British Orchestras On The Brink…. Again

Orchestral performers standing on stageBritish Orchestras are under severe financial threat because of new tax rules. The likelihood is that this threat will somehow be resolved. But will most orchestra performers still find, skilled as they are, that their own professional position remains precarious?
Here we go again. Another story about British Orchestras and their financially parlous states; and as usual, the story is true.
Good funding, bad rules
It was reassuring to hear the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) view earlier today, that the government has indeed invested a lot of money in our orchestras over the past few years, to very good effect. British Orchestras are widely regarded as amongst the best in the world, and this government-led funding has, says the ABO, genuinely helped to keep them so.
But then someone somewhere makes a ruling which throws the whole lot into confusion, and potentially into financial chaos and maybe worse. As any professional classical musician will tell you, there’s a huge difference between the work patterns of a freelance musician and that of an (often ‘resting’?) actor… but they’ve been booted into the same category for national insurance payments. Both ‘entertainers’, whatever these might be.
Real jobs?
Of course, no real surprise here. The professional life of classical musicians remains a total mystery to nearly everyone. We all have vague some notion of what actors might do, but orchestral musicians…?
‘What do you do for your REAL job?’ is a question asked all too frequently, followed closely by ‘But it’s only part-time, isn’t it?’ and, a little down the line (I’m not making this up, it actually does sometimes happen when tickets for a professional concert in, say, a hired venue like a church, are being offered for sale), ‘Who are you going to donate the money to?’.
Given this state of affairs, it’s not surprising that financial rules about insurance aren’t fit for purpose when it comes to musicians, even if, following representations from Equity (the actors’ union), they were introduced with the best will in the world, to help resting thesps.
The underlying issues
Let’s hope this gets sorted out pronto. Then perhaps someone can turn to the underlying problem facing people in this very unusual profession.
Truth is, it’s extraordinarily difficult to get work as a player in major orchestras, and even if you manage that, the likelihood of making this your lifetime profession is remote. Most orchestral performers (though of course not all) will depart long before they can claim a retirement pension, a sizeable proportion of them because of ill-health, stress or playing problems. Plus, as the Musicians’ Union never tires of pointing out, the pay is awful – often less than the national average wage, in a profession which requires many years of university-level study.
Myth of musicians’ professional progression
For most classical musicians there is also little professional progression.
Players often claim the work’s become a ‘trade’, rather than a ‘profession’, in at least the sense that the job may well expand to include teaching, school ‘residencies’ etc – but it doesn’t usually offer much personal artistic development and advancement.
On the brink or on the blink?
With a bit of luck, British Orchestras will be able to pull away from the latest risk of going over the Brink; any other resolution of this latest fiasco is unthinkable.
Resolution of this problem [Post-script: Which was eventually achieved] will not however mean that many of those who play in our orchestras feel more secure that they personally won’t end up on the Blink.
See also: Orchestral Salaries In The U.K.
Life In A Professional Orchestra: A Sustainable Career?
The Healthy Orchestra Challenge
Musicians in Many Guises
Where’s The Classical Music In The Summer? An Idea…

Posted on October 31, 2005, in Arts, Culture And Heritage, Politics, Policies And Process. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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