Now the BBC faces its biggest musical nightmare

Now the BBC faces its biggest musical nightmare


norman lebrecht

May 28, 2020

The BBC’s delay in cancelling the Proms was brought about largely by the need to bury a much bigger problem.

The orchestras.

The BBC Symphony, Philharmonic, Scottish and Concert orchestras – together with a share in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Singers (and not including the Ulster Orchestra) – cost the Corporation £29 million a year, according to a recent reliable estimate.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the BBC has been unable to furlough any of its employees, including the musicians.

Until today it has hung on to the Proms in the hope of justifying the mounting expenditure of paying orchestras to stay silent. By the end of the summer, that bill – paid for by the public from its licence fees – will amount to somewhere in excess of £12 million.

The musicians themselves are helpless. They do not know what their future holds. The executives responsible do not yet have much more of a clue.

My understanding from a senior person involved is that the BBC has been holding informal talks with Arts Council England with a view to merging four orchestras into two. How far these talks have advanced during lockdown I cannot tell, but they may soon be overtaken by events.

By September, two independent London orchestras will (I’m hearing) face insolvency and the BBC will face grim choices. The BBC orchestras and its music staff will be, once more, at the forefront of public economies.


UPDATE: BBC denies talks to merge orchestras

We stand by our sources. Check back at the end of 2020 to see what has changed.



  • annnon says:

    Workers in every sector are hurting.

    When you can’t pay your own rent, you can’t be bothered to cry for your neighbors.

    It’s disastrous for everyone.

  • A bassist says:

    I think if you publish an article as detrimental and gloomy as this, you should name your sources.

    • Zach Jones says:

      I agree 100%. But let’s not forget that Slippedisc and NL are a gossip column, not a newspaper. Though NL was once a respected journalist and critic, he unfortunately has turned to the dark side giving in to reporting hearsay and rumors as news. It’s one step removed from fake news.

      I have my doubts that they would even allow me to post this comment due to censorship under the guise of “comment moderation”. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve posted something truthful and been censored by SD.

    • SVM says:

      It is probable that the sources will have disclosed the information only on condition of anonymity. Given the lack of adequate whistleblower protection in the UK, such a stance is eminently rational and reasonable. Of course, it does raise questions as the accuracy of the statement. But, even if Lebrecht’s claims were groundless, they have had the useful consequence of causing the BBC to explicitly and publicly rule-out a merger (whether they stick to their promises is another matter).

  • Harold Wilkin says:

    Hopefully the orchestras will be able to return to giving broadcasts and making recordings soon, as mentioned in a recent Government statement.

    Giving performances to large audiences seems to be some way off and is the major threat to all performing groups.

    Any loss of BBC funding to the BBC NOW in Wales and the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland could leave these regions without any live orchestral music provision.

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    Manchester has got the Halle Orch, so maybe the BBC Philharmonic could be phased out ?

    • IC225 says:

      London has four independent symphony orchestras competing for auduences and resources. The existence of two – two! – BBC orchestras in the capital is surely the anomaly that needs rectifying here.

      • HugoPreuss says:

        So what? Berlin has two full time professional radio orchestras, on top of all the other orchestras in town.

        Altogether, the ARD public radio in Germany has 12 full professional symphony orchestras as well as 8 other orchestras, including five bigbands.

        Nobody thinks that this is too much.

    • Miko says:

      Wow, that comment is going down well with the punters Charles!

      Seeing as Norman’s blog has more than it’s fair share of armchair experts, maybe you could be phased out Charles.

    • Charles says:

      Except the BBC Philharmonic is better that all the other BBC bands and the Hallé put together so ….NO!

    • Maestro Davis says:

      Er, no, that’s not going to happen!!

    • Frank Spencer says:

      Manchester has the BBC Philharmonic Mr Charles Clark-Maxwell, so maybe the Hallé could be phased out, and you along with it…….

  • Nick2 says:

    It is only 60 or so years since the BBC tried to axe many of its then house orchestras. That did not quite achieve the desired objective but not many years later the axe was wielded again and orchestras like the BBC Scottish Radio Orchestra disappeared.

    The real problem in those days was ‘needle time’, the arrangement entered into in the 1930s between the commercial record companies, the Musicians Union and the national broadcaster whereby most of the music performed on the radio had to be ‘live’. In the 1960s the offshore companies broadcasting from ships and foreign countries easily got round these needle time restrictions. Not only did they play the pop music many listeners really wanted to hear, they left the BBC with the need for, frankly, a ridiculous amount of live music, much of it middle-of-the-road and pop.

    I believe the managements of the symphony orchestras which survived the cuts deserve a great deal of credit for the out-of-studio work now undertaken by their ensembles. But the question now surely is: why should the BBC still be paying for them? This is no longer the 1930s, nor even the 1960s.

    In the 1970s the BBC Scottish Symphony could well have become the orchestra for Scottish Opera, just as the Manchester based ensemble could surely have tied up with Opera North a decade later. But I understand MU and BBC regulations would have rendered such long term out-of-studio associations financially impossible.

    I feel desperately sorry for the musicians and staff in the present state of uncertainty. Yet I can’t help feeling that this was a problem which was bound to rear its ugly head once again sooner if not later.

  • Rachelle Goldberg says:

    Pleae could someone enlighten me as to why they were not able to furlough the Staff or even partially by having smaller ensembles performing. They are after all on Salaries. They should have taken advice by contacting the Chancellor.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Government order: public bodies cannot furlough staff

      • Miko says:

        By the way Norman, I think you’ll find that even as BBC musos ‘sit anxiously awaiting their fate’ as you’d like to have it, a huge amount of great quarentine content is being broadcast. How about shining your efevescent light on something positive?

      • Frank Spencer says:

        U got something right for once Norm, about time too!!

    • Heynonny Mouse! says:

      In point of law you can’t furlough someone if they are going to do any work for you. If they had done the BBC would not have anyone Zooming music projects to key worker children in schools or creating broadcast content remotely as they are currently doing.

  • Jimmy says:

    Yeah, of course all the bbc executives are sat round and the main topic is the orchestras.
    which accounts for less than 3% of their budget. Just scaremongering at a time when a lot of musicians have enough to be anxious about already.

    • Vln2 says:

      Absolutely correct..more unhelpful scaremongering!!
      £29 million is a pitifully small amount to employ such a skilled and vastly important workforce and by most people’s standards it’s extremely good value for money!!!
      Compare that figure to the amount earmarked to pay the top 10 BBC TV presenters?!?
      Total annual licence fee revenue is…? I don’t suppose anyone has that figure handy?

  • Samantha Given says:

    Who are the independent orchestras in the most danger? RPO, Philharmonia?

  • 4+ orchestras for only £29 million a year?

    That is less than one orchestra in the US.

    What are they not doing in the UK that causes them to cost so much less?

    • Normski says:

      5 orchestras. And a choir.

      They maybe cost less as they’re paid a fraction of their US counterparts- the major US orchestras, at least.

  • Jonathan says:

    I don’t really buy this about the BBC orchestras, at least not in relation to Covid-19. They are funded by the licence fee, which people are paying just the same. They must be one of the few arts groups whose main source of funding is not at risk. The BBC net-subsidises the Proms each year by £5-6 million (source: Roger Wright, Proms pre-concert talk a few years ago) so they don’t lose revenue by it being cancelled.

    I’m far more concerned about other orchestras. And the effect of changes to the licence fee due to the BBC’s charter renewal, etc. could impact the BBC orchestras in the future (although as others have pointed, out, it’s a very small part of the Corporation’s expenditure). But this post just highlights how this blog tends to scaremonger during this challenging time for the arts.

  • engineers_unite says:

    shut down the Bs broadcasting co. remove licence fee.

    They have almost single handedly pedalled mass hysteria, lies and a 21st century version of the “salem witches”.

    Kill it off.
    Not fit for purpose.

    DIE Auntie DIE!

    • Normski says:

      What would you replace it with, out of interest?

      And is your preference for the performing groups to ‘DIE orchestras DIE’ too?

      It’s not a perfect organisation. But the breadth of its output: cultural content from live music of all kinds, drama, news, current affairs, comedy, sport, children’s entertainment and educational content, the Asian Network, local radio, weather, the World Service, web content… For 43p a day, and no adverts- I believe that is worth fighting to protect, as well as fighting to hold the organisation to account when it gets things wrong.

  • S. Thomson says:

    What a load of tosh as per usual. The only part of this speculation that has any ring of accuracy is that the BBC is going to face some grim financial choices, of which consideration for the orchestras will be but a small part, if any. And anyone suggesting Arts Council England would have interest or influence of the BBC’s internal orchestral management and structure belies an ignorance of both organisations

    Like many industries there are likely some BBC musicians sitting around twiddling their thumbs currently, but there certainly seem to be plenty of them producing solo and small group work if listening to Radio 3 is anything to go by – and there have been some impressive overdubbed recordings produced (an activity likely much more longwinded and technically challenging than a couple of days rehearsal for a studio concert). Furthermore, some (many?) BBC Musician’s are likely supporting the BBC through non-playing work (like the creation of the archive proms festival) and strategising for the return to group playing.

    The day to day work that the orchestras usually perform can’t currently happen and nor can the proms happen in the way that we are all accustomed. This year is strange times. It is well known that the BBC has productions across all its strands which are currently suspended with most likely similar outcomes for the workers and similar financial implications.

    Anybody who cares at all for the arts and music should be supporting and promoting the benefits of the BBC weathering this storm and the orchestras returning to work as soon as possible. It is absolutely by virtue of the fact that they are broadcast orchestras that they should be able to return to the studio for live broadcast concerts behind closed doors long before most other orchestras can resume concertising. Indeed the radio broadcasts are likely to be the first live orchestral music many of us will have the opportunity to hear in a longtime, and much safer for the audience than the musicians.

    The BBC should be applauded for its attempts to continue to present its music programming in unprecedented times, and supporting its employees (musicians and otherwise), and encouraged to continue doing so for at least as long as it retains its charter. The BBC has been exemplary in its response to the virus crises, we are lucky to have it and long may it continue.

  • Normski says:

    The BBC Orchestras, like many other organisations, are unable to work as normal at the moment.

    To suggest that they are ‘staying silent’ is incorrect. Many players are providing online education workshops for children of key workers still attending school, and making recordings from home for use on the Orchestra’s social media pages and Radio 3.

    Regarding the £29m budget for the FIVE Orchestras AND Singers- compared to, for example, the annual budget of the LA Phil ($120m) it sounds like pretty good value given the depth and variety of the. BBC PG’s output. The BBC’s Orchestral output can be accessed free by a worldwide audience.

  • Slow news day Norman?

    If this is what you’re hearing I think you should confirm your sources or get your ears checked out.

  • Cabbeyroad says:

    What IS the point to your inflammatory article based on hearsay?! Not one shred of evidence offered up to back your claims. If anything, we should be looking, at this difficult time, to ways of how to get these world class orchestras up and running again! I have no idea what you’re trying to convey here but you will have upset many fine musicians, of that I’m sure! At a time when 38% of musicians were not eligible for the self employed handout from the government (but still have to pay their bills!!) and with NO chance of working for the foreseeable I think we need, as musicians, to all work together to solve this predicament caused by COVID-19! Please remove your article if you don’t have hard facts to substantiate it! Thank you.

  • Ozzie says:

    What a complete load of utter bullshit Norman.
    You’ve reached a new career low and that’s something none of us could have ever foreseen.
    If you get any lower you may find yourself six feet under…….

  • Lewes Bird says:

    Reading many of the comments above (as well as the ones, similar in tone and tenor, on the recent posts about the Southbank Centre as well as the BBC Proms), I can’t help but think with much optimism and anticipation how much better the socio-political climate in relation to culture and the arts in this country will be in 10-15 years, when the vast majority of these fossilised, reactionary, venal, vapid, vulgar, atrocious, commentators will have, at last, died. Judging by the personality of those whose identity is known, this might be, thankfully, soon — yet not soon enough. Awaiting with trepidation for all that pestilence to go.