Wednesday 8 March 2023

The BBC's New Classical Music "Strategy", or Could We See Your Evidence Please

 Yesterday the BBC released their new classical music strategy. At first glance, and for obvious reasons, most attention has focused on the decision to close the BBC Singers, but reflection on the strategy as a whole exposes a whole lot of contradictions and questions which are pretty troubling.

The press release presents five summary bullet points and I propose to comment on each of these in turn:

1) Creating agile ensembles that can work flexibly and creatively, working with more musicians and broadcasting from more venues – up to 50 – in different parts of the country, and reducing salaried orchestral posts across the BBC English Orchestras by around 20%.

You plainly do not need to reduce the size of your orchestra through redundancies in order for it to perform in more flexible configurations or in different venues. During Covid, for example, BBC Orchestras performed and broadcast in differing sub-sections. Major orchestras have long had sub-groups spun out of them (the Twelve Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic come immediately to mind - the full list of their sub-groups is remarkable and demonstrates my point even more clearly) without having reduced the size of their overall orchestra to create them - and indeed the high quality of such sub-groups is at least to some extent a function of the relationship they already have as a result of being members of the main orchestra. Then there's the question of what does "working with more musicians" mean here? If the BBC means it can collaborate with more soloists/freelance groups by sending smaller ensembles to smaller venues as already explained there is no requirement that the BBC orchestras be subject to redundancies in order to do that (unless it is simply a question of money which the press release several times attempts to argue has not been the main driver of these decisions). An alternative interpretation is that by reducing the size of the orchestras the BBC is trying to throw a sop to the profession by saying this is okay really because it will open up more opportunities for freelance performers to work with us. I highly doubt that the amount of work that might be generated via this will be equivalent to the job losses the 20% cuts will occasion, and it seems to me that any limited good for freelancers is undone by the fact that the cuts are potentially increasing the pool of freelancers looking for work in an already difficult marketplace by 20%. 

A further point about this is that there is a contradiction in only applying it to the English orchestras. It is of course perfectly obvious why the BBC has only applied it to the English orchestras because it would clearly have been politically very difficult if not impossible to get agreement to cuts to the Scottish and Welsh radio orchestras. But if the English orchestras are going to provide the best public service by the method outlined for them here, the BBC ought to explain why the same doesn't apply to their Scottish and Welsh equivalents. As it is we can reasonably ask why is England not entitled to radio orchestras of the same kind as Scotland and Wales.

Finally on this one it is worth noting that one thing that the 2022 Classical Review demonstrated (a review which the BBC claims yesterday's decisions build on) is that most of the BBC Orchestras already serve a geographically wide range of venues (see pgs.17-20). Of course it is always good to look at how provision can be expanded but it is not clear to me that there was a major problem with the diversity of venues served by the ensembles which this new strategy solves.

2) Reinforcing the distinctiveness of the BBC’s five unique orchestras, artistically, educationally and geographically serving their own audiences whilst fulfilling their collective role in providing the widest range of content across Radio 3 and BBC platforms.

There's not a lot that can be said about this since it lacks specifics (we'll deal with the education point under the next heading). Basically without a much clearer evidence based statement that explains exactly what the orchestras were doing before, what the BBC wants them to do in future, and, perhaps most critically, why and how this distinctiveness will be reinforced by cutting the English orchestras by 20% it is impossible to judge whether the strategy is well devised to achieve this aim.

3) Doubling funding for music education and launching new training initiatives, providing more opportunities for people to engage with classical music, building audiences and creating extraordinary experiences.

This focus on music education poses a number of questions that the press release simply doesn't engage with. First, it is again worth going back to that 2022 Classical Review. Music Education is not a central focus of that document. Apart from some passing references there is one page (30) which focuses directly on it, acknowledging the increased attention the sector has given to this area. But there is no comprehensive data provided on what the BBC, and perhaps more significantly (given the decisions in this press release) its performing groups, were doing on education. Nor does the press release provide any specifics on these proposed new initiatives. So, once again, it is impossible to judge what, if anything, was insufficient about the BBC's music education provision and whether this strategy can remedy that. Again we should bear in mind the cuts to ensembles which seem likely to reduce the amount of education work their members can do for the simple reason that there will be fewer of them - will the BBC have to hire new staff to do this work - so we lose musicians for educators? Is that the right decision for a publicly funded broadcaster? We'll be revisiting some of this again in talking about the Singers decision below because it is also linked to an education narrative.

The 2022 Review does make one other specific point about music education. Funding by government (local and national) for music education has declined (29) and the report states bluntly "the UK's classical music sector does not realistically have the capacity to 'plug the gaps' in national music education provision" (30). Is it the role of the BBC to attempt to plug those gaps? It appears that somebody in the BBC hierarchy, or, equally probably, someone in government has decreed that this is indeed what the BBC should be doing. This of course forces the BBC to spread its dwindling resources more thinly (dwindling because government refused to allow a licence fee increase - there are parallels with the difficulties of my own sector where tuition fee income has not kept pace with inflation but that would be for a whole other blog), and to make up for the music education funding government refuses to provide. It also strikes me as yet another instance of this government ducking responsibility - I can just see future Education Secretaries declaring that any future perceived or actual deficiencies in music education are the BBC's fault and nothing to do with government. And we as licence fee payers are asked to accept this judgement without sight of any of the evidence on which it is based or an adequate explanation as to how the decision has been arrived at.

To be clear, I am not in any way seeking to devalue the importance of high quality musical education provision. My questions are who should be funding it, who should be the providers, and is it right (as seems effectively to be happening here) that the jobs of professional musicians should be cut to enable that funding? (BBC Front Row last night - link at the end of this blog - directly asked that question to Simon Webb (Head of Orchestras & Choirs) who avoided answering it.

4) Creating a single digital home for our orchestras, giving audiences access to the full range of our high-quality orchestral content, including new and archive performances, educational content and concert listings.

When I first read the press release this one didn't really register with me, but the more I've thought about it the more puzzled I've become. I've begun to wonder if somebody at the BBC has been dazzled by the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall and decided we must have one of those. The question that I would like answered here is - why, exactly? The BBC has two digital platforms for streaming already - BBC Sounds for radio/audio and BBC iPlayer for television. Why cannot a corner of these existing platforms be adapted to provide a clearer home for the performing groups? Or is that in fact the intention and it's just being jazzed up here (frankly I'd settle for better management of the existing BBC Sounds so that downloaded recitals/programmes are not too often cut off before pieces and programmes have actually finished). We should be shown what the costings for this flight of fancy are, what is being cut (if anything) to enable it, and what alternatives have been considered.

As an aside I would be most interested to know how big the BBC anticipates this archive as being. I think it would be great if performances from many of the major Festivals BBC Radio 3 covers could remain in an ever increasing archive but I rather suspect there will be rights issues. As it is there is already a substantial archive of individual classical pieces which the BBC somehow managed to get permission for during the pandemic - does the BBC just envisage repackaging that? As with so much in this press release there is a lot that is unclear. 

5) Taking the difficult decision to close the BBC Singers in order to invest more widely in the future of choral singing across the UK, working with a wide range of choral groups alongside launching a major choral development programme for new talent.

As I noted at the beginning this is the element of the announcement that has understandably caused the most concern. Others have spoken far more eloquently than I could about the importance of the BBC Singers as a performing group - and I think have provided clear answers to the question I posed on social media yesterday as to whether this was an ensemble that was being duplicated by the existing non-BBC classical music provision - the clear answer is no and I see no strong evidence that the non-BBC sector would fill the gap if the closure goes ahead (& it's striking to see many of our finest non-BBC vocal ensembles speaking out so strongly against the decision - in other words the "high quality ensembles" who would in theory receive more broadcasts by the closure of the Singers do not favour the decision). What I want to focus on here is the justification the BBC provides in the above sentence. 

Again there are no specifics as to what "invest more widely in the future of choral singing" means. It is thus impossible to judge whether what the BBC plans to do is work that is either already being done by other bodies or could be better done by other bodies. I wonder this particularly with regard to "a major choral development programme for new talent". 

The press release also states later on that it wants to enhance and enable "emerging and diverse choirs" - as with so much else in the document with no specifics on what this in practice means. Such groups are admirable but they are not equivalent to a professional group of the standard of the Singers. Why is it right that the BBC should support those groups and not a professional choir? And it poses the same contradiction as we saw with the English/non-English orchestras. If the BBC should be supporting "emerging and diverse choirs" & education in place of a full-time professional chamber choir, why should it be supporting full-time orchestras rather than supporting emerging and diverse orchestras and education? 

One of the BBC Executives fronting up this announcement yesterday, Charlotte Moore (Chief Content Officer) makes the claim that even if there have been difficult financial pressures these decisions are still the right ones on their merits independent of cost considerations for the BBC for the future. I'm afraid that from where I'm sitting I do not find this convincing. I regret to say that it reminds me of the recent attempts of the Arts Council to justify cutting funding to English National Opera after the fact. In this case it seems to me that this is a set of decisions driven by a combination of financial and governmental pressures which has produced a set of after the fact justifications that lack an appropriate evidentiary basis (or at least that evidentiary basis has not been presented to us as audience members/licence fee payers) and do not, as I hope this piece goes some way to demonstrate, stand up to scrutiny. This whole strategy should be subjected to a pretty complete rethink and when it comes forward again should be accompanied by an appropriate level of detail and evidence base. Sadly, it seems unlikely this will happen, and, as with ENO, we are likely to end up losing/weakening excellent ensembles and making permanently weaker the overall cultural music provision in this country without, I suspect, achieving real improvements in other areas (like music education). I hope I'm proved wrong.

Postscript: You can hear Simon Webb, Head of Orchestras & Choirs trying to defend the strategy on BBC Radio 4's Front Row which I suggest reveals, perhaps unintentionally, how strongly this is being driven by a requirement to find significant savings (starts at 12mins in).

Editorial Note: Updated 14/3/23 with a new link to the 2022 Classical Review as the old one had broken. There's also a covering note which summarised the Review back in May 2022.

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