• Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email

Covid and Brexit combined have meant a tough two years for UK orchestras but, as Mark Pemberton explains, signs of a bounce back are promising.

ABO conference
Simon Webb, Kaduata Kanneh, Stuart Mason and Myleene Klass

John Young

Lockdowns and Covid restrictions have put a massive dent in orchestras’ box office income. Many would have struggled to survive without the vital injection of emergency funding from the Cultural Recovery Fund. 

And then there was Brexit. Touring to Europe, which in 2019 brought in £8.4 million - 12% of UK’s orchestras’ earned income - suddenly became much harder and more expensive. 

This was the backdrop to the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) Conference, which took place online and in Glasgow in February this year. Covid restrictions impacted the ABO too, and it was not until 3 weeks before the conference that we got the all-clear from the Scottish Government. 

But in spite of the short notice, the hunger to come back together in person was such that 250 people from across the orchestral music industry gathered in Glasgow to discuss the key issues of now.

On the rebound

Alongside we had 150 online delegates. And perhaps uniquely, rather than filming in-person sessions and streaming out, we ran an entirely separate online conference and streamed it into one of the conference rooms, giving our in-person delegates the choice of either getting together for workshops and debates, or engaging with the online sessions through our conference platform and app. 

This was our way of delivering the much-heralded ‘hybrid’ model that is clearly the future for all such events. Because if there is one thing we have learnt from the pandemic, it is the importance of innovation and widening access.

Our conference theme was Rebound. So not surprisingly, recovery was very much on the agenda. As well as a keynote speech from Angus Robertson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Relations and Culture, we heard from DCMS’s Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal, Lord Mendoza, alongside speakers from Scotland and Wales, to look at strategies for rebuilding a vibrant arts sector across the nations. 

We also took a close look at what we have learnt from the shift to digital, navigating the choppy waters of Brexit, building resilience across the workforce, and moving towards a net-zero economy. As Lord Mendoza said in his session, “The sector’s recovery is a springboard for positive change”.

Bouncing back further

But there was an even greater emphasis on Inclusion. The primary message of the conference was that Rebound does not just mean getting to back to how we were pre-pandemic. It must instead mean bouncing back further. And key to that is building a more inclusive sector. 

Our members are well aware that they have not as yet been able to make the strides towards equity, diversity and inclusion that other arts organisations have seen. They remain dependent on a talent pipeline and recruitment processes that have been difficult to change.

The publication of Arts Council England’s Creating a More Inclusive Classical Music report last year follows a focus across recent ABO Conferences on strategies for enhancing access and inclusion. 

This year we went even further, looking at inclusivity across the people we employ and perform to, the music we play, and the settings we work in. And we ended on a controversial note, with a keynote speech from Courtney Harge of OF/BY/FOR ALL that challenged our sector’s obsession with ‘excellence’. 

Socio-economic barriers

But perhaps most importantly, we delved deeply into the issue of class, analysing the socio-economic barriers that militate against engagement with classical music. Our main speaker on the opening afternoon was writer, social commentator and musician Darren McGarvey, author of Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass, who set the scene with a fiery speech on classical music’s problem with class. 

And our choice of topic was prescient, considering the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s recent letter to NPOs in England, linking future funding to delivery of data on the socio-economic background of audiences, workforce and boards, and to progress on widening access.

The feedback we have had following the conference is that our theme and topics were bang on. We have helped energise the many tired and stressed-out orchestra managers, who now know they are not alone, and that there are collective solutions to the problems they face.

What happens next?

We will continue to take the case to government for maintaining emergency support for the sector. It has been invaluable having access to data this past year from Indigo and the Audience Agency, showing a worrying gap of around a third in audience numbers across the performing arts from pre-pandemic levels. 

And that gap is slightly greater for classical music, with an older audience demographic that remains cautious about returning to the concert hall. And we will launch an action plan for Inclusion to help our members forge progress in the coming year.

Our thanks go to the many supporters who helped make this year’s conference get off the ground, our Principal Media Partner Classic FM, Digital Media Partner Classical Music, Charity Partner Help Musicians and International Partner the British Council, alongside BBC Radio 3, the Musicians’ Union, ISM and Orchestras Live, and our hosts in Glasgow the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Mark Pemberton OBE is Chief Executive of the Association of British Orchestras.


Link to Author(s):