Opinion

How British orchestras are coping with the impact of Covid and Brexit

The UK’s orchestras have been weakened by the pandemic – and the impact of Brexit hasn't gone away either – but they remain unbowed says Mark Pemberton of the Association of British Orchestras

Principal players of the Aurora Orchestra with pianist Imogen Cooper at Kings Place, London in October 2020

Principal players of the Aurora Orchestra with pianist Imogen Cooper at Kings Place, London in October 2020. Image credit: Nick Rutter

It is extraordinary to think that in an article I wrote for the Big Issue in early March last year, there was no mention of Covid-19.

At the time, Brexit was our priority, with the UK’s orchestras concerned about the impact it would have on their key market for touring.

Covid was a distant threat, and there was no indication of the shockwave about to hit the UK.

Indeed, in early March I attended a meeting organised by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport with Public Health England, where representatives from arts, entertainment and sport were assured by the Minister and the scientists that they had no intention of closing the nation’s venues.

Fast forward to April 2021, and the UK’s orchestras have seen a year of lost income from concerts and performances in the UK and abroad.

Concert halls have been shut by government edict, bar a brief window in the autumn in England when socially distanced audiences were permitted, meaning that £70 million of earned income across the sector has disappeared, including £14.4 million from foreign touring.

The announcement of the government’s Culture Recovery Fund was hugely welcome, and grants have gone to many of our hard-pressed orchestras to plug the deficits that have opened up in their finances. But it is clear that there will long-term damage to their financial viability.

Meanwhile, the large number of freelance musicians who rely on work from our sector have taken a substantial hit to their earnings, with many not benefiting from any government support at all.

When finally we emerge blinking into the sunlight, it is not clear how many of our highly trained orchestral musicians will have left the profession to seek work elsewhere.

Mark Pemberton at the 2020 ABO conference
ABO Director Mark Pemberton at the 2020 ABO conference_conference_photo_credit_mark_mcnulty
Mark Pemberton at the 2020 ABO conference. Image credit: Mark McNulty

But it is not all negative. Orchestras and their musicians have shown ingenuity, and even if they cannot perform live to audiences in the concert hall, there has been huge growth in online concerts and other digital content.

This has helped reached new audiences, and while we all long for the day when we can welcome audiences back, it is clear a mix of live and online will be the future.

And they have also placed themselves at the heart of the government’s agenda for social prescribing, and as outlined in the latest report Orchestras in Healthcare, are well placed to help the nation’s recovery.

It has also given time to orchestras to rethink their relevance and to develop strategies for creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

The latest ABO Conference, which took place online in March, had at the forefront not Covid-19 or Brexit, but Black Lives Matter. Our members cannot forge a recovery from the pandemic, without taking action on systemic barriers to diversity and inclusion.

But Brexit has roared back with a vengeance. Having had assurances from the Government that it would secure a visa exemption for performing artists, to enable the free flow of talent between the UK and EU, it was a huge disappointment to find the opposite.

In fact the EU-UK Trade & Cooperation Agreement puts performers and crew into a category of workers who do require visas to work in the EU, even for short term engagements of as little as a week.

This has meant that, as concert halls start to open up across Europe, those orchestras with tour dates are suddenly loaded with extra costs and bureaucracy, and will incur a financial loss.

And it’s not just visas. There are also new costs for customs paperwork, and most alarmingly, the Trade & Cooperation Agreement imposes limits on road haulage which make the traditional model of moving instruments and equipment by truck to multiple venues in multiple countries impossible.

It’s still not clear how these new obstacles to touring are going to be solved. All we can do is keep the pressure on the government to find a solution.

The UK’s orchestras have been weakened, but remain unbowed. With government help, they can get back to doing what they do best, taking great music, played by great musicians, across the UK and abroad.

Mark Pemberton is Director of the Association of British Orchestras abo.org.uk

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