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In a monstrous conspiracy of fate British musicians, acknowledged globally as the finest in the world, have never had it so bad thanks to Brexit, Covid and the cost of living crisis. Employment among professional musicians fell by 35% in 2020 alone.

The sector’s earning dropped by £2.7bn (£5.8bn to £3.1bn) reflecting lost partnership investment and fundraising, and in August 2020 the Association of British Orchestras reckoned orchestras were losing £6m a month. Nearly a quarter of musicians are considering changing career say the Musicians’ Union and the Incorporated Society of Musicians, 77% expect their earnings to plummet and 42% are thinking of moving abroad. On top of everything else, 73% of our freelance musicians, and three-quarters of them are freelance, mostly uncovered by government schemes, have developed mental health issues.

Help Musicians, the old Musicians Benevolent Fund, has historically helped 19,000 players get out of crisis, but it has recently opened a new £1m fund because no crisis has been as bad as this. The charity found that 900 professionals are in severe difficulties with 75% earning less than £1,000 n December, normally the highest earning month in the calendar. In 2020 there were almost 60,000 working regularly in the UK; last year it had dropped to 52,000 and is still diving.

And yet…

Touring to Europe has been vital for British  ensembles and performers, and the quality of their work has always made them popular in Continental venues, but while that aspect of musical life is a shitstorm for orchestras as organisations and musicians as individuals at the moment, the ludicrous red tape that has been wrapped around travelling and transporting instruments, not to mention the extra fees, the visas and work permits that clog up the works that were running so smoothly until 18 months ago, there is a brighter side peeping over the louring horizon.

The view across the English Channel is not the only outlook for our music. With no live music for the best part of two years, orchestras and venues at home had been close to collapse and only the government’s £2bn culture recovery fund keeping them alive. Yet this week the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra published a report with an unexpectedly hopeful title, From Restriction to Recovery: public engagement with orchestral music during a critical year.

Because while orchestra managers have been wrestling with the double intransigencies of our Home Office and European customs bureaucrats, music has not stopped happening. When the RPO at last returned to the concert hall in February the Royal Festival Hall was packed and there was a palpable collective sigh of relief. “1,000 people all gasping at that exact moment” the RPO’s managing director, James Williams, tells AI. “It's the most electric thing in the world”.

‘Across the board, engagement with orchestral music grew’

Far from alienating people from music because venues were closed, they have not only sought it elsewhere but the audience is actually growing, meaning there are new music lovers buying tickets for concerts now.

“Many people connected with music to help them get through a challenging period” says Williams in the report. “Some escaped through music, and others used it as an essential and enriching tool to help maintain health and well-being. Across the board, engagement with orchestral music grew.”

The research was done for the RPO by Maru/Blue at regular intervals between December 2020 and January 2022 with a sample of 2,000 adult participants, and it found that “engagement with music” - an interestingly wide term - actually increased over the period, via radio (up 3%), television (+8%) and online (+2%). It pointed to a new level of co-operation between the music industry and broadcasters and online platforms.

Within that are remarkable figures: 80% of under-35s used music to get calm, 85% - 85%! - of young people turned to music for inspiration, and one-in-ten respondents used orchestral music to deal with insomnia.

One of the most significant things to emerge from this report is the response of BAME people, a sector that has stereotypically been assumed to have felt alienated by classical music. They really don’t. During lockdown they actually felt welcomed - 63% against a national average of 58% - and that while they were unfamiliar with classical music were not unenthusiastic about it after their first experience. AND 5% more than the national average felt that music should be taught as a core subject in schools.

The RPO, which lost £430,000 in 2021, has historically been a bit of a maverick among orchestras, challenging the status quo (it gets less ACE subsidy than any other symphony orchestra) and even threatening to sue the Arts Council at one point over not being given resident status at the Southbank Centre. Now, while it has a residency at Cadogan Hall and a renewed association with the Royal Albert Hall as well as programming concerts at the RFH, it has moved its HQ from Farringdon to Wembley where it is immersing itself in the Brent community. There is even a more realistic approach from commerce in its approach to sponsorship, showing a new interest in organisations that have youth involvement.

The report is a justification of that move, says Williams, showing that the emphasis now is on connecting with your actual and potential audiences, and it’s timely. “We’re nearing a return to where we were two years ago; certainly the coming financial year, 2023, is looking very strong”.

And it’s a misapprehension that audiences will just stick with broadcast and online and stay away from live venues, he says, with the report telling him there there’s something fundamental still in the concert experience, both for audience and players. “Gone are the days of a sort of run of the mill performance” he says. “Every performance now feels like an event”.

But a new or reawakened audience is one thing, funding performances is another. There is simply less money in the world because of the layers of economic catastrophe. “I think we are going to see what impact all of those combined issues is going to have on the performing arts going forward” Williams says, and the report will help the RPO and the rest of the music sector take its next cautious steps in a new world.

Reports like this are guides to be interpreted, however, and then used. “It’s really helpful to put up the mirror sometimes, to be brave and select change in response to what people are telling you they want and think. But it’s important always to be led by the art, not just following the polls and letting them tell us what we’ve got to do” he says.

“We’ve got to be cultural leaders as well.”

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