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We won’t sing for our supper: wages only

Musicians fought back and won after being asked to work for free — plus a picnic hamper — at a ticketed ‘champagne and oysters’ event in Northamptonshire, writes MOSSY CHRISTIAN

TIMES are hard for professional musicians. With almost no live work for over a year, many are in dire financial straits.

Figures released by the Musicians’ Union revealed that as many as 1 in 3 musicians are considering leaving the industry, with 47 per cent having already taken jobs outside the music industry.

Events were brought to a head recently when a country house in Northamptonshire appeared to ask “competent” musicians to work for free.

In the since-deleted post, Lamport Hall asked musicians who might be “rusty after lockdown” to perform for free as part of a ticketed event.

“We are looking for competent musicians to perform as background music at The Walled Garden Feast,” the post read. “All styles of music considered and a picnic hamper will be provided to all performers.”

Tickets for the event are far from free, however, with the hire of an igloo for the evening being priced at £60 and attendees encouraged to “enjoy the champagne and oyster bars.”

The post angered many on social media, with people quick to point out the double standards from Lamport Hall, who just that week had received £20,800 from the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund.

According to the Heritage Fund website this funding should, amongst other things, be used for “hiring staff and freelancers, therefore supporting the wider ecosystem of the heritage sector.”

“That funding was supposed to trickle down to artists who have been without live work for over a year,” said John Spires, a professional musician from Oxfordshire.

Tom Kitching, also a professional musician and author of Seasons of Change: Busking England, believes this crisis originated before the pandemic.

“The broader issue has nothing to do with the pandemic and that’s the key thing here. The real issue is getting people to understand that music is work. Anything else at an event like this would have to be paid for and the idea that music should be given for free is an ongoing problem that we all face.”

Built in 1568, the house is cared for by Lamport Hall Preservation Trust Ltd, who have reserves of over £27m.

Writing about the amount held in reserves by the trust Spires commented: “Unbelievable! I mean… I know it’s for the upkeep of the house and grounds, but it really highlights the meanness of trying to exploit musicians from an organisation which is clearly not in as much trouble as we are!”

But Mark Herrod, executive director of Lamport Hall, defended the amount, explaining: “Yes, it might seem like a large amount of money, but it’s by no means liquid cash. Represented in that figure are the assets of the Hall itself and the surrounding land.”

Many demanded an apology for the original post, but rather than oblige, Lamport Hall suspended their entire social media presence.

This action was later justified as being in response to “personal and abusive messages directed at members of staff.”

A short time later it reappeared, along with a short statement described by John Spires as: “An unapologetic doubling down, causing almost more of an insult than the initial offence.”

On April 9, almost a month after the incident originated, Lamport Hall finally issued an official statement of apology, in which they described their initial response as “a rushed attempt to issue what we felt was a genuine apology.”

“We fully understand and regret the distress that this has caused. We’re committed to putting things right properly and taking forward the lessons we’ve learned.”

They also promised to provide a venue free of charge to enable the charity Help Musicians to hold a fundraising event, should they wish. It was also announced that the services of two professional musicians had been engaged at Musicians’ Union rates, to perform at the original event in question.

This final statement has been warmly welcomed by the affected community, many of whom had previously reacted fiercely.

Spires told the Morning Star: “I think this is a really satisfactory conclusion. This is ultimately a ‘good news story’ and shows that it’s worth making a fuss if it’s clear something isn’t right, especially when it comes to your rights as a worker in a particular industry.

“Lamport Hall should be applauded. It’s not very fashionable to do a complete U-turn and say sorry, we got it wrong, but ultimately sometimes that’s the right thing to do.”

“That’s more like it,” praised Kitching. “Thank you. And well done to the Musicians’ Union for your work here.

“For a fraction of the overall cost of staging the event, Lamport Hall will receive high-quality performances, professional musicians will receive good MU rates and everyone’s a winner.”

Professional musician and vice-president of the English Folk Dance & Song Society Eliza Carthy agreed: “Thanks so much and well done. I can’t tell you how deeply it’s appreciated.”

Perhaps this story will turn out ultimately to be a happy one, with lessons learnt on the part of Lamport Hall and many musicians pleased to make amends and move forward.

This episode is an example of both formerly what not to do and then latterly what to do in order to secure a resolution of events that is satisfactory to all involved.

Mossy Christian is a professional musician and dancer specialising in the musical traditions of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire — nicksites.net/mossy.

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