If you want to dispel the idea that new technology should be the preserve of the young, start with Jasper Parrott. He’s completely comfortable being interviewed over Zoom because Harrison Parrott, the artist management agency that he co-founded just over half a century ago, has been ramping up its Zoom usage since February, using video conferencing to link its many offices and remote staff. “I cannot say," he explains, "that I had ever anticipated that only a couple of months later, I would sometimes be spending five hours continuously on Zoom with a large number of people in colloquia: I think 60 is our record.”

Jasper Parrott © Caroline Roka
© Caroline Roka

It’s made Parrott question his use of office space, which is possibly the least of the long term changes that he thinks will result from the Covid-19 pandemic. When I ask how the artists he manages are dealing with the crisis, he says that he’s immensely impressed and reassured by their resilience, given that their entire way of life has just come to a grinding halt and that “the vast majority of our artists have lost progressively all of their income”. But he also notes that “the majority of the artists are in good spirits and are using the time in very productive and creative ways... Some of them are thinking about different ways of performing music every hour of the day. Some are questioning the rhythm and the pressures of the old music world as we used to know it, and I think most of them are rather realistic about the fact that this is something that has gone forever.”

An obvious change in mid-pandemic classical music is the enormous number of home-filmed and archival video performances being made available online free – which means with no income for the artists. “It started off, I think, with admirable intentions. Artists wanted to perform and participate with people around them who were suffering terrible privations and difficulties. So they wanted to do something very positive. And I think that was healthy, natural and good for all of us. But like most things, it went too quickly and probably in the wrong way. By now, there is a very strong consensus that the time for this has passed and there needs to be a return to the idea that music and art and performances should be paid for, sustained and valued. The more you just throw everything onto the internet, regardless of quality and without any payment, the more you will damage the return, whatever that will be, when the virus eventually recedes.”

He relates a conversation with a long-standing friend, the manager of a major German orchestra, which highlighted three principal fears for subscription income. Firstly, subscribers might be worried about whether cancellations would cause them to lose the value of a second year's worth of subscription. Secondly, since many subscribers are in their 60s and upwards, they fear being barred from concert halls on grounds of being vulnerable. But thirdly, there is the fear that people will have found that they enjoy the choice, opportunities and comfort offered by video to such a great extent that they no longer wish to come to the concert hall as often as before. “That, I think, is the biggest danger that we face, that people might get out of the habit of thinking of music as a shared collective experience, of people getting together to perform great works of art, or discovering and inventing new music.”

In general, however, Parrott is enthusiastic about the possibilities that new ideas and new technologies may bring. The longer the current crisis goes on, he suggests, the more people will question whether our current concert halls, opera houses, museums and galleries “which are still largely 19th century institutions” will become “obsolete or somehow not fit for purpose”: there will be less money around and Covid-19 and the climate crisis will have changed social habits and the perception of these institutions. His staff of all ages, he says, are working on concepts to combine live and digital performance to create spaces – physical and virtual – to attract new and bigger audiences. “Theoretically, there's no reason why, for the right programme, you couldn’t have tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, which will be much greater than would ever be possible in a physical space.” He also imagines that the threat of infection will prompt the development of new technologies whereby audience members might wear PPE specially adapted to provide some form of augmented reality.

Several times through the interview, Parrott returns to a key concern: that a lot of people in governments and institutions lack the imagination to understand what is going on in the arts world and how damaging this could be. There is, he says, “a failure of many hugely well funded public facing organisations to treat solo and independent artists with the same degree of care and respect for their financial position” that they give to employees with long term contracts or to their own organisations, which have government funding on tap. This failure of understanding extends to the point that “this music and arts business is a huge international interrelated family of talent and of inspiration and an incredibly important part of the whole structure of a good society, a healthy society, a society which actually opens up opportunities to different generations and the opportunity to include people from underprivileged backgrounds.”

In the UK, he is specifically concerned about “what you might call the supply side in the arts, the infinite number of smaller organisations and individuals who provide absolutely essential services between the performance, the venues and the public. These people are critically at risk, and I think there will be many bankruptcies and many closures during the summer and in the autumn. Despite the best efforts of some wonderful people like Nick Serota at the Arts Council, there is very little understanding, as far as I can see, about the range of the risk or the damage that will be caused. I think that our government isn't very interested.” He points out that Oliver Dowden, the UK Culture Secretary, has met the head of Premier League clubs about how football might be reopened, but that there has been no such meeting between Dowden or his officials and the managers of our orchestras and concert halls.

Despite the context of an uninterested government, the arts industry is making its plans. “Some people are already quite advanced in preparing a sort of slowly scaling up version of what they do. They will start with a small ensemble within permitted social distancing, then different types of concepts with gradually growing numbers of people distributed in different ways through the concert halls, at different times and speeds in different countries. Probably, in the course of the autumn, there will be some relatively fragile areas of revival. But the big problem is that everybody's going to have to wait for something which provides more security where audiences are no longer afraid that they might either be infected or infect their families when they come back from an event. I think the performing arts areas – music, concerts, theatre performances, opera, particularly choirs – will be amongst the last to come back into some form of normalcy.

Even before the pandemic, I ask, was the arts industry solvent in the first place? Or has the pandemic simply brought into focus a fragility that was already there? The answer, he says, depends on where you look. In America, performing arts organisations are so heavily indebted that “to a certain extent, the whole house of cards can collapse very quickly. It is is very likely that we will find in the future that there will be fewer orchestras and established institutionalised arts organisations. I think the same will happen here, maybe to a lesser degree.” But the issue that’s more fundamental is the question of how any kind of artistic activity is funded. The image in Parrott’s head is that of Pedro Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, which documents the myriad processes of life, death and regeneration in forests and their tightly interwoven networks of different organisms. “If you don't respect that huge underground network, you will end up in a barren society, barren nature. And I think that there has to be a fundamental change of attitude about the value of culture, the arts, creativity in our society, and that is a collective responsibility. If you get that balance right, the question of solvency sort of goes away. I think that we could all do a lot more to raise our heads above the parapet and say much more about how important this all is.”

“I'm faced every day with the very heavy responsibility: how do I take care of my colleagues, my staff, the artists, institutions I believe in. And at the same time, I'm excited by the fact that we could actually transform so much. We could do so many things in such an exciting and new way which would refresh and renovate and revive what has become, in many ways, a very complacent society.”