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Imagine there’s no poverty among musicians. It isn’t hard to do – at least not for the growing number of supporters of a universal basic income, or UBI.

Imagine a fixed monthly sum, paid by the state to all, without means-testing, and guaranteeing dignity and financial independence. Imagine freeing musicians to do what they do best without having to worry about the rent, mortgage or food bills.

For dreamers? Maybe. But an increasing number of economists, employment experts, sociologists and trades unionists believe UBI is an idea whose time is fast approaching.

And, in a sign of that gathering momentum, a motion backing UBI was passed last summer by the Musicians’ Union, and was presented to the TUC’s Young Workers’ Conference this spring (2-3 April). The initiative is being led by MU member and clarinettist Sam Murray, who lectures in music business and arts management at Middlesex University. He explained that he was inspired, in part, by looking at the origins of one of the most important recent movements in UK popular music.

“If you go back to bands in the 80s, particularly The Specials and the 2-Tone scene around Coventry, you were seeing musicians having to go on the dole in between each record they made, because there was nothing to support the creativity process. Then I just connected the dots,” he says.

Musicians should be able to pay their bills and support themselves through that process. UBI creates that guaranteed safety net.

The resulting motion, he says, was not only important to him, but also marked a key moment for the MU. 

“It was incredible to have the support of the whole Union behind this idea. It was a proud moment to see that we were willing to back a policy that is going to have a wider impact on society and, although we know the benefits for our own sector, we are also willing to call for a mass societal change.

Sam Murray speaking at the MU Conference
Clarinettist and MU member Sam Murray tabled a UBI motion to the MU Conference that was passed in Summer 2021. Photo: Joanna Dudderidge

Improving musicians' lives

The MU is one of the first unions to throw its weight behind UBI – another source of pride, says Sam. “It really makes a statement that the MU is willing to play its role within the trade union movement. And we’re ready to fight for wider impacts on society that are beyond the remit people usually expect the MU to have.”

The plight of those in the creative industries during the coronavirus pandemic has intensified the calls for UBI. Figures suggest around a third of musicians stepped away from the sector during the lockdowns, taking other jobs to make ends meet. It’s still not clear how many will return, and the effects on the next generation of British musicians are likely to be long-lasting. Sam believes a guaranteed income could have limited the damage.

“I was working with a lot of young students who were about to graduate, wanting to go into freelance positions, but they couldn’t because there would have been absolutely no support for freelancers in the music industry.

“They were coming out into a terrible market, that was almost decimated for them. They had no opportunity, whereas, if UBI was there, they would have been able to have that support and safety net to go into those roles and develop them,” he says.

Visionary dream

UBI has a long history. Visionary thinkers from Thomas More, five centuries ago in his book Utopia, to Martin Luther King Jr during the US Civil Rights Movement, have been suggesting it as a means of eradicating poverty.

Experiments have been staged around the world, with varying degrees of success. One of the most ambitious has been underway in Kenya, where 20,000 villagers have been receiving guaranteed payments since 2016. The result is that hunger is down, while mental and physical wellbeing have improved. Research into a scheme adopted in 1974 in Manitoba, suggest it, too, was beneficial. For four years, everyone in the small town of Dauphin was guaranteed a basic income designed to lift them above the poverty line.

Studies showed that school performance improved, hospitalisations fell by more than eight per cent, domestic violence decreased, mental health improved and workers tended to stay in their jobs. “People in Dauphin had not only become richer, but also smarter and healthier,” according to historian and author of Utopia for Realists Rutger Bregman, who is a keen advocate of UBI.

He believes that, if implemented fully, it could end poverty forever, and for a lot less money than many experts expect. In a recent TED talk, he highlighted figures that show raising people out of poverty in the United States would cost around $175bn a year, compared with the $500bn estimated annual bill in terms of health care and tackling crime of allowing child poverty to continue unchecked.

Opposing viewpoints on UBI

Practical and political obstacles abound, of course. Among the sceptics is Chris Goulden, deputy director of policy and research at the anti-poverty charity, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation. For him, the cons of UBI seriously outweigh the pros. He has argued that the fundamentals – that everyone should get a baseline level of state support, even if they choose not to do anything to try to earn money for themselves, and that taxes would have to increase substantially – would be seen by most politicians as a vote-loser, particularly given the long-standing evidence on public attitudes to welfare.

It’s an interesting debate, he concludes, but “rather than continuing to be distracted by it, we should focus on improving the social security system that we have already got – God knows it needs it”.

If a truly universal version of UBI is – for the time being – wishful thinking, closed schemes focused on sectors like music and entertainment appear much more likely to gain traction, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, which hit the industry hard.

Band the Specials
Sam Murray was inspired by stories of Coventry bands like The Specials having to sign on between record releases. Photo: Images Press / Getty Images

In France, there is the Intermittence du Spectacle system, designed to support freelancers in the creative industries during periods when they are out of work. The Irish government’s universal basic income pilot is open to applications from workers in the arts sector, setting aside €25m for a three-year experiment involving around 2,000 people.

Targeted schemes like those could be a springboard to more comprehensive UBI in the future, according to MU Campaigns and Social Media Official, Maddy Radcliff.

“The motion to the TUC Young Workers Conference will highlight that French option as a kind of midway point,” she explains, describing the new interest in UBI in post-pandemic Britain as a “glimmer of hope that came out of a very dark time”.

“At the beginning of the pandemic there was zero support for freelancers,” she recalls. “So when the MU and other organisations leapt into gear, we started talking about options. One of those was UBI. Instead we got the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, (SEISS). It helped over two million people who would have got nothing, but 38% of musicians were excluded. It failed too many people. UBI is a potential solution to that.”

Challenging myths around welfare

Mention UBI and it’s not long before the accusation emerges that it would become a refuge for scroungers. Sean Healy, director of the thinktank, Social Justice Ireland, suggests this won’t be the case. “It is very likely that the evaluation will show that most artists in the pilot don’t watch TV all day,” he explains. “Rather, they will be seen to engage in more artistic activity – they may even generate more market income.”

Sam Murray and Maddy Radcliff also believe the idea that UBI is a “licence to loaf” is misguided and based on prejudice. Maddy points to the very low number of people who commit fraud within the current benefit system. “It is used as a tactic to justify cutting the welfare state,” she says. “It’s a myth that needs to be challenged.” 

And Sam notes: “One of the problems we have is that people are always quick to assume the worst about others. Most people in the world want to work and to be able to contribute to society.”

Benefit boost

Looking ahead to future conversations about UBI, Sam Murray expects resistance from some who think the needs of the less well-off would be better met by boosting the current system of benefits.

However, the model Sam is suggesting would preserve much of what already exists, with UBI payments topped up by supplementary benefits to people with a whole range of additional needs.

“It’s going to be tricky, some [unions] are not yet fully on board with it, but we are hoping there are strong movements within the larger unions and the Labour party to support UBI,” he says. “Most sectors will listen to our story about how the pandemic has exacerbated the need for UBI, and will recognise it within their own unions.”

And whatever happens, Sam believes the direction of travel is clear, and the seeds are being sown now for a meaningful conversation around UBI. “There’s nothing to stop us from working out where our support lies and being a stronger network to take it forward,” he says.

A policy that makes sense

Toby Lloyd is a co-founder of UBILAB Arts, a creative-industry focused section of the global UBILAB network, through which groups of citizens, researchers and activists around the world discuss and explore the possibilities of universal basic income.

“It makes sense for all the unions representing creative people to make the case for it,” he says. “I am incredibly keen to see what happens, and really excited that the Musicians’ Union is campaigning for basic income.”

The music industry is an ideal place to test UBI

The sheer variety of roles within the sector, from writers and performers to studio technicians and the staff who work in arts and music venues, make the industry an ideal test bed for a UBI scheme, he believes.

“You would have a very varied and rich data source. Creative people, especially freelancers, are an excellent model as participants. Basic income would enable people who work in the creative industries to do what they do, but to a better degree.”

How could UBI benefit musicians in the UK?

Music is a powerful, and often overlooked, driver of the UK economy. But, like any other big industry, it requires a reliable and regular intake of fresh talent and expertise to maintain itself. That’s why the effects of the exodus during the pandemic are worrying so many experts.

Easing the financial pressure by guaranteeing a basic income could pay dividends – creating a bigger space for creativity and allowing more people to consider a job in music, and not just those who have the means to survive the hard times.

Some form of Universal Basic Income would ensure that musicians are paid for every stage of the artistic process; ‘starving in a garret’ would no longer have to be part of the job. Basic pay would acknowledge and reward the currently under-recognised ‘research and development’ aspect of the music industry – the creativity, the writing and rehearsing that all lead to the finished product.

“It’s about musicians being paid for ALL of the work they do, in a way that enables them to live with dignity and financial independence, and not in fear of what will happen during a crisis,” says the MU’s Maddy Radcliff. “We need to be able to create art and a broad range of music that everyone can enjoy, and leave a better industry for the next generation of musicians.”

Photo ofNeil Churchman
Thanks to

Neil Churchman

Neil is a widely-experienced journalist in broadcasting and print. A former BBC national newsroom assistant editor, he now writes on music and the media.

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