British orchestras are in ‘critical’ position

British orchestras are in ‘critical’ position


norman lebrecht

April 08, 2020

Dire warning from the director of the Association of British Orchestras, Mark Pemberton:

There’s no easy way of saying this: the Covid-19 emergency has placed the UK’s orchestras in a critical position.

Unlike orchestras in continental Europe and other parts of the world, which receive significantly higher levels of public subsidy, British orchestras are heavily dependent on earned income from ticket sales, international tours and commercial activity such as recordings, at an average of 50% of turnover. And for the many ABO members that do not receive public funding, the level of earned income is that much higher. With the forced closure of entertainment venues and recording studios, that income has plunged to zero.

It isn’t just in the past few weeks that this has hit the orchestras hard. Tours to Asia, a crucial revenue earner for our members, started to be cancelled back in January, and it has escalated from there, with first international touring, and then concerts in the UK, grinding to a halt. This in turn threatens the financial sustainability of our members, and the livelihoods of the musicians who work for them.

The 65 member orchestras of the ABO have different employment models for their musicians, with some, such as the BBC, regional symphony and the major opera and ballet orchestras being in salaried employment, and the rest, including the London self-governing orchestras and the chamber orchestras, operating on a freelance basis.

There are over 2,000 members of the UK’s orchestras, of which 50% are self-employed, plus 12,000 engagements annually of freelance extras….

Read on here.



  • Andy says:

    Millions of ruined livelihoods and lives, an oncoming long and deep recession, followed probably by years of underfunding in health and related services, unfortunately suggests we’re in serious danger of creating a disaster which will be worse than the one we’re purporting to ‘solve’.

    • Brian 1 says:

      I agree things will never be the same again

    • V.Lind says:

      For God’s sake get your priorities right. The disaster we are trying to AVERT is the DEATHS of people in Spanish flu numbers.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      The aim of the lockdown is to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed. Once we can be sure that won’t happen, we will start to open up.

      Once a large proportion of the population are immune (either through a vaccine, or because they have had the virus and recovered) we can return to normal.

  • Michael Turner says:

    As I’ve said so many times on Slipped Disc, perhaps the powers that be will see the importance of music (and the arts more generally) to people’s welfare.

    During this time of lock-down, so many people are relying on the succour provided by music to help them through. I am one of a network of Facebook friends many of whom are posting pieces of music for each other to discover and gain strength from. My wife is providing Zoom-based music lessons to her pupils to keep them occupied and interested.

    Perhaps (but I doubt it) government will realise that music is really not just entertainment. It has a soul that offers all sorts of benefits to all sorts of people. The widest group entitled “vulnerable” have massive amounts to gain from music and, by realising this, government should better-fund music to provide succour and entertainment. It’s not rocket science.

    • Ron Swanson says:

      The government has finite resources and faces choices of were to spend. Cutting social care to pay for orchestras isn’t a vote winner. It really isn’t rocket science.

      • Peter San Diego says:

        You’re right, alas and of course. At least British unemployment funding should be robust enough to see the musicians — and staff — through the present phase; in the intermediate term, we’ll just have to see which organizations can be saved by public and private support.

      • Germany doesn’t have that problem. German state and municipal governments employ close to 10,000 musicians–5 times as many as the UK. And they are all still having their salaries paid. Time for the UK/USA to get over the Reagan/Thatcher era and for the UK to return to its social democratic sensibilities.

      • psq says:

        The necessity to finance NHS properly is also not rocket science, but the power that be practised wilful neglect.

      • Tim says:

        Please don’t reduce it to a simplistic, binary choice between social care or culture.

        If you pit just one source of public spending against another select one you stoop to a Daily Mail level of crude, emotive debate which doesn’t help anyone.

      • Harry Collier says:

        Cutting vanity projects such as HS2 would not impact social care and would protect a valuable national heritage.

      • Michael Turner says:

        Ron, you are absolutely right on both counts.

        However, The point that I have been making for many years now (and to a wide range of audiences) is that the arts can and should be considered and factored-in as part of the social care package. Well before the Covid-19 situation arose, I had a long conversation with a chair of a NHS Trust. He confirmed to me that, since the cutting of funds to Social and Adult Care Services, he was finding a massive increase in hospital admissions. What was happening was that, some time back, Mr X (an elderly gent) might have attended a day-care setting twice each week. Through this he will have avoided isolation and had some stimulation in his life. Each time he attended, staff would also be able quietly assess his health, flagging up any health issues as they arose. While this will have had a cost (let’s say £300.00 per week), that cost was largely predictable and Mr X would have been likely to maintain life on an even keel.

        Once his day care was removed, Mr X lost that opportunity for interaction and the staff the opportunity for monitoring. He may then have muddled on for a while but then hit a problem that might have been caught in the past. Once at that point, he would probably end up hospital. Due to the lack of preparation of support, thanks to a lack of monitoring, his case would probably then be dealt with as a crisis, involving considerable funds, let’s say £3k per week. Being as he has hit a crisis, it is likely that he will be hospitalised for some time, say 6 weeks. Hence, the state might have used to incur an annual bill of £15.6k. Now Mr X has just eaten up £18k in 6 weeks, unexpectedly and, in the process, he’s would also now be taking up a bed too.

        Now let’s look at how the arts could help. Firstly, other than top conductors, soloists, actors etc, the arts are well-known for the poor salaries they pay. Aside of those in salaried positions (where their organisation may well already have a community/education dept.) there are a wealth of individual, self-employed arts practitioners who are geared up to offer support to people like Mr X, at a fraction of the cost of the crisis bill and probably that of his original day-care provision.

        As well as those individual practitioners, there are venues (most notably museums and art galleries) that are also geared up to offer visits to people needing support and respite for their carers. Arts venues are also putting on concerts and film screenings specifically for people with dementia but these initiatives are often considered “special projects” as opposed to the norm.

        So, to conclude, while I’m not suggesting that the arts can provide some sort of magic wand to make everything well, I do believe that, with more considered funding from the state, the arts can continue to provide succour to those that want it but also provide much-needed support to those that need it.

        So, where has this picture that I have painted come from? As I say, I’ve had long discussions about this with a NHS Trust Chair. For my own part, my background is in the arts festival, museums and music professions, often engaging with elderly, disabled and other vulnerable members of society. Currently, I do a lot of work with young people and the community. So, while I’m male, white, middle aged and middle class, I’m also not just talking within a vacuum.

      • Symphony musician says:

        Public funding of the arts hardly takes money away from other services. The cost of healthcare and social care is so immense that the impact of diverting all arts funding would barely be noticed, and would certainly be dwarfed by the annual increases in funding required in the health and care sector.
        It’s a fallacy to see it as a either/or choice. Funding of the arts is an important – I believe essential – investment in a civil society, not just in terms of a ‘healthy’ and civilised society, but even in terms of the financial return. Money invested in the arts usually returns several times the amount in economic benefits. In the UK we’re usually very bad at investing in society, in comparison to Germany for example, and we face much higher costs later on to repair the damage. This is evident even in the way these two countries are respectively managing the Covid-19 crisis.
        Clearly the case for arts funding is not well understood, even among people who value the arts. Perhaps after all this disruption those of us that care ought to stand up and explain the reasoning.

    • fflambeau says:

      Nice thoughts but I’m afraid the wrong analysis, Michael. Music has long been under threat because it and the arts in general emphasize an open, critical mind and thinking; just the opposite of what most of the world’s rulers (not democracies, there are none) want. Teddy bears provide succor too and are not threatening to the elite.

    • Michael Turner says:

      Hello Michael Turner. Whilst I in no way disagree with your remarks on this story, I would like to point out once again, especially to my Philharmonia colleagues, that your remarks do not come from me. Best wishes to you though!

      • Michael Turner (Cond.) says:

        Michael, I’ll look at using a slightly different name for the future. Hope that life in the Philharmonia is secure and that you all are staying safe.

  • Robin Smith says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if the big Defence Spenders in the world could get together and agree to divert just a small percentage of their spend to Culture and an even bigger percentage of their total Defence spend to paying down their Debt. No losers (apart from the Weapons manufacturers) but an enormous increase in well being.

  • Wally Francis says:

    Whilst these are certainly troubling and testing times, I am sure our political masters are right in putting [for now] lives before the economy. There will however, have to be a day of reckoning sooner or later. Things will be different across may sectors for sure going forward.

    Our wonderful Orchestras and ensembles will come through all this and the sheer power of great music will never be extinguished!

    However it is an opportune time to question why London has so many Orchestras and such a large per-capita share of ACE funding.

    Music lovers are fairly well dispersed around the country and it has always been difficult to justify the huge imbalance of provision in the Capital vs everywhere else.

    This is an opportune time to redress this imbalance, once and for all!