‘It’s quite a struggle to get on the lists’

Sixty percent of people working in the cultural sector are self-employed. Embrace musician and oboist Kim Bosch is one of them. She freelances with several Dutch orchestras and teaches oboe. A few weeks ago, Kim posted on Facebook about the roofer who came to her house to repair the roof. She made a remarkable discovery when she studied the bill. Kim: “Calling fees alone were higher than the compensation I was recently offered as a musician for an assignment as an oboist in a choral accompaniment orchestra.” How do you make ends meet as a music freelancer and why are those rates so low? We talked to Kim about it.


You graduated from the conservatory and then did a master’s degree in New Audiences and Innovative Practice. When you started your career you did so as a self-employed person. Was that the image you envisioned when you went to the conservatory?

Beforehand, I never really thought about that. Being involved with music is just my passion. I do a lot of different things and enjoy it. I did very consciously train as a teacher alongside it. In addition to my self-employment, I also have a part-time job at the Concertgebouw, for an educational program I coach elementary school teachers to do more with music in the classroom. That gives me some assurance. Most musicians do not choose to be self-employed, they are by necessity.

The roofer’s call-out fee was higher than your per diem as an oboist in an orchestra. Exactly how low is that payment?

For an orchestra assignment I had to go to The Hague, it involved several days but staying overnight was not possible. Travel expenses were at your own expense. Of course, I also have to prepare and I have my material costs. If I convert everything, I come to about twenty euros gross per hour. Travel expenses are also included in that amount. Not to mention things like pension accrual and health insurance.

But there is a Fair Practice Code, right? But that one doesn’t work, then?

Large orchestras affiliated with the orchestra union abide by the collective bargaining agreement, and organizations with ANBI status pay zzp’ers a lot better. But music associations looking to hire a teacher or choral accompaniment orchestras looking for musicians do not adhere to this at all.

You also work for Embrace Netherlands, can you tell us a bit about that?

During my studies in Groningen, I took the Master Module “Music and Healthcare” at the Prince Claus Conservatory of Music in Groningen. That’s how I got involved in the “Music and Dementia” workshops. By improvising, we connect with people with some form of dementia. It also works in a very beautiful disarming and connecting way. Reaching people with dementia with music is something very pure and emotional for me. The participants sometimes seem so far away in their heads, but by being busy and listening to the music made especially for them, they sometimes seem to wake up and be back in the here and now for a while.

Because of corona, of course, the Music and Dementia workshops are now on hold.

Indeed. Because of this, after my training I unfortunately did not do any more workshops. I had just been asked to participate in workshops in Rotterdam and Tilburg. But then came corona. It was also galling in terms of finances because, of course, I had been counting on the income for a bit. What was nice was that you could turn to Embrace if you ran into financial difficulties. This was fortunately unnecessary for me, but the thought was reassuring.

How hard is it to get good jobs with the big orchestras?

Very difficult. Orchestras still sometimes request substitutes, which are sought-after jobs among music freelancers. It does indeed pay better, but the number of applicants is huge. Everyone wants to get on the lists of people to call when someone drops out. So we are pointed to choral accompaniment orchestras, for example. And the remarkable thing is: there you will also meet the musicians who do have a job with a major orchestra. Those do this in it for fun, not for tips. But we have to live by it.

What do you think is a reasonable payment?

You cannot actually attach an amount to culture; it is part of the development of being human. That many people in the cultural sector are so poorly paid may have something to do with too low an appreciation we place on culture. Although I see improvement in that in recent years. And as a cultural sector, we in the Netherlands are also very much attached to the government. In the US, you see much more sponsorship coming from corporations. Maybe we in the Netherlands can learn a thing or two from that.

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

Outside corona time can make sense. Indeed, I think we accept too much. A musical society may indeed have little budget, but people take it for granted that we do it for a trifle. When I have a minimum income, I don’t buy a Mercedes either. I just can’t afford that. But in fact, of course, as freelance musicians, we maintain this system ourselves. The fact that so many cultural freelancers now have to appeal en masse to the government also says something.

How difficult is corona time for you?

Almost all of my orchestral work has fallen away. I still have my job at the Concertgebouw, fortunately. As a result, I did not have to call on the government. But as of January 1, I lost that job because the municipal subsidy from Amsterdam is ending. So the future is uncertain.

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

I don’t know. I do know people at the time who opted for a part-time conservatory course and also did a probability course. These 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 so love making music and being busy in music. I also do feel enriched as a human being that I can do this. I hope for better times for the cultural sector.

Practical Expertise Center Embrace Netherlands

Embrace Netherlands develops innovative music programs and training with the goal of giving vulnerable people a better life. We perform our music programs together with professional and amateur musicians, family caregivers, care workers and students. Our professional musicians took the master module “Music and Healthcare” at the Prince Claus Conservatory of Music.