Waltz on: going it alone in Austria

Thinking of going it alone in Vienna? Artist manager Mark Stephan Buhl on what it takes to tour work in Austria. Interview by Maria Roberts

We’ve just finished managing one concert of a series of concerts for the Armenian Ministry of Culture, to commemorate the genocide of 1915. It was a complicated project to stage as potential activists threatened to protest outside the concert hall. Added to this political and diplomatic considerations with the Armenian ambassador had to be discussed, several programme changes happened at the last minute, the concert ran over time and coaches had to be stalled. Though all said and done, it was a very successful event, received good press coverage, and the hall was full.

Artists on the bill included Camerata Salzburg; Bach Choir Salzburg; George Pehlivanian (conductor); Mischa Maisky with his daughter Lily and son Sasha; Emmanuel Tjeknavorian (violin); Nareh Arghamanyan (piano); four international Armenian opera singers. The repertoire included Mozart, Brahms, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.

One of the main issues we encountered working on this project were the differences in labour laws between our two countries: whereas the Armenian company had been used to working within a much looser structure (if a performance overruns this isn’t a problem), Austria is tightly bound by regulations that affect everyone from the players, to the bus drivers hired and the venue staff. There are rigid structures in place here in Austria (like in many European countries, such as Switzerland, Germany, France and Italy), which means that even a slight change in the schedule can lead to serious personnel issues and a torrent of additional fees. In particular, the German speaking countries tend to have more rules and regulations in place. For this reason alone engaging the services of a management company in Austria can allay a crisis. Presenting work in Vienna as an independent artist or company, rather than through an artist manager, can be fraught with difficulties.

For the bold going it alone, there are a number of opportunities for independent artists available here in Vienna, such as through Bösendorfer (which has a good small hall), Yamaha and a number of theatres in the city. However, these venues pay very little in fees or nothing at all. And an artist needs to differentiate between what the two options (with a manager / or without) can offer: if an agent has sold an artist to a major subsidised venue for a fee, the venue will take care of everything around the concert, including all the advertisements, promotion of tickets sales, the programme and marketing to their own subscribers. But when an artist is presenting a concert independently, they have to do all of the groundwork in order to get an audience there.

Cutting out the middleman or the agent can cause other issues: artists are left with the task of handling their own social media, marketing and PR strategy, alongside the booking administration. In the long run, I think the independent artist’s talent might suffer because there is simply so much more responsibility to handle.

All these extra duties take up a significant amount of time and draws the artist’s energy away from preparing for the music. Artists need space to concentrate on what they do best – performing.

When you have a manager, you don’t normally have to do all the administrative duties yourself. That’s the big difference. Moreover, agents will normally only represent artists that they think will sell and that they believe they can bring out into the market – I myself will only convey artists to presenters that can pay fees, unless otherwise agreed with an artist – which creates trust between the presenter and the manager.

There are artists that are so desperate to perform here in Vienna that they will do so for free, perhaps because they have never played in Vienna or haven’t for a while. This can cause problems further down the line as they may not then secure paying engagements.

Some presenters are not always fair perhaps and might think ‘OK, if he or she can perform there for nothing then the next time he/she performs with us we might not pay a commensurate fee’. This need for exposure, and for paid appearances, can be a difficult area to navigate.

Having said that even some of the most successful artists will play for little or no fee if the presenter has a strong reputation. In Vienna there’s a very good series called the Stadtinitiative Wien – translated ‘The Vienna City Initiative.’They have a lovely concert hall (Ehrbar Saal of the former Ehrbar piano company) that dates back to the 19th century – it looks like a miniature of the city’s Musikverein.

Mr Clemens Horvat arranges the concerts there and is extremely enthusiastic and very engaged. Artists to have performed at this hall include Melvyn Tan, Midori, Christian Altenburger, Felicity Lott and Angelika Kirchschlager, among countless others – they perform for almost no fee.

If my artists want to perform there, I will organise a date – but then everyone has to understand that in this situation there are no (or very low) earnings for anyone, and no commission for the manager. What needs to be remembered is that we all have to work for some profit, including the artist.

For established artists the occasional free performance is not necessarily a problem, for example Midori is performing two concerts at the Stadtinitiative this season, it’s an opportunity for her to try out new repertoire in Vienna in an open and free environment – and it is in this way that Mr Horvat enables his artists. Quite often transport and accommodation costs are provided when possible.

However for newer artists this approach can become problematic: performing for free or reduced fees does lead to skewed expectations from presenters and problems down the line. One has to be very careful when taking on these sorts of engagements: an artist might appear for no fee for a benefit event or at a gala, but then when one approaches a regular presenter like Wigmore Hall, Barbican, or a big festival that pays normal fees, there might be an issue.

Much is down to how the fee-free appearance is contextualised: if an artist regularly engages with the Konzerthaus and Musikverein, and then between dates plays strategically at other venues for free or lower fees (for example at a gala to support young artists, or a local charity), it can usually work.

The performing arts landscape in Austria is not as rosy as it was 20 years ago, but it is strongly subsidised and funded by the government. This makes it an attractive country to perform in as all of the provinces in Austria have nice concert halls, orchestras and excellent classical music events, ranging from famous festivals such as Salzburg to even the small festivals at Eggenberg Palace near Graz. In general the atmosphere is very good here and culture is encouragingly supported.