Keep the day job

With Britain's classical musicians having to take second jobs as caterers and plasterers to make ends meet, Amy Mclellan talks to some of those who are moonlighting to survive
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Something is amiss in the classical music world. Leading musicians, some at the peak of their careers, playing with the best orchestras in the world, are quitting the profession. "I was finding it increasingly difficult to sustain a level of income to meet my outgoings," says new police recruit Edmund Coxon, who until earlier this year was one of the UK's leading orchestral violinists playing with the Royal Philharmonic, English Chamber Orchestra and Academy of St Martins in the Fields. "I was very stressed, overwrought and anxious. It was time to look at other options."

He is not alone. One leading woodwind player says: "If you don't see someone for a number of months, then you know another one has disappeared." Many hold down second jobs to make ends meet: there's the musician turned cabbie, the string player-cum-builder, the horn-player with a sideline selling paella dishes.

The sax- and clarinet-player Shaun Thompson, who plays with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic and English Chamber Orchestra among others, is training as a plasterer to supplement his income. "Plastering is a lot better paid," he says. "I can earn £150 per day and all the work will be local."

Most musicians in the UK work as freelancers and can expect to earn £70 for a three-hour afternoon rehearsal and three-hour evening concert: that works out at just under £12 per hour. The Musicians Union quotes rates as low as £58.45 for a string player with Opera North while a string player for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic could expect to earn £79 and a principal £106. The top London orchestras will pay around £120 for a principal: that's just £20 per hour.

Life is better for those employed by the handful of orchestras that retain full-time musicians: salaries of £24,000 for the rank and file can rise to £36,000 for a principal.

The majority, however, make a living from a mix of orchestral work, West End shows, teaching and commercial session work. But shrinking opportunities are starting to bite: wages that were tolerable when diaries were full are unsustainable when that £70 concert is the only work you may have that week. "There are some very brilliant musicians out there chasing around for scraps," says Coxon.

The violin player Anne Salinger, who graduated in 1976 and increasingly relies on teaching fees rather than performing to make ends meet, says: "I wouldn't like to be coming out of college now. It's so much harder. They are turning out so many brilliant players but the opportunities [for musicians] have shrunk."

It is not only orchestral work that is in decline. Commercial session work for TV, films and advertisements, which in the past supplemented incomes, is disappearing at an alarming rate, despite the world-class studios and expertise that reside in London. "Our session musicians are the best in the world at sight reading and expert in the very specialist technique required for studio recording," says fixer Isobel Griffiths, who books musicians for films such as Harry Potter, Bend It Like Beckham and the James Bond vehicle Goldeneye.

One session player points out: "When producers come to London to record film and television music they will be working with a 'super-orchestra', in which every member of the horn section, for example, is a principal horn. That's a very attractive proposition." But quality is losing out to price as producers bypass London in favour of low-cost orchestras in cities such as Prague and Budapest.

"The typical session rate for film work is £51 per hour, but in Moscow they charge about £12 for three hours," says Howard Evans of the Musicians' Union, which represents more than 31,000 members. "There is no way we can possibly compete with that." The MU is in the midst of negotiations for a new TV agreement with the BBC.

"The proliferation of TV channels has changed the market totally so we need a new TV agreement to try and stem the large amount of work going abroad," says Evans.

Andrew Chowns of the Producers Rights Agency says there is a graduated pay scale to motivate producers to employ more musicians for longer, pointing out that the £51 per hour film rate only kicks in when a production requires more than 800 hours aggregate of musician time.

"There is always pressure on producers to keep budgets under control," he adds. "Most try to protect expenditure on anything that appears in the film itself, rather than overheads. Music is a cost like any other cost." But many session musicians believe the rates fail to reflect the contribution their work makes to the film-going experience.

"You may do a prominent solo that is heard on every clip and every trailer of a film that makes millions of dollars and yet you walk away with £150 and don't even get your name in the credits. It's not a warm feeling," says one session player, who was not alone in asking to remain anonymous. "Everybody is looking over his or her shoulder. People are very worried about jeopardising what is left of their work."

Musicians complain of a dog-eat-dog mentality that is entering the embattled profession. Some accuse the Philharmonia, for example, which receives considerable support from the Arts Council, of using concert fees to help it undercut freelance musicians for film work.

Keith Bragg, the chairman of the Philharmonia, rejects the claim and highlights the orchestra's "very efficient administration, which enables it to quote lower fees".

He says the attack on the orchestra is symptomatic of an industry in which "all attention is focused on the smaller pot".

Many worry about the future of the profession. As session work continues to flow overseas, the pool of talent in the UK will shrink as musicians float away to pursue other activities. Yet it is only the better-paid session work that has sustained many in the profession.

"Talents are nurtured in the subsidised sector, which then feeds the commercial sector," says one leading clarinettist. "Commercial session work allows people to undertake poorly paid chamber work, for example." Does it matter if music is recorded here or in Prague? In a world that is dominated by market forces, why should music be exempt?

The oboist John Anderson, a professor at the Royal College of Music who plays with the English Chamber Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic, points to the bottom line: "London's rich musical life attracts tourists, Hollywood session work creates inward investment and extensive touring contributes to exports."

He adds: "Does it matter? It depends what type of society we want. If we want a society with a thriving cultural life then we need to nurture it."