By Dan West
My relationship with the UK Musicians Union has been strangely intertwined with my experience working at Phantom of the Opera in London’s West End. Way back in 2010 I met the original Phantom bass trombonist, Richard Wall, on my first patch of work on trial with English National Opera. Richard kindly asked me to sit in at Phantom one day after a rehearsal for Bluebeard’s Castle & I nearly bit his arm off. Depping on the show was contingent on one thing though: I had to join the Musicians Union. Rick passionately explained to me that, although the MU was far less than ideal, it was the “best we’ve got”. Fast forward a decade and I find myself sharing the same opinion.
I had been hesitant to join the MU at that stage of my career because, speaking frankly, it seemed completely powerless – especially compared to the unions I had been accustomed to while working in North America. As a young professional I was a member of 2 different ‘Locals’ of the American Federation of Musicians (in Canada & in Texas). Any work I undertook with professional orchestras in North America was contingent on being a paid-up union member. The AFM has the power to ‘blacklist’ players who undertake work for fees below union rates or players who take on work from blacklisted, undercutting contractors. It has the power to sanction & punish orchestras and contractors whose practices harm the the music industry in general, or whose working conditions are harmful to musicians health & well being. Musicians, orchestras & contractors in North America respect the AFM; they fear the consequences of falling foul of the American equivalent of the MU. When faced with the prospect of joining the British union I genuinely couldn’t see the point. That is, until Phantom’s then-trombonist more-or-less forced me to.
For years I was a member without ever really seeing much of a benefit (except for the infamous paper diary which arrived through the post annually). I suppose I was lucky that I didn’t really need them. I used some of the template contracts on their website to ensure some work with bands & pop musicians was paid at a fair rate. I noticed early on that the Union exists to protect the most minimal, very basic lowest- common-denominator type fees.
It wasn’t until I became Phantom’s full-time bass trombonist that I became painfully aware of the MU’s shortcomings. In 2015, having successfully deputised on Phantom for a few years, I was sounded out as a possible replacement for Richard should he decide to retire from the show (and, after an impressive 27 year tenure, he did). I was subsequently booked for a month’s worth of shows as a ‘trial’ of sorts. Having just welcomed my first child into the world early that year, the prospect of steady employment was very appealing to me. After this extensive audition I was offered the job in April 2015, but I was informed by Phantom’s then-fixer that ‘they’ (I presumed he was referring to Cameron Mackintosh LTD, Phantom’s producers) did not wish to pay me what my predecessor was paid. They wanted to pay me a full £9 less per show than I was paid while I depped on the show, a pay decrease which amounted to well over £4,000 over the course of a year. I was dismayed. I did not formally accept the position & I asked them to wait while I spoke to the Musicians Union. The fixer laughed at my prospects: “what are they going to do about it?”. I spoke to the London Regional Organiser at the time and called some other contacts within the hierarchy of the MU immediately after the offer & they put me in contact with the MU’s ‘Chief Negotiating Officer’. Well, I say they ‘put me in contact’ but I rang the officer several times & only received a return phone call after a full 10 days had passed. The officer was not very helpful unfortunately, telling me how ‘unlucky’ I was. In the end the officer’s only advice was that I had 2 options: take the job on the terms offered or tell them ‘where they can shove it’. In retrospect perhaps this was actually a recommended negotiating tactic, but with 2 other players officially ‘on trial’ for the show – and a newfound awareness of the shortcomings of my trade union – I couldn’t afford to risk this steady employment for the sake of my young family. In the end I was placed on the payroll at the lower fee & added to the orchestra list without actually formally accepting the position. I was advised by the London Regional Organiser some months later to sign a contract, in the interest of protecting my right to any future severance pay.
When the Phantom fixer was trying to ‘pitch’ me this pay decrease he mentioned that West End musicians were all due a massive pay rise that autumn. As laws involving National Insurance were changed by the Coalition government in 2014, employers were now not required to make contributions on behalf of their self employed ‘entertainer’ workforce. This meant that producers in the West End were quids in, saving a whopping 13.8% in Employers National Insurance. The MU had been locked into negotiations with the Society of London Theatres (SOLT) for a pay rise on those grounds for 3 years and Phantom’s fixer expected the 13.8% to be translated straight to the entertainers’ payslips. With that pay rise I could apparently expect to be earning nearly as much as my predecessor by that October.
In December 2015 the MU called a meeting to update West End musicians on the progress of their delayed negotiations with SOLT. Here we were each given a handout of the proposed changes to the SOLT/MU agreement. Despite the absolutely enormous 13.8% real terms savings our employers were receiving in National Insurance contributions, the best they could offer was an 8.4% pay rise, spread out over 3 years. At the time this was roughly in line with the rate of inflation and equated to a real terms pay freeze in my eyes. This offer was contingent upon us all accepting five A4 sheets worth of alterations to our working conditions. Suffice to say, the musicians congregated there were unamused, despite the fact there was bold typeface at the top of the first page stating ‘These changes will not apply to existing shows’. Included in this erosion of conditions was the abolition of ‘quadrupling’; players who were asked to play 4 or more different instruments in their show were to have their pay capped at a ‘trebling’ fee. A trial period of the controversial ‘Small Theatres Agreement’ – which was never balloted by the membership & which was not popular even as a ‘trial’ – was here proposed to be officially entrenched as a permanent feature of the SOLT/MU agreement, and the bulk of the meeting was devoted to angry musicians responding in no uncertain terms to these outrageous and unnecessary concessions. A very prominent senior MU official arrived to address the gathered union members. We heard boasts that the MU negotiators had SOLT ‘over a barrel’ due to their ‘lacklustre organisation’ (you can imagine the guffaws from the congregation). The delay in negotiating the agreement (3 years at that stage) was blamed entirely on SOLT. It was believed we could get a better deal. The plan was to put this deal to ballot and, should the membership reject it, they would return to SOLT emboldened to negotiate a deal which better suited the membership. Of course we would find out a few months later that – somehow – 57% of the membership had voted in favour of this unfavourable agreement & all the changes were to be permanent. This was a huge surprise to me as I did not expect any of the musicians in attendance at that meeting to vote in favour of the alterations for such a meagre pay rise. I suppose the only thing some people needed to see was ‘pay rise’ and they voted yes. At what cost though?
A few months later I was confronted by Phantom’s fixer about my ‘depping quota’ as I tried to be released from a few shows so I could take on some trial dates with the Philharmonia Orchestra. I was treated to a vintage bollocking despite the fact I had a dep ratio well over 50% (which is the percentage which was contractually expected of West End musicians when I originally joined the Phantom pit). Unbeknownst to me, included in these new alterations to our agreement was a stipulation – applying to all shows & not just new productions – that musicians could not dep out more than 40% of the shows. In the December meeting it had not been discussed at all, and in the literature which was handed out at that meeting (which I distinctly remember reading as “These changes will not apply to existing shows”) the change to our depping quota was not in a prominent position. I double checked the copy of the proposed changes which had been posted with the ballot slip some months after the meeting and noticed the wording was now: ‘Most of the proposed changes would only apply where indicated to new shows…’ and near the end of the section detailing proposed changes was this drastic change to my working conditions, voted through by 57% of those who returned ballots. It read as follows:
Appendix 3: Code of Conduct for the Use of Deputies
SOLT have proposed the percentage of allowable depping in a 26 week period should reduce from 50% to 40%. This quota excludes time off for sickness or holidays.
It was still unclear to me whether this was one of the changes which applied only to new productions, so I contacted the acting London Regional Organiser at the time. I was dismayed to hear back that this change did indeed apply to all shows: we were now expected to do 60% of the performances (rather than 50%). Apparently SOLT wanted an 80/20 ratio & this was the best the MU could negotiate for us. From reading the literature which accompanied the ballot none of my colleagues in the band, including our Union Steward (who was usually very keen to push the MU’s agenda on the band members) believed that the 60/40 ratio applied to us. After exchanging emails with the Regional Organiser I finally made it clear that I believed this was badly mishandled and I asked for final definitive clarification of this issue which was very important to me, but they never replied and we carried on working with this unfavourable new condition in our contracts. As a player with an active freelance career that extra 10% would equate to years of headaches trying to keep Phantom happy whilst balancing outside commitments. I would be constantly reminded by the fixer that Phantom was my ‘full-time job’ (despite us being officially classed as self employed) and that my full devotion & commitment was required as it was ‘such a great job which I should be grateful for’. I was consistently pressured to scale back my outside commitments in order to do more shows, and to some extent I did as I was asked, turning down many wonderful opportunities. However I’m glad I kept a few plates spinning considering the events which later transpired. Having a freelance career to fall back on may prove to be my saving grace, where some of my colleagues fully committed to Phantom & could now find themselves building a new base of employment ‘from scratch’ in this uncertain time. Perhaps if the ‘loyalty’ I had been asked to provide were paid back in kind I would have done as they asked & minimised my time off, but I could feel which way the wind was blowing long before Cameron Mackintosh LTD released us from our contracts in 2020.
When the pandemic hit it blindsided everyone. As the confusion dissipated after the first few weeks of lockdown it became clear that the orchestra at Phantom were going to receive no support from our employers. Since we were classed as self employed we were not eligible for the furlough scheme, and I was one of a few members of the band whose income exceeded the £50,000 annual earnings cap that made me ineligible for the Self Employed Income Support Scheme. Despite the financial hardship there was effectively nothing done to help West End musicians through the pandemic; without the infrastructure and activist base to run effective campaigns, the MU was utterly toothless & had no power to compel our employers or even the government to help us get by. I received a total of £300 through the MU hardship fund thankfully – a small but welcome relief. Eventually word came through that the producers would consider paying us a portion of any severance pay which we may have accrued – money we would be due to receive in the future should the show close. In the end that was unnecessary because the show decided to sack us anyway.
In June 2020 the entire company for Phantom was summoned to an online Zoom meeting where we were all ‘released from our contractual obligations’. The theatre was to be completely refurbished & they couldn’t put a timeline to the work, or so they claimed. Despite the trauma of seeing 140 colleagues’ (actors, backstage crew, fellow musicians) shock and sadness over the medium of Zoom, a small part of me felt relief at the knowledge that I had just squeaked over the 5 years of continuous employment which I needed to trigger a ‘redundancy’ compensation payment. In the end this was a modest sum but it was a lifeline at that stage of the pandemic & it meant my family could survive for a few more months. At last a bit of ‘luck’. But many of my colleagues weren’t so lucky when it came to the MU and Cameron Mackintosh LTD’s differing calculations of what they were owed.
In the weeks after our Zoom ‘sacking’ the MU calculated what each player was owed in compensation for the termination of our contracts. These calculations were then passed on to our Union Steward who relayed them to each individual player. The terms of our ‘redundancy’ fee (an inaccurate term in our agreement since the self employed cannot be made redundant – only those classed as ‘employees’ can be made redundant) is outlined in the SOLT/MU agreement as roughly a week’s pay per year of continuous employment on the same production. Anyone over the age of 41 would get 1.5 weeks pay. Some of my colleagues at Phantom had been there since the very start, so they expected 33 years worth of compensation at a rate of 1.5 weeks pay per year. The figures provided by the MU matched this amount & my colleagues expected a fairly handsome reward for their years of loyalty to this storied West End production. Unfortunately, when the money came through from Cameron Mackintosh LTD these payments were capped at 20 years. Despite there being no such cap in the SOLT/MU agreement, the producers delved into state employment law with regards to redundancy and ‘capped’ our termination compensation at 20 years, cheating several players out of the better part of £20,000. In some cases the players received half of what they were expecting. The MU rolled over and played dead; they apologised to us for the confusion & distress caused by initially giving us the original – and in my view probably correct – calculations. Producers were required by law to save for the compensation their employees would have accrued over the decades-long run of the show (for in the event of the show closing they had to guarantee that they could afford to pay their ‘self employed’ employees what they were owed in compensation, according to our agreement). They had been sitting on this money for years so I presume this fortune saved by inventing a 20 year cap on compensation – hundreds of thousands of pounds – was pocketed by the producers. Prior to this there had been some hope in our ranks that the MU would negotiate us an ‘enhanced’ redundancy, as they had done for previous long-running shows that were forced to close in more traditional circumstances. In the end the producers were able to use opportunity presented by the global pandemic to relieve us of our duties and found a way to save hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation without as much as a whimper from the MU. Devoting decades of a career to working for one employer at the cost of so many other opportunities; so many evenings & weekends which could have been spent with loved ones and the compensation was the bare minimum – and in many cases significantly less than even that.
There are other looming questions about the way the original Phantom orchestra was sacked: it had been my understanding that producers were not allowed to bring the same production of the same show into the same theatre with a reduced orchestration. Perhaps this was just ‘West End folklore’, but news that Phantom would return to Her Majesty’s Theatre prompted speculation that the production might return with its full orchestra. Lloyd Webber took to his social media page repeatedly in 2020 to promise that Phantom would return in its original form, though rumours persisted that Cameron Mackintosh was insistent on the 14-piece touring orchestration being used in the West End – a reduction by 13 players. The MU informed the Phantom band that they had consulted their solicitors who informed them that it would not be ‘worth pursuing’. Not be worth pursuing for whom?
The MU consistently demonstrates its allegiances to West End producers & has no qualms to admit it freely. I have listened to officials at the Union explain how they want West End producers to ‘make as much money as possible’, because in their – frankly naive – view this will somehow translate to more opportunities for employment across the theatres. Are the MU the only ‘trade union’ in the world who believe in ‘Trickledown Economics’? This misguided perception that greedy billionaires will invest in a workforce of musicians is being made a mockery of by Cameron Mackintosh & Andrew Lloyd Webber. The former took to the national print media to proclaim that he is ‘not the Civil Service’ (whatever that’s supposed to mean) and how he doesn’t understand why musicians would want to ‘do the same thing night after night, year after year’ (perhaps because we were contracted to you to do so, sir, and after many years off the freelance scene our outside options – which we were actively discouraged from pursuing – have become limited?). Lloyd Webber proclaimed, dubiously, that his 14-piece reduced orchestration is actually an improvement due to “Today’s technology [which] enables excellent replication of sounds, especially woodwind and brass…”. This is a belief that is not widely shared across the industry, and judging by the reviews of this orchestration after its debut in Leicester last year – many of which which slated the ‘orchestra’ as sounding ‘too plastic’ – I suspect many theatre-going fans of the show will be disappointed to hear such a lifeless interpretation of his iconic score. When faced with the two most successful & wealthy producers in the West End essentially declaring war on live musicians in the national press, where are the MU? As of today the only response to this dreadful turn of events from the MU was a comment by our current General Secretary to the national print media, the MU was “sad & disappointed” to hear of the decision to reduce Phantom’s orchestration. This is an existential threat to musicians’ livelihoods in the West End, coming from the top of the ‘food chain’, and the best the MU can muster is that flaccid statement? A far more powerful statement was made by President of the American Federation of Musicians’ Local 802 (New York):
“The professional Broadway musicians of NYC are troubled by the downsizing of musicians in London’s West End. Producers who take advantage of a worldwide pandemic in order to cut live music are cheapening their productions and robbing the audience of the full experience of musical theatre. As we emerge from the pandemic, industry leaders in powerful positions must remember the devastating impact the pandemic has had on musicians and other arts workers, many of whom have lost all income and healthcare for the last 13 months. There is a moral, ethical, and artistic imperative to ensure that those workers are protected as they go back to work. NYC is the arts capital of the world and sustains a theatre community that values arts and culture. We must support those who make possible the musical theatre experience that we love.”
The Theatre Music Association of the American Federation of Musicians responded directly to the comments attributed to Cameron Mackintosh in the press:
“Theatre Musicians Association – TMA condemns in the strongest possible terms the disgraceful, callous remarks made by Sir Cameron Mackintosh in an attempt to defend his mercenary decision to reduce the West End Phantom of the Opera orchestra from 27 to 14 musicians. The assertion that Sir Mackintosh is “creating art” by slashing the orchestra is absurd. This decision has nothing to do with art and everything to do with profit – profit generated at the expense of musicians whose artistry is integral to realizing the beauty of the score and the success of the show. These actions demonstrate his belief that he can reduce the quality of production’s orchestra without fear of reprisal from the ticket-buying public, knowing full well that people will not pay full price to see half the cast or half the set. We urge Sir Mackintosh to apologize for his remarks and reinstate these musicians to the orchestra.”
The AFM in New York have agreements in place that certain sized theatres must employ a certain number of musicians. This creates a tangible safeguard against automation & a massive downsizing of orchestras in theatre. What is stopping the British Musicians Union from running campaigns aiming towards similar agreements? Even if such campaigns were ineffective, what is stopping our union representatives, who I pay well over £200/year to represent me, from making a powerful & compelling statement of condemnation such as those examples given above? It is past time that the MU begins to emulate their American counterpart’s resolve and determination to ensure that every musician’s job & working conditions are defended at all times, no matter which wealthy producer is attempting to shift the goalposts. Allowing this steady decline in real terms fees and conditions has effectively kick-started the ‘race to the bottom’ which Union officials threatened would happen should the SOLT/MU agreement ever be torn up. There is more resolve amongst the membership than the officials at the top of the MU hierarchy realise; many passionate musicians would go to great lengths to stand up to greedy producers who threaten our jobs and working conditions. Imagine ‘Musical Theatre’ without any music? Would Phantom have grossed its gobsmacking £6+ billion of global revenue without the lush sound of a 27 piece orchestra underpinning the drama for decades on end?
Indeed it is sad & disappointing to acknowledge that standards have already been allowed to slip so far. In the negotiations for a pandemic ‘variance’ to the MU/SOLT agreement our trusty union representatives managed to negotiate away the only safeguard which ensured West End workers could enjoy some semblance of family normality. In the standard agreement producers must pay musicians a double fee if they want them to work on a Sunday. Considering every production would normally have 2 shows on a Saturday this ensures people can have a bit of a life & see their children & loved ones, whose more traditional daytime schedules aren’t ideally suited to a pit musician’s evening and weekend working schedule. Producers have been gunning for that Sunday fee in all of our negotiations for many years & it has been an issue on which the membership has stood firm. Scheduling shows on a Sunday was discouraged by the required expense, though some producers chose to put shows on a Sunday anyway, and musicians could choose to take on that engagement (in some cases sacrificing their Sunday for this lucrative work). Using the opportunity & desperation presented by the pandemic the producers insisted, & the MU encouraged the membership to accept this ‘temporary’ (though indefinite & likely-to-become permanent) alteration to our working conditions. In a meeting with MU members who had rejected the variance agreement in its first ballot the top officials in the Union did everything in their power to ‘sell’ this terrible erosion of our working conditions. They used fear tactics – claiming that if we did not agree to this variance the SOLT/MU agreement would be null and void. They divided us by trying to vilify musicians who already worked in shows with Sunday performances – you know, the ones who this change was guaranteed to affect the most. They even had a few members from the ‘congregation’ – people who behaved in a suspiciously peculiar way – pipe up with statements which sounded almost scripted in favour of voting through these very unfavourable alterations to our agreement. Of course this unconventional ‘3-line-whip’ approach eventually worked, the variance agreement was finally approved after the first ballot was rejected, and many shows – including the new Phantom production – are now scheduled to have Sunday performances when the West End reopens after the pandemic.
A job as a musician in the West End has become less viable for people with families, but this suits producers who increasingly court younger players with less experience & less knowledge of historical working conditions. Players who are just grateful to be asked will fear the consequences of taking a hard line defending their working conditions because they know there is no firm support from the MU. The union are as culpable for slipping standards in the West End as the most bean-counting, profit-at-all-costs producers are. We will all feel the squeeze as international theatre critics & fans ‘vote with their feet’, noticing that West End productions are cheaper & less vibrant cousins to the equivalent productions on Broadway in New York. With equivalent & in some cases inflated ticket prices, why would a tourist or ‘phan’ of Phantom of the Opera travel to London when they could hear the original production in New York with a brilliant 29-piece orchestra? In the quest to lower their overheads these producers risk lowering the standard of the whole of the West End. I believe it is our duty to protect not only our livelihoods but also the standard of the product which we are contracted to provide for the theatregoing public.
Musicians working in the West End today are largely unaware of the struggles which their predecessors undertook (particularly in the 80s) which helped make fees and conditions decent in the first place. These improved fees & conditions lured better & better talent to work in the orchestra pits & once made the West End something to be proud of. Now, as the wealthiest producers spearhead a movement to erode these fees, erode working conditions, erode the quality of orchestrations & automate countless chairs which once provided lucrative employment for musicians & their families, we need an MU with the resolve and the strength to fight the battles which need to be fought. We need officials who are willing to take a stand to preserve our fees and working conditions, and who aren’t primarily concerned about creating profit for producers’ in the naive hope that this will generate more work for musicians.
The MU is conspicuously quiet on all these fronts, and though the temptation to leave is great, ‘they’re the best we’ve got’ (as my Phantom trombone predecessor Rick sagely informed me a decade ago) but must be drastically reformed from top to bottom if we are to have any semblance of a ‘music industry’ as we emerge from this awful pandemic.