There’s no easy way of saying this. The Covid-19 emergency has placed the UK’s orchestras in a critical position.

Mark Pemberton © Sabine Tilly
Mark Pemberton
© Sabine Tilly

Unlike orchestras in continental Europe and other parts of the world, which receive significantly higher levels of public subsidy, and even American orchestras, which benefit from donations fuelled by tax breaks, British orchestras are heavily dependent on earned income from ticket sales, international tours, festivals and commercial activity such as recordings, at an average of 50% of turnover. And for the many ABO members which do not receive public funding, the level of earned income is that much higher. With the forced closure of entertainment venues and recording studios, that income has plunged to zero. It isn’t just in the past few weeks that this has hit the orchestras hard. Tours to Asia, a crucial revenue earner for our members, started to be cancelled back in January, and it has escalated from there, with first international touring elsewhere, and then venues in the UK, grinding to a halt. This in turn threatens the financial sustainability of our members, and the livelihoods of the musicians who work for them.

The 65 member orchestras of the ABO have different employment models for their musicians, with some, such as the BBC, regional symphony and the major opera/ballet orchestras being in salaried employment, and the rest, including the London self-governing orchestras and the chamber orchestras, operating on a freelance basis. There are over 2,000 members of the UK’s professional orchestras, of which 50% are self-employed, plus 12,000 engagements annually of freelance extras. 

While the support programmes announced by the government will help reduce operational costs, enabling those orchestras with salaried musicians to furlough them along with some of their management staff through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, or freelance musicians to benefit from the Self Employment Income Support Scheme, they will not replace the loss of earned income for the orchestra itself, nor deal with ongoing cost of premises and other liabilities. We are also concerned at the number of self-employed musicians who have fallen through the cracks, for example if they have only just started out in the profession or are paid through a personal services company. Nor will other elements of the business support package announced by the UK Government be of help to our members. For example, as charities, they do not benefit from the business rates relief scheme.

We welcomed the announcement by Arts Council England of its support package for funded and non-funded arts organisations, bringing much-needed money flowing to offset some serious cashflow problems, and it is good to see that the governments and funding agencies in the other home nations have followed suit. But while this will help in the short-term, it will not solve the long-term damage that will result from a sustained period of cancelled concerts and performances. Nor do we as yet know what the impact will be on the future of lottery funded programmes. With the government so far refusing to provide additional money, all the funding agencies have been able to do is implement a smash-and-grab raid on reserves and future revenue from the national lottery to offset the immediate impact of the emergency.

So what is the ABO doing on behalf of its members? For a start, we are liaising on a daily basis with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to flag up our concerns and to push for further support to help the survival of the UK’s orchestral sector and its musicians. We were delighted that our voice, added to that of many others in the music industry and beyond, helped to secure the support package for the self-employed. We are liaising with HMRC to ensure that our members can maximise Orchestra Tax Relief for those concerts that have had to be cancelled, and with the Treasury on extending further support to charities. And we are in regular communication with the Musicians’ Union and other support organisations and charities to ensure that we have a shared agenda on helping musicians survive the shutdown.

We are also making sure our members continue to network through regular online meetings, to share concerns and keep us informed of the issues they need us to take to government. And we are beginning to look at how, indeed whether, our sector could re-open under the sort of public health restrictions being imposed on other types of business. They are useful lessons to be learnt from those European countries that are opening up their economies ahead of the UK

It’s worth noting that the government has listened to us and responded as best they can, including inviting the ABO to join its working group on reopening live events. But there is still so much more that it can do.

The UK’s orchestras are a success story, building on public investment to maximise revenue from earned and contributed income, and reaching audiences of over 4 million a year along with over 700,000 children and adults through their learning and participation programmes. And they are cultural ambassadors for the UK, giving over 200 concerts in 40 countries to showcase the best of British music-making. This crisis puts that success under threat. While our members have continued to reach out to the audiences through digital platforms, either by mining their archives or creating new content, this can only be a stopgap measure, and is at the own expense. It cannot replace the power and earning potential of the live experience.

It's the uncertainty that makes this worse. We simply do not know how long the lockdown measures will last, and when venues can re-open. We have already seen summer music and opera festivals close one after the other, and cancellations are now kicking in for the Autumn. And in the meantime, the bills pile up. The ABO and its members are doing what they can to make a grim situation that little bit better. Because it is in all our interests to make sure that when things finally get back to normal, the music hasn’t stopped.


Mark Pemberton has been Director of the Association of British Orchestras since 2007. The ABO exists to connect and develop professional and youth orchestras across the UK. Its mission is to enable and support an innovative, collaborative and sustainable orchestral sector, and to provide advice, support, intelligence and information to the people who make British orchestras a global success.