Blog: Financial commitments for groups and music directors in Covid times

Making Music's Covid impact survey of members revealed that 20% of our groups are paying their music director (MD) when they are not providing any services, and this is also a common topic on our regular Zoom member meetups.

We understand that this is a difficult issue, and why groups might do this. However, it is something that needs very careful consideration within the context of the best interests of your group.

We should make clear that if an MD is providing online services, they absolutely should be paid. Some groups have agreed different terms to reflect the different nature of the work - but the bottom line is they are providing a professional service and deserve to be paid.

But if no services are being provided, then more thought is required. It is useful to remember two things:

  1. The vast majority of our groups are charities with charitable objects relating to the education of the public in music. The public benefit normally breaks down into two broad areas: helping members perform, and putting on performance of the public. The trustees’ responsibility is to meet those charitable objectives and serve the best interests of the charity and its members, not the MD.
  2. Most groups engage an MD on a freelance basis. This means the MD is paid to provide a service. If they are not providing the service personally, they are still responsible for making sure it is being provided (e.g. by a replacement MD). If they are not doing this, the group is under no obligation to continue paying them.

We understand there are reasons for wanting to pay MDs. Some common ones we hear are:

  • Wanting to support your MD financially: in March, the argument of keeping them going for a little bit until things are back to normal was fair enough. However, it is no longer ‘a little bit’ and we still don't know when ‘normal’ will be. Continuing to pay your MD is not sustainable and nor is it the purpose of your charity. There is government support for the self-employed as well as industry help. 
  • Wanting to maintain the relationship: again, this might have been a fair enough short term approach but cannot go on forever. Of course, the MD relationship is key but maintaining that at all costs is not in the charity’s, or your members’, best interests. This is especially true if the group would like some online activities, but the MD is not providing them (see our Working effectively with your MD resource for more info). Ultimately it will be better for your MD if the group survives and can engage them down the line.
  • Your members don't want to do anything online: that’s fair enough too, you don’t have to provide online services. But if there is no demand for services you shouldn't be paying an MD for not providing them.
  • The contract doesn’t cover Covid so we can’t cancel it: it might not cover it specifically but the notion of ‘frustration’ of contract does not have to be specifically written down. Frustration of contract is when circumstances that are not the fault of either party make it impossible to fulfil the contract. Under frustration a contract can end without either party being considered to be in breach. You can also consider termination notice periods within your contract. There is nothing to stop you cancelling a contract if you want, within these terms. 

Ultimately it comes down to meeting your objects and servicing the best interests of the charity. Trustees’ job at the moment is to either: deliver services and meet their charitable objects within the restrictions of Covid or, if this isn’t possible, preserve the charity and make sure it is in a position to deliver services when it can. There are always several factors that go into the best interests equation, but spending charity funds on supporting an individual when not delivering public benefit, is not a comfortable position for a charity to be in or an easy position to defend.

And should you still be asking for subs from your members?

This question to some extent goes hand in hand with the previous one: if your MD is delivering online activity for members and is being paid, then it is fair enough that members – or at the very least those who are attending or taking up online activity – should be paying a subscription.

Of course you might vary that subscription from its usual level – lower (or higher!), more concessions, only for those who can and want to attend, changing it to a donation etc.

If there is no activity at all and you’ve decided to ‘hibernate’ until a relative degree of normality returns, your group will still have some underlying costs, so it can’t do any harm to ask those of your members who can afford to do so to perhaps make a small donation to keep you going for the time being – as long as there’s no pressure and those unable to contribute aren’t made to feel uncomfortable. There will usually be at least a few people in your group able to contribute some small sums.

The worst case scenario is that you are paying your MD whether or not they are delivering any activity AND you are not collecting subscriptions – financially, that will not work for long!

Remember always to think of the best interest of your charity and your members – that will easily guide you to finding the right solution for your group.