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Did Britain’s Got Talent employ free child labour?

Three tweets from the National Youth Orchestra suggest that it did.

- Tune in to Britain’s @GotTalent tonight and you might just catch quite a few NYO players on stage

- 10 string players are currently in the ITV studios sound checking for Britain’s Got Talent, watch out for us tonight!

- Blimey! That wasn’t one of us but a violinist from another agency just threw eggs at Simon mid performance!

We have been unable to ascertain so far if the under-age musicians were paid. However, they should not have been playing a professional date in the first place. That is a paid, union job for hard-pressed professional musicians, one of very few opportunities for them to appear on TV.

See UPDATE below.

The chair of the NYO is Dame Liz Forgan, former chair of Arts Council England. She should know better than to allow amateurs and children, aged 13 to 18, to take bread from the mouths of professional musicians, many of them with families to feed.

Any comment from the Musicians Union?



More on the Simon Cowell scam. This did not represent good experience for the youngsters. An anonymous insider tells us:

The “sound check” tweet from the NYO is rather misleading considering they were all miming on the show. None of the backing musicians are heard in the sound mix that gets broadcast on television. The backing tracks for shows like this and X-Factor are all pre-recorded by different musicians for a considerably higher fee around 3 or 4 days before the show. Therefore, the talented musicians miming in the background are merely decorative



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  1. (a) it could easily be valuable professional experience, which might encourage some to pursue playing professionally – or demonstrate to others that it isn’t for them (and there are plenty of those at the other end of a conservatory experience wondering why they went through it all who could have done with discovering that earlier). Would you say that the schemes many music colleges run now (the RNCM with the Halle, for example) should be banned on similar grounds?

    (b) what would be wrong with a 16 or 17 year old playing, if paid? Old enough to leave school and get a job, so why not playing? If a group of 17 year old players take on playing a string quartet date for a wedding and are paid, should that be outlawed on the same premise?

    (c) why should it be a closed-shop union job anyway?

    (d) what if the NYO players entered the competition, or asked to take part? Should they be denied that?

  2. Thomas Kemp says:

    They were not playing: they were miming. Very different kettle of fish.

  3. Halldor says:

    Disappointed to find you endorsing the MU’s closed shop, Norman. As long as all employment laws were followed and the musicians concerned were fully paid, there’s no reason why an 18-year old musician should be any less entitled to make a living than a 50-year old one.

    • Who says they are 18? They’re amateurs and kids.

      • Halldor says:

        Do we know for sure that they’re not 18? The information here seems sketchy, and it’s hard to credit that anything untoward could slip through on such a high profile production, and in as heavily-regulated a business as broadcasting. MU collective agreements and child emploment laws are usually very rigorously enforced.

  4. Peter Moody says:

    Oh come off it! Just some kids having a fun day out!

  5. The MU used to blacklist musicians who deliberately undercut others and CHOSE to take low-paid work. No one forces these musicians to say yes to these gigs. There should be repercussions against them. Just like those who performed at the olympics for free should be punished in some way. The MU needs to enforce levels of pay and discourage musicians to scupper it for the rest of us by taking bad gigs. Ms Holt took low paid work, undermining the industry – then complains about it in a way which potentially damages our industry even further.

    • Would you also suggest they the NYO shouldn’t give concerts – a Prom, for example – which otherwise a professional orchestra would have given? They don’t get paid, ticket-holders do pay to see them, and they are similarly denying professional musicians that opportunity?
      Should amateur orchestras similarly not give concerts, because a concert goer might have gone to see professionals play on that same Saturday night or whenever, and it thus denies professional musicians few ticket sales and much-needed income?
      Where do you draw the line?

  6. carolyn kelly says:

    How would the future NYO players feel, once they are ‘out there’ if younger players were taking their opportunities, ie paid employment Instead of them? Is this a good way to educate future professional musicians? Some musicians had accepted the gig only to be cancelled later. They would have turned down other professional work to do this gig.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I feel very disheartened by this commentary. I personally did not appear on BGT, though my friends did, and they found the experience overall very interesting, enjoyable, and rewarding.
    The consideration that this one gig might furnish professionals with enough money to feed mouths over a long period of time, as so is necessary, is ridiculous.
    Let young musicians enjoy experiences open to them. Ultimately there are far fewer opportunities open to such young musicians than to older professionals.

    The NYO is comprised of many young people of a variety of ages, including some who are over 18.
    I bid you to come to the next concert, for the skill shown and passion communicated by the orchestra is wonderful.

  8. Halldor says:

    A lot more heat than light here so far. It would be useful to hear from someone in a position to say – the NYO, the MU (not usually backwards in coming forward) or the programme’s producers – what exactly happened and whether any laws or collective agreements were actually broken.

    Personally, I find it extremely hard to credit that an organisation of the NYO’s standing and professionalism could wittingly have been party to some of the practices that are being speculated about (and that’s all it is so far) here – but if they were, let’s hear the facts.

  9. David McCallum says:

    I think this is an enormous red herring. You may as well accuse Roger Wright of the same crime at the Proms where the NYO have a regular slot which is almost always televised. This is indeed very cheap: not only are the players not paid, but to my knowledge, only the BBC orchestras waive a media fee for BBC productions; all the others will get something extra on top. Is this just a problem because it is SC and ITV?

    So we are in danger of jerking our knees into our own trap here (or Norman, are playing DA here?). Although I don’t speak for the MU, I am the BBC Concert Orch Steward and a member of the various MU reps committees (there, I came clean), and in my experience, we are certainly not undermined by one-offs like this (and the Proms). We are undermined by ourselves sometimes (we are all worth very much more but we have on occasions to stand our ground), by managements who think that we might as well all race to the bottom because they will always get someone who can ‘basically’ do the job (BBC DQF – any thoughts Norman?), and by a various governments (this one especially) who fail to really understand what a valuable and essential (yes, essential) job we all perform.

    Did the NYO members enjoy miming? Probably not, but every pro worth their salt has been there/done that!

  10. Sadly these youngsters were/are asked to mime and expected to do so for no fee or expenses.

  11. Joachim Mahoudeaux says:

    In my case I don’t about “how old are they” or “what do they actually do”, it’s TV show, some of the people are paid, YOU, as TV spectators you pay for that, if they are not paid, whatever how old they are supposed to be or what they have to mimic, it’s slavery.

    When you give something for famine to an african or asian country in need, or for a charity, you want ALL ENTIRE of your donation to be used fairly right ?

  12. FYI They were not paid. I feel this is child exploitation.

  13. Anonymous Observer says:

    You are right, Norman, NYO musicians have no place on stage as supporting miming artists on Britain’s Got Talent. And no, the show did not represent good experience for the youngsters.

    Britain certainly has talent but, unfortunately, the media are too obsessed with audience figures to dare recognise it. Instead, we are subjected to the excruciating experience of arrogant mediocrity centre stage while truly committed, hard-working, talented young people are consistently marginalised. What is even more painful is to see the very people who should be speaking out in their defence cowardly shifting the focus onto a pitiful debate about performance fees. It is not 13 to 18-year-old young musicians taking the bread out of the mouths of professionals. It is the populous culture of the lowest denominations which is allowed to thrive in the media. Truly pathetic!

  14. James823838 says:

    I am part of the NYO and I find it strange why anyone would complain about such talented young musicians appearing on a show specifically designed to showcase exceptional talent. People around the world watch the show – why shouldn’t we show them the brightest and best teenagers in the country? Are you not proud of them? Why should adults with families to feed be more important than students with thousands of pounds of loans to pay?

    NYO players often appear on television – just last month one featured heavily on Songs of Praise – is this wrong too?

    It also offers valuable experience for us young people. I regularly perform for free to get noticed and to gain experience – how else could I do so?

    The NYO’s safe guarding policies will have protected the rights of all those involved I am sure.

  15. As a friend of NYO I do have some information on this: NYO players were on BGT on Saturday, all 17 and above, but mostly 18 and 19 year olds. One of the acts they worked with was 14 so they wanted young musicians to work with her, which seems more than fair enough. These players are more than old enough to be competing for jobs: many have played concertos across the world and have started depping with professional orchestras… I know that the players weren’t paid but instead the equivalent fee was made as a donation to NYO, none of the players pay the full fees to be a part of NYO so sometimes they are ask to play in fundraising events and their expenses are covered, although these are entirely optional. And you can’t blame the tweets for not being perfect, most are written by players, having taken a look at the NYO website and private twitter accounts the BGT ones were by Laura Rickard, 19, and evidently both talented and old enough to take this gig.

    Enough of the criticism.

    • Past notable NYO directors would not have done such a thing as they were professional musicians themselves. If the players are as good as you say they are then why are they doing unpaid work instead of dazzling the world with their concertos?

  16. Marcus Crompton says:

    Forgive me if I’m missing the point here – but if the musicians were being employed as acting “extras” (I can’t think of any other term for someone who mimes to track pre-recorded by someone else) – then surely there is no issue?

    As for Henry’s call for “repercussions”, the phrase that springs to mind is “calm down dear, it’s only a commercial”!

  17. James Dickenson says:

    The point is, (allegedly)many professional musicians had already been confirmed for the show. They were then replaced at the last minute with children. Of course itv will now try not to pay them. That is the point.

  18. The NYO would never seek to undermine the profession for which we are preparing a large number of our members and on which we are dependant for our own existence.

    BGT invited NYO to bring an ensemble of young string players to back a young finalist ‘GABZ’. This was a creative idea from the team at BGT, who wanted to celebrate young talent. The NYO musicians who took part were 17-18 years old. We understand that BGT had a budget line specifically for young musicians to support GABZ.

    We were told that if our musicians did not wish to participate, then BGT would drop this idea, and use the professional musicians who were already booked for the evening. Those musicians would receive no additional payment for backing GABZ. We understood that these musicians were paid for the hours that they worked and irrespective of how many acts they supported. Based on everything that we were told we are confident that no professional musician lost out as a result of our involvement.

    NYO negotiated a fee with BGT, which was paid to the organisation. NYO players are never paid for their involvement with NYO activity. The young musicians received expenses.

    NYO members pay an annual membership fee. This represents a small proportion of the cost of a place in NYO. To be specific, 72 percent of the cost of each seat in the orchestra is covered by NYO’s fundraising. Furthermore a quarter of our members receive a 100 percent bursary, and no musician is ever excluded on financial grounds. As an organisation we do sometimes receive performance and broadcast fees and this money, like all our income, goes towards these core costs.

    Our musicians were keen to take part and did so voluntarily because they thought it would be fun and that they might learn something. They especially enjoyed the opportunity to tell high profile celebrities about the NYO and build support for our orchestra. By participating they also made a small contribution to our fund raising targets.

    NYO members are all motivated to support the NYO because they believe in it. They engage in all sorts of creative fund raising activity because they are passionate about our organisation and what it does. This passion stays with them long after they have left the orchestra.

    For 65 years NYO has enjoyed a deep and mutually sustaining relationship with the profession and we trust this will continue long into the future.

    It’s great to see our recruitment poster on this website. Applications are open for NYO 2014. Our auditions are free, and include a workshop with some of Britain’s leading instrumentalist. Travel grants for auditions are available.

    On 30 June NYO members are leading a free ‘Inspire Day’ in London for musicians grade 6+ – it’s a wonderful opportunity for young musicians to experience the NYO. Our website has further details.

    Margred Pryce
    Head of Communications
    National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain

    • Marcus Crompton says:

      For what it’s worth, I think the NYO took the right action on this – nothing wrong with a bit of publicity work!

      I’m looking forward to another opportunity to hear the NYO very soon after a superb concert in Liverpool last year.

  19. How sad to see the NYO fall so low and sell it’s integrity for the price of a small bursary.

    I loved being a member of the NYO under Ivy Dickson who would never have allowed her protegees to be used in this way.
    To mime to the pre-recorded work of professional musicians, to pass it off as your own performance,and participate in the scam that tells the country that they are watching “live television”…..NYO you are worth so much more than this.

    How can you expect your future audiences to enjoy broadcast of NYO concerts knowing that as an institution the NYO thinks it is accepatable to mime on television to the works of professional musicians?

    • Hear hear.

      Sadly, professional orchestras have also allowed themselves to participate in such scams (notably, the LSO at the Olympic ceremonies last year). Being told to mime is an affront to musicians’ time and artistry, and should have no place in any event (except, perhaps, for diegetic passages in theatrical works that involve the characters on stage making music, thus potentially requiring the actors to mime), although I hasten to add that I do not blame musicians, amateur or professional, for capitulating to such demands: the lure of money and/or publicity is too potent. Furthermore, I am exasperated with modern society’s obsession with visual sophistry to the point of deception.

  20. Andy Waddicor says:

    Regrettably, the NYO Head of Communications appears to be somewhat misinformed…

    1. “Based on everything that we were told we are confident that no professional musician lost out as a result of our involvement.”

    Professional musicians – whose livelihoods depend on studio work such as BGT – were booked to provide mimed backings on the show. Shortly before the broadcast date, these musicians were cancelled and replaced by NYO players. Because they were cancelled at short notice, they could not replace the lost work. They most definitely lost out as a result of the NYO’s involvement.

    2. “This was a creative idea from the team at BGT, who wanted to celebrate young talent [...] We understand that BGT had a budget line specifically for young musicians to support GABZ.”

    Doesn’t this imply that the NYO were told that their children would be providing a backing orchestra at a lower budget than it would usually cost to employ working musicians under the mutual trade agreement professional musicians have with ITV?

    I have no idea of the size of donation made to the NYO in exchange for providing this service to BGT, but the mention of a “budget line” suggests to me that it was significantly less than employing the services of professional musicians. So in answer to Norman’s leading question “Did Britain’s Got Talent employ free child labour?” … the answer might be, “not quite, but almost..

    On the more general point of whether the NYO should be providing labour for miming on prime-time entertainment tv shows; someone has mentioned this is a one off. I’m afraid that sourcing free artists for events, including tv shows, is becoming a common problem across the entertainment industry. Musicians/dancers are often offered experience and exposure as compensation, but in practice there is very little of either, blink and you miss them (were the NYO musicians named, evenly collectively, in the closing credits by the way?), No doubt the NYO kids found it a fun experience, visiting a tv studio, and miming to the excellent pre-records of pop backings recorded by studio musicians, of course they would, all very exciting. But in ten years time when they themselves are hoping to earn a living as a professional musician, I wonder if they will live to regret the free work they did on behalf of BGT and NYO fund raisers, when they are sitting unemployed on a Saturday night watching their school age juniors working for free on a prime-time entertainment show. Take it from me, this will not be the last time a tv show asks for NYO musicians to provide their budget line miming services, now that the precedent has been set on one of the biggest audience-figure shows of the year.

    Nobody would expect a child (or 18 year old even) to fully grasp the consequences to themselves of providing unpaid services to the BTG show (presuming that they weren’t working to pay off some of the bursary they may have received from the NYO), and it would be very unkind to attach any criticism to the children who appeared on the show, I certainly don’t, The onus must surely be on the NYO itself to make sure that their musicans are not exploited, and are not unknowingly undermining the trade agreements under which they themselves may possibly aspire to work when they enter the profession, upon completion of their studies. These trade agreements were not forced upon ITV, they are mutually agreed to as beneficial to both parties. I too worked as a child singer on professional productions in my youth, there is nothing wrong with that in itself as a boy soprano was what was needed, but I was paid at a professional rate (in trust), and chaperoned. The companies were making money from my performances, I was paid accordingly. Whether or not a token donation was made to the NYO, allowing these kids to provide otherwise professional services for free was a very poor judgement call by the NYO, in my opinion.

    The long explanation from the NYO about their bursary arrangements suggests this was mostly a fund-raising exercise. Might I suggest fund-raising is left to the NYO fund-raisers, rather than sourcing the children out to tv studios to work for free. I earnestly hope that the NYO have a rethink about their present policy, and whether this is really in their musician’s (as aspiring professional musician’s) best interests. I wonder what Ruth Railton and Ivey Dickson would make of all this?

    • Andy, your opening assertion appears to be incorrect. See below from the MU themselves.
      Perhaps you would like to reconsider the remainder, too, rather than basing your argument on a series of assumptions?

      • Andy Waddicor says:

        Anon – on the matter of my opening assertion, it is my understanding from musicians who were booked for the show, that they were later cancelled shortly before the broadcast date, and subsequently NYO musicians were engaged. If the MU has not been given the specific details by these musicians, then I will try and encourage them to do so. It is also the case that any non-union member musicians who were booked would not have made contact with the MU. If I find that I have been misled on this, then I would be happy to unreservedly retract my first assertion that professional musicians lost work as a result of the NYO’s involvement.

        I stand by my more general argument that providing NYO musicians to tv studios for mimed backing segments, as a method of fund raising, is in my opinion a poor judgement call. To follow the argument through that artistic reasons qualifies the engagement of unpaid school children over professional musicians who earn their living this way, then it is unlikely that this will be the last time the NYO are approached to provide backing musicians to mime behind teenage solo artists appearing on prime-time tv, again, in my opinion, hence the points I raise, and my hope that the NYO will rethink their present policy on this.

  21. Ben Jones says:

    The MU is aware of this issue and we have spent the last week answering similar queries and liaising with both the NYO and BGT.

    It is our understanding that no professional musicians lost work because of the NYO being booked to provide musicians to mime with one act on the programme. As they have already confirmed, it was an editorial/artistic decision to book additional, young musicians and a fee was paid to the NYO.

    With very few notable exceptions, for example Strictly Come Dancing, it is very common for musicians to mime on such entertainment programmes, rather than perform live. The correct session fees were paid to those professional musicians who pre-recorded the backing tracks for the programme.

    Ben Jones
    National Organiser, Recording & Broadcasting
    Musicians’ Union

    • I have heard on good authority that BGT were touting for professional musicians and on getting some quotes obviously decided to undercut them by approaching NYO. I think you may need to dig further…

  22. I have a student who was playing (well,miming) in this. NYO were offered either a fee OR credits but not both by BGT. Now I find that absolutely outrageous.

    • Andy Waddicor says:

      That is interesting Sarah. Without getting her/him into trouble, I’d be interested to hear how your student felt about their miming experience, and the BGT/NYO arrangement.

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