CMS discussion group 4: “Show me the money”

After a bit of a hiatus, I’m returning with three blog posts reflecting on the latter part of the Chamber Music Scotland discussion series earlier this year. Today, I’ve returned to my notes from the fourth session (8 March 2021), focussing on the ways we make a living through chamber music. We discussed the need to balance financial viability with creative output, and looking at ways of improving current conditions, especially in providing more stability for chamber musicians in Scotland.

Chamber music is arguably the most precarious part of the portfolio career of a classical musician today. Unlike orchestral performance or teaching, it is extremely rare to find salaried posts in chamber music. Most activities are led by individual musicians and groups, who take on lots of managerial and other extra-musical roles in addition to playing their instruments. Even for well-established ensembles perhaps with agents or management, maintaining a busy schedule means a significant amount of time and investment in securing funding and finding work.

The initial discussion concentrated on some of our shared difficulties. The panel had all experienced limitations because of funding, for example, affecting choices in more experimental repertoire, or making it more difficult to organise concerts for collaborations and larger chamber groups. The ideal for regular chamber ensembles is to have a selection of programmes which can be used for a season, being performed at different venues, festivals, and tours, and cutting down on extensive extra rehearsal time. This feels like it shouldn’t be too difficult given that musicians from other genres are able to adopt an approach where their live performances are based around a single album, or music from their back catalogue. However, classical music promoters and music societies often have their own requests for popular or favourite repertoire, or else want ensembles to fit around a larger festival or series concept, often requiring an entirely new concert programme, perhaps only to be used at that single event.

It has to be said that classical musicians are not always adept at negotiations around money. In my experience, promoters are often not part of the discussion over how much preparation and rehearsal will go into a single programme: essentially, we end up selling a product, rather than asking for fair wages for our time. When it comes to fees for chamber music concerts, there is very little adherence to basic union rates. It’s more of a case of tendering for work, putting pressure on musicians to offer more work for less money, and risking generally driving down rates.

This isn’t to say that chamber music promoters are the enemy – much of the network of concert promoters is run by volunteers, who are simply trying to put on as many high-quality concerts as they can with limited budgets, whilst maintaining regular audiences. Nevertheless, there are many ways in which all parties might be better served.

Chamber Music Scotland has an organisational role between promoters and musicians, particularly through subsidising concerts, allowing for more experimental programmes or bigger ensembles. Additionally, providing networks of chamber music promoters makes it easier to offer a single programme to different venues and music societies, cutting down costs for promoters as well as rehearsal time for musicians.

Another route for chamber groups is to work with an agent or management. Not only are these individuals more experienced at negotiating fees and drawing up contracts, but often that extra layer of distance between artists and promoters is useful, maintaining a good working relationship, and outsourcing difficult discussions around money. On the other hand, this can remove some of the collaborative element of curating programmes with promoters and other stakeholders.

The most constructive idea from this session was a move towards more of a sense of working collectively. Eventually, it would be extremely useful to have some sort of base rate for chamber music concerts agreed in Scotland (or perhaps the UK), along with sample contracts for both parties to use. In the meantime, another suggestion was to organise a shared survey or database for chamber musicians in Scotland, sharing information on rates, funding and contracts. I think the key here is grassroots organising – Scotland is small enough that many professional musicians and promoters know each other, and these sorts of informal conversations can lead to workable agreements which benefit all sides.

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