Opinion

How the Northern Ballet's empty orchestra pit perfectly sums up UK's arts crisis 

The arts sector is not just a ‘nice to have’ for society, writes Musician Union's Naomi Pohl – live music, theatre, dance and other cultural experiences are what makes life worth living

There is a crisis unfolding in the UK’s arts sector. Stagnant public funding, combined with super-inflation and the cost of living crisis, has left many ballet and opera companies on a cliff edge. 

Under 14 years of this Conservative government, arts funding in England has been reduced by £178m in real terms. And England is not alone; the problem is UK-wide. The Welsh government has cut arts and culture by 10% in its draft budget for 2024/25, and the overall Scottish culture budget is 6% smaller than in 2022-23, in real terms. 

Many cultural institutions are being stretched beyond their financial limits as they try to deliver their commitments to funders and audiences with considerably less money and resources. Our members, professional musicians who mostly make a living freelancing, are at the sharp end of cuts to creative output. Smaller productions, less touring and fewer employed posts lead to a shrinking of opportunities for freelancers who already live precariously. It’s a perfect storm. 

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The Musicians’ Union (MU) recently carried out a Musicians’ Census, in partnership with the charity Help Musicians, with 6,000 respondents who reported an average annual income of around £20,000 from their work in music. This is the same average income evidenced in a survey of MU members from 2013.  

So, how are musicians responding to the crisis? One stark example of the impact of funding issues is Northern Ballet, which is replacing musicians in its orchestra with recorded music for some touring productions. The core group of musicians, known as the Northern Ballet Sinfonia, are already on freelance contracts and some report relying on food banks to survive.

Since the reduction to their work was announced, the Northern Ballet Sinfonia has been out in force leafleting audience members and fellow musicians across the orchestral sector have signed petitions and sent messages of support. The fear is that this cut is a slippery slope and a recording being used in place of the company’s orchestra is a precedent our members won’t tolerate. The union won’t authorise the recording and the musicians have refused to make it, so we are in dispute and waiting for the Northern Ballet’s next move. It isn’t a position we want to be in, and the company is in dire straits. They need more financial support, and urgently. 

We came close to strike action at English National Opera (ENO) where the orchestra has been cut from full-time to just seven months per year. In the end, we reached an agreement on a deal days before the planned strike. Our members accepted a compromise, knowing it was far from what they wanted, but that striking would harm the company’s finances and could lead to worse outcomes. An impossible situation for the orchestra, many of whom have been with ENO for decades and genuinely fear for its survival as well as their own.  

Welsh National Opera has just announced proposals to cut their orchestra’s hours and pay, as well as cut back on performances, due to a 35% funding cut. Opera and ballet companies are heavily reliant on public funding, so they are among the first to show outward signs of harm, but in reality, they are in a long line of struggling arts organisations, a line that will only keep increasing without government intervention. 

We will keep reminding the government that the arts sector, as well as being a key driver of tourism in the wider economy, has so many benefits for society. We are a nation full of creativity, with 57% of us feeling like music plays an important part in shaping our identity, according to research from UK Music. The health and wellbeing benefits are increasingly well documented and we all turned to music, TV and film during the Covid-19 lockdowns. 

Without the necessary investment in the arts, fewer young people will see being a musician as a career option open to them. A musician working for ENO told me that coming out of education into a job in opera meant she felt like ‘one of the lucky ones’. She doesn’t feel that way now. The outlook looks bleak, but we won’t give up; we will work with companies and lobby the government for cultural renewal. Despite the Conservatives’ levelling up agenda, cuts are felt disproportionately outside of London and in rural areas. We believe strongly in the power of music to transform the lives of individuals and build communities. It is part of our national identity and one worth fighting for. 

The arts sector is not just a ‘nice to have’ for society; live music, theatre, dance and other cultural experiences are part of what makes life worth living. It would be a tragedy for the cultural fabric of the UK to further deteriorate when it can be prevented. Every pound invested in our sector returns a further pound to the economy. With a general election on the cards sooner rather than later, this is a key moment for us to make our case and ensure the arts are prioritised in any new government’s recovery plan.  

Naomi Pohl is general secretary of the Musicians’ Union. Sign the petition to protect Welsh National Opera, and use the online ‘email your MP tool’ to support the campaign at Northern Ballet.  

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