JACKI LYDEN, host: New York City is an expensive place to live. But there are plenty of bargains to be had, especially if you like free music. New York boasts hundreds of free summer concerts in all genres of music. But this year, the city has also seen a few cancellations including one of its marquee summer attractions, the New York Philharmonic's annual series of outdoor concerts. NPR's Joel Rose reports on the state of free music in America's self-styled musical capital.
JOEL ROSE: The New York Philharmonic's concerts in Central Park have been a summer tradition since 1965. They were a formative experience for many New Yorkers, including the orchestra's current music director.
ALAN GILBERT: The concerts in Central Park, I mean, I've been going to these since I was a kid. You see the great lawn of Central Park just completely filled with people, with their blankets and picnics.
ROSE: Alan Gilbert grew up around the New York Philharmonic. His mother still plays violin in the orchestra. He talked about the free concerts in a promotional video produced by the orchestra.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)
GILBERT: It's really one of the ways that you can feel a connection between the orchestra and the city. It makes me proud to be part of the Philharmonic - and to be a New Yorker.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROSE: Gilbert has conducted the orchestra in Central Park several times, but not this summer. The New York Philharmonic canceled its free Concerts in the Parks series in June, just over a month before they were scheduled to begin. Orchestra officials declined our request for an interview, but they say the orchestra is focusing its resources instead on two free concerts in September, including one to mark the 10th anniversary of September 11th. They also insist the Concerts in the Parks will be back next year.
The New York Philharmonic is not alone.
MARTIN RISKIN: We are on a temporary hold.
ROSE: Martin Riskin runs Free for All at Town Hall. For almost a decade, he's presented a handful of spring concerts by A-list chamber music artists at Town Hall in Manhattan, free of charge. Riskin was able to support the cost of the concerts - about $200,000 a year - with the help of a generous donor, who recently passed away.
RISKIN: We lost the tremendous bit of funding. Therefore, we felt it's best not to have a regular season, but to rebuild.
ROSE: Where Riskin's series relies on good, old-fashioned private philanthropy, much of New York's free music scene now depends on corporate money.
JAMES BURKE: That's a big part of the mix; that's about 50 percent of the mix, actually.
ROSE: James Burke directs the SummerStage festival, which puts on more than 100 free concerts a year in Central Park and other venues around the city, at a cost of about $5 million.
ROSE: James Burke directs the SummerStage festival, which puts on more than a hundred free concerts a year in Central Park and other venues around the city, at a cost of about $5 million.
ROSE: For example, ABC pays SummerStage to use its Central Park main stage for concerts that are broadcast on "Good Morning America," like this one by Beyonce.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO RUNS THE WORLD (GIRLS)")
BEYONCE: (Singing) We run this mother, girls, we run this mother...
ROSE: SummerStage has been in the free concert business since the 1980s. Originally, the organizers wanted to make Central Park seem safer and more inviting. That model worked so well that it's been copied all over the city. Catherine Radbill is a music business professor at New York University.
CATHERINE RADBILL: When I lived here in the late '70s, early '80s, there wasn't nearly this much. We called it kind of the silly season because there was just not that much going on, and people kind took off and hung around, read books instead.
ROSE: Now, Radbill says, there's a glut of free concerts all summer in all five boroughs.
RADBILL: There's the Queens Botanical Garden concert series, there's a big-band concert series in Brooklyn. I mean, there's something in Bryant Park. There's something I never even heard of - Lincoln Square Summer Concerts in Richard Tucker Park. I mean, who knew this? It's endless. It's endless.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You ready to get going?
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please welcome to SummerStage New York City, Imelda May.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
IMELDA MAY: (Singing) Your love is amazing and my eyes...
ROSE: All that free music may be good for audiences, but the success of SummerStage has also created a challenge for its director, James Burke.
BURKE: We actually have a lot of stiff competition for music in the city. And sometimes we're going after the same bands so, you know, there's little bidding wars.
ROSE: To thrive in this competitive environment, Burke says SummerStage has also turned to its audiences for help. Concertgoers can become members. By donating 150 bucks or more, they can enjoy some perks, like skipping to the front of the line.
BURKE: We've ramped up the different kind of perks that our members get when they come onboard. And you know, JetBlue is one of our sponsors, built us a nice viewing platform out at the front house. We'll put some members there, and we'll put some members close to the stage, if they prefer, along with the artists' guests.
ROSE: That ability - to turn audiences at free concerts into paying customers - is something any presenting organization would envy, says Catherine Radbill at NYU. Those presenters would at least like to know who their audiences are in order to market to them later. Radbill says that should lead to some rethinking at the New York Philharmonic when it re-launches Concerts in the Parks next year.
RADBILL: If I were running the Philharmonic, I would say: Let's look at the cost-benefit analysis here. How am I going to capture the data of those people attending the concerts so that I can persuade them to try coming indoors in November or December and paying for a show?
More and more, Radbill says corporate sponsors and concert presenters need to know they're getting some tangible by giving away product. So there may be more free music in New York City than ever before, but free music isn't quite as free as it used to be. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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