‘It’s quite a battle to get on the shortlist’

Sixty percent of people working in the cultural sector are self-employed. EMBRACE musician and oboist Kim Bosch is one of them. She works as a freelancer with various Dutch orchestras and gives oboe lessons. A few weeks ago Kim posted a message on Facebook about the workman who came to repair her roof. She discovered something remarkable while studying the bill. Kim: “Call-out costs alone were higher than the payment I was recently offered as an oboist in a choral accompaniment orchestra.” How do you manage as a music freelancer and why are the rates so low? We talked to Kim to find out more.

You graduated from the Conservatory and then did a Masters degree in New Audiences and Innovative Practice. When you started your career you began as a self-employed musician. Was that what you had in mind when you went to the Conservatory?

I never really thought about that beforehand. Working with music is just my passion. I do a lot of different things and enjoy them too. I very deliberately trained as a teacher as well. In addition to my work as a freelancer, I also have a part-time job at the Concertgebouw, where, as part of an education programme, I coach primary school teachers to use music more in the classroom. That gives me some security. Most musicians do not choose to be self-employed, they are forced to be so.

The call-out costs for the roofer were higher than your daily allowance as an oboist in an orchestra. Exactly how low is that payment?

For that orchestral assignment I had to go to The Hague, it lasted for several days, but it wasn’t possible to stay there overnight. I had to pay the travel expenses myself. And of course I also have to prepare and I have my direct costs. If I add everything together, I come to about twenty euros gross per hour. Travel costs are included in that amount. And that doesn’t take things like pension accrual and health insurance into account.

But there is a Fair Practice Code, right? Doesn’t it work?

Large orchestras affiliated to the Union of Orchestras adhere to the collective labour agreement and organisations with an ANBI status pay freelancers a lot better. But music associations that want to hire a teacher, or musicians for a choral accompaniment orchestra, do not stick to them at all.

 You also work for EMBRACE Nederland, can you tell us about it?

During my studies in Groningen, I followed the Masters’ Module “Music and Healthcare” at the Prince Claus Conservatoire in Groningen. That’s how I got involved in the “Music and Dementia” workshops. By improvising we can reach out to people with forms of dementia. Music connects in a lovely, irresistible way. Reaching people with dementia through music is something very pure and emotional for me. The participants sometimes seem so far away in their heads, but by getting involved and listening to music made specially for them, they sometimes seem to wake up, to be able to be in the here and now again.

Due to Corona, the Music and Dementia workshops are of course now on hold.

That’s right. Because of this I unfortunately couldn’t do any workshops after my training. I had just been asked to participate in workshops in Rotterdam and Tilburg. But then Corona came along. It was also financially disappointing, because of course I was already sort of counting on the income. It was nice to be able to turn to EMBRACE if you got into financial difficulties. Luckily this wasn’t necessary for me, but the thought was reassuring.

How difficult is it to get good jobs with the large orchestras?

Very difficult. Orchestras sometimes ask for substitutes, which are much sought after jobs for music freelancers. It pays better, but the number of candidates is huge. Everyone wants to be on the shortlist of people who get called when someone drops out. So you can get assigned to, for example, a choral accompaniment orchestra. And the extraordinary thing is: you meet musicians there who already have a job with a large orchestra. They do this not for the tip, but for fun. Whilst we have to live from it.

 What do you think is a reasonable payment?

You can’t really set a fixed amount to culture, it’s part of human development. The fact that many people in the cultural sector are paid so badly may have something to do with the low value we attach to culture. Although I have seen an improvement in this over recent years. And as a sector, culture in the Netherlands is also very dependent on the government. In the US you see much more company sponsorship. Maybe we can learn something from that in the Netherlands.

Sixty percent of the cultural sector consists of freelancers. Isn’t it an idea to go on strike?

That could be useful once this Corona period is over. I do think we accept too much. A music association may have a small budget, but it’s taken for granted that we’ll work for next to nothing. If I get the minimum wage I won’t buy a Mercedes. I just can’t afford that. But in reality, as freelance musicians, we actually sustain this system ourselves. The fact that so many cultural sector freelancers, en masse, have to turn to the government now for help also says something.

How difficult is this Corona period for you?

Almost all my orchestral work has disappeared. Luckily I still have my job at the Concertgebouw. So I haven’t had to turn to the government. But as of 1st January municipal subsidy in Amsterdam will stop and I’ll lose that job. So the future is uncertain.

If you had known all this, would you still have gone to the Conservatory?

I don’t know. I do know people who, at the time, opted for a part-time Conservatory course alongside a course offering more options. They now work as lawyers or in medical care and are also still active in music. Perhaps that would, indeed, have been a better choice. But I love making music and being involved in music so much. I also feel enriched as a person that I can do this. I do hope for better times for the culture sector.

Practical Expertise Centre EMBRACE Nederland
EMBRACE Nederland develops innovative music programmes and training courses aimed at giving vulnerable people a better life. We perform our music programmes with professional and amateur musicians, informal carers, care workers and students. Our professional musicians have followed the master module “Music and Healthcare” at the Prince Claus Conservatoire.