladeshis are independent entrepreneurs, but the vast majority earn under $1/day. Similarly, small indie classical groups have a limited ability to make an impact (and hence earn money) when compared to orchestras or opera companies. Does it matter? I don’t know, but indie classical seems to be largely destined for the small-scale, local scene, except in rare occasions. Classical Revolution, started in the tiny Revolution Café in San Francisco’s Mission district, has become an international movement but its members still play to crowds of 10–20 people at a time. It’s great for the audience, but unless you charge $50 at the door, it’s hard for the musicians to get paid a living wage.

Taken from a purely economic perspective, indie classical is an expansion of the winner-take-all model of mega art events (like the opera or the soloist touring circuit or the Top 100 pop charts) to the local level. Winner-take-all models support a few superstars and leave the rest with next to nothing. Granted, this isn’t a phenomenon unique to music, it’s also appearing in virtually every other sector of human activity and is part of the reason top CEOs keep getting paid more and more (Apple’s CEO Tim Cook received $378 million in compensation in 2011). The indie classical model isn’t bucking the economic trend. That’s not so much a criticism as an observation, as virtually no one in any sector has found a reliable way to do that (because it would require sweeping policy change internationally), but I’m just saying indie classical isn’t exempt from our greater economic problems.

So okay, indie classical is not a great business model in its current form, that’s the downside, but it is helping to spawn a generation of go-getter, DIY chamber musicians. It’s also an innovative cultural movement, and I’ll talk more about that in Part 2.