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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why Music Doesn't Pay

By Norman Lebrecht / September 14, 2005

Life is not fair and art unequal. As Luciano Pavarotti sings his addios around the world before retiring on a lifetime pile of some fifty million Euros will he, for one moment, measure the distance between his conspicuous level of comfort and the daily struggle for bare necessities waged by the musicians who accompany his farewell concerts?

Pavarotti was awarded the Freedom of the City of London this week to recognise the Red Cross charity concerts he has given. Someone should have told him charity begins among your own.

A survey of British orchestral players by the Musicians Union finds that many have been reduced to taking part-time jobs in order to make ends meet. Aromatherapy, taxi driving, letting out rooms and web design are listed as supplementary occupations. One respondent complains that a young policeman earns more than a parental cellist, a plumber makes three times as much. Players may look smart in tie and tails on stage but their socks are full of holes and their satisfaction level is grumblingly low.

The most frequently cited cause of irritation is the preponderance of bad conductors who, regardless of competence and preparation, get paid as much for a night's work as a whole orchestra. Lack of appreciation by managements and mortgage companies exacerbates the general demoralisation. But the worst thing about being an orchestral musician, most agree, is the wretched pay.

After three years of tertiary education and two decades of professional experience, men and women who are expected to perform nightly across the country with the precision of ophthalmic surgeons are earning, on average, under 25,000 a year. Half a century ago, a section leader in a regional orchestra would have made as much as the local Member of Parliament; today, he or she is lucky to match a kindergarten teacher.

This is plainly unjust and unacceptable, but before we consider remedies and revolutions, there are serious caveats to this survey. The questionnaire, issued by a blue-collar union that has lost much of its influence as Europeans have flooded into British music, was sent to members in seventeen orchestras. Of these, only 176 players - ten percent - bothered to respond. The rest, it may be assumed, were either content with their lot or far too busy at their second jobs as stockbrokers and bar owners.

The survey specifically excluded London orchestras and the BBC where rates are demonstrably higher and a concertmaster or principal flute can, in competitive bidding, nudge a six-figure income with the inclusion of commercial and technological opportunities. Classical recording may be as dead as classical Greece, but there is a demand at the moment for symphonic ensembles to play tracks for video games and the studios of Abbey Road are throbbing with battle noise. Apparently, only a real live orchestra can give finger tweakers the true thrill of the kill.

The cream of London players go about grinning like Cheshire cats. They may rue the pay in top US and German orchestras, where 22 year-olds make $100,000 for a 20 hour week and principals earn three times as much, but playing for England is more challenging and diverse and few instrumentalists are tempted by relocation.

That said, Mrs Worthington, joining an orchestra these days is not a career to consider for your daughter - and the applicants are increasingly girls in their 20s who are looking towards balancing work and child care. As a chief breadwinning occupation, orchestral employment is barely viable. Insecure, underpaid, physically taxing and devoid of any prospect of promotion, it's not much of an option for a bright-eyed teen? Yet this is the life for which conservatories continue to equip most of their students, and that is where the first line of fresh thinking must come in.

There are ten specialist music colleges in Britain, half of them in London, and their aim is much the same: to equip the country with fulltime musicians in an age when the demand for live music has been supplanted by synthetic and virtual alternatives. Of these establishments, only two to my knowledge have begun to get to grips with current realities. At the Royal College of Music, in Kensington, the new director, Colin Lawson, has made employability a key priority; and at Trinity, in Greenwich, director Gavin Henderson encourages music students to interact with an ever-growing campus of art forms, including contemporary dance at the Laban Centre and a digital arts facility.

The government, for its part, is trying to herd conservatories into the universities with a few to tidying up a noisy, expensive sector with several royal crests and a penchant for tiresome lobbying. Twenty-five years ago, Sir Keith Joseph as education secretary bluffly attempted to merge two royal and ancients into one world-class faculty after his daughter had chosen to study at fame-school Juilliard in New York. He failed, and resistance to institutional reform is as resolute as ever.

What is needed, in Britain, is two or three national centres of excellence to train a small core of outstanding performers and an outer ring of liberal arts colleges that help musicians to make connections with other creative forms and with the world at large. An education in music can be the basis for a terrific business career, as former presidents of Sony, Philips Electronics and the World Bank will testify. It is too valuable by half to be restricted to raising underwaged orchestral players.

Orchestras, too, must change. A decade ago, the London Symphony Orchestra offered its members the chance to diversify into teaching, social work and chamber music. The orchestra of the future will be less of an employer, more of an employment agency, supplying musicians individually or in groups to enliven or solemnise public and corporate occasions.

The MU survey is a naked prelude to a campaign to raise orchestral wages. The fallacy in the MU's approach is that it proceeds from an assumption that society owes musicians a living.

It never did, never will. Musicians are no more deserving of a meal ticket than highly trained actors, dancers, writers, sculptors and scenographers. Most artists in all forms scrabble for a living and musicians will only attract resentment if they whinge louder than the rest.

The future is in their hands. If playing in an orchestra cannot afford a living, they must develop other skills and engage occupationally with the world at large. A second job is no bad thing. It will, in turn, awaken attention in their art. Musicians need to get out more. Pavarotti knew how.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001