Violinist Itzhak Perlman recently took to his Facebook page over a high-profile issue well outside of his usual realm: North Carolina House Bill 2, which eliminated various antidiscriminatory legal protections for a range of people, including those who are gay, bisexual, and transgender, and required people to use only restrooms that corresponded with the gender specified on their birth certificates.
Wrote the violinist: "As my fans know, I have spent a lifetime advocating against discrimination towards those with physical disabilities and have been a vocal advocate for treating all people equally. As such, after great consideration, I have decided to cancel my May 18th concert in North Carolina with the North Carolina Symphony as a stand against House Bill 2."
It's not unheard of for classical artists to enter the fray on social justice issues. But are the potential risks and rewards higher today, in our superconnected, hyperventilating climate of social media and 24-hour news channels?
We asked Sarah Baird Knight, a partner, along with Steven Swartz, at Brooklyn P.R. firm DOTDOTDOTMUSIC (which does not represent Perlman), to weigh in on questions raised by Perlman's not-so-silent act of silence.
Do you think artists have any kind of special responsibility to respond to these kinds of laws?
It depends on the artist. Some artists absolutely view their work this way — as reflection, criticism, social commentary, or even as protest against the social order and the cultural establishment. And those with greater influence and visibility might feel a greater responsibility to do so, even if their work is not overtly political. This is nothing new, of course — if you look at the role artists played in the civil-rights movement and Vietnam War here in America, for example. But the idea that music and politics are closely entwined? We can read that all the way back to Plato. Not to mention how music was used for ancient battle against warring tribes and ways of life.
What are the risks an artist takes when making a cancellation like this? What are the career questions on which you would counsel an artist to consider?
There are a number of relationships to consider. The first is the artist's relationship to her fans. Then, behind the scenes, the relationship with the presenting organization, venue, booking agents, etc. So we provide a sounding board. What is your motivation? What's the aspired outcome? We might brainstorm some options and talk through how each might play out — both in the public eye and behind the scenes — to make sure that the impact of the decision is fully intentional. Boycotting is one bold option and the risk, in one way, is inversely proportional to the artist's level of demand.
How is the risk inversely proportional to the artist's level of demand? Are you saying that what might make sense for Perlman to risk, at this late stage in his career, isn't the same for someone just starting out, who might have more to lose?
Well, let's go back to the alignment of intention and impact. An established artist in high demand will likely make a much bigger impact by canceling than a lesser-known artist would, so the payoff for the risk is much greater in terms of awareness. And an established artist has more leverage — both with the public and with administrators, agents, and venues — because he can draw on decades of goodwill. It's less likely that he'll lose the trust of his fans, especially if he speaks directly to them in a personal way. And likewise for those behind the scenes: If an artistic administrator has worked with an artist and his team for decades, it's far less likely that such a cancellation would burn a bridge. (Though it certainly puts the artist's manager and publicist in a position to carry out some unpleasant conversations, and it warrants reconciliation at a later date.)
You said earlier that boycotting was one option. What are the other options for an artist who might not want to boycott but who still does not want an appearance to be interpreted as tacit acceptance of an injustice?
Cyndi Lauper's response is one creative example. She used her May 5 Late Night with Seth Myers appearance to publicize her stance and, rather than canceling her North Carolina show, she turned it into a rally and donated the proceeds to Equality North Carolina. She also added a "non-gender specific bathroom" to her tour rider, which pushed the venue to provide the accommodation that is at the crux of this bill. Then there's a lesser-known artist, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, who burned her birth certificate from the stage and said goodbye to gender (she is trans). These responses were effective, genuine, and congruous. Lauper is known as an activist, so it makes sense that she'd throw a rally. And Against Me! is a punk band; it's definitely punk to set something on fire.
Does Perlman's decision throw down the gauntlet for other artists with North Carolina dates to do something?
Absolutely. That's another aspect of his leverage. Now it's not just about the Springsteens and Laupers in pop/rock doing their political thing in another realm. With Perlman's decision, the public and industry eye will be on other classical musicians with shows in N.C. — and, whether they like it or not, their choices will be viewed as political. Perlman's decision determined the subject of the conversation; I'm sure there are many artists now wondering whether and how to respond.
How should they respond? And are the factors to be considered today different than they were in a time when a mom posting a video of herself in a Chewbacca mask didn't mean it might change her life forever?