Should we all pay for orchestras?

The Musicians’ Union (MU) in the UK recently released data about pay for orchestral musicians which raised a few news stories and some comment. Most of the comments I saw bemoaned the disparity between skill level and pay, drawing comparisons between doctors and lawyers in particular. A few talked about the need for orchestras to have a more modern approach to programming and personnel.

Ivan Fischer – a musician whom everyone should hold in high esteem – said in The Times that orchestras needed to ‘rethink and reform’. This was, according to paper, ‘in order to justify their existence and entice future generations to orchestral music’. I can’t comment on the precise context of Fischer’s remarks but given that his orchestra is about to tour the UK, I expect it was in a press conference; the article does not reveal the question or the discussion surrounding it, sadly.

The data released by the MU says that 44% of orchestral musicians don’t earn enough to make a living. What I think this means in practice is that the annual salary for a rank-and-file orchestral player is somewhere between £25,000 and £35,000. To be sure, that is no fortune, but it is by no means on the poverty line. The average salary in the UK is somewhere around £27,000 so most orchestral musicians aren’t doing too badly by comparison.

The biggest difficulties faced are the high costs of training, the high associated costs (instruments, instrument care, insurance, travel), and the generally anti-social working hours. But, on the other hand, the vast majority of people who pursue a musical career aren’t doing it for the money. Certainly, no one tries to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes with respect to the potential for earning significant income from music. A few do, but really not many.

Putting my own money on the line, what information like this should really be doing is prompting much wider-ranging and more penetrating discussion about the true value of orchestras to us all. The high level of public funding still apparently necessary for the maintenance of large-scale musical institutions means that any kind of increase in musicians’ salaries will be funded mostly by all of us through taxes. It isn’t a given that musicians should simply be paid more; there needs to be real thought put into not only why but also in what way.

London, for example, is home to a vast array of publicly funded orchestras. The LSO, LPO, Philharmonia, RPO, OAE, Sinfonietta, London Mozart Players, English Chamber Orchestra, and (in a slightly different way) the BBC Symphony and Concert Orchestras. Already a lot of orchestras and the list has to go on to include the ROH and the ENO, plus English Touring Opera, and then the various small groups that receive some level of public funding including the Academy of Ancient Music, the City of London Sinfonia, Academy of St Martin in the Fields, London Chamber Orchestra…

In order to really discuss pay in particular, we have to look at the way the system has evolved. Is it reasonable, even for a city the size of London, that the public purse should be called on to support so many different groups? Are they all providing something genuinely different? Are they providing genuine value for money? Not from a sociological perspective, or even from a general cultural perspective but specifically from a musical perspective.

If all these groups were operating in a free market, would they all survive? Clearly, that is a provocative question but surely it has to be asked. Just because orchestras have done what they do for the past 150 years doesn’t necessarily mean that they should continue to do so. Music is, for my money, the greatest of all art forms and I certainly would not advocate for anything other than its position at the centre of our cultural life. But to continually artificially preserve the musical status quo seems narrow-minded in the extreme. We spend an enormous amount of time and energy trying to redefine the parameters of what is acceptable in music socially – whether it be more outreach, more racial equality, more gender equality, more sexual equality. All of these issues are valuable, for sure, but they fail to grasp the central issue which is that the kind of music we create and perform must speak to people. If it doesn’t, then we have no audience. Trying to prop up the audience through public funding is ultimately self-defeating: it gives a false sense of what actually does speak to people and pushes back genuine innovation in content and presentation.

We shouldn’t be creating an environment in which committees make decisions about what is culturally valuable. One of the legacies of the 20th century is the centralisation of arts funding which has inevitably led to musicians of all kinds spending more time trying to please those who splash the cash rather than creating art that is popular in its own right. This is despite the fact that music is now more widely available than at any time in history and that more people consume music than at any time before.

The mindset that we have to artificially preserve that which people don’t find relevant is a curiously indulgent one that is as damaging as it is positive. Without public funding then composers and performers would have to live much more on the edge and be massively more proactive in figuring out what people actually want to hear. There is no shame in creating art that actually speaks to people; the assumption that the general public are somehow too ill-educated or too lacking in cultural awareness to know what they should and shouldn’t be listening to is a terrible legacy of, first of all, Schoenberg and his private concerts and then Boulez and the Darmstadt crew.

Of course, those who are in the middle of it all – either giving out the funding, or receiving it – will be enormously reluctant to enact any change. After all, they may be actively making their own positions more precarious. But at some point, we have to grasp the nettle of music being run by cabals instead of being moderated by public taste.

Why are we so afraid of what might happen if we let the audience be the arbiter of quality? Why can orchestras not figure out ways to make themselves function financially? Why can they not be allowed to fend for themselves?

I am not suggesting in any way that musicians not be paid properly for their work. Anyone who knows me or who works for me will know how hard I push for their fullest possible compensation. Being a musician takes enormous skill and we have without question devalued that skill in all senses of the word.

But to truly place music at the centre of Western culture requires a radical rethink of how we fund it and how we educate people to value it. We have to seriously question whether large numbers of publicly funded institutions are really the way to allow music to develop and grow. Just as anywhere else, failure has to be part of the process, not something to be feared.


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3 thoughts on “Should we all pay for orchestras?

  1. Questions – if principle oboist is travelling with the orchestra to foreign climbs, does the orchestra not pay for the travel? If so, do they pay for the second seat for the cellist to nestle their cello? If not to either, presumably this is work expenses so tax deductible? I suppose I don’t really know if the second viola is a contractor, paid gross, or an employee and paid PAYE. Is being 3rd horn a full time job, or do folk have other sidelines?

    Observations – it does seem a bit ridiculous that every one of the musicians in the LSO, LPO, RPO, LMP, TATT, TFT, FBC, etc is a massively talented musician who has put in thousands of hours, is at the top of their game, within the top 1000 people in the world at their profession (he guesses wildly) and is paid the same as a middle manager in a medium sized company (not that I’m being derisory about being middle management, lest it be said).

    In spite of all this, being a semi functional bass guitar player can get you millions of imperial credits, if you happen to be pals with a talented songwriter –

    I will happily pay you a couple of shekels to play your trumpet. And a couple more to stop. Wakka wakka wakka.

    If you firm up that weekend, I can rent the car.


  2. Great Article Robin, which touched on a couple of things I was talking about only yesterday.

    I had a couple of tangential points, if I may.

    I think one of the hardest things for arts institutions to work with is the fact they don’t necessarily know how much funding they are going to receive from one year to the next. My experience is based in the operatic world rather than the orchestral one, but I find it interesting that an opera company will have a forward schedule anywhere up to 10 years (in the ROH’s case) but not actually know if they’ll have the funding to produce those shows in the long run.

    I think a company like ENO for instance would thrive if it knew, ok for the next 5 years we have £x and can then plan accordingly. Or conversely, if they knew WELL in advance (3 years I would say) that their funding was going to drop they could amend those plans to suit, rather than arriving at a point where funding is arbitrarily cut by 20%. For ANY type of business that kind of withdrawal of funding/income is going to cause issues.

    Beyond that, the fact that these institutions are forced to spend all the money they receive really boggles me – and in essence forces companies to only ‘break-even’. If they actually make a profit then their funding gets cut the following cycle. It’s insane, and in no other field can you find this kind of paradox. ‘You’re doing well, you don’t need us any more’, being totally blind to the fact that they did well because of the support they had.
    I truly think this is a huge stumbling block that needs to be addressed.

    So, how do we solve this issue? Not easily that’s for sure.
    There’s a case to be made for funding to be cut completely from the arts. Not at once but over a lengthy period of time, say 10/15 years. This diminution of funding should be accommodated by the companies with good foresight and planning.
    This would work best in a situation where companies could keep whatever funding they received regardless of whether they spent it all or not. The good ones would try and maximise their profits and reinvest those funds in securing their future.
    Ultimately, no company really wants to rely on handouts, do they?

    My preferred choice, however, is in education. And this is where we fall down in a major way. With Music and arts education being cut and removed from our curriculums. With music services being disbanded, as has just happened in East Sussex. With our children seemingly funnelled into a choice of subjects that creates ‘desk-jobs’ in order to earn money, thereby not seeing the rich diversity of the working world around them. With access to musical instruments in schools being at an all time low. How do we really expect there to be an audience in the future at all? If there is no one there to listen ………..

    I’d ramble on but I have to go and sing. I know I don’t really address individual pay, but my brain tells me there are links between the two.

    All best,



  3. Thanks James,

    I think you’re right that the way funding is managed fundamentally destabilizes organisations. Even worse, at the moment, is that the focus is increasingly project based.

    I would certainly be in favour of a gradual reduction in funding. Certainly amongst groups which seem to be in plentiful supply, such as orchestras, there should surely be a strong element of the best thriving and those that can’t provide real value falling.

    I am certain that you’re right about education being the central issue. We have to win the fight that music in particular, but also the arts in general, should be central in our curriculum. There has been far too little articulate discussion of the genuine value of music not just for its own sake but in a general pedagogical sense. There is so much data available on the wide-ranging benefits of music that it is incredible there is still a case to be made.


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