Fair pay or foul play?

An orchestral player can get just £90 for a concert, a soloist up to £30,000. Amy McLellan looks at a status quo that is causing increasing discord
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The Independent Culture

What do a classical-music soloist, a celebrity chef, the chief executive of a failing company, and an electrician on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link have in common? According to a report in the April edition of Management Today magazine, they all rank in the top 10 most overpaid jobs in Britain. It's an observation that will strike a chord with many in the orchestral rank and file, who may take home less than £100 for a concert while the soloist or conductor may bank 10 times that amount. Understandably, the disparity can sour relations between an orchestra and those who stand at the front of the stage.

What do a classical-music soloist, a celebrity chef, the chief executive of a failing company, and an electrician on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link have in common? According to a report in the April edition of Management Today magazine, they all rank in the top 10 most overpaid jobs in Britain. It's an observation that will strike a chord with many in the orchestral rank and file, who may take home less than £100 for a concert while the soloist or conductor may bank 10 times that amount. Understandably, the disparity can sour relations between an orchestra and those who stand at the front of the stage.

The cellist Alice McVeigh, author of All Risks Musical: An Irreverent Guide to the Music Profession (Pocket Press), says that conductors are loathed because they earn too much: "A typically eminent conductor earns, per concert, about a quarter as much as the typical full-time player earns all year." Given that most freelance orchestral contractors can expect as little as £75 per concert, the fees lavished on top conductors and soloists can rankle.

"The fees for soloists appear to have gone up, and fees for orchestral musicians appear to have gone right down to almost subsistence level," says one leading clarinet player. "I don't have a problem with the money earned by the very, very good people, such as Murray Perahia or Daniel Barenboim, but I do have a problem with the very little we earn." And when the conductor isn't very, very good?

"The pay gap can create resentment, especially if the conductor gets utterly lost and we have to bail him out," says the sax and clarinet player Shaun Thompson. McVeigh agrees. "The average concert- goer has no conception of how many conducting performances are salvaged by the orchestra," she says. Fee levels are cloaked in secrecy, with both artists and orchestras loath to reveal actual numbers. As a rough guide, the average fee for a conductor is around £3,000 per concert, with a handful of top conductors able to charge £10,000 and upwards. For soloists, fees can be even higher, with some sopranos charging standard fees of £25,000 to £30,000 for a concert. The very big names can charge many times more.

In a business known for chronic underfunding and precarious financing, there are question marks over the sustainability of such high fees. Finding the cash to pay these fees can lead hard-pressed orchestras to cut corners elsewhere. "It can be galling when you hear of these high fees, particularly when it means that the orchestra can then only afford one rehearsal before the concert," says one leading flautist, who asked not to be named. There is even some doubt about whether the fees can be justified in terms of extra bums on seats.

"All our audience research shows that people are attracted to our concerts overwhelmingly by the programme," says Stephen Maddock, chief executive of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. "About 80 per cent go for the programme, about 10 per cent for the artists, and 10 per cent for other reasons. So there is never any justification on pure economic grounds to pay £12,000 for a soloist rather than £4,000, because we would never see it back at the box office."

Simon Crookall, chief executive of the Royal National Scottish Orchestra, agrees. "There are very few names who make enough of a difference at the box office to justify the fee," he says. "Most concerts do not make any money anyway, so a couple of thousand extra on a soloist can be the difference between whether a concert is viable or not."

The London orchestras are under greater pressure to attract big names, according to David Whelton, managing director of the Philharmonia. "London has an audience that is spoilt for choice in terms of music, theatre and every type of entertainment," he says. "It's an audience that's very international in its outlook, and people expect to see the big names." Yet a high fee doesn't guarantee a good performance. "There are three types of classical artists: the very expensive, the very good and the very famous," says Maddock. "They are not necessarily the same thing."

Even the superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti, whose fees, prior to his recent retirement, were of legendary proportions, recognises the link between fame and fortune: "In opera, as with any performing art, to be in great demand and to command high fees, you must be good, of course, but you must also be famous. The two are different things."

Many orchestras in the UK have a ceiling fee above which they will not go, regardless of an artist's stellar status, although none were willing to talk specific figures. "There are some people who won't work with us because they won't accept our top fee," says Clive Gillinson, managing director of the London Symphony Orchestra. "But most artists, if you're doing something that they feel is important artistically, will help on the fee." Indeed, artists are used to reaching such compromises when it comes to working in the UK. "Artists expect to earn less when then come here because of the rather parlous state of arts funding in this country," says Maddock.

Gillinson concurs: "The subsidy levels in Japan or Germany are so much higher that they can pay infinitely higher fees than we can, sometimes double or even more. So we have to attract people for other reasons: they have to love the orchestra and we need to be able to do things that excite them."

Some conductors develop special relationships with orchestras, which draws them back again and again. The LSO enjoys just such a relationship with Sir Colin Davis, its principal conductor, and Michael Tilson Thomas, principal guest conductor, both of whom donate one fee per year to the orchestra.

There are other attractions, too, that can offset the lower fees here, says Whelton. "We have great musicians in London, and a terrific audience, alert and intellectually aware, which is another great attraction for conductors. But we are desperate for a great hall in London. These conductors want great halls to play in. There are great halls in Birmingham and Cardiff, but the halls in London are of a much lower standard. The improved Royal Festival Hall will be a great boost for London."

Outside London, however, orchestra managers say that it is getting harder to attract big-name artists. "Twenty years ago, orchestras such as ours were attracting the top names on a regular basis," says Simon Crookall of the Glasgow-based Royal Scottish National Orchestra. "But the gap between my budget and the fees charged has widened, and today, the Scottish audience is denied those people. We are trying to compete in a global market without the resources to do so."

Yet those representing the big-earning names say that there is little sign of fee inflation: there is simply not enough money in the pot to support it. "Agents are often blamed for driving up fees," says Atholl Swainston-Harrison of the International Artist Managers' Association. "But an agent will always sit down with a promoter and find a solution, because it is in their interest to get their artists work. Besides, it's a supply and demand situation: the people who command the top fees are very busy. If orchestras are squeezed, everyone is squeezed. There's a perception that artist-management companies do well, but they are pretty marginal businesses."

Patrick Garvey, of Patrick Garvey Management, agrees. "The cause of the financial problems of any cultural organisation is that they do not have enough funding to do the job," he says. "I do not believe any organisation is at risk because of the cost of the artists. The people who take the biggest hit are the artists themselves, because there is less work. The very big names are immune, but for the vast majority there are fewer engagements and more artists competing for those engagements."

Even the biggest names of them all would appear to be an endangered species. The virtual demise of classical recording has made the lucrative record deal near-extinct, and with it the exposure that creates international superstar status.

"Nobody really earns a fortune from classical music these days," says Maddock. "There will never be another Pavarotti in the younger generation because there are no longer the record sales or recording deals. I'm not even sure how you get to become famous in this business anymore."

In a world in which most British orchestras live hand-to-mouth, and many musicians are forced out of their profession through financial necessity, can it be right that some artists command such budget-busting fees? Supply-and-demand arguments don't sit easily in a sector subsidised, albeit it at much lower levels than in the rest of Europe, by the public purse.

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