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ABO 2020 – A cloudy future

ABO 2020 – A cloudy future

Helen Whately MP | Photo credit: Classic FM

The ABO conference is always an eye-widening experience. The theme of this year’s conference was ‘2020 Vision’, an examination of the landscape for orchestras over the next ten years in terms of programming, workforce, funding, broadcasting and environment. Discussions also covered the daunting problems orchestras face in the current political and economic climate. Here are some facts and thoughts that arose from my three days in Manchester at the 2020 conference.

The conference opened with a keynote speech from Helen Whately MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Arts, Heritage and Tourism. Whately said that our music tradition is the envy of the world. She reassured the audience that the government understands the need for music education for the young. Likewise, she said, the government understands the importance of freedom of movement for musicians, which is one reason why the government wants reciprocal movement arrangements with the EU.

Whately had to leave and the civil servant who took her place was unable to answer the questions from the audience. But it turns out that nobody could have answered them. Boris may have ‘got Brexit done’, but he hasn’t done so in a way that allows orchestras to understand what is coming, set schedules or fix budgets. At least one orchestra manager seemed close to tears about this. In my view, this session served to show us how difficult the job of running an orchestra is going to be this year and quite possibly in years to come.

Another discussion made it clear that expectations for the future must be pegged low. Stephen Bush, the razor-sharp political editor of the New Statesman asked, ‘Why is the current minister of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport a retired politician kicked into the House of Lords?’ So that, he argued, when that department is cut, there will be no need to sack an actual politician. The rumour that DCMS is to be cut was on many lips and Bush thought it could be imminent. When budgeting, he therefore cautioned, think of the worst possible outcomes in the next twelve months and factor those in. You’re unlikely to be wrong. It could be worse, he said wryly, adding that ‘you could be working for the BBC.’ Of course, many of those present were.

In a break I spoke with someone from within the music funding environment. I asked him why the government would dismantle the DCMS given that it had contributed £101.5bn to the UK economy in 2017. That’s an increase of 53.1% since 2010, a growth likely to be the fastest of any sector. His answer may appear cynical. The music industry is successful, but it is much smaller than the big hitters like health and transport, he said. In these larger sectors there is ample scope for the government to create disruption and thereby also create business opportunities for their friends. No such opportunities exist within DCMS.

But whatever happens politically, the music will play on. The ABO’s Mark Pemberton talked about their latest report on the state of the UK’s orchestras, which, he said, “reveals a sector that is resilient and enterprising and a cultural ambassador for the UK.”

Indeed, classical music seems to be growing in popularity, especially amongst the young. Classic FM, we were told, was the most popular radio station in the city of London last summer. And the popularity of classical music among the young is growing in the digital age. Young people, we were told, are less prone to focussing on a single genre of music – after all, there are now around 680 music genres – and tend to listen to a broad palette, including classical music.

A panel of younger musicians from conservatoires and music schools told the conference about what they wanted from the industry. Ideas like ‘break the rules’, ‘be more provocative’, ‘create more energy and atmosphere’, ‘advertise the unseen benefits’ and ‘environmental care’ were bandied about.

After all, one young musician declared, ‘There is no music on a dead planet.’