In November 2019, The Guardian reported that the value of the UK live music sector hit more than £1 billion as detailed in the annual report Music by Numbers. In addition, it showed how the overall contribution to the UK economy by the music industry in 2018 was £5.2 billion. It is similar in the US, with the music industry creating $11.1 billion of revenue in 2019. Both of these industries create a huge amount of revenue, but both have been hit hard by the impact of coronavirus. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a stop to the vast majority of live music, concerts and festivals, has caused awards to go virtual and causes artists to delay new releases.
This discontent was expressed in the UK recently with musicians protesting in both London and Birmingham, as reported by the BBC. In excess of 400 socially distanced freelance musicians gathered outside the Houses of Parliament to highlight their concern over the support given to self-employed musicians in the face of the pandemic. Not only did they physically show up, but they were led in music by conductor David Hill and played a small section from Mars, from The Planets by Holst. They then took part in a two minutes silence. The section they played amounted to only 20% of the full piece of music to reflect the fact that only 20% of their income can be claimed by eligible freelancers from the British government.
The BBC reported that the protests attracted some high-profile support with Violinists Nicola Benedetti and Tamsin Little, and the organizer of Glastonbury festival Emily Eavis in attendance. Glastonbury festival itself has suffered from the impact of the pandemic as Emily and her father, founder of the festival Michael Eavis, made the difficult decision to cancel what would have been the 50th festival and opt for some virtual celebrations, as has been the case with many high profile events.
The Let Music Live campaign, with support from the Musicians Union, organized these events. In a statement the General Secretary of the Musicians’ Union Horace Trubridge said: “We appreciate all the government has done to support our members through the furlough and self-employment income support schemes so far, but they must not abandon musicians now”.
Research undertaken by the Musician’s Society through polls with the latest finding that 34% of respondents are “considering abandoning their career in music”. In addition, “70% of respondents are unable to undertake more than a quarter of their usual work” and “36% musicians do not have any work at all”. Perhaps the most shocking “87% musicians will be facing financial hardship as a result of the Government’s income support schemes ending in October”, according to the polling information available from the Musician’s Society.
The discontent of UK musicians has since been fueled again by comments made by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak during an interview with national UK broadcaster ITV. Within this interview, Sunak seemingly implied that those working in the arts that cannot currently work at full capacity, or at all, due to the pandemic should retrain and seek new employment, as reported by Resident Advisor. Sunak said “I can’t pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job that they were doing at the beginning of this crisis” and added “That’s why we’ve put a lot of resource into trying to create new opportunities”.
The article on the ITV news website includes a note highlighting the change since publication saying “UPDATE: This article has changed to reflect that the Chancellor’s comments were about employment generally and not specifically about the music or arts sector.” However, many musicians and those working in the arts sector have come out criticizing Sunak for his comments and the support for the sector as a whole thus far including Liam Gallagher, Ian Rankin and Sue Perkins.
Rou Reynolds, leader singer of band Enter Shikari, published an open letter to Sunak on Kerrang in response to these comments, paying particular attention to how the support to the arts will be distributed, saying;
“Telling artists to diversify, retrain, or simply get another job is even odd in itself, to be honest. Most artists do have other jobs already. Most artists juggle multiple aspects of their own career already. Many could attempt to get more hours in the jobs they have outside of the music industry and just what…? Leave it to rot? Leave it in the safe hands of the well-funded, “establishment-approved” mainstream, and lose all the beautiful diversity and nuance of the underground, the alternative and the more esoteric scenes? The very scenes that have made UK music the world’s most inventive and leading cultural force for decades.”
Whilst there has been furlough assistance and a pledge of £1.57 billion being available in grants to the Arts sector, it remains clear that for many of those working within the industry they do not believe this to be sufficient now, or in the long-term, to keep the industry alive.