Most orchestra musicians top up pay with extra work

Nuala Calvi
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Almost nine out of ten musicians in Britain’s top orchestras are forced to take on outside jobs as a result of poor pay, according to a survey commissioned by the Musicians’ Union.

The research, which union officials say was prompted by an unprecedented level of concern about conditions for orchestral players in the UK, found that more than 50% had increased the amount of non-orchestral work they took on to supplement their income during the last three years.

Most rank and file musicians earned between £22,000 and £24,000 despite having been in the profession for an average of 21 years, with salaries failing to keep pace with inflation.

Andrew Missingham, director of consultancy firm The Hub, which carried out the research, said salaries failed to recognise the high level of training and dedication required by the job. “These are people who have been working for 21 years or more, who are at the top of their profession,” he said. “The people we surveyed were extremely dedicated but it seemed that this was being leant on with regard to the terms people had to work under. There was a real feeling that people were being undervalued. It’s quite a dispiriting position to be in and I would be interested to see how long the orchestral profession can keep this up.”

The survey polled musicians from 17 orchestras and companies, including the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, English National Opera and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

The most common complaint about the job among respondents was poor pay, followed by antisocial hours, touring and travelling, low esteem and poor conditions.

As well as static or falling pay, respondents remarked on a general reduction in the amount of work available in all fields of the business, particularly in the ballet and opera sector and in recordings.

One commented that his main source of income is a well-known ballet company but added that total earnings from contract orchestra jobs are no higher now than in 1999-2000, due to a drop in the number of recordings being made and the fact that these are now undertaken on buy-outs.

He continued: “The ballet company will not give its orchestra any firm guarantee of work – when it goes abroad it uses local orchestras, and at home, our weeks’ work are continually reduced. In 1992/3 it was 21 weeks, in 2004/5 it will be 12. Despite having always been told how talented I am, I can now hardly earn a living.”

Association of British Orchestras director Russell Jones added that the organisation was constantly lobbying for “a better deal for the whole orchestral community, the players, the administrative teams and our audiences”.

He continued: “The picture relating to the remuneration of players is very complex and varies widely from those employed full time by contract orchestras to those who are wholly freelance. We know that some of the base salaries are low and we regret that as a society we do not value musicians more highly.

“However, very few players, some managers would say none of their players, earn the basic rate of pay. Some earn substantially more and when actual hours worked is factored in the picture is much improved.”

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster