Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Double whammy: where do British orchestras go from here?

The LSO visible on the pitch for the opening of the 2012 Olympics in London. Whither now? Photo:

Working harder. Earning less. Sound familiar? That's the state of many people in many industries, and at the moment a lot of us simply shrug our shoulders, get on with it and give up the notion of having days off, ever. But as pay is stagnant or shaved downwards, and hours are lengthened, and we think our careers are going OK, really, under the circumstances, because "we are where we are", it's a risky direction - because if one goes too far, there comes tipping a point where it finally turns unsustainable, and by the time we realise this, we're in trouble.

Now it is clear that orchestras in the UK are no exception: they're experiencing a double, or even triple, whammy of central funding cuts, local government cuts and reductions in ticket income. And yet they're reaching more people than ever.

A report on the State of British Orchestras in 2016 will be launched at the Association of British Orchestras' annual conference, which kicks off in Bournemouth today. The statistics* from 51 respondents are compared to those of 2013 and reveal that last year our orchestras delivered 7 per cent more concerts than three years ago, visited 42 countries abroad compared to 35 in '13, and, admirably, reached 35 per cent more children and young people, around 900,000 of them. They gave more than 4,000 concerts for audiences totalling 4.83m people - a 3 per cent increase in attendance.

Yet they suffered a 5 per cent fall in earned income, a 7 per cent drop in Arts Council funding and a stomach-punching reduction of 11 per cent in local authority funding.

You may recall that Birmingham City Council cuts have pushed the CBSO's funding down to 1980s levels - and just when it is flying so high musically, with the best hall in the country as its home and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, one of the most exciting young conductors on the scene, in place as music director.

The LSO, too, should be on its highest possible high as Sir Simon Rattle arrives to take its helm. And over at the Southbank it is full steam ahead with the 'Belief and Beyond Belief' Festival, featuring music (and much more) that ponders the big questions about what the heck we are really doing here, something many of us are currently asking ourselves a bit more than usual. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra juggles superb performances with a dizzying array of residencies and outreach work, including the inspirational project Strokestra, using music to help the rehabilitation of stroke victims. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is on a roll with Vasily Petrenko, the Royal Northern Sinfonia glitters in The Sage, Gateshead, and in Manchester the Halle Orchestra has a long and enviable relationship with Sir Mark Elder. This list could go on and on.

In short, things look and sound very, very good. But the direction of travel is a cause for concern, and it is a mark of our musicians' absolute professionalism and excellence that you'd never guess this at a concert.

Here's the commentary by ABO director Mark Pemberton:
“Orchestras have innovated to achieve bigger audiences and engage more young people and they should be proud of these successes. “However, the survey masks a greater reality. These larger audiences do not bring in more money and, if anything, actually increase losses. Many of the achievements have been fuelled by audience development initiatives such as discounted ticketing, free concerts and fixed fee performances at open air events.  
“These have left orchestras suffering a double whammy – a decline in earned income alongside significant cuts in public funding. The message is simple. Orchestras cannot continue doing ‘more for less’.  
“The government has this year implemented Orchestra Tax Relief and this will offset some of the cuts in public funding imposed since 2010 – but it is far from enough. We need national and, most crucially, local government to restore funding closer to pre-austerity levels to enable our members to continue delivering great music to the widest possible audience.”
T     *The ABO survey asked Britain’s professional orchestras about their activities, audiences, income and staffing, between August and October 2016. 

Responses were received from 51 orchestras: 84% of those from whom responses were requested. Respondents provided data for the season/financial year 2015-2016 or the closest equivalent 12-month period. 

Comparisons are made in this report with the 2013 ‘key facts’ survey (covering 2012-2013) for a core sample of 38 orchestras for non-finance data, and 31 orchestras for finance data, that completed the survey in both years. 

As some of the orchestras that provided data in 2016 differ from those that responded in 2013, the total numbers in this report should be viewed as representative rather than firm numbers. The percentages shown in brackets for live performances and sources of income reflect changes in the comparison groups over the three-year period, and are not percentage changes in the total numbers between 2013 and 2016.