Thursday, November 03, 2005

Today's late edition of the New York Times reported a sadly historic event:
For what Radio City officials said was the first time in memory in the 73-year history of the annual "Christmas Spectacular" show, Radio City's 35-piece orchestra was silent. Live musicians were replaced with a digitalized, prerecorded score as the backdrop for the famously lifted legs of the Rockettes.
Depending whom you ask, this is the result of a strike or a lockout. It doesn't really matter; the damage has been done, and it's catastrophic. The article continues:
No calamity appeared to befall the theatergoers. "It was really good," said Wendy Coulson, of State College, Pa., who had come to see the show with her daughters, Madeline, 14, and Rebecca, 12. "I didn't notice a difference at all."
Welcome to a textbook illustration of Santayana's adage: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Everyone knows that so-called reality television has proved a windfall for the networks: low production costs, profitable ad buys, and reliable ratings. What everyone forgets is that the fad began as a result of contract negotiation tactics by the Writers Guild, which spent two years leading up to the summer of 2001 threatening a massive strike. They refused to accept the studios' terms on pay and creative rights; and in their wake, they promised, the Actors Guild would initiate its own stoppage. Together, they would shut down Hollywood.

Leave it to Californians to announce a strike two years in advance. The result, predictably, was that some executive looking for a solution glanced across the street to MTV, checked their ratings on The Real World -- and to cut a brief story short, CBS hired Mark Burnett to launch Survivor. The strike never happened, but the damage was done: Survivor shattered previous records and snared more than 50 million viewers. Studios realized they could produce even more profitable programming without paying writers or actors. By overplaying their hand far too early, the Writers Guild had cut their worth in half. They had effectively crippled themselves.

Broadway producers have been itching for years to cut the cost of hiring musicians by using prerecorded music. The only reason they have hesitated is stigma: New York is an artist's town, and tourists come to see live shows. If someone can establish that audiences will pay equally to hear a prerecorded soundtrack, an entire profession will disappear in the proverbial minute. Just like what happened in Los Angeles during the 1970s: hundreds of musicians will find themselves unemployed, and the number of musical jobs in this country will be slashed substantially.
Julie Hoyt, from Springfield, Mass., found the performance "flawless" and said that, although she would have liked to have seen a live orchestra, the canned sound was "great."

Billy Ward, age 9, had a big smile. "It was really good," he said.
Maybe it's inevitable. But it's sad. Last year, the New York Times published a profile of Juilliard's 1994 graduating class, to discover where music students found themselves ten years later. Remarkably few remained in music. It's an unforgiving profession with few opportunities -- and it might have just become more difficult.


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