The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic Alex Fletcher, President of Fletcher Artist Management, chatted with me about the state of the field. His candor with the effect that this is having both financially and emotionally on the vocal performing arts demonstrates the characteristics I appreciate most about Alex, which are his sensitivity and kindness.
Alex Fletcher, President of Fletcher Artist Management
Interviewed March 31, 2020
TB: I always like to start off these interviews with something positive. So, what’s the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
AF: Really, there’s been a couple. One is that a core group of North American based managers have been meeting. We’ve met as a large group twice and then we’ve had some smaller group meetings; checking-in as a group and thinking about the ways that this is impacting the business. I think that’s been really nice, because while in smaller sets—we do talk to each other and help each other—it’s rare that the extended group gets together and really dialogues. So that’s been nice.
Then there have been some invitations to do different panels and things. My wife and I did a NATS [National Association of Teachers of Singing] panel earlier this week and I’m doing a Zoom chat with the students at Rice [University] tomorrow. It’s been nice to get invitations like that and that normally would have happened either on a different time scale or would have happened if I went to Houston or to the NATS conference. Instead, there are these condensed opportunities in the last couple of weeks and that’s been nice as well.
TB: I agree with that. So, for those who are not familiar with your career and your background, would you mind giving a brief overview?
AF: Sure. My background is that I sang in choirs in high school and college. In college, I took voice lessons as an elective and I really liked it. [Though,] I was really not very good at the performance aspect. I was really nervous and didn’t enjoy it. So, in college I figured out that I didn’t want to be a performer. Then, luckily, I had a couple friends who were really keyed into the opera business and how the classical world functioned. I did an internship at Washington National Opera in the PR [Public Relations] Department and an internship at Alexandria [Virginia] Symphony. Also, I went to New York in the Spring of my senior year and met a bunch of managers for informational interviews to find out about what they did.
One of those managers, Neil Funkhouser, was a boutique manager in New York and was looking for an assistant. It happened to be really good timing when I met him and we corresponded over the summer after I graduated. Then he said, “Look, if you want to move to New York in the Fall, you can start working for me as my assistant.” I did that in the Fall of 2007 and worked with him for a couple of years. Afterwards, I started my own agency in 2009. We just came up on 10 years of my company.
In terms of what an artist manager does, it’s kind of a multifaceted job. Part of it is developing a network of connections—by connections, I mean, producers, etc.—and using those to find opportunities for artists to be engaged by those producers for work. Part of it is business consultation with your clients and helping them to work on their personal development. As a manager (and also an artist), there is a little marketing, a little accounting, and a bunch of different things that go into the job. First and foremost though, [my job] is to act as a representative and an advocate for the artists and basically be available to speak on their behalf whenever it’s desired or necessary.
TB: Especially in these times, that is something that is really important as artists want to give of themselves. There needs to be an advocate for them.
AF: Yeah, in any creative industry I feel there’s a real need for it and I find that I don’t have to look very far to figure out what my value is. That’s especially true in the classical work because it is a nonprofit model for the most part. There’s so much goodwill baked into everything and just wanting to get this music out there and perform. But then the business side of it can be even more complex, because it’s just not an industry that’s flush with cash.
TB: Diving into our main topic of conversation for today, I’d first like to start off with a little bit of the recent past. So, where were you and how did you first realize that you were going to be affected by this pandemic?
AF: That’s an interesting question. It’s interesting, because it ramped up so quickly that I feel like it was on my radar for a little while before I realized the magnitude of what it was going to be. I can specifically recall that March 11th, I was at the Kennedy Center for a performance of Don Giovanni at Washington National Opera. At that point, we all knew something was growing and that COVID was becoming a concern, but the performances were still going on. I believe it wasn’t a full house, but it was a pretty decently attended show, especially for a Wednesday. The mood didn’t feel too unsteady or too concerned.
But I do remember that I went out with some of the artists afterward and even though they had three shows left, they all felt like this was going to be their last show. In fact, I think it was the 12th [of March] that the Kennedy Center and a whole slew of other places said, “Okay, now we’re shutting down for the rest of the month.” It all happened very quickly in those days, but I think that was the relative time frame. [Washington Post, March 12, 2020]
TB: That’s really interesting, so you were at a show right before this began.
TB: You said that it didn’t feel like it was different, but the artists clearly had this understanding that this was going to change. Can you tell me more about that?
AF: I feel like the artists were getting bits and pieces of information that made it feel like something was in development. The NATS panel that I was on earlier this week, one of the speakers was someone who’s in Hamilton on Broadway right now. He was saying that Disney had taken measures that nobody can come backstage and we’re not going to sign autographs. So, I think some of those initial measures maybe tipped people off that something was in development.
That night, though, we went backstage as usual and people congregated in lounges as usual. Nobody was really too concerned about sanitation. I had hand sanitizer with me and I was careful to be washing hands and be applying that. But beyond that there wasn’t that feeling of real concern. I feel like now, it’s hard to imagine—in the near future—that people would feel comfortable going and sitting in a theater, a sports arena, or a movie theater for an evening.
TB: So thinking about it from March 12th, for you and a lot of artists the whole world changed. Can you talk about some of the things that have changed?
AF: Yeah, the 12th and 13th, that Thursday and Friday, I think it was just a mass scale cancellation. There were a bunch of presenters either calling or writing saying that we’re going to have to cancel whatever the thing is that we’re doing currently. That’s where it stood at that point, then I’m not sure at what point exactly the Metropolitan Opera came in and said “We’re shutting down at the end of March,” but it was somewhere in there also. Basically we had symphony orchestras and opera companies in mass just saying, whatever is happening right now, we’re cancelling.
Most of the people who were involved in those situations received a decent amount of their compensation, even if they weren’t actually performing at that point. So, that was the good news. But that was a very concentrated two days. After that things took more of a pace, even though they continue to shut down. It was a lot of symphonies, performing arts centers, and opera companies saying they had to cancel.
TB: Just for perspective, I’d also like you to explain a little bit about how your organization normally makes finances work.
AF: So our business is a commission business. Artists sign contracts that are for certain fees and then we receive percentages of those fees. There’s a little variation amongst companies in North America, but I think it’s fair to say that the standards are still 10% of the total fee for an opera and 20% for a concert, like an orchestral piece like Beethoven’s Ninth [Symphony] or Carmina Burana. In terms of how we are structured, there’s me; my full-time colleague, Sarah Fraser; and then we have a part-time colleague, Scott Johnson. All of our revenue is dependent on commissions from the artists’ contracts.
TB: For clarity, most of these artists are paid for their contract when they’re performing, right? So, if they don’t perform, they may not make that fee.
AF: Yes, it’s entirely a service contract. Even before this particular pandemic, artists were still in a vulnerable position. Because oftentimes if you’re doing an opera at a regional company, you’re rehearsing for several weeks, then you have a week of performances, and then you get paid at the end. So, you’re being paid after putting in nearly four weeks or more of work.
TB: And not only that four weeks, but there is also travel and lodging. All of these expenses are tied up into that performance fee, which your agency is also a part of that as well.
TB: So, how has this [the pandemic] affected your financial health as a business?
AF: It’s a... It’s a significant blow. I know that I calculated in March how we were doing and we were down definitely over 50% of our projected or anticipated revenue. The good news for a business like mine, a boutique agency, is that my main expenses are salaries. I don’t have office space, I don’t have other cumbersome expenses that have to be met. So, even though we’re... we’re down significantly, I’m not concerned about the overall health of the company. At the same time I’m very aware of some of the larger outfits with more staff and more complexity. I know from talking with friends and colleagues at those companies that there are already very serious financial ramifications for them. That’s very worrisome...
TB: Could you talk about what you’re seeing and what you feel are some big issues dealing with being the one in-between the artist and the company?
AF: Normally, I view my role as a facilitator. It’s the classic kind of negotiation discussion of things being a win-win. I want the company to be happy. I want the artist to be happy. And I want to facilitate that negotiation. In this case, it’s very awkward because I have artists who are losing out on, in some cases, very large amounts of income that are going to be very impactful for them. Then I have colleagues at these companies who are telling me [that] they may have staff reductions or furloughs. They may struggle to exist as an organization beyond this... So then pushing them on trying to pay some of the fee to the artists has become a really delicate topic. I would say, for the most part, there’s enough awareness about the whole situation and its implications that most companies don’t need to be pushed. They’re really trying to do the best they can.
There have been a couple of situations that have been difficult to understand. For example the Metropolitan Opera has enforced the force majeure [clause] and did not pay anything to any of the artists who were contracted there for the rest of the season. I think people had a hard time digesting that, because of the size of the organization and its operating budget. But then too, we can see that there’s a lot of vulnerability that these organizations are now presenting as investments are down. And the ownership may suffer in the near term, similar to the 2008 recession.
So it’s an awkward place. It’s been an awkward place to be in, trying to sympathize and empathize with both sides. But I do think that overall, most of the organizations have really tried to do the best that they can for the artists and understanding the circumstances that everybody’s been put in.
TB: As someone who is living between these two worlds, could you talk a bit about the arrangements? And how there is give and take in these situations?
AF: Like I said, I think for most of the organizations, they’ve put a foot forward in saying to the artist, “We know that we’ve taken this massive income away from you. So we want to make sure we’re giving you something.” We’ve seen a lot of different arrangements. Partial payments which means to satisfy the contract and then that’s the end of it [the contract]. We’ve seen partial payments that are meant to be a down payment for a future production, where they’ll try to bring [the artist] back, then the rest of the fee will be paid at that time. It’s kind of run the gamut.
One of the interesting byproducts that we’ve seen—I haven’t dealt with personally, but I know my colleagues have—is that a contract for say, this Spring  is now being bumped to the Spring of 2021 and the show that was supposed to be engaged for the next Spring also getting bumped. So, there has been a lot of ripple effect and a lot of ramifications that everybody has to deal with.
TB: Could you talk about the different ripples that we’re seeing and how they may have an effect on our future?
AF: For a lot of this we can again look back to the 2008 recession. At the time, I was still a young professional individual in the business. So, I think I didn’t have the awareness that I do now of what it all really meant. But, we certainly see that investments are down and there are a lot of donors who don’t feel as free to give as they might normally. I was on a call with some artists’ managers yesterday and one of the managers, [who] had previously been on the production side, said, “We could see as much of a loss as 50% in terms of giving for the next season based on this financial downturn.” So, that’s one aspect.
Then we have another ripple effect being what we talked about before with people being comfortable going to theaters. Will attendance be an issue? Will ticket revenue be an issue? Then a third ripple effect is the producing aspect of things. Will people have to change titles because their marketing departments tell them, in this current climate I don’t think that we should take a chance with X opera, we should do Y instead. Or what we talked about with artists getting bumped out of different [shows or concerts] because of those changes. I know at the Metropolitan Opera, for example, oftentimes if someone’s covering a role they’ll try to give them one or two performances if there’s an opportunity. Right now, I know that for the 21/22 season they’re saying, “We have to be very careful about saying we’ll give someone one performance because we may have to adjust our number of performances based on what happens to the budget.” Those are some of the ripple effects that I’m feeling.
TB: So what would you say is, so far, the hardest lesson that you’ve learned from this situation?
AF: I’m not sure that it’s a learned lesson, but I always knew that soloists and individual performers are vulnerable. Seeing that showcased in such an extreme way has been very difficult. My wife is an opera and classical singer, who does a lot of symphony and opera. She’s had jobs cancelled. Just seeing what a difficult model we all operate in. Like I said before, it is performance based. If you’re not performing you’re not getting paid. I think it’s just been tough seeing what actually happens when people are forced to tear up contracts.
TB: In diving off of that, how have you seen this affecting your artists’ and your creative processes?
AF: There’s a lot of people who you can take away the stage, but they still have that performative drive and the want to share performatively. So we’re seeing a lot of social media things. Some of them are very straightforward, literally, that are ‘let me share this piece of music with you’, and some that are more creative or humor driven. That are just trying to keep things light during the moment. It’s been interesting to see how those people who are creative by nature are addressing this in the moment.
Of course, there are [also] people who feel so paralyzed by this that they feel like that is not even something that they can begin to consider. We want to be mindful of those people also, because it is such a different and personal experience for everyone.
TB: So I know that I asked you about the recent past with March 11th being a pivot point for you, but could you take me back six weeks ago. How different was your life?
AF: Very different. For me personally, travel is a lot of what I do, [such as,] going to see artists and performances. At the time that everything happened around March 11th, I really only had a few trips lined up. So, that wasn’t too complicated. But in general, I’m traveling at this time of the year several times a month. So you know, that’s very different.
The day to day work that I am doing is very different. I was telling my colleague Sarah, I find myself now feeling very unfulfilled at the end of the workday and waiting for something else to happen. Because the work that I am doing during the day is not what I’m accustomed to doing. It doesn’t have the vibrancy. It doesn’t have the aspect of growth and forward momentum that it normally does.
Then, of course, the way my life is also different is because my wife is a performer. Normally she’s traveling: she’s different places and doing things. So we’re making the arrangements for all of that and logistics for all of that. So it went from a bunch of balls in the air to a very grounded sort of thing, which has its own silver lining as well. But it’s very different.
TB: So, how do you think that this is going to change our musical landscape moving forward?
AF: Again, I expect to see some of what we saw with the 2008 recession. I think that some organizations that were struggling, or were poorly structured, may have difficulty surviving this. We will see short-term ramifications in terms of how many performances are being given by organizations. I’m not as pessimistic as some who think that this is really going to bury the classical music world. I think that there’s always been a lot of resiliency in classical music. When you pull back and look at the model with which classical music gets produced, if it were easily destructible that would have happened a long time ago. It’s based on people recognizing its value in the world and being willing to support it in philanthropic measures for the larger part. So I don’t expect to see a mass scale destruction of the classical music world, but I think it will take a hit.
I do feel concerned for a lot of artists who have been stuck in the middle, in terms of their performance careers, and in finding consistency. It’s very, very difficult in the classical music world to build consistency year to year. I do think that there will be a growing number of artists who will have trouble achieving that. Now whether that means that they walk away from the industry, or whether that means that they find multiple revenue streams so that they can continue to be a performer, that depends on the person. But more people will have to ask: “What does success mean for me? As a performer and given what’s in front of me, what kind of musical life do I want to lead?”
TB: You noted a couple of short term aspects, do you have any theories for the long term?
AF: It wouldn’t surprise me if we do see some changes to the structure of the contractual nature that artists are engaged with. As artist managers, we have to look at this and say, “Is there anything we can do to protect the artists if this were to happen again?” I have colleagues who have been artist managers for forty years and have never seen anything like this happen. So, we do need to look as a group and ask, “Is there anything we can do to build in some protections for the artists?”
I would hope that if companies are able to, they will also want to come to the table and discuss what we could do. So, I would hope that long term, we might see some different protections for artists. But at this point, I wouldn’t want to wager. It’s all so up in the air.
TB: One of the things that you talked about was those [artists] in the middle. Those who are just starting to make a career or on the cusp of making a career. Do you have any thoughts on how they can make it through this?
AF: I’m very interested in how some artists really manage to cobble it together; where they’re not so reliant on whether they’re hired or not. Being hired is such an arbitrary thing in this industry. So, I love seeing situations where an artist has carved out a couple of other professions for themselves, whatever that might be. But I do think that it’s more important than ever that most artists just have a real awareness about what the nature of the industry is. Looking to see, “Okay, how else can I build protections for myself financially? How else can I insure myself?” I think that’s the main thing.
TB: So, what advice would you give to the young artists as they are going through this situation?
“We Sing for Artist Relief Tree” hosted by Frederick Ballentine