THE musicians of the Scottish Opera orchestra should take a bow.
Two years ago, when the 50-plus members of the orchestra were forced to accept part-time contracts by the company as it struggled to balance its books, many commentators, including this newspaper, warned that the arrangement was not sustainable.
It could not be assumed that talented musicians, who have spent many years training and practising, could survive on 28 weeks' guaranteed work a year. Nor in the present climate could they be expected to be able to make up their salaries through teaching and freelance work. The players would begin to drift away from Scotland or from music.
That is exactly what has happened. Though the orchestra has been able to get around 33 weeks' work a year from Scottish Opera, today some of those players from two years ago are fully employed in England and Wales and others are no longer full-time musicians.
To prevent a further haemorrhage of talent, the surviving musicians have come up with a novel solution: they have formed themselves into a players' co-operative. From now on Music Co-operative Scotland, as they have branded themselves, will be pooling their marketing power and touting for every sort of musical business, from soloists for weddings or string quartets for exhibition openings to fully-fledged foreign tours. Income will be ploughed back into the co-op or distributed as dividends.
Necessity is the mother of both invention and empowerment. The uncertainty generated by the economic crisis is forcing many companies and organisations to look at how they can reinvent themselves and come up with new ways of working. While old-style, top-down bodies tend to respond to the downturn by successive cuts that breed resentment in the surviving workforce, there is a new breed of company that puts its "internal customers" (its workers) first, motivating them to perform. Literally so in this case. The best-known example may be the John Lewis Partnership, with its 69,000 "partners" but Scotland already boasts nearly 600 co-operatives with a combined annual turnover of more than £4bn, including papermaker Tullis Russell and investment managers Martin Currie. Research from the Cass Business School suggests such companies are better at weathering recessions.
Against the backdrop of the row over Creative Scotland abandoning fixed-term funding in favour of a project-based approach for nearly 50 arts bodies, a pan-arts resistance movement is beginning to emerge. The Co-op template does not fit all organisations but it has already proved a success for other orchestras, including the London-based Royal Philharmonic. Music Co-operative Scotland are playing an overture that other threatened arts organisations could play along with.
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