Five variations on a theme of impoverished musicians

A new survey by the Musicians' Union reveals that orchestral players are literally the poor relations of the professional world. Louise Jury reports

They play in some of the most famous buildings in the country to rapturous applause, alongside stars who earn absolute fortunes. But though the lifestyle of Britain's classical orchestral musicians might look glamorous, in reality they live on a shoestring.

The salaries of Britain's violinists, flautists and timpanists are so pitifully low, they are putting the future of classical music at risk, it was claimed yesterday. While star soloists regularly make several thousand pounds in one evening, rank-and-file string players earn an average of £22,500, less than the national average wage of £23,000, according to a survey carried out for the Musicians' Union.

Even once players of all ranks and instruments are included, the typical salary is only £25,200. These are players who will have studied for years and fought off fierce competition for their places in some of the most prestigious orchestras in the world. But the leader of an entire section of instruments might get only £30,000.

As millions of people tune in tomorrow to watch the Last Night of the Proms, the climax to the most famous concert season in the world, the Musicians' Union hopes to stimulate a national debate about the value we attach to artists at the peak of their profession.

Horace Trubridge, the union's assistant general secretary, said: "We've always known there was a problem and we always wondered how we could tackle it." The union decided the first step was to compile the figures and put them into the public domain.

The research, carried out by the hub, an arts strategy company, showed that orchestral players were dedicated to their craft, with an average of 21 years in the profession.

But they have significant costs: everything from the demands of a black-tie wardrobe to the price of a decent instrument valued, typically, at nearly £23,000. A single string can cost £25.

The union polled every orchestral player with some type of contract in Britain, and of the 20 per cent who responded, 86 per cent said they supplemented their orchestral salary with other work.

Half said the amount of non-orchestral work they did to survive had increased in the past three years, with one in five musicians taking non-musical work, such as plastering or plumbing, to supplement their income.

Where they had siblings, musicians appeared to be very much the poor relations. Brothers and sisters of musicians - working in professions and within five years of the musician's age - earned about 85 per cent more, the survey found.

The picture was very different from the public perception, Mr Trubridge said. "We don't think that members of the public who support orchestral music and who go to concerts and watch them on the television have any idea that these professional people are earning such low wages."

The survey concentrates on contracted players, but many more are employed on a freelance basis, where they would get paid as little as £70 for a three-hour concert preceded by a three-hour rehearsal.

Mr Trubridge said: "The public see these people as being at the top of their profession, the absolute pinnacle, as indeed they are, but they are not treated as such. Unless they become world-renowned soloists, they are very unlikely to earn anything like the type of money professional people expect to earn for that level of training. Our musicians, for the size of the country, have always punched well above their weight but it's a shame we're not making an investment to ensure we continue that quality."

The question now is what to do about this, as the Musicians' Union readily acknowledges. Mr Trubridge said: "The most shocking thing for us is that the problem is getting worse at a time when the Arts Council stabilisation programme was set up to give a secure future to orchestras, when a Labour Government has been broadly supportive of the arts and communications with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and people such as [the Arts minister] Estelle Morris are good.

"We decided that to try to improve things, we have to try to get people talking about it. We're aware that whatever we do, we're not going to turn things around straight away. But at the moment, there's not even a discussion, so there certainly isn't going to be a solution."

It is not that miserly orchestral management are being deliberately and unnecessarily mean to their players. Stephen Maddock, the chief executive of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, said all orchestra managers were acutely conscious that they were employing top-class professionals for salaries way below what was reasonable.

"The musicians also remind us of this on a regular basis," he joked, weakly. "The levels of pay right across the sector are nowhere near what we would want them to be."

But money is tight. "It would need a sea-change in attitudes from either the public sector - in grants from the Arts Council or local governments - or from the private sector, or most likely both, for things to change," Mr Maddock said. "Even though we have a history of 50 years of state funding for orchestras, that funding has never really been at a level that has enabled those working for orchestras to earn a really good living."

Most orchestras in Britain have received modest increases in their grants in recent years and a £10m stabilisation programme organised by the Arts Council injected cash into just that - stabilising the perilously unstable finances of orchestras including the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Hallé in Manchester and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, all of whom have suffered debt crises in the past decade.

But the money came at a time when other funding sources were drying up, most notably because the classical-music recording industry has cut back radically on the amount of recording it is doing.

The real problem is not just the salaries but the growing disparity between the amounts earned by orchestral players and those in other professions. Every musician notes, with some bitterness, that others - most notably teachers - have seen their situations improve in recent years while orchestral players are falling behind.

It is little consolation that there are now orchestral crises in countries such as France, Germany and America whose musicians were the subject of much envy by their British counterparts for many years.

All top five American orchestras are currently undergoing difficult contract negotiations - but they all have a minimum pay level of $100,000, which is a veritable fortune compared to the UK.

Adam Powell, of the Association of British Orchestras, whose 55 orchestra members performed 3,000 concerts last year, said they welcomed the Musicians' Union survey. His organisation was also keen to inform the public about the range of activity carried out by the nation's orchestras - in education and community work as well as on the concert platform. Later this month, they are launching Listen Up! With BBC Radio 3, a six-week festival celebrating the range of orchestral activity in Britain.

"All orchestras are constantly trying to get the best possible conditions for both players and members of the public attending concerts against a backdrop of financial reality," said Mr Powell.

The conservatoires were training musicians to be flexible in their work these days, he added, so that they could do everything from community work to writing programme notes. Many performers might work for 10 or 12 different orchestras in a single year to make their living.

Such flexibility may secure them a living income, but the Musicians' Union remains alarmed that the pressure on performers has potentially disastrous consequences in the long-term. It fears that increasing demands for diminishing returns will eventually deter musicians from entering the orchestral field.

As Mr Trubridge says: "Do we think that young people in future are going to be happy earning this kind of money for the rest of their lives?"

For all the lure of life in the limelight, there are many who fear they will not.

The Players

Morris Stemp, 40

Trained : Trinity College of Music, London

Position : Rank and file second violinist with the Hallé Orchestra, Manchester

Salary : £23,500. Music coaching brings in about £2,000 extra a year

It's laughable really. I could go and do almost any other normal job that gives promotions and rewards for long service and I would earn more. To be a professional of such standing in society and not be paid like a doctor or a dentist or even a teacher with the appropriate length of service is fundamentally flawed.

All of us could go and work in another orchestra abroad and earn significantly more money for significantly less work. The less work is a very important part of it. We vary between three and six concerts a week, some with varied programmes and being faced with all that all the time is very wearing. Many musicians would say they get the feeling of 'why am I doing this?' A significant proportion decide to go and do something else. There was a chap who was a cellist who has retrained to become a barrister. A lot of people go into teaching.

It's not to say that we don't get artistic rewards in some ways. Many days are artistically and musically stimulating. And I think the public value us. But the funding is never quite enough.

Catherine Ardagh-Walter, 37

Trained Royal College of Music, London

Position Rank and file cello, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Salary £24,740. Private teaching and freelance work brings in an extra £5,000 a year

I feel incredibly cross about what we are paid compared to people in other professions. I've been playing the cello since I was seven so I've been practising for 30 years. It's not something for which you can stop training and jobs in orchestras are like gold dust.

My contract with the CBSO is for the same amount of work - it's a proper working week - as other people. But it's become much more difficult to survive. The money is so bad you need to do extra.

Though I love music and my job is satisfying, I know this doesn't provide the financial security you need. We were in Switzerland, Germany and Italy last week and they have all heard of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

That's brilliant for Britain but the sad thing is in Britain we can't get our act together to pay what should be really quite highly esteemed professionals adequately.

I've been with the CBSO for nearly 10 years and I'm now at the top of the scale so my salary will not improve. That is as good as it will ever get.

I've bought my own cello which is worth in excess of £50,000 and I have to spend abut £500 a year on strings and repairs."

Maxwell Spiers, 30

Trained : Royal College of Music, London

Position : Principal cor anglais, doubling as second oboe, Royal Ballet Symphonia

Salary : £16,000. Supplemented by freelancing and posiition as church organist, which brings free accommodation

You never go into this for the money.

My generation were always very aware that it was incredibly underpaid compared to European counterparts and particularly to musicians in the States.

The New York City Ballet would probably earn nearly five times more than I earned last year. So you go into it for the passion and the love of it; it's your life.

The sadness I feel about is that I just don't believe there will be orchestras in this country in 20 or 30 years because we're not training people to do it and it's not an attractive profession.

You can't survive the price of London living on the sort of money we're earning - unless you're in one of the West End shows. They seem to be the best paid but it's quite mundane work. It's very depressing.

I've been with the Royal Ballet Symphonia for more than two years. I took home a total of £17,500 after tax last year, but insurance costs for my instruments amount to about £165 and I spent £1,869 on reeds and instrument repairs last year.

Jonathan Griffin, 44

Trained : Royal College of Music, London

Position : Rank and file violinist with the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast

Salary : £21,000. Teaching, including one-to-one tuition, brings in another £4,000 a year

When I first came to this job about 20 years ago, there wasn't a lot of difference between a peripatetic violin teacher working for an education board and a rank and file orchestra job.

But what's happened under the umbrella of campaigns for teachers - and quite rightly so - is that people on the instrumental teaching side of things have pulled up with them. Now people I was at college with who tried to get orchestral jobs but couldn't and went into teaching are earning over the mid-20s.

To the general public, it's very much seen as quite a glamorous job and in a way that is what draws you to it. But there is a misconception that because it's a glamorous job it must be well-paid.

It's your life and it's something you train hard for - I started the violin at the age of eight. And because you've devoted so much time to it, it's very hard to let go.

But when you move into the time when you're thinking about families and other things in life, you starting looking at other professions and end up feeling you're worth more.

Insurance for my violin is more than £300 a year and that's before you take into account the costs of maintenance and strings.

Frances Pye, 39

Trained : Graduated with a BA from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, then studied at Guildhall, London

Position : First violin, BBC Philharmonic

Salary : £24,000. Supplemented by teaching (one pupil)

There are quite a lot of people in the music profession who are academic. I had enough highers to get into medical school and I got my acceptance through, but decided to do music because I love playing the violin and the piano. But you have to be at the peak of your profession to do what we do and we're on peanuts for a long time.

I never thought about money and mortgages and all the things that come later on. I thought I would rather be poor and happy, but for the level of skill we are very poorly paid. A lot of people say it is supply and demand, but on the Continent they look after their musicians because people realise it's important to their national heritage to have their national culture. Here it's put on the back-burner.

Someone who comes and does your sink earns more than you do. And it's definitely got worse in the past ten years.

I've been with the BBC Philharmonic for four years after 13 years with the Hallé. I had to remortgage my flat at one point to buy a violin after one was stolen and the insurance would not pay for a new one.

Comments