Musicians deserve a helping hand

Published by The i paper (25th January, 2021)

Seventeen years ago, I spent a day in Pimlico with Paul Weller. We met by the Tate Gallery at a time of intense national debate over the invasion of Iraq. As we strolled along discussing his latest album, a plane flew overhead and the singer joked that it was probably Tony Blair heading off to bomb some more Iraqis. Then he turned to me and said with great intensity that he could not understand how anyone claiming to like music was able to wage such a repellent war.

This statement by one of the greatest figures in British pop music underscored how the arts are so much more than a job for many people in the creative industries. They are a creative force that dominates life, defines existence and shapes outlook. This is why the government’s daft campaign last autumn urging ballet dancers to reboot careers jeopardised by pandemic and become computer technicians struck such a bum note. It displayed no insight into the passions that drive many performers, let alone the skills needed to reach the top, made all the worse by the relative lack of financial support for the creative industries at the time. 

Since that interview with Weller, one of my youthful idols, I have been fortunate to work with him and many other musicians through the Africa Express project. It is always refreshing to spend time in their world after the cynicism of my usual media and political environs. So I am very sad to see the music industry so crushed by the pandemic, symbolised by the depressing announcement last week that the flagship Glastonbury Festival was cancelling for the second year in a row. This was another huge blow for a battered industry. Sadly, however, its pain is being inflamed by our blinkered government.

Music is one of Britain’s few world-beating industries. Our artists create almost 10 per cent of sounds consumed around the world. They are a major soft power force, a key component of the ill-defined, post-Brexit idea of Global Britain. They generate almost £6bn a year for the economy – four times more than our much-discussed fishing fleets – and sustain 210,000 jobs. Behind every star is an army of managers, merchandisers, promoters, publishers, roadies and skilled technicians, along with many spin-off industries from catering to logistics. But the sector, which relies on live events, lies bleeding and its future looks shaky when few things are riskier in a world of Covid than clubs crammed with people drinking, singing and shouting.

The Glastonbury news was grim since it showed this year may be little better than the barren one before, despite hope vaccines might allow some return to normality. Last week, out on my daily walk, I bumped into a leading jazz guitarist who told me he had played five concerts last year instead of his usual 120. I know musicians in prominent bands surviving from online lessons, sound engineers delivering parcels, a stage manager working in a warehouse. Britain has the world’s biggest festival market but Sacha Lord, co-founder of Parklife, recently told a parliamentary inquiry he thinks ‘the vast majority’ will shut if unable to operate this year. Even if some go ahead later in the year, social distancing destroys the economics. ‘It’s so dispiriting when you look at festivals playing in Wuhan and New Zealand,’ said one singer.

Music is, of course, just one among many sectors hurt by pandemic. As in others, the virus exposed flaws, revealed inequalities and speeded up change. Covid turned the spotlight on streaming as other income sources dried up, showing how a few stars scoop up a giant slice of the financial pie. Streaming saved this industry that grew fat and complacent gorging on CDs from being killed by theft when the digital age dawned. Yet as revenues rise strongly and Spotify can afford to sign up Prince Harry, it gives crumbs to most performers and even less to songwriters. It is hard to penetrate the complex and opaque finances, yet one expert believes artists earn just six pence in every pound from sales. Certainly there needs to be greater transparency, especially when all three major record labels have stakes in Spotify.

The government, firefighting on so many fronts, has taken some helpful steps such as giving £1.57bn aid to help cultural institutions – although in a sector dominated by freelancers, many individuals fell outside support schemes. Although it leans left politically, this business is incredibly entrepreneurial and already testing out new ventilation systems for clubs to combat airborne pathogens.

Now ministers should make one move that would be simple, quick and effective: offer insurance indemnity similar to the film production restart scheme. Insurers are not providing Covid-19 cover, which forces early cancellation of events such as Glastonbury since organisers cannot risk shelling out cash amid the uncertainty of pandemic. This would show Tories do not just care about opera and television.

Then there is Brexit, where the government’s refusal to remove ideological blinkers is rubbing salt into gaping wounds caused by the virus. Its failure to sort a deal for musicians touring Europe is simply catastrophic. Already the conductor Sir Simon Rattle has said he is applying for German citizenship so he can continue working in Europe. For less famous and emerging artists, the jumble of extra costs, red tape, tariffs and work permits needed to travel with artists, crews and merchandise around 27 different countries will make it unviable, threatening one of the bedrocks of British music success. It also saddles British festivals and promoters with more costs and headaches if bringing in European artists.

The Tories need to change their tune fast and sort out their mess. For this is the bitterest pill after all the pain of pandemic.

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