Classical Music World: The Power Of Fame

By ANN MCLAUGHLIN, Artistic Director
Los Alamos Concert Association

I’m frequently asked how much the Los Alamos Concert Association pays the artists we present. That information is confidential when it comes to the fees charged by specific artists, but I can talk about this in more general terms. 

We pay our artists anywhere from several thousand dollars for a single performance to tens of thousands. In addition to the basic fee, we frequently offer to take care of ground transport and lodging expenses once artists arrive in New Mexico. 

Artists, by the way, always pay for airfare from the fee we negotiate. Since performances are booked a year or more in advance, it’s anyone’s guess how far they will need to travel to get here. Flights from Phoenix are a lot less expensive than flights from Paris! It is up to their agents to arrange tours that minimize those airline costs. The good news for touring artists is that they earn a lot of frequent flyer miles. Pianist Jeremy Denk told me that he has platinum miles on three airlines.

It would seem obvious that the size of an ensemble would determine the size of the fee. In very general terms, a solo pianist is going to cost less than a chamber orchestra. But while the number of people splitting a fee is certainly part of the equation, there is a much more slippery factor at play: name recognition.

At the top of the fee scale are the very few classical artists who are household names. YoYo Ma is the best example. If people can name only one classical musician, he’s the one. There are all kinds of things that account for his fame and the outsized fees he most likely commands. The first, of course, is that he is a great cellist. He has also been very active in performing with a wide variety of artists across musical genres: jazz musicians, world music ensembles, bluegrass. He just performed on Steven Colbert’s Late Show. YoYo Ma has been artfully promoted. And let’s face it! He was born with a very memorable name.

We just presented the young Hungarian cellist IstvánVárdai, soloist with the Irish Chamber Orchestra. I don’t think anyone in the audience left the hall thinking, “Darn! I sure wish I’d heard YoYo Ma instead!” Várdai was spectacular. He has virtually no name recognition in this country, but what a talent!  Could we have had a sell-out if he had an easier name to pronounce? With any luck, he’ll break through that barrier and become a household name at which point his fee could go through the roof. But that happens to so very few.

In between the artists with big names and fees and the artists with no name (yet) and very affordable fees is that vast sea of truly wonderful musicians who deserve to be better known. There are plenty of classical artists who boast CVs laden with honors and who are much revered by their peers and audiences worldwide but who are affordable never-the-less for a small presenter like LACA. 

In the world of popular music, a group with multiple Grammy awards can fill stadiums and reap huge financial rewards. In the classical music world, not so much.

On Jan. 24, LACA will present the men’s vocal ensemble Chanticleer. The Washington Post called them “the reigning gods of the men’s chorus world” and they have won 3 Grammy awards. Three! And yet we can afford to bring them to Los Alamos. Crazy world! Take a look at our website for more information about Chanticleer and how to buy tickets.