ABO director: 'We can rebuild, and forge a bright future'

Mark Pemberton
Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Mark Pemberton, director of the ABO, looks back on what the last year has meant for orchestras, and introduces this year's ABO conference

So now we know – the UK has agreed a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, and all four nations are in yet another national lockdown. It is, not surprisingly, these two big issues – Covid and Brexit – that have dominated the ABO’s work, and its members, this past year.

Let’s start with Covid. Little did I think, when we were basking in the warm glow of the best ever attended ABO Conference in Manchester last January, and as I headed off for a well-earned holiday in Costa Rica in early March, that all hell was about to break loose. Indeed, just before my flight I had been in on a conference call organised by DCMS with one of the Deputy Chief Medical Officers, who assured us that there was no likelihood of the government closing down entertainment venues.

It was while on holiday that I began to realise something was afoot back home, and the endless Zoom meetings started in the cloud forest when I dialled in for a catch up with the ABO board. Since then we have been through many twists and turns of emergency funding, lockdowns, roadmaps, tiers, quarantine rules, even live concerts, all complicated by differing policies across the four nations. Many hours were spent working with DCMS on developing guidance and gathering evidence from members, and the work continues on what reopening and recovery will look like once the pandemic (if ever) comes to an end.

What has been heart-warming has been the resilience and ingenuity shown by our members. They have found a way to keep their musicians active, have even managed to put on concerts not only in the UK but also abroad. And there are three key learnings I have gathered along the way.

Firstly, the government’s enforced shutdown of live entertainment has exposed the risk inherent in the UK’s mixed economy model for arts funding. The ABO has been in close contact with its counterparts in other countries, and it is clear there is a divide between how the pandemic has affected orchestras in countries in continental Europe and Asia, where there are high levels of public subsidy, and those in countries such as the UK and USA, where there is much greater dependency on earned and contributed income. For the former, the shutdown of venues is an inconvenience. For the latter, it is existential.

This means that the ABO, in common with other artform sector bodies, will need to argue the case ever more strongly to government that the drive over the past decade to wean the arts off a perceived ‘dependency’ on subsidy, and be more commercial in its income generation, will need to be reversed. After all, if commercial theatre and music now need government funding to survive, in the form of grants from the Culture Recovery Fund, there is all the more reason for there to be sufficient subsidy for arts organisations in the long term, to mitigate the risk of permanent market failure.

Secondly, with concert halls forced to close, orchestras have had to go digital. They know that staying connected with our audiences will be key to their long-term survival. At the start of the pandemic, we saw lots of ‘montage performances’ by orchestras on You Tube, providing a simple way of keeping the music alive. But over the months we have learnt that audiences crave higher quality in what we can offer, and they are increasingly prepared to pay for it. We are increasingly thinking the future will be a hybrid model, combining live with digital, helping broaden our reach to new audiences both in the UK and abroad.

Thirdly, not only have we had to deal with the shutdown of live events in the UK, but also the closing of borders across the world. This has raised questions about the sustainability, both financial and environmental, of chasing ever more work abroad. What we are now seeing is a move to ‘think local’. We are having to test the assumption that moving large bodies of people and their instruments from country to country is sustainable in the long term. We have talent here, and while we fully accept that cultural exchange is a moral good, we have to be mindful of climate change too. And, unsurprisingly, a ‘think local’ policy will be exacerbated by the other big issue sitting in the ABO’s in-tray, namely Brexit.




We are having to test the assumption that moving large bodies of people and their instruments from country to country is sustainable in the long term


The Free Trade Agreement is welcome, but doesn’t solve all the problems that Brexit brings to our members. There are still going to be immigration controls in both directions, making employing EEA citizens more expensive, and necessitating work permits in some EU countries when touring abroad. Meanwhile customs controls mean expensive carnets and CITES inspections. It is going to make the poor tour manager’s job significantly harder.

So, with this as the backdrop, it’s not surprising that the theme of this year’s ABO Conference is ‘Aftershock’. Like our members, we are going digital, offering the classical music industry the chance to hear from colleagues in the UK and abroad, and from the next generation of leaders, to reflect on the many shocks that we have been through, and look ahead to a more positive future.

But it is not just about Covid and Brexit. There has been another global shock, namely the Black Lives Matter movement. The UK’s orchestras have agonised for many years over the lack of diversity in both the workforce and the audience. But very little progress has been made. BLM has reinforced the need for action now. Systemic biases have to be eliminated, and new approaches to inclusion implemented, to ensure that orchestras genuinely reflect the communities they serve.

We still don’t know how long the pandemic will last, nor what the long-term damage of Brexit will be. But the UK’s orchestras have weathered crises before. As long as the government provides sufficient support, and we adapt to a new landscape, we can rebuild, and forge a bright future.


The ABO conference will be held online from 10-12 March 2021. For more information visit https://abo.org.uk/what-we-do/connecting/abo-annual-conference