The economics of classical music and the Spanish guitar

Yellow Pad
Viking Logarta

Posted on April 21, 2014

THERE is no question that classical musicians and enthusiasts are an endangered species. That is an inevitable consequence of “market forces,” in markets that are far from perfectly competitive as imagined by conventional economists. Unfortunately, environmental activists have not recognized this danger in their efforts to defend biodiversity.

The propensity for classical music might be genetic, or the taste might be acquired, or most likely both. What is indisputable is that, on the demand side, the market has been on the decline worldwide for decades, even before the preponderance of digital media and internet piracy and sharing.

If classical music in general is on the wane, the fate of the Spanish or classical guitar suffers a worse fate. The classical guitar has had a long battle to be a solo or even a chamber concert instrument. It was Andres Segovia and his students that won the battle, but only for a while.

In the Philippines, there was a major effort to promote classical guitar music since the early 2000s by visionaries Tonyboy Cojuangco and Greg Yu. After sponsoring the most promising classical guitar students from University of Santo Tomas and the University of the Philippines (UP), they formed Guitar Friends and organized international festivals and competitions since 2010.

In the latter part of last year, a group of classical guitarists and enthusiasts banded together to establish Independent Philippine Art Ventures or iPav. Their first project was the production and launch of the debut album of the country’s most internationally awarded classical guitarist, Ramoncito “Monching” Carpio.

The founders include Lester Demetillo of the UP College of Music guitar faculty, Mr. Carpio, Paul Morales of Ballet Philippines, Franco Maigue of the famous music family, budding soprano Stefanie Quintin, and music enthusiast Jess Alcordo of FDC Utilities, Inc.

The group has been inspired by Berta Rojas, a star in the international classical guitar community. Berta has been catapulted to being the most popular musician in Paraguay, for whom she is also tourism ambassador. She has had to partner with pop and jazz musicians in her country to help expand the audience of the genre. She has also helped organize the Landfill Orchestra in Paraguay where she taught children classical music.

(Berta and I were part of the 2012 Taiwan International Classical Guitar Festival and Competion. There we conceived her Philippine concert tour. She will be in Manila and Cebu from May 12-18 for concerts and a master class).

The problem with the classical guitar scene in the Philippines is that enthusiasts have been used to concerts where admission has been free. There is thus no data set to inform advocates on the breadth and depth of the market to embark on a degree of sustainability.

As a supporter of the genre in the country, I have had to study the economics of concert ticket pricing. Concert producers or promoters have monopoly power. Once they book the artist and venue, the marginal cost of a seat is virtually zero. This means that giving out free tickets would in the short run lead to the best social outcome or maximize consumer surplus. But who defrays the cost of the next concert? For the effort to be self-sustaining, there must be a mechanism where those willing to pay should be made to pay.

Berta’s Philippine tour is a first attempt to correct the shortcomings. iPav accepts that the classical guitar market in the country is thin and shallow, but that is just a curious historical artifact.

Enthusiasts in Manila hold a mini concert in Conspiracy Garden Café and Bar every first Tuesday of the month and also gather every Saturday in Trattoria Poggio Antico on McKinley Hill, Bonifacio Global City for more intimate performances. Hangers on and legends in their own minds include path-breaker Lester Demetillo, Roland Lorilla, Jun Borromeo, Roneil Santos, Franco Maigue, Triple Fret, Quadruple Bypass, a yet unnamed guitar quartet led by Nobel Queaño, the Nebrija-Ramos duo.

The group welcomes the support of all those who recognize that preserving and promoting a historic cultural legacy are worthwhile.

(The author is an economist who on the side promotes classical guitar music appreciation in the Philippines.)