Last summer, as the music industry shutdown eased across the UK and the musicians still standing dusted off their instruments to play the venues still trading, you didn’t have to search hard for sobering statistics.
Having polled 929 professional musicians in August – a month after restrictions were lifted – the Help Musicians charity revealed that 83% still couldn’t find regular work, 90% were earning under £1,000 per month, and 22% were considering leaving the industry. That October, UK Music’s This Is Music 2021 report made for bleaker reading still, finding 69,000 jobs – a third of the workforce – had been lost, while the industry’s economic contribution had withered by 46%.
Playing along underneath these downbeat announcements was a background score of practical concerns and existential crises amongst musicians taking their first uncertain steps back. “If music work did start, could I still be good enough?” wondered Louise Braithwaite, an acclaimed woodwind musician and teacher, in her presentation at the recent Post Covid Recovery Workshop For The Creative Industries In The West Midlands, co-hosted by the MU, University Of Warwick and TUC.
“How much notice might I get? Would I accept music work I wasn’t ready for and let myself down? Would contractors and colleagues change their view of my ability? Would my new care employer, under pandemic staffing pressure, grant me the time off?”
But almost a year later, as we face the UK’s summer festival season, how has the picture changed for the nation’s professional musicians? For now, in the absence of tax receipts and wide-angle survey results, evidence remains anecdotal, based on the testimony of artists with myriad income streams. Yet a clear picture is emerging of a stoic industry meeting its circumstances head-on, while calling out to those in charge for further, and better, assistance.
Back To Life
With the recent Music Creators’ Earnings In The Digital Era report suggesting that just 0.4% of UK artists make a viable living through streaming, the UK’s live sector remains the cornerstone. On paper, at least, it is precarious: in January, the trade body LIVE reported that 25% of shows scheduled for the first three months of 2022 were cancelled or postponed due to Omicron.
The ripples can still be felt, says Herefordshire-based slide guitarist Troy Redfern. “Now I’m back out playing live, my income from touring has picked back up to pretty much pre-lockdown levels,” he explains.
“The problem can be that more bands are desperate to book gigs than venues can take on, because so many tours have been knocked back several times.
“But the cost of living will have a bigger knock-on effect than Covid.Concert tickets are not going to be a priority when you’re struggling to pay your electricity bill.”
The Welsh singer-songwriter Laura Evans believes the live sector – and its returning audience – must place more faith in performers to fully revive the industry.
“I lost 80% of my work and income during the pandemic, but this has been one of my busiest first quarters of the year yet.
“In terms of ticket sales for shows, though, I would definitely say that people are more reluctant to buy tickets in advance and that’s a lasting fallout from Covid. This has a knock-on effect with promoters.”
Even so, testimony from musicians on the circuit is generally positive, with caveats. “Gigs and live session work accounted for about 40% of my income pre-pandemic,” says Bristol jazz saxophonist and teacher Craig Crofton. He states:
“Since unlocking properly in the beginning of 2022, my phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Lots of private functions and weddings make up for lost time and venues wanting to attract punters back into their establishments.
“I’m on track to have one of the best years financially for gigs since I started as a professional musician. Maybe this is just the rebound and, given the cost-of-living crisis, we may see a contraction.”
For musicians who used their enforced downtime productively, meanwhile, the momentum has continued. “Before lockdown, we were playing really small venues and getting paid very poorly,” say the blues-rock duo When Rivers Meet. “It forced us to explore different opportunities. With the help of weekly livestreams, we were earning more at the height of the pandemic than before it. Now, after lockdown, our situation is completely different, and we have our own headline tour.”
Teaching provided a lifeline for many musicians during the pandemic, even if some of the artists we spoke to were ambivalent about continuing with the remote format. “It’s never quite the same as being in the same room,” says Chloe Josephine, lead singer with Portsmouth soul-rockers Brave Rival.
Of greater concern is whether school-based music teaching can return to pre-pandemic levels. In an Ipsos MORI survey of over 1,000 school leaders, it emerged that 56% of primary and 37% of secondary schools had cut hours for certain subjects (particularly music and PE) in the 2020 to 2021 academic year. “It’s vital this shortfall is redressed,” says Craig Crofton, Director of the Bristol Young Jazz Ambassadors.
“With the proven benefits children get from learning and being exposed to music at an early age, it’s a no-brainer. We need to get music out to the less privileged parts of our society as a matter of urgency, as it seems to be dwindling.”
With theatre bookings down by up to 50% over Christmas, and West End leaders projecting a “very tough” year in The Stage, the musicians in the pit share the concerns of the wider live circuit. In the experience of Marcus Bates – who plays French horn in the London production of Wicked – flagship shows have revived, while others are less healthy. He says:
“I knew Wicked would continue. However, I’m definitely getting less work outside the show. That means less work for my deps and many of them are struggling. One brilliant horn player in his late 30s has decided to go into another job.”
Right now, adds Bates, the industry must redress the cutbacks imposed on theatre musicians:
“We were persuaded to sign a variation agreement to help our sector recover. Two pay rises were frozen and double pay for Sunday shows was taken away. The variation agreement ends in October and there is much resentment that audiences, and presumably profits, have returned to pre-pandemic levels while musicians continue to take a wage cut.
“To make West End musicians happy, give us RPI pay rises to make up for those lost – the MU estimates this to be around 15% – and reinstate double pay for Sunday shows.”
It’s one of many demands made by the musicians we interviewed. As outdoor shows become feasible and the virus recedes over summer, the months ahead could be make-or break for the UK music industry. Which issues need to be addressed by those with the power to do so?
“Live venues need to be supported,” stresses Josephine. She adds:
“In Europe, the governments subsidise live music, which allows the venues to exist. Whereas here, the government gave out grants to music venues, but it wasn’t enough.
“Because the venues aren’t supported, they have to really worry about their bottom line. Combine that with low ticket sales due to hesitancy from fans and you have this perfect storm where a venue or promoter will just cancel the show, rather than risk seeing if people turn up on the night.”
As MU Regional Organiser and the driving force behind the Post Covid Recovery Workshop For The Creative Industries in The West Midlands, Stephen Brown believes the welfare system for creatives needs a complete overhaul. He points to the fact that 46% of Midlands freelancers, including MU members, received no government Covid help. He stated:
“I feel the government response was not good enough. We have no better situation now than we did before Covid for too many members, resulting in them leaving our industry… and there’s no government plan, it seems, to address these fault lines.”
The University Of Warwick’s Chris Bilton, who worked alongside Stephen on the event, agrees:
“During the first lockdown especially, there was talk of ‘building back better’. Now, as we’re coming out of the pandemic, it seems like we’re going back to the same unfair and destructive patterns and the picture for individual creatives, including musicians, remains quite bleak.
“The main conclusion from our event was the need to improve the contractual and working conditions of artists and musicians. This means not only calling out bad practice, but also trying to find examples of good employers and showing how better treatment and fair pay can benefit both sides.”
At the root of a fairer future industry, adds Braithwaite, is changing the perception of the creative sector:
“We tend to under-publicise the wider benefits our activity brings to the economy. Every performance supports other jobs and innumerable suppliers: restaurants, hotels, digs, travel, logistics, advertising, hardware, construction, security, front of house, bars, administration, tourism… I’d like musicians to be able to present a consistent message to the public and government about this.
“There’s an assumption that money for the arts is paid to ‘luvvies’ and disappears into a black hole without touching the rest of the economy. People don’t perceive that their favourite film score is made by people just like them, who work hard for a living. We can do more to help the public enjoy our work – and understand the process by which it is made.”
MU Regional Organiser Stephen Brown says the Post Covid Recovery Workshop For The Creative Industries In The West Midlands is just the start.
“Giving a voice to freelancers in a room with those who influence and set policy – when we want to create more, better-paid, sustainable, longer term jobs and work with good conditions – was an ideal way to kick-start things. We’ve generated plenty of goodwill and need to build on that momentum and will do so.”
The MU aims to ensure that each region will host similar events to take the pulse of local recovery. Dr Sarah Watts is an MU member, noted clarinet player and Director Of Performance at the University of Sheffield, who together with Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is planning a workshop for the North and Scotland, preceded in the autumn by an online conference for freelancers. She says:
“Following the opening up of venues and events, many musicians are still feeling locked down and locked out of the industry. Through The Keyhole will offer online workshops and talks looking at how to become a more resilient musician.
“Together with industry experts, the conference will offer sessions aimed at giving all freelance musicians the skills to develop and further expand their careers as portfolio musicians, whilst coping with the demands of being a professional musician.”
As the industry moves beyond lockdown, the MU calls on its members to share experiences and shape the new normal. MU Regional Organiser Stephen Brown says:
“We as musicians don’t exist in a bubble, we rely on others and they rely on us, so widening out participation and creating a movement for change is vital. It has to be grassroots-led, not top-heavy.
“We must see how we can democratise things to improve opportunities, work and equality, and get best practice as the norm, not the exception.”
By making their voices heard, adds Stephen, members can help shape the proposals put forward to power. He stresses:
“Although it is yet to be decided, I would push for the idea of a best practice manifesto that we can promote, get the TUC and unions behind it, then present it to government, councils, funders and others, to sign up to and make happen.
“It can be done and we should be optimistic we can do it with this, too. Members should appreciate they are part of a wider movement… they can affect change. This is the great thing about being in a union.
“You are not on your own and together, we can achieve more than we can as an individual. We can make people sit up and take notice.”