The crisis reveals the weaknesses of classical music that is alive thanks to the public and that expels 'freelance' musicians

The impact of the coronavirus in the music sector has highlighted the fragility of an industry particularly sensitive to the ravages of the crisis and with a growing dependence on one of the most affected areas: live music. The cancellation or modification of live performances has dragged a large part of its professionals into a situation of extreme vulnerability marked by uncertainty regarding the future of the sector.

The music sector is dying in the absence of measures to survive the coronavirus crisis: "The situation is catastrophic"

The music sector agonizes over the lack of measures to survive the coronavirus crisis: "The situation is catastrophic"

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Faced with this situation, the Red Alert movement brought together on September 17 to artists, producers and associations to raise their voices for what they consider an insufficient response by the Government given the urgency of a sector on the verge of collapse. A call that was well received by the professionals of a union traditionally fragmented in its demands that, however, once again highlighted the disconnect between the different realities within the sector. Among them, classical music stands out as the genre with a more particular idiosyncrasy and economic model.

Sometimes labeled as “official” music, the special protection by the administrations of a genre, fundamentally that of symphonic music, linked to large and expensive productions has not prevented the damage of this crisis on a widely precarious sector on the margins of these projects and public funding institutions.

The public as a lifeline

Unlike what happens in other countries such as the United Kingdom or the United States, where institutions such as the MET in New York have made the decision to cancel all activity until September 2021 and leave their workers without pay due to losses from the pandemic , most of the main orchestras in our country are public. This stable funding has allowed the maintenance of fixed staff of musicians who have continued to receive their salaries despite the cancellation, until a few weeks ago, of practically all the programming of these orchestras. A stoppage that, however, has affected the income derived from their usual activity and the sale of tickets, leaving important consequences for the rest of non-permanent workers.

“A lot of effort has been made not to cancel, but to postpone. But of course, the postponed does not have double hiring the following year, with which there is an irreversible hole for the sector ”, explains to Raquel Rivera, manager of the Orchestra and Choir of the Community of Madrid, who highlights the damage economic "not only for musicians, but also for musicologists, producers, designers, printers ... and the entire production chain that revolves around these institutions."

"What is lost is lost. I hope that with the vaccine we will resurface as after a fire, but the problem is going to be structural, due to the hypothetical lack of public funding. There it is clear that this pandemic and its economic consequences are going to have to pay. We will have to be very cautious and supportive to get out of this, ”says Rivera.

Freelance musicians: from precariousness to unemployment

To the question of who is already paying for the effects of this crisis in the short term, all the professionals in the sector offer an unequivocal answer: the musicians freelance.

Unlike what happened in the 80s and early 90s, when the creation of new public orchestras -most of them at the regional level- required an importation of foreign artists to cover the demand, the current supply of professionals. trained in our country has made this possibility a remote option for many of the musicians who leave the higher conservatories every year.

“It is a very large bag of people, both for the competitive exams –which are frozen-, and for places in orchestras. For each square that comes out every 5 years or more, an orchestra in Madrid performs around 170 musicians from all over the world. For a single place ”, says Alfredo Ancillo, until confinement, backup violinist in the Madrid Symphony Orchestra.

Alfredo is a musician freelance, without a permanent place in any orchestra, conservatory or music school - "like practically all the people I know" -. Dependent on temporary contracts to reinforce permanent staff or specific concerts of private projects, he denounces job insecurity and the precariousness of contracts: “In these orchestras to the freelance, if they are lucky enough to register you, it is only the day of the concert, not even at rehearsals. I've been like this for three seasons, you tie yourself to anything you can. "

“Musicians are the most damaged element in the sector. We have been unpaid for everything that we have not been able to work with ”, laments Alfredo, who explains that, in his case, he has been able to cope with the damage of the stoppage and the reduction of staff thanks to the summer concerts with his string quartet and a small help from the AIE (Association of Interpreters and Performers).

“Unofficial orchestras are private, and they rarely have any kind of subsidy or help in situations like this, where practically all of them are standing. That is the structural deficit of the sector in this country. People are having a very bad time. Many colleagues have had to go abroad or work something else, like in an Amazon warehouse, "he says. This is the case of David, reinforcement horn player for the Madrid Symphony, musicals and private orchestras who is already preparing some competitive examinations for administrative assistant: “We are all looking for other opportunities. Caches are going to go down, because we are desperate. But the fundamental decline now is that there is no work, there is nothing ”.

An uncertain recovery

Rafael Ortega Basagoiti, music critic and popularizer at Scherzo magazine, points to orchestras "doomed to disappear" in case the break lasts longer than expected. "The repercussion will be closely linked to the duration of the crisis, but if it lasts longer it can be really dramatic and that there are those who literally cannot raise their heads," says Ortega, who does not rule out that these survival problems even affect those orchestras of public ownership.

From the Association of Spanish Symphonic Orchestras (AEOS), its president, Ana Mateo, in conversation with rules out this possibility, although she maintains that the pandemic "has highlighted the deficiencies and endemic issues of the sector" and of a system that " It should not be reinvented, but it should be revised ”. "Our stability should not be based on capacity, but on reviewing the model and public support that allows us to survive," he says.

More public model in response to the crisis

This maintenance of public funding is also key for Andrés Lacasa Nikiforov, manager of the Galician Symphony Orchestra and member of AEOS. "Many symphony orchestras run the risk of losing all the work and investment that we have been building for decades in a year," warns Lacasa, for whom "if the reduction in programming and templates is not reversed, they will have a devastating effect on the musical fabric."

"I believe that this pandemic has shown that a strong public sector will always protect more and better cultural institutions, although collaboration with private entities must always be improved and expanded for their optimal support," says Lacasa, who positively values ​​the reaction of public administrations so far and hopes that "the dynamics will continue."

A perspective that the manager of the ORCAM, Raquel Rivera, clarifies pointing out that the possible consequences in terms of loss of financing have not yet been perceived, given that "we are in the same fiscal year and the financing continues to arrive because we depend on the budgets ”.

Regarding the response through concrete measures to alleviate the crisis by the Ministry, Rivera is also more critical. "They arrive late and in ways that perhaps have not been the most effective and those that activate the economic engine," says the manager, who focuses the recovery on "a negotiation on direct and indirect taxes that right now the culture It is not permitted".

In this sense, Félix Palomero, technical director of the National Orchestra and Choir of Spain, however, attributes these possible deficiencies in the response of the Executive to the "limited regulatory margin in which we operate", and puts in the much-demanded labor protection of professionals the focus for a solid recovery. "The essential thing is the development of the Statute of the Artist, approved by the Congress, where the uniqueness of artistic trades, temporality and intermittency is accommodated," Palomero points out to questions from, also pointing to "recognition from the fiscal and labor order of all the people who work in the direct value chain ”as a key aspect to deal with in the current context.


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