The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Are super-high concert fees morally right or wrong? Do they contribute to the wealth gap and lack of young audiences? What can music consumers do? | October 24, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Are artist concert fees — like those charged by tenor Placido Domingo (below top), soprano Renee Fleming (below middle) and violinist Itzhak Perlman (below bottom) —  too high these days and too unaffordable for most American concert-goers?



Itzhak Perlman close

What would Janet say?

Maybe that refrain could become the economic equivalent of What Would Jesus Say?

I am speaking of Janet Yellen (below), the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve who last week made headlines when she spoke out publicly against the widening wealth gap as being contrary to America’s historic democratic ideals.

Key Speakers At Seminars At The IMF & World Bank Annual Meetings

But let’s localize the issue.

By all accounts superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, along with pianist Kathryn Stott, turned in a terrific performance — his seventh — at the Wisconsin Union Theater last Saturday night.

The Ear didn’t go, but here is a rave review from the student newspaper The Badger Herald, which agrees with the word-of-mouth reviews I have heard:

yo-yo ma and kathryn stott

And for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t buy tickets, the Wisconsin Union Theater even webcast the concert live and for free.

Still, with seats that sold for well over $100, The Ear got to wondering: Are really high artist fees morally right or wrong?

We all hear about the widening wealth gap, and especially about the astronomical pay given to CEOs versus their workers as compared to the same ratio several decades ago.

Well, what about well-known and in-demand concert artists?

If The Ear heard correctly, Yo-Yo Ma’s fee for that one-night performance was either $90,000 or $95,000 -– or about $42,500 or $45,000 an hour.

Can Yo-Yo Ma demand and get that extravagant fee in the so-called “free market” society with its corporate welfare and tax loopholes for the wealthy? Of course, he can — and he does. That is why he sold out the Wisconsin Union Theater.

But should he?

It makes one wonder.

Is Yo-Yo Ma really that much better as a cellist and musician -– and not just as a celebrity — than many other cellists, including MacArthur “genius grant” winner Alisa Weilerstein, Alban Gerhardt, Jean-Guihen Queyras, Steven Isserlis, Carter Brey, Joshua Roman and others? (You can hear Yo-Yo Ma’s interpretation of a movement from a solo cello suite by Johann Sebastian Bach in a  YouTube video — with over 11 million hits — at the bottom and decide if it is that much better than other cellists play it.)

Now I don’t mean to pick just on Yo-Yo Ma. I have gone to a half-dozen of his other performances here and I have met him and talked with him. He is without doubt a great musician, a fine human being and an exemplary humanitarian.

The problem that I am talking about transcends any single performer and applies to the whole profession.

Maybe at least part of the problem of attracting young audiences to classical music concerts can be placed right in the laps of the performing artists themselves.

When The Ear was young, he got to hear all sorts of great musical artists—including Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Rubinstein (below), Vladimir Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman, Rudolf Serkin, Isaac Stern, Emanuel Ax and others for quite affordable prices. Not that those artists didn’t live well -– but I doubt that they were paid the equivalent of $45,000 an hour.

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

Maybe it is time for economic populism in the performing arts.

Fees like that exclude a lot of families from participating. Some fans might find it better and cheaper to hear a CD or download than go to a live concert.

Too many performing artists – opera stars come immediately to mind as a class — seem to have taken the same path toward justifying greed as movie stars, sports figures, rock stars and CEO’s who make out like bandits.

In short, can it be that classical musicians are helping to kill off classical music?

Smaller theaters like the Wisconsin Union Theater and even the Overture Center simply cannot book such well-known artists without charging a ridiculous amount of money for a seat – and at a time when many people of all ages just can’t afford it. It just adds to the Wealth Gap and the One Percent problem.


Well, these are just some brain droppings.

The Ear wonders what you think of stratospheric artist fees?

Do they contribute to the wealth gap?

Do they hurt the popularity of the art form, especially younger generations?

Are they contributing to the decline of cultural literacy?

In short, are such high artist fees morally right or wrong?

And if wrong, what can we arts consumers do about it? Boycott certain artists until they become more reasonable in their fees?

Ask artist and management agencies to adjust the fees to make them more affordable?

Go to alternative concerts that are perfectly acceptable without star power and cost less or, like those at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, free?

Tell us what you think in a COMMENT.

The Ear wants to hear.



  1. How much p practice w orchestra is put in by each performer for one performance?


    Comment by Theresa Rosen — July 18, 2021 @ 9:42 pm

  2. At these individual concerts (Yo Yo Ma, Yuja Wang. Mitzvah Perlman, Bocelli, etc., who pays for the venue and orchestra members?


    Comment by Theresa Rosen — July 18, 2021 @ 9:39 pm

  3. […] to subsidize the rest of the year. A concert series in my home town this year recently brought on a spirited debate about fees when they reportedly paid a great musician nearly $100,000 for a recital. That’s enough to run a decent community orchestra for a year. Does it make sense? Well, it does […]


    Pingback by Does Music Have a One-Percent Problem? | Kenneth Woods- conductor — August 15, 2017 @ 9:45 am

  4. Perhaps, $90.000.- or $100.000.- a night, may sound a lot of money. But, he has spent almost a life long time to perfect his music and his earning life span is very short and chances are he may not be able to play music in the future and for that reason he has to be prepared for his middle or the old age. On the other side, some other pop music performers are earning a lot more money than the classical music players.


    Comment by Tevfik — April 17, 2017 @ 11:16 pm

  5. The high prices of admission are most certainly widening a gap in many fronts. The arts attendance is suffering of the lack of youth who couldn’t possibly afford such prices. They are also keeping out many people with a real and even knowledgeable appreciation of music, hence, creating a “class” of the ones who can afford to go and not the ones who genuinely crave this emotional input and spirit enhancing experience. Money, and the ability to acquire it, should never be a factor in being exposed to the arts. It pollutes and confuses the soul and transforms spiritual needs into self doubt of one’s worth of affording something which should be an intellectual right.


    Comment by Oscar Silvera — March 2, 2017 @ 12:08 pm

  6. What I think it is trully ridiculous is that if a POP ARTIST can get even to one million dollars for one single performance , why a classical music performer can’t make 10 times less, ???since they work to get there from an reall early age!


    Comment by ariadna — February 6, 2016 @ 11:23 am

  7. By the way, Janet Yellen might not be the best person to speak on the money “divide” issue. She holds a Chair in the Berkeley School of Business (her hubby also has a job at Berkeley) and received lots more money than most Berkeley faculty, let alone humbler professors elsewhere. Her situation is not unlike that of Yo Yo Ma. She’s extremely talented and good at what she does and she’s paid for it. I would bet that Ma does more for humanity than she does!


    Comment by fflambeau — October 25, 2014 @ 8:01 pm

  8. 2craftymom you miss my point with my Isaac Stern reminiscence. Stern & his Russian accompanist got zero pay (other than a free dinner) for meeting and playing for the Wisconsin Union Music Committee student members. He was a big star then and could have said “No”. Not only did he say “yes” he threw himself into the event and went out of his way to personally speak with every student in attendance and gave us an intimate performance to boot. Throughout his life he devoted lots of time, energy, and money for music education and the promotion of classical music (like leading the charge to save Carnegie Hall); he also generated lots of high fees. If Yo Yo Ma (who, by the way, was “discovered” by Stern) does something like that, and I suspect he does, I have no problem with him earning the high fees mentioned. It is what the person does with those fees and the kind of life he/she leads that matters.


    Comment by fflambeau — October 25, 2014 @ 7:52 pm

  9. Where to begin? $45k/hr? What nonsense.
    Do you think Yo Yo doesn’t practice?

    How many hours of preparation and practice and rehearsal do you suppose artists put in to prepare for their “two hours” of work?

    And for that matter, how many decades of study and training and how much expense do you think goes into the development of an artist who can presume to command big fees?

    What about Mr. Ma’s fabulous collaborator, the marvelous Kathryn Stott? Who do you think paid her? Do you think she played for free – for the shear pleasure of performing with the more famous headliner?

    Also as noted elsewhere there are taxes, agency fees,
    the cost (and insurance) for a $3m instrument, etc.
    What price do you supppose is paid – not just in dollars -for being on tour, on the road, away from home and traveling 150 to 200 days/nights a year?

    Now I don’t disagree that high fees that lead to high ticket prices can be an impediment to many who might wish to atttend.

    So what about perceived value? I doubt whether many attendees leaving the Union Theater, reveling in the exquisite pleasure of a glorious “peak” experience, were fretting over whether they “got their money’s worth”.

    Per a previous comment above, like it or not, the arts exist in the maketplace. To quote (paraphrase) Giuseppe Verde, “If you want to know if the opera was a success don’t show me the critical reviews – bring me the box office reports”

    We’ve come a long way from Mozart groveling for commissions and Beethoven soliciting subscriptions to concerts he produced and performed himself. For better or for worse, these are the times in which we live.

    I agee: some artists (and athletes and architects and lawyers and plastic surgeons) do very well indeed (most don’t). Fair enough – it’s what the trafffic will bear. But I wouldn’t lump them into the same category as bankers, hedge fund managers, money manipulators and plutocrats who earn 400-600x more than we mere mortals.


    Comment by Marius — October 24, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

  10. While $125 is a high price to pay for two hours of live music, and the performers’ fee of $90,000 is a lot of money, Yo Yo Ma sits at the top of a very long food chain. His taxes would take roughly $40,000 off the top, his agent would get at least 15%, and undoubtedly the general living expenses he has to swallow in order to preserve what privacy he can achieve run to tens of thousands of dollars more than the rest of us require. I doubt that there’s much over $15,000 left after his entourage has been paid, and he’s home safe. That’s a tidy sum, no doubt, but it’s a far remove from the amount on his his contract with the Union Theater.


    Comment by PJH — October 24, 2014 @ 11:11 am

  11. As noted above, no easy answers. I am glad that The Ear acknowledged the extraordinary humanity of YoYo Ma. He appears to be a gentle, caring and talented human being. Yet, I too am worried about Janet Yellin’s point about the wealth/income gap. It is a big problem. Also, Ma’s hourly fee needs to be considered in the light of travel time, time spent in Madison and mostly, his decades of practice, study and rehearsal.

    Another random thought: I am aware of a ballplayer who signed a long term contract for well over $100 million, and since signing has lost his effectiveness. The marketing of certain big name talent creates demand that brings these fees, even when wasteful.

    Ma’s performances are available to anyone on dozens of recordings, TV, radio and web. Yes. The high fee makes me uncomfortable. Yet, his personal appearance creates a demand that fills the house despite very high ticket prices. Why not?


    Comment by Anders Yocom — October 24, 2014 @ 10:34 am

  12. Nice posting by Jacob Stockinger (The Well-Tempered Ear) It seems that the price of concert tickets in Wisconsin is going through the roof. Here in Cincinnati we are very fortunate to have the legacy of Mrs. Louise Nippert as well as those of other generous arts supporters that have made it possible to preserve a healthy musical life in our community. This weekend there is a choice of two operatic double-bills (one free, the other with tickets as low as $17), a CSO concert with a major concert pianist (tickets as low as $12), plus a wind ensemble at CCM (super-cheap tickets). And even when we have major concert artists (Lang Lang most recently) or, coming up the Academy of Ancient Music, there is never the kind of over-pricing that you folks in Milwaukee are confronting. Best way to counteract that? Stay away. The concert presenters will quickly get your message and that message will filter down to the artists managements in NYC who are getting one big piece of the action – typically 15% to 20% of an artists’ fee. Free enterprise works both ways: supply responds to demand and demand responds to supply.


    Comment by Rafael de Acha — October 24, 2014 @ 9:38 am

  13. Well, that is the free enterprise system for you. To paraphrase the old song, It’s nice work if you can get it, and you can get it is you, um, play well enough.


    Comment by Michael Muckian — October 24, 2014 @ 8:44 am

  14. The readability of your body text changed–you might take a look as it’s fragmented, weak type this time. Maybe use a font that all browsers, etc. can show better?

    *Yvonne Hudson * *Marketing Director*

    *OPERA THEATER * *o: 412.621.1499 m: 412.512.0589* * *


    Comment by Yvonne Hudson — October 24, 2014 @ 8:29 am

    • Hi Yvonne,
      Yours is the only complaint I have received so far regarding readability and the body text.
      And I have done nothing different.
      Perhaps something on your end, your computer font, has to be adjusted?
      Just a thought?
      If I get more complaints, I will check into it,
      But thank you for reading and replying.


      Comment by welltemperedear — October 24, 2014 @ 8:33 am

  15. My comment refers to Isaac Stern, of course. I’ve never met a person with so much gusto for life. Like Yo Yo Ma, he performed many times at the Wisconsin Union and clearly felt an affinity for a public university and for Madison in particular. By the way, we students on the Union Music committee, as I recall, were not told who the guest would be at Fan Taylor’s house (Taylor was our adviser) so imagine the surprise when it turned out to be none other than Isaac Stern (who had just performed at the Union) and his accompanist. Stern (and the Russian who accompanied him on piano) spoke to everyone at the party and were genuinely interested in who we young people (at the time) were and what we were doing. At heart, he was a simple man. It was an amazing experience. Again, I’m sure he was well paid for his performance but he clearly wanted to help the university and promote classical music to young people. If people making high fees do that, I have no problem with the fees.


    Comment by Francine Flambeau — October 24, 2014 @ 7:59 am

    • But it sounds like your situation was only for a select few. The moral issue is… what about all the people you aren’t reaching who would also benefit from a musical connection. How many famous musicians site a particular concert their parents took them to as a kid as the impetus for their career? How many parents could spring $125.00 a seat for that concert?


      Comment by 2craftymom — October 24, 2014 @ 9:02 am

  16. I was very disappointed when I saw the price for tickets to see Yo-Yo Ma. It was way out-side my pocketbook. As a professional musician, I would have enjoyed going to his concert. The comment about charging that price because he can, goes back to the morality of it all. He is purportedly a staunch supporter of the El Sistima off-shoots here in the U.S. where music education is available to every child, no mater what their economic situation. And yet he comes to a college town and charges these rates? How many music students could afford these tickets? How many Madison Symphony members can afford tickets at that price?


    Comment by 2craftymom — October 24, 2014 @ 7:57 am

  17. May I expand on my answer to this fascinating question? I do think it depends on the ‘star’ and how that person handles his success and what he does with his/her money. I was a member of the Wisconsin Union Music committee (which helped select acts for the Union) in the 60’s and as our “reward” we student members had a free dinner at Fran Taylor’s(?) house with Stern and his Russian pianist. Stern even then was a huge star and he probably made a big fee but he met with our student group (and even performed in Taylor’s house with his pianist for about 10 people at the dinner party). Stern was a very humble man, not interested much in money but hugely enthusiastic about music and education and it is clear he loved performing at a public university. I am sure he was also well paid by the standards of the day. He was a Mensch. I’m not sure if Ma did anything for the musical community while in Madison but if he donates time and money to musical development and awareness, I don’t have trouble with the high fees. I do if the person is just into himself or herself and spends it on yachts, high living etc. So it is something that needs a person by person answer.


    Comment by Francine Flambeau — October 24, 2014 @ 7:45 am

  18. Actually, Buppanasu, his fee, according to the column, was double what you wrote (that was broken down per hour of his performance). I do think that is excessive and that it excludes many people and just about all but the wealthy. Kudos to the Wisconsin Union for video-casting the performance free (and I doubt that they could have done that without Ma’s approval so maybe we shouldn’t wield a cudgel against him)! People like Ma also tend to lend support to lots of good causes and maybe he thinks he may just as well take advantage of the market prices and then funnel some money where he wants. It’s a difficult question with no simple answers and one has to know the artist in question. I remember going to the state supported (Leipzig, Germany) Gewandhaus Opera just a couple of years ago and found that amazingly affordable (likely because of state subsidies) and of very high quality. Perhaps that’s the way to go.


    Comment by Francine Flambeau — October 24, 2014 @ 7:27 am

  19. Wow! Jacob, I just read your reference to Yo-Yo Ma’s alleged fee of $45,000 for the recent recital. If that’s true, it makes me glad I missed him in Nagasaki. He may well be a great guy, a world-class cellist and everything else, but, professional sports aside, no human being’s worth that kind of money. It’s just outrageous.


    Comment by buppanasu — October 24, 2014 @ 1:03 am

    • Hi Larry,
      The actual fee was $90,000 or $95,000 for the recital. I broke it down to a per-hour charge for purposes of comparison.
      And I do NOT think think sports figures should be exempted from moral consideration. What about movie stars? Hedge fund managers? Rock stars?
      My overall point is that performing artists — in the largest sense of the word — have way outpaced the earnings of the those who allow them to have such success.
      It is time to discuss the wealth gap and income disparity in terms of the arts, and not just corporations and big business.
      As always, thanks for reading and replying.
      Best wishes,


      Comment by welltemperedear — October 24, 2014 @ 8:29 am

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