Can the BBC really afford to disband the BBC Singers?

Is this pushing one-off projects at the expense of longterm quality?

As regards the proposed demise of the BBC Singers, I am not one to jump straight on the bandwagon of ‘Oh, how terrible this is’, without actually reading the blurb from the BBC to discover what the rationale of this move is. Now that I have read it, I am not at all convinced by their statement. There are 5 bullet points contained therein, as follows:

• 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%.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• 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.

The idea of distributing the BBC services more widely across the country seems all very well in principal, but this is only good if it can lead to something lasting that can have a positive influence on the wider community. Yes, the BBC Singers are based in London, but they are working for TV (!) Such a group has to be based somewhere, and the idea of distributing their skills (or budget) across the nation is ridiculous. The ‘agile ensembles that can work flexibly and creatively’ is a very nebulous proposal; it may indeed lead to some good projects, but I am not sure how you are going to do this if you have sacked 20% of your salaried musicians. The reduction of salaried musicians seems at odds with the promise to ‘reinforce the distinctiveness of the BBC’s five unique orchestras’.

Furthermore, I fail to see what the actual content of the aforementioned bullet points is. They are all positive statements proposing good things, but there is no concrete indication at all of what the saved money will now be spent on … except, I suspect, producing this kind of spin of self justification for the actions being taken. I suspect there will be a number of doomed one-off projects, which will have some impact in the short term, but the supply of these will eventually dwindle to nothing until it can be phased out completely. Then, something unique will have been lost forever.

Point 3 promises to double the funding for music education and provide opportunities for young people to engage with classical music, building audiences and creating extraordinary experiences; surely this is a significant part of what the BBC Singers is all about? And if not, why not just make some adjustments to their remit rather than get rid of them?

For about 25 years, I have been involved in running and directing our local Malvern Big Band and playing in our local Chandos Symphony Orchestra. I do know about the impact such local groups have on the community at large and why their longevity is important. If a group exists in the longterm, it becomes recognised for its quality and is something for people to appreciate and/or aspire to. One-off projects can be fun, but they do not have the same impact on our quality of life as something that exists for a long time, something that many, many people can experience across different generations, such as the BBC Singers. The BBC Singers are an ensemble that both my grandparents and grandchildren have experienced and without such things, our society is poorer.

Come on, BBC, 20 singers and a few admin staff could be paid for with the salary of one of your top presenters (£1.35m) and you would still have plenty left over! Such people are rightly recognised for the quality they bring, but the amounts that some individuals are paid compared with some of our finest musicians is nonsensical. If the BBC really wants to gain the respect of the nation and engage people more widely, it could start by narrowing the pay gap. And if those top presenters decide to take their services elsewhere, I am pretty sure we could replace them with some real quality without any problem for far less money (the Strategy refers to the financial challenges of our time).

Lastly, I take issue with the idea that disbanding the BBC Singers will allow the BBC to ‘invest more widely in the future of choral singing across the UK’. If you are really serious about inspiring choral singing across the UK, the one thing you need as part of that strategy is a top flight choral group for other singers to aspire to.

Thank you for reading (if you got this far!); this is not meant to be an exhaustive commentary on all the reasons why we should keep the BBC Singers, nor do I think that such a group is inherently indispensable. I do not completely dismiss all the points in the BBC’s new strategy for classical music, either. But, I do think that getting rid of the BBC Singers is a bad move and will, ultimately, harm the reputation of the BBC internationally, as well as causing a problem (including having financial ramifications) for the many ensembles the Singers regularly work with.

Mike Halliday

Mike is a UK-based clarinet and saxophone specialist and founder of this site. When not out performing, he is usually at the computer composing, arranging, or engraving and editing music.