What can be done to save music criticism? In the twilight of the mass media as we know it, there seems nowhere for it to turn. Only the big city papers are able to support full time music critics anymore, and even then the record is spotty. California has but two full time music critics. The country has less than ten. Recently in The New Yorker, Alex Ross painted a bleak picture of the current state of the profession. It was accurate.
Freelancing is not the answer. Not only is there insufficient work to be had, but the pay is horrible, not to say insulting. (I’ll refrain from quoting rates.) What’s more, a freelancer gets no benefits, no healthcare. These days, freelancing turns music criticism into little more than an interesting hobby.
I believe the way ahead for music criticism is to put it on the same basis as the art form which it covers, which is to say non-profit. Every single symphony orchestra, opera company and chorale, and most if not all chamber groups, are non-profit organizations, like museums. Until recently, music criticism has been happily and vigorously supported by for-profit companies, i.e. newspapers. As newspapers sink under the weight of their own mismanagement and myopia, the powers-that-be no longer see a way to do so.
There are a few ways that music criticism could become non-profit. One is for the music critic to establish him or herself, and his or her website, as a non-profit corporation, or 501(c)(3), and then start raising funds from donors and looking for grants from foundations. (I could take your money here, but I’m not a non-profit, so I couldn’t attract large donors who wanted a tax break.)
An easier way is to get a local non-profit to act as your fiscal sponsor. That is, the non-profit (say, Arts OC), accepts the money from donors and grantees (which can then take it off their taxes) and then funnel it to you, the music critic. I’ve looked into this and it appears possible, though it would probably mean spending a lot of time raising money.
A third way would be for the music critic to join a non-profit news organization. I came close to joining one myself and was in the process of raising money to support my own salary before the deal fell apart. But the money is out there, I think, and this could be done. The money to support such a critic could come from donors and grants, but also from the performing organizations that the music critic covers. An ethical conflict? Not necessarily. And not necessarily different from the current situation, in which performing organizations spend lots of money advertising with the newspapers that have critics covering them.
All of these options are online, of course. Getting music criticism back into print in newspapers and magazines is a whole other ball of wax and would entail solving the problems facing print media in general, a task way above my pay grade.