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Next Steps: Picturing Possibilities for the Return to Work

MU Deputy General Secretary Naomi Pohl examines the question, “When will it be time for musicians to go back to work and what might work look like in the Government’s Covid-19 recovery phases?” in the hope of giving “a very broad-brush idea of what might be possible as we eme

Published: 22 May 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:30 PM
Photo of a young child, sat outdoors with a ukulele looking dreamily into the distance.
As we all look forward with a mixture of hope and trepidation about the future of work, we want you to know that we are with you every step of the way. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Like every other sector, music and the wider creative industries are working extremely hard to plan for a phased return to workplaces. Unlike many other sectors, however, music and the arts are heavily reliant on live events which present very particular challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic and in the recovery phase.

The MU is feeding into various discussions about reopening businesses and getting MU members back to work safely and practically.

We are working with UK Music, the Council of Music Makers, the BBC, ABO, SOLT and UK Theatre. We are also lobbying decision makers and speaking with the Arts Councils as well as feeding into discussions that take place in regions of the UK. Our Regional Organisers covering Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, for example, are ensuring that conversations we have in Westminster are reflected or repeated in the devolved nations.

In this post for the MU blog, I will seek to summarise some of the ideas being explored and give an indication as to how and when we may see certain areas of music re-emerge. The recovery phase will not simply represent business-as-usual and every area of the music industry will be required to adapt and change post-Covid-19. While we are beginning to feel a swelling hopefulness, we are not unrealistic about the enormous challenges for businesses and individuals that lie ahead.

We are here to support and guide you through this period and will put out updated guidance on each area of the industry as the situation develops. Nobody should be forced back into work if it is unsafe or they are at particular risk due to underlying health conditions or their age, for example.

While schools remain closed, you may have continuing childcare needs or caring responsibilities that make it impossible for you to attend work. We will support you and advise based on your individual circumstances. The Government has been clear that employers must be flexible and Unions will play an important role in ensuring that safety standards are in place prior to reopening and upheld.

Recording Studios likely to be the first to reopen

It seems likely that recording studios will be the first to reopen and there are some sessions pencilled for next week. The Music Producers Guild have issued guidance around safely reopening and we have fed into discussions involving contractors of musicians and other stakeholders in recorded music.

We have supplemented this with our own advice on getting recording session musicians back to work.

We will be monitoring the situation very closely as sessions resume to ensure the safety of our members. If you are approached about session work and want advice, please contact Sam Jordan, our Sessions Official by emailing

Advice on pop up gigs and busking is in the making

With the new Government advice allowing people to spend more time outdoors, the MU is looking at compiling guidance for members who may wish to busk in areas that are not likely to cause social distancing problems.

Some local authorities are already much better than others when it comes to busking licences and we will be calling for government to support us in encouraging some flexibility and specific guidance to enable this to take place. For the MU, our members having the opportunity to perform and earn in any capacity is the priority.

As long as social distancing guidance and government advice is followed, we would like to be able to encourage musicians to put on ‘pop up gigs’ in places like car parks, beaches or public parks over the summer. Watch this space.

Reduced capacity gigs and concerts may be an option

There are already plans being developed for ‘Drive in Cinemas’ where the audience stay in their cars and small digital speakers are provided. Whilst this will not replace the many cancelled festivals this year – a gig, concert, opera or musical staged in a similar way would at least allow a paying audience to attend a live event involving music.

The cinema sector is apparently exploring dynamic ticketing systems which could allocate tickets according to social distancing guidance. Members of the same households could sit together but be sufficiently separated from others. If cinemas use these systems successfully, they will no doubt be adopted by organisers of seated live music events. We will be watching as cinemas reopen to see what we can learn and borrow for the music industry.

When high profile sports events recommence, albeit while observing social distancing, it should also be possible for live music to be held in the same stadiums under the same rules. Where no audience or a very reduced audience can attend, gigs and concerts could be broadcast and broadcasting fees may provide a small supplementary income for the event, including for the musicians involved.

We and the Music Venues Trust have also looked into some promising ‘stage buses’ which could be used to put on small scale outdoor local gigs with social distancing in place.

Cabaret-style gigs with tables two-metres apart may be an option for some venues, increased ticket prices could be possible where performers are high profile, and there are added benefits such as table service.

Safety must be the key focus when formal education resumes

Many music teachers have been able to undertake a certain amount of work online during the school closure period, although the situation has been far from unproblematic. We have seen some tutors furloughed but most not, even those who are on PAYE, and the furlough scheme is fraught with issues as, for example, teachers are then unable to work at all for the employer so can’t keep teaching their pupils online.

As some schools reopen on 1 June, we anticipate increasing pressure for our members to return to teaching in person. If teaching is being successfully provided online, then this can and should continue as it is the safest option in social distancing terms. We are supporting the NEU’s campaign to ensure teachers and pupils’ safety prior to reopening.

Once music teachers are able to return to the school environment, or for those who are keen to do so following some schools reopening on 1 June, we will provide advice on the safest ways to do so and how to navigate this in conjunction with schools and parents.

Teaching in a student’s home or your own home for visiting pupils remains difficult under current guidance but may feasibly be possible in a few weeks’ time. We will be keeping an eye on government guidance and will issue revised information for teacher members regularly.

Tutors must, of course, take reasonable care, carry out risk assessments (in conjunction with their engager or employer) and comply with relevant legislation. We are working with the teaching unions and Music Mark (representing music hubs) to ensure that safety is everyone’s key focus when formal education resumes.

Social distancing applied to orchestral work, including broadcasting

It is great to see that Wigmore Hall and the BBC have come together to broadcast some live concerts on weekdays in June. Whilst we understand that the Proms won’t be taking place as normal this year, we hope that the BBC and the Albert Hall will be able to work together to broadcast some live performance during the Proms season.

At the moment, we are dealing with numerous requests to stream existing recordings of orchestras that companies already have in the bank. Some new streaming fees have been agreed with our Recording and Broadcasting Committee to enable these things to happen if the content has not already been pre-cleared under contract.

Current social distancing guidelines will be difficult to follow precisely in any pit setting and in most venues where a full orchestra is involved and an audience is present.

It is much more likely that we will see smaller ensembles and project work in the early stages of recovery in the orchestral sector. This will present scheduling and financial challenges for orchestra managements.

While bigger venues are more able to accommodate a socially distanced band, they will struggle to open with significantly reduced ticket sales. The Government will have to provide increased and sustained subsidy for orchestras in order for them to survive. The furlough scheme being extended is certainly helpful and some orchestras may be able to take advantage of the option of part-time furlough later in the year. This could enable project work to be scheduled without the orchestras taking on payment of full-time salaries straight away. Freelance orchestras are, of course, more fleet of foot and we hope to see offers of work starting to trickle back later in the summer.

It is worth mentioning that outreach work may be feasible before live performance. One UK orchestra was able to record themselves from home and stream the performance into care homes, with the freelance players receiving their fees as they would have when delivering the work live. All companies have been experimenting with what content players can produce from home, but it is obviously only really feasible with smaller groups as otherwise it is very expensive and time-consuming to edit effectively.

Getting West End, regional and touring theatre running

Theatre producers would love to be open for Christmas but need twelve weeks run-in time to get a production up and running. As with other live events, understanding consumer demand and audience behaviour will be key to planning for re-launch. So, of course, will be the health and safety of cast, crew and our members.

Old venues present many challenges – cramped backstage areas, pits, changing rooms, toilet facilities and, in the early days at least, musicals with large casts will be difficult to get back up and running. There is also the issue of the lack of parking in the West End. Until the public are comfortable travelling on the tube for non-essential reasons, bookings are likely to remain much lower than usual.

We are discussing options for re-opening such as a reduced number of weekly performances (in case they can’t sell) and analysing what smaller audiences will mean for the finances of a musical production. The Producers are committed to reopening as many suspended shows as possible and to getting our members back in work. We will work collaboratively to facilitate this and will consult members contracted on suspended shows in the planning phase.

A broad idea of what might be possible

I hope this gives a very broad-brush idea of what might be possible as we emerge from this crisis. We appreciate that health and safety issues vary across workplaces and we will we look at these in detail before any area of the business reopens.

We will also need to be vigilant about inequality and discrimination as certain individuals or groups in our membership may find it harder to re-enter work than ours.

As we all look forward with a mixture of hope and trepidation about the future of work, we want you to know that we are with you every step of the way. Please let us know of any interesting projects, any concerns you have, or contracts you are offered.

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