Fran Rogers here. If we haven’t been introduced yet, I am one of Sparrow Live’s co-founders. I’m a classical tenor based in Boston, MA and New York, NY. Before my full-time opera career, I spent a decade in development and major gifts fundraising for major arts and education organizations. Sparrow Live is a product of my many different sector experiences and serves artists and audiences alike.
Throughout the pandemic and separate from my Sparrow Live work, I’ve been hosting a weekly concert series I’ve been calling #tenortuesday. Through a good deal of self-reflection and as a result of the work I’ve done for Sparrow Live, I’ve made the decision to alter the format and move Tenor Tuesday to Sparrow Live. Tomorrow’s Tenor Tuesday (a rain-date reschedule on Thursday 7/2/20) will be the final concert I live-stream for free.
I’m so grateful for the incredible virtual audience I’ve had for the last 16 weeks. Like many people, I didn’t fully comprehend the scope of this crisis at the beginning, and have come to rely on Tuesdays to feel, even for a few minutes a week, a sense of connection and normalcy. The words of encouragement, thanks, and the delight in the discovery of classical music has been truly rewarding. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting and have made the decision to move to a $5/concert ticket model out of respect for the field and in solidarity with the legions of artists fighting for their survival. Even though it won’t be free anymore, I’m not going anywhere.
Artists, largely because of the structure of the system currently in place, must love their craft. They have no guarantee of any steady income, have to invest heavily in their own training, and are pitted against one another for a meager selection of roles and steady positions. Nevertheless, throughout the pandemic, artists have stepped forward to provide comfort and distraction; it didn’t take long for them to take to balconies (and front porches!) to do what they do best. Audiences have gotten unprecedented access to the best in the world through free Met Opera streams, great performances from the past, and live performances through platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
The insidious downside of this dynamic is a slow devaluing of the art itself. If the expectation of free access becomes pervasive, our recovery and longevity is uncertain. In recent weeks, there’s been a lot written and shared (Irish Times, New York Times, among others) about what ‘the arts’, artists themselves (musicians, writers, playwrights, actors, visual artists, dancers, designers, etc.), and anyone whose livelihood depends on the production of live cultural events (stage crew, front of house, facility management, development professionals, etc.) will face in the coming months and years. To put it bluntly, recovery for the field as a whole looks bleak. So many of us rely on live audiences to make a living. We expect attrition in large numbers and long term consequences for nearly all arts institutions. And yet there is a system in place, which predates COVID-19, that tells artists that they must perform ‘for the love of the art’, in a way that we do not see in other professions.
I’ve reflected a lot on my own complicity in this system; I believe philosophically that artists should be valued and paid for their efforts, but I’ve been contributing free content to the market every Tuesday. I’ve found immense value in performing every Tuesday and have no plans to stop – it’s great for me to have an audience, to have a reason to practice and work on new material, and to share with you the thing I love. But out of respect for the artists fighting to sustain a career and for the investment I make in my own development and improvement as an artist, I’m going to stop making it available for free.
Essentially, I’m advocating for a little bit of innovation on the part of the artists and a little bit of an adjustment on the part of audiences, so that we can preserve the art we all love for the longer term, and help each other ride out this storm. I know that the arts are essential for emotional sustenance, for distraction, for transportation out of the immediate realities of daily life. Music and entertainment may not be considered an ‘essential business’ as defined in common parlance, but as humans, we know better.
My own COVID-era innovation is Sparrow Live itself, this very live-streaming platform that exists to create a barrier-free relationship of equals between artists and audiences. Its very existence is an acknowledgment of the value of a quality performance and is a way to help artists continue to provide audiences with the delight and joy that only the arts can provide. Artists can host concerts – big or small – with full control over the program, pricing, and geographic location, and audiences gain unprecedented choice and access. It might be an unfamiliar way of engaging artists and their audiences, but if we’re honest, what these days is still fully familiar?
I’m not going anywhere, and I hope you won’t either. Instead, let’s transition to a new stage of our artist/audience relationship, where I’m held to account as a professional artist, and you become, officially and permanently, a patron of the arts.