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.