London’s South Bank can’t pay/won’t pay women performers

London’s South Bank can’t pay/won’t pay women performers


norman lebrecht

March 07, 2016

The femocratic arts centre is celebrating women. It’s that time of year.

Southbank Centre is pleased to announce that we are once again recruiting female musicians to join the Women of the World Orchestra. 

We reported that event in January 2015, only to learn that the SBC had no intention of paying the women it was purporting to celebrate.

We kicked up a bit of a fuss, hoping it might do some good next time round.

Some hopes. A Slipped Disc reader tells us today:

So somebody dropped out of this Women of the World Festival taking place at Southbank on Sunday and I said I would be available to play second bassoon, but am now feeling slightly uneasy about the fact that they are asking players to perform for free.

… The Festival Hall are not even offering comps to players – they’re offering 40% off the ticket price, so they’ll be profiteering from the players’ family and friends who are probably going to make up the majority of the audience.

It seems exploitative and hypocritical to be participating in a festival that celebrates women but doesn’t pay them, and I wonder if Sue Perkins or Sandi Toksvig are giving their time away for free.

Indeed. Or these two executives below who run the artistic side. They certainly don’t work for free.

jude kelly gillian moore

It is only uncelebrated women that the South Bank exploits.


  • pooroperaman says:

    Come on, Norman, you don’t expect Jude and Gillian to actually _pay_ for their virtue signalling?

  • Nigel Simeone says:

    Before anybody gets too outraged, it’s worth reading what the invitation sent from the South Bank Centre to play in the WoW orchestra actually said:

    “Southbank Centre is pleased to announce that we are once again forming a Women of the World Orchestra. We are inviting women who are music students or experienced amateur musicians to join this orchestra. Participants play alongside and can get to know professional section leaders as part of a year-long practical training opportunity.”

    That’s “music students or experienced amateur musicians” – who don’t expect to be paid for this kind of thing. I imagine the section leaders are being paid.

  • Una says:

    Even so, using music students may well take them out of their part-time day job to supplement college life, the dreaded loan, and pay their rent. So many students are working as well as studying, unless they are rich in one way or another. They could at least afford to give them something and not just ‘use’ them under the umbrella that it’s ‘good experience!’ You’ll always get asked to play or sing for nothing!

    By the way, using college students for oratorio concerts around the country has also pushed out so many professionals from established agencies as well because they are cheap – but hired because ‘it’s good experience for the future’. There will be no future for many in this situation.

    Wonder if it were a male orchestra if they’d get paid!

  • Simon Evnine says:

    Thanks for that voice of moderation, Nigel.

    PS: I presume you’re the editor of the Bernstein Letters ?
    I LOVED that book and do hope there’s a followup volume.

  • Alex says:

    I don’t see the problem here. If they are students and amateurs they don’t have to be paid, and nobody is forcing them to do it for nothing. They will benefit from it in terms of a wider musical education, working with experienced professional orchestral musicians, learning new repertoire, an achievement to list on their cv, an opportunity to meet new people and network, and the sheer love of music. If women were being asked to play in a professional orchestra for no pay that would be an outrage, but this is an example of women being asked to volunteer to play in an ad hoc amateur orchestra first and foremost both to enjoy music and to make a political statement, and to gain any additional benefits that they can in terms of musicianship and career opportunities. I would say exactly the same if it were men playing in an orchestra for no pay. Indeed, I am a man and have played in countless orchestras for no financial gain simply because it was something I enjoyed doing at the time.

    • Rebecca says:

      Feel free to tell my £30,000 student debt that it is okay to ask music students to perform for free. We receive a professional education and with that comes the strong held belief that we should never feel forced to do something for ‘exposure’. If it is a charity you feel strongly about and you are in the financial position to give up your time for such an event for free then fine, but the assumption that it is acceptable to not pay musicians is not.

      If the RFH is charging for the tickets then it is absurd. You don’t expect to go to see the London Philharmonic play and pay nothing. Music students are professionals. They are often gigging and tirelessly promoting themselves so that they can build up a substantial reputation so as to achieve a status so that someone doesn’t offer them a gig in exchange for ‘exposure’. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills…

      • Alex says:

        That is the first time I’ve heard it said that music students are professionals. Surely a music student is just that: a student. Would you describe a law student as a professional? I wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t pay a law student to give me legal advice or representation. Now, music is rather different to law, and you can undertake professional work before qualification, but it’s not as different as you may think. A lot of law students give free legal advice on the basis that they are informed laypeople, not qualified barristers or solicitors. A lot of law students also contribute to research projects that seek to overturn miscarriages of justice, for which they are, again, not paid.

        The £30,000 student debt is iniquitous, and I am just about young enough that I am also burdened with student debt, though it stands at around £20,000 rather than £30,000. But all students now will be building up this terrible legacy of debt thanks to their time in higher education, not just music students. And it doesn’t mean that all students expect to be paid for everything that they do. When I was a student I took on some quite onerous tasks, which I did purely for the experience and the exposure. I spent a year chairing a national-level weekly seminar series, which took a lot of planning over the summer and then took up several hours each week liaising with speakers, printing documents, handling expenses claims, booking rooms and equipment, producing posters, emailing my mailing list, buying food and drink, processing my own expenses claims, and so on. I wasn’t paid for this and nor did I expect to be, and I could have spent the time doing something else, like private tutoring, for which I would have been paid.

        The Southbank Centre is not forcing anybody to do this. I suspect that most women who play in this orchestra will do so because of political convictions, and I suspect that some women will eschew the opportunity because of political convictions, too. Southbank Centre is also a charity, so it’s not as if anybody is getting rich exploiting unpaid workers. I suspect that ticket sales barely cover running costs. Of course, it would be outrageous if musicians were being asked to play for no pay in an orchestra for a West End musical. It would also be outrageous if musicians were being asked to play for no pay in an orchestra which is actually a professional orchestra, which this is not.

        People in lots of disciplines do unpaid work for exposure because it leads to a good job afterwards. This is often the case in museums, for example. Students will often give their time and expertise for no pay, whether it’s running educational events or doing actual curatorial work, in the hope that it will lead to a paid job in a museum after graduation, which it often does.