“The expectations on musicians are higher than they’ve ever been,” says Chris Clark. “And the payoff is lower than it’s ever been.”
The producer and composer is blunt about life as a musician in 2021. Twenty years into his career, with a discography in which twisting, beat-heavy releases for Warp Records sit alongside elegiac film scores and delicate piano studies, Clark finds himself working across genres more than ever before. This autumn, he’s preparing to take his 2021 album ‘Playground In A Lake’ to the Barbican for a performance with the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO); adapting the parts of his collaborators Oliver Coates, Rakhi Singh, Chris Taylor and more for a full string ensemble.
For many artists, this patchwork of audiences and aesthetics isn’t simply a matter of creative choice. As sources of income become less reliable, more diffuse, and the most lucrative revenue streams are directed into ever-fewer pockets, artists of many disciplines have diversified their practice out of economic necessity. With streaming having long superseded the sale of physical or digital music, the infrastructure of platforms like Spotify and Apple disproportionately favours the very biggest artists, with little trickle-down benefit for almost all others.
Since the turn of the century, live gigs and club culture have somewhat plugged the fiscal gaps, but the Covid-19 pandemic has enormously undermined the viability of relying on touring those spaces in order to pay the rent. In that context, new audiences — or, to be coldly economistic, new markets — are needed for many artists.
Clark is not alone in turning to the aesthetics and institutions of contemporary classical music for artistic inspiration and potential financial stability. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of those institutions can be anachronistic or uninviting to outsiders at first.
“There’s definitely an old school, patriarchal boys’ club element of the classical community, which I despise,” Clark says. “It’s presented as this elite form of music, and all other forms are inferior.” But he’s keen to point out that this can be overcome: “I don’t know many people that really subscribe to that, because you can just snip those people out of your life.”
Henrietta Smith-Rolla, aka DJ and producer Afrodeutsche, has been working with orchestras and classical musicians more frequently in recent years; original works of hers have been performed by the LCO, and last year she composed the score for the BAFTA-nominated short film, Kamali. Already a much-loved artist in underground electronic music, she admits that working within the institutions of the classical world took some adjusting to.