MusicTank - Performance And The Public Purse
Jonathan Robinson
Programme Director, Music Tank
17th June 2014
MusicTank - Performance And The Public Purse

The music industry spotlight often shines brightest on the issues of the day as affects the commercial recordings sector, with streaming, piracy, new tech and emerging new business models seldom off the agenda.

Seemingly forgotten at times, is the plight of the rank and file musician-for-hire, whose ‘day job’ typically provides the backbone of the industry.  Film, TV and recording sessions, gigs and residencies, cabaret and theatre work all depend on high calibre musicians able to turn their hand to playing in numerous genres at the drop of a hat…often at first-sight, without the benefit of rehearsal, enabled by countless hours of unpaid practice in pursuit of their craft and often without security of tenure in their ‘portfolio’ careers.

Their contribution to the bottom line of the UK music industry balance sheet is no less important than those of headline artists, cool independent labels, in-demand songwriters and the rest…yet these unsung heroes on which so much depends often remains largely invisible.

Yet the skills brought to bear in the workplace are in danger of ebbing away if the National Theatre’s treatment of the musicians in its world class production of War Horse are similarly copied; what incentive might there be for a future generation of musicians whose contracts might not be worth the paper they’re written on?

To the uninitiated, the producers of this worldwide hit have terminated the contracts of the show’s five musicians, and replaced them with actors miming to a recording of the play’s music.  The Musicians’ Union are leading the fight with the National Theatre on behalf of the War Horse band which is on-going, and pending a High Court ruling in the coming weeks.

So why all the fuss, and does it really matter?

Aside from what appears to be a clear breach of contract (termination apparently only enforceable should the show close) and the livelihoods of five musicians at stake, the collateral damage - what this says publicly about world class subsidised theatre, and the status of the UK as a world-leading production house - is arguably as great and sets a dangerous precedent.  It also calls into question what is meant by the term ‘live’ theatre and sets a poor example to other publicly funded production companies.

Granted, this is an expensive game with a hit ration akin to the recording sector.  On average one in ten productions makes money, with two in ten losing their money completely.  Get it right and the hits are huge.  The global phenomenon of Phantom Of The Opera has raked in in excess of £5.6 bn worldwide, which, according to The Economist, is more than any film or TV show, eclipsing Titanic, Star Wars and ET.

And we all stand to benefit - London’s West End theatres saw combined revenues of £585,506,455.00 in 2013, up 11% on the previous year, generating VAT receipts for the Treasury of £97,584,409, according to SOLT, a tidy sum to swell the coffers of the public purse.

Employing musicians impacts a production’s bottom line, and not all production companies can afford to do so.  But the National Theatre is publicly funded and as a standard-bearer for the ‘art’, should surely be able to continue to employ these performers?  Worryingly, it might also adversely affect future funding proposals that might make it increasingly difficult to get live musicians onto future production budgets.

The simple truth is that War Horse is adding to a bumper set of successes for UK theatre plc, boasting a global audience of some 4 million people and counting, a sold-out nationwide UK tour and - ironically – a featured concert at this year’s BBC Proms season.

The legacy of this phenomenon surely calls into question the National Theatre’s rationale that it can’t, a-hem, afford such a large part of it’s annual music budget to be spent on five musicians.  Have their own funds not swollen significantly from this success story, thus reducing the 25% share of the National’s total annual music budget that this group of five musicians are apparently costing?

It behoves this venerable, publicly funded, world-class producer to uphold the integrity of live performance and in the process ensure a rich and vibrant future for music theatre performance.

If you're a working musician, make sure you take a look at our Get Advice section for information on everything to performance rights to healthcare.

This blog was contributed by MusicTank.

Original source: MusicTank Newletter Editorial #108 June 2014 

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