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Did you know there are almost 7,000 co-operatives in the UK? It’s true, and they are worth an estimated £37 billion to the UK economy. That’s not all – co-operatives have saved jobs, provided work and furthered many a musician’s career. But what is a co-operative? And how could one support you and your work? We asked a panel of experts and practitioners.

What is a co-operative?

A co-operative or co-op is, “an organisation or business set up and run for and by members, for their benefit” says Gareth Wright from Co-operatives UK. The goal is to fulfil a need. Barak Schmool and his friends founded the FIRE Collective as a tool to help them get their foot in the door as young artists, and keep their art alive. Swindon Music Co-operative (SMC) was born out of financial crisis – local music teachers knew that if they didn’t take a pro-active stance, the local music service would close down, they would lose their jobs and children and young people would lose access to instrumental music lessons in school.

It starts with a philosophy

Ask why you want to work in a co-operative, advises David Barnard (SMC / Musicians’ Union). This will make it easier to get buy in from potential members, and give you the drive to keep going in those early days. “You may need to engage in some branding to say ‘this is what we do…. this is what we collectively represent’” suggests Barak. Knowing and being able to clearly articulate the need for and benefits of a co-operative will make the idea, and eventually the product, easier to sell.

Co-operatives can have a social function

Barak stresses the social function of co-ops. He was inspired by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago and their commitment to “making sure their art was functioning in the community”. Build links with local venues, promoters, journalists and schools and make them your partners, your “family in the community”. You all need to succeed to make each other a success, and sustain all of your creativity and creative lives. 

Co-operatives can make a profit

Profit shouldn’t be a dirty word, says Gareth. Coops can and do make healthy profits, he adds, which can be classed as surplus and either reinvested, saved for a rainy day or taken by members as a payout (a dividend). Some music teacher co-ops save any profits to pay music teachers in August, advises David, and this can be a good way to continue paying music teachers in the sparse summer months when music lessons may be thin on the ground.

Can co-ops provide job security?

The whole panel questioned whether or not job security is a suitable a concept for our times. Self-employment can be challenging, but there are ways to make co-operative members’ income streams a little more secure. For example, SMC does not provide sick pay but enable co-operative members to make up their teaching by re-scheduling lessons or giving credit note to the school. “It’s also about doing a good job,” advises David Barnard. If you do, you will get work and retain customers. Read more about the pros and cons of music teacher co-operatives and how to get started in Altogether Now, our guide to forming a music teacher co-operative.

Age is not a barrier

“It’s about having a great idea” says David. “You then need to be able to articulate that very clearly and concisely to others”.

Remember, the MU can help

The MU can help you from identifying your needs as a working musician, to helping you set your co-operative up. If you’re thinking about going down the co-operative route, in whatever area of the music industry, learn more and get in touch.

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