What price classical music's celebrity culture?
As art forms inspire and cultures come together, Rolex watches are there. For life’s defining moments and the making of maestros. More than time, they tell history.That copy accompanies a Rolex video featuring Gustavo Dudamel, and the visual comes from a press campaign. On the one hand a leading maestro flaunts his £10,000 Rolex Oyster Datejust, but on the other hand claims of penury have become the mantra of embattled classical music. Financial double-standards prevail; which means it is cool to flaunt wealth but verboten to discuss money in any context other than the lack of it. As a result, in the Guardian critic Andrew Clements concludes somewhat belatedly that Valery Gergiev "has not served the London Symphony Orchestra well as their chief conductor", but focuses solely on Gergiev's musical shortcomings, without even a passing mention of the financial cost of the celebrity conductor's term at the LSO. This fiscal shyness is hardly surprising in a music journalist. Because not only is any detailed information about orchestra finances very hard to come by, but digging down beneath the claims of financial penury risks invoking the disapproval of those that matter to a professional journalist. Which won't stop me trying to provide some fiscal background to what the respected Andrew Clements describes as the "often ...featureless mediocrity" of Gergiev's performances as the LSO's principal conductor.
During Gergiev's eight year tenure as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), the orchestra will have received in the region of £16 million Arts Council England funding. Arts Council England (ACE) is an executive non-departmental public body of the UK government's Department for Culture, Media & Sport, and it supports arts and culture using public money from the government and the National Lottery. The LSO has an annual income of £16 million, so the annual ACE grant represents approximately 13% of the orchestra's income. This £2 million annual grant from public funds is material both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the LSO's total income; so there is a case for more transparency as to how it is disbursed. (The two other leading London orchestras receive similar ACE funding, so the argument also applies to them).
This debate is not about whether celebrity conductors are paid too much: it is about transparency. When a minority artform receives millions of pounds in public funding, and then publicly declares that the recipient of a not inconsiderable chunk of that funding has "not served.. well", difficult questions will be asked by classical music's enemies. Those questions become even more difficult when the institutionalised resistance to explaining who is paid what becomes apparent. And all this is exacerbated by the opaque involvement of the classical music agents. What slice of the celebrity's fee goes to these agents is one of the industry's closely guarded secrets. It is around 15%, but the precise amount should not be a secret. Then there is the hot topic of tax liability. The current scandal of Facebook's evasion of UK corporation tax is just part of a much wider concern about legal tax avoidance. Presumably we can safely assume that principal conductors of London based orchestras pay their UK tax dues; but specific information as to where payments are directed would bring reassurance.
More transparency on orchestra finances would bring other benefits. It would provide vital information on the problem of inequality within classical music. One viewpoint is that classical music is inadequately funded; an alternative viewpoint is that the limited funding is distributed unequally. The salary for a rank and file London musician is in the public domain - £26,000 to £37,000 - but the salary of their principal conductor is not. So the vexed question of whether available revenues are equitably distributed remains unanswered. And the problem of inequality does not just apply within orchestras. It would be informative to know how much one celebrity conductor receives compared with the total funding for struggling but essential smaller ensembles.
Arts Council England sets a laudable precedent by disclosing its senior staff salaries. My view is that it should be a requirement that any orchestra or other recipient of public funding via ACE should disclose the amount and destination of its ten largest financial disbursements. Of course the music matters most; but the cost of the music also matters. It is indisputable that the London Symphony Orchestra and other orchestras do magnificent work; not only with their mainstream activities, but also in education and outreach. But if classical music wants to make a credible case for receiving significant amounts of public funding, it needs to be far more transparent as to how that money is spent.
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