Orchestral Salaries In The UK

Music & bills 065a 99x138.jpg Professional orchestra musicians’ employment and pay is a mystery to most people. Do players have ‘real’ jobs, too? is a common question. And is it all very glamorous? The latest survey of orchestral pay in the UK gives some answers – not much glamour, not too much pay, and little time for anything else. But for many players the commitment remains.
The Musicians’ Union has recently published their second annual report on Orchestral Pay in the U.K. Leaving aside the self-governing London orchestras, the BBC Symphony and other BBC orchestras, English National Opera (ENO) orchestra and the Royal Opera House (ROH) orchestra (all of which, with London weightings, do somewhat – though only comparatively – better), the M.U. report, as we shall see from the details below, makes pretty dismal reading.
Who are the musicians?
Almost every established player in the major regional orchestras is a permanent staff member (London is different). These ‘chairs’ are coveted positions amongst performers, who are usually graduates from the most prestigious music colleges and / or the top music conservatoires.
Musicians supply their own instruments and equipment for work, the initial costs of which can amount to more than an annual salary.
The ‘regional’ orchestras
Orchestras outside London surveyed by the M.U. in August 2007 were: the regional BBC orchestras, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO), the City of Birmingham Orchestra (CBSO), Manchester’s Halle Orchestra, the Opera North Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO), the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), Scottish Opera, the Ulster Orchestra and Welsh National Opera (WNO).
The fortunes of these orchestras fluctuate quite widely over the years, especially since the standardised regional orchestras contract for the BSO, CBSO, Halle, RLPO and RSNO was abandoned. All are dependent on civic support as well as national. [See The Association of British Orchestras for general information about these orchestras.]
Orchestral salary scales
Orchestras generally divide their players up into ‘Section Principals’ and ‘Principals’ (who sit at the front of their instrumental section) and ‘Tutti’ (formerly called ‘Rank & File’!). The M.U. estimates there are approximately 600 fully professional string players employed by British orchestras – which means about one in every 100,000 of the UK population has this occupation.
With a few exceptions, string players (violins, violas, cellos, basses) are the only Tutti musicians, and they make up the larger part of most orchestras.
Who gets paid what?
Concentrating on the regional orchestras, we see a variation of minimum salary in August 2007 as follows:
Section Principals: BBC Regional ~ hourly playing rate of £24.22 (£32,118 p.a.) through to CBSO ~ £33.09 (£45,205 p.a.).
Principals: RLPO ~ £21.44 (£28,298 p.a.) through to CBSO ~ £28.49 (£33,159 p.a.).
Tutti: RLPO ~ £18.20 (£24,024 p.a.) through to CBSO ~ £22.43 (£27,348 p.a.).
In some cases there are increments and / or long service awards which take experienced players above these levels, but these additional sums, usually only a very few thousand per annum, rarely raise salaries significantly above the starting point. Likewise, some, but not all, orchestras pay musicians an additional fee for recordings, media relays etc. [Some details of comparable orchestral salaries in the USA are available here.]
Comparison with other UK salaries
To set these figures in context:
* The average wage in 2007 for all full-time workers across the UK is £29,999 p.a.; or £27,630 specifically for Liverpool.
* The average salary of professionals in IT, an occupation which perhaps begins to approach comparable levels of skill to orchestral musicians (though there are many fewer performers) is £37,000 p.a.
* For graduates overall, an average additional £10,000 p.a. has accrued to their income after ten years’ service; this annual income will then continue to increase for another ten or twenty years.
Back of an envelope calculations using these comparative data perhaps suggest that over a lifetime orchestral musicians will receive approximately half the income of other professionals at comparative levels of skill.
Annual orchestral performing and other work arrangements
The regional orchestras vary in the number of annual playing ‘on stage’ hours they demand from their musicians. Of the orchestras above (not including the BBC orchestras, at 1,326 hours each, and ENO (874 hours) or ROH (860 hours)) the fewest performing hours are required of musicians in the opera orchestras (1,128 each) and the most by the RLPO (1,320).
How these hours are distributed is laid down in detailed contracts. For health reasons, such as risk of hearing loss and repetitive strain injury, players rarely play on the platform for over 6 hours per day. (They may well practise for more than that.) Scheduled ‘unsocial ‘hours – Sundays, Bank Holidays, and very early or late – and other erratic scheduling, with the attendant risks to wellbeing and mental health – are normally paid at the same rate as other hours.
Stress at work is seen as part of the job. There are also travelling hours etc which may add some 30-40% in time commitment – even though much time away from home is still ‘free’ in every sense of the word; neither paid nor, obviously, available for, say, teaching or other alternative opportunities for income.
Not a professional wage?
Most people who attend classical concerts see well-dressed and self-evidently skilled musicians and assume from this that orchestral incomes will be to some extent commensurate with appearances.
The truth is different. Many musicians, even at this level and with years of experience, barely scrape a living, often working almost every day for weeks to make ends meet. Relatively few within the profession achieve comfortable incomes and the view that orchestral playing is not a ‘real’ profession, with eventual progression and hope of greater reward, is widespread amongst foot soldiers at least – large numbers of whom, a previous M.U. survey has revealed, also incur occupationally induced ill-health or injury.
Artistic development
Sadly, players’ negative perceptions are reinforced by an absence of continuing professional development in their core skill, i.e. instrumental performance.
Players can often work for decades without receiving support as artists, or to maintain and develop their instrumental technique, let alone the money to pay very costly professional coaching fees. Artistic human resource investment is not high on (or simply missing altogether from) the priority list for most orchestra budgets.
Skills and experience lost
U.K. orchestras are becoming younger in age profile. The salary figures above offer an insight into why experience is frequently lost, as players leave mid-career for other ways to support their families or preferred lifestyle.
Youth and vigour are wonderful to behold; but knowledge, insight and long-term commitment would in a more ideal world also be valued.
Music not money
Fortunately, for many musicians and their audiences the imperative towards the extraordinary inner world of classical music continues to bring them together even against the rationale of external economics.
But it would be risky to permit the future for UK orchestras to depend on this inner imperative.
Read more articles in Music, Musicians & Orchestras
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…
British Orchestras On The Brink…..Again

Posted on November 5, 2007, in Arts, Culture And Heritage, Knowledge Ecology And Economy, Regeneration, Renewal And Resilience. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Fair comments made by Anthony. The average salary being £27,00 means just that average. In reality the IT professional may get £100 K. However that still means 10 HGV drivers at £16K

  2. As an orchestral musician myself,I agree with most of what you say.
    I resent the fact that I could be earning a far higher income had I selected a different career, albeit probably a less demanding, less rewarding and less meaningful one. Also, at the age of 39 my income has plateaued, with no prospect of any meaningful increase over the next 26 years, which is different than almost every other career.
    However, being a musician is truly a vocation, and after all the effort made to be good enough to get into this profession it is very difficult to contemplate leaving.
    I’m not sure I agree that a musician’s job is comparable in skill to that of an IT professional – I think the level of skill I require is far higher than that of an average IT professional paid just £37k.
    I should think a better comparison might be with an IT professional paid around £100,000, because then you might be looking at comparable pressures on performance and penalties for failure.
    Thank you for highlighting this issue.

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