Silent Treatment

Musicians’ ‘darkest hour’ has exposed the fragility of their working terms, writes Matthew Schellhorn.
Liturgical musicians need prayers. Many are unable to work during the pandemic – and the nature of their working conditions makes them especially vulnerable.

For those with fixed employment contracts – cathedral musicians, for instance – there is government support. But freelancers are in a more difficult position. Along with money worries, many are distressed by a breakdown of communication with the churches where they have been working, and where they have found a kind of second home. The consequences could last well beyond the pandemic.

Lawrence is an experienced singer with a regular job in a Central London church where he has served for a decade. Some clients, he says, “have not been in contact at all – no contact whatsoever”. “Just a show of solidarity would be appreciated. It feels like we are not valued.” In some cases, choir directors have done little to represent musicians’ needs to the contract holder. “Choir members have been led into unclear and complicated conversations by clergy who do not seem down-to-earth and sensitive to our welfare,” says Lawrence.

Technology has provided an answer in many sectors, but not all churches have engaged with offers to pursue creative ideas – especially after the government offered graded income support to some freelancers.

“Church authorities lost interest in helping out,” says Arabella, a singer who has seen her regular work disappear. She is “lucky” that her husband is in stable employment. But musicians are being cold-shouldered, she says, with some churches broadcasting archive music for their online services instead of considering live online solutions.

Other churches have acted quickly to support their musicians. Rebecca, a prize-winning vocalist, is now “very unemployed”; her husband, also a trained musician, has taken on shifts as a delivery driver. In her case, churches have treated her well, interpreting agreements “generously”.

“With a demographic that is elderly, we were told online services would not be appropriate, but we are being paid fees despite the fact the church collection must be down,” she said. “But I have concerns about what the future looks like in a church that will have suffered financially. I wonder what we are coming back to.”

Some fear that the pandemic will become a pretext to slim down liturgical provision permanently. Shelly, a choir director, offered several creative solutions to the lockdown, including online music provision. Instead, the parish priest ended the contract. With mouths to feed and real concern about finding similar work in the future, Shelly is considering legal action.

At this highly unusual time, bodies such as the Incorporated Society of Musicians are not only at the front line of protecting the contractual rights of professional musicians, but also campaigning for an increased understanding of their work.

Their Chief Executive, Deborah Annetts, has written to the Chancellor to outline the plight of musicians. “In our long history, which spans two world wars, we have never seen the professional suffering in the way they are now,” Annetts says. “Freelance musicians including musicians who work in a church setting have lost virtually all of their work overnight.”

The Musicians’ Union states that “the music industry is currently facing its darkest hour”. In a survey of 1,459 of its members, 38 per cent said they could not access Government support; 19 per. cent were considering abandoning music altogether.

There are several reasons why the music industry requires a special package of measures. Many musicians work as casual hourly-paid workers and have been told they are not eligible for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, or their income is jointly employed and self-employed but in the “wrong” ratio to make them eligible for the self-employed scheme. A recent letter, signed by 50 members of the House of Lords, has urged the Government to provide robust financial support to music and the performing arts, which now “face ruin”.

One company director says: “I feel I have a moral duty to try to safeguard musicians’ work opportunities as much as possible but sadly my only option is to furlough myself. That means I cannot maintain my music business. It is unfair that in my situation I am treated differently to the self-employed, because after all there will be no work to come back to if company directors cannot work in the meantime.”

There could, though, be a silver lining to this very dark cloud. In his Letter to Artists, Pope St John Paul II wrote that the Church “needs musicians”, and, when churches open again, musicians will expect a fairer working environment.

While a system persists where few liturgical musicians have written contracts, where they are engaged on an ad hoc basis with no recourse for cancelled work, no control over the fees they are paid, and little to no representation in the churches they serve, an end to lockdown will not be an end to an endemic problem. After this cataclysmic episode, along with an increased awareness of how technology can serve liturgical music, hopefully we shall emerge with fairer working terms.

Some names have been changed.

This article was published in
The Catholic Herald in May 2020