The music industry has been left to die
Published by UnHerd (12th October, 2020)
After more than a decade in the music business, Georgia Barnes was on the brink of stardom at the start of this year. Her effervescent live shows, featuring the curly-haired singer standing with drum pads, cymbals and synthesisers, were winning rave reviews while her second album — described by one critic as a “bold British hymn to hedonism” — was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. Then along came the pandemic, which was utterly disastrous for the music industry and forced the scrapping of dozens of shows that filled her diary until the end of next year.
“It was really devastating,” she said. “I was very low for a couple of weeks. I was just at that stage of going from one level to another level, so it’s been very disappointing not to be able to play. But instead of slumping into my sadness I went into my studio and it’s been a really productive time, with all this sudden space to write new work.”
Like most musicians I know, Georgia’s life is shaped by her art. “I’ve always been a musician and there’s nothing else I can really do,” she told me breezily. “As an artist, you have to have faith.”
It is this kind of focus and passion that has helped make our music industry such an incredible success story since the Sixties. She has created songs online with Gorillaz and Yung Baby Tate since lockdown. Yet suddenly this sector — so valuable to the economy and vital for our county’s soft power in the post-Brexit age — feels abandoned by the state.
This is a genuinely world-beating British industry with an astonishing 9% of global music emerging from islands holding less than 1% of the planet’s population. Behind the hoary old sex, drugs and rock ’n roll image lies a sector that generates £5.2bn a year for the economy, £2.7bn in exports and sustains 210,000 jobs. It also plays a key role in redefining the class-bound image of Britain in a world that, as one ambassador based in West Africa once told me, sees Downton Abbey as a documentary. Unfortunately, from stadiums to dingy pub basements, it relies on the sort of live events almost totally curtailed by Covid-19.
This is why there was such anger when Chancellor Rishi Sunak told ITV News that professional musicians, like others in the arts who could not earn enough to live, might have to find “fresh and new opportunities”, since “everyone is having to find ways to adapt and adjust to the new reality”. He was not helped by ITV twisting his words in a tweet that it later withdrew. And yes, he may be right. But his ham-fisted interview was heard as a flint-hearted message telling musicians to switch careers and abandon their art, which infuriated an industry that feels crushed, forgotten and forlorn. “If I were to retrain, I would like to retrain as a boxer and then go into the Cabinet and ply my skills on some of them,” responded Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze.
This sector is in pandemic-induced meltdown. One manager told me he lost £27m-worth of bookings overnight when the virus took hold in March. John Giddings, who runs the Isle of Wight festival, told me his “gut feeling is there will be shows next year but no-one knows when” but others have already written off 2021 as well as 2020. Bear in mind eight in every ten pounds of the average musician’s income is derived from live performance, after recording revenues dwindled in the digital age. And while a few superstars pocket millions, three-quarters of them earn less than £30,000 a year. Even successful artists are looking nervously at the future, regardless of a surge in streaming by people stuck at home during lockdown.
“It is really worrying: anxiety is the all-pervasive emotion in our minds,” said Jon McClure, lead singer with Reverend & the Makers. “We’ve no income and no idea when it will return.” His band has had six top 20 albums, was playing to 3,000 fans in Manchester before the pandemic, and is a festival favourite. It also includes his wife Laura — they have two young children — and earned almost all its revenue from the live circuit. “We’re not loaded but we were doing alright with a very nice existence,” he said, “but now I’m wondering if I can keep up with the mortgage and asking if I really need to go to the cafe.”
A report to be published later this week by the Live Music Group, which represents the sector, will reveal the live business is shrinking four times faster than the rest of the economy. It predicts the majority of jobs may be gone by the end of this year without more help. “These are really tough times,” said Annabella Coldrick, chief executive of the Music Managers Forum. “Why is Sunak saying artists should go and find other jobs when there are no jobs around? I know one person at a digital marketing agency recruiting and they got 700 applications for a single post.”
These problems go way beyond the performers. Behind the artists, on stage and in studios lie an army of agents, managers, merchandisers, promoters, roadies and highly-skilled technicians, along with spin-off industries from catering through to equipment hire. Most are driven by love of music, not money — and many are now in dire straits after seeing their income dissolve overnight. “I lost my first European tour which was due to start mid-March and from there in a matter of weeks I subsequently lost every single piece of work I had well into 2021,” said one engineer. “I have no work whatsoever in my diary and no prospect of any work for the foreseeable future. The financial strain is terrifying.”
One insider told me people have killed themselves over these financial pressures, while Facebook groups are filled with tales of struggle such as the sound engineer who sold his car to pay the electricity bill so his son could still do homework. The Government, firefighting on so many fronts, argues it has given £1.57bn to protect all the creative industries and today smaller music venues across the country will find out if they have been awarded life-saving grants. “We’re on a cliff-edge,” said Mark Davyd, founder of the Music Venue Trust, which has raised £3m towards helping its 970 members. “We know this is a huge public health issue but it is painful for us and we are very concerned about the future.”
This trust represents those sticky-floored pubs and small clubs that are the bedrock of British success over decades where the likes of Adele, Ed Sheeran and Oasis honed their craft. More than 100 of these venues have tried some kind of opening since the lifting of hard lockdown. But their takings — with limits on ticket sales for social distancing and lower bar sales from seated audiences — are just one-eighth of their usual earnings, which is simply unsustainable. Now there is imposition of the 10 o’clock curfew among new restrictions. “This really is unprecedented,” said Keith Ames, spokesman for the Musicians’ Union (MU). “Even in the 1940s you could go to a dance hall and listen to music when death was falling from the sky.”
Sunak’s latest furlough plan will help clubs in lockdown zones forced to close but does nothing for those crippled by social distancing requirements, unlike schemes in Canada and France. Yet while infrastructure is important, people are key to any creative industry — and many of those in the music business fell outside Sunak’s emergency handouts since they are freelance or operating as limited firms. One-third of musicians, for instance, failed to qualify for income replacement schemes, says the MU. Its last survey of 2,000 members found two-thirds suffering financial hardship, almost half working outside the industry and one-third considering new careers. Another study found almost two-thirds thinking of quitting their profession.
The loss of talented artists and crew could have devastating consequences. “All my roadie and engineering mates are wondering what to do now,” said David Preston, a brilliant stage manager and backline operator who has worked with Baaba Maal, Coldplay and Depeche Mode, but who is now packing pet supplies in an Amazon-like warehouse. “I miss being around creative people. You don’t get the same buzz and energy packing dog food eight hours a day but it pays the bills.”
Last year, he joined the 80-strong crew on a major Take That and Rick Astley tour alongside Freyja Lawson, a 30-year-old audio engineer. She went on to work with electronic producer Mura Musa — demonstrating the versatility of such technicians — but on March 13 was sent home from Copenhagen when the virus hit and has not worked since on a live event. Now she is living off her savings, doing some part-time teaching and searching frantically for a full-time job. “I’ve spent all my life pursuing this as a career but now I am looking at absolutely anything,” she said.
Most artists have been trying new tactics to engage with their audiences — among them Duncan Beiny, better known as DJ Yoda, who has won renown travelling the world as one of the most eclectic mixers of music. He told me he has enjoyed the creativity of finding new ways to stream shows with smart audiovisuals but “it is financially negligible, just about covering the cost of my dinner.” He tried other things including a show at a drive-in cinema in Blackheath that he described as “like DJing in a car park”, while has been kept afloat by a few well-paid events such as online film premiers. But now, aged 43, he admits he is contemplating a career switch. “This is all I’ve ever done and I have no other skills, but should I do something else now? Maybe.”
Some argue the disruption, while devastating for many people, could have some positive impact by busting open near-monopolies that dominate markets, opening up space for new artists and encouraging smarter use of streaming. “As usual, the people suffering are those that did not have a lot in the first place,” said David Bianchi, a thoughtful manager whose stable includes The Libertines and Loyle Carner. “But the pandemic is fast forwarding some changes and forcing others that might not have happened otherwise such as breaking the live market stranglehold by a few companies and helping us see the benefit of streaming shows. Some things will emerge for the better.”
Although the popular music industry leans Left politically, Bianchi underlines how it is remarkably entrepreneurial and — unlike much of the arts world — has been self-sufficient over the years. But there is deep frustration over the Government’s inertia. “We have no business,” said Harvey Goldsmith when I ask him how things are going. Like all others to whom I spoke, the veteran promoter — famous for Live Aid — has been postponing gigs and is scathing about ministerial lack of sympathy for a globally-successful industry that was thriving until hit by pandemic. “Our sector has fallen completely through the cracks. We don’t want help. We’ve never had subsidies. We just want to get back to work and find out the best way to give people confidence in a safe environment.”
Goldsmith wants to stage a Jools Holland show at the Royal Albert Hall with a full audience before Christmas, together with other events at a theatre and a smaller venue, to test the possibilities and protocols for live events. “We have been pushing very hard but no-one at the DCMS gets it.” He argues that socially-distanced shows simply do not work. “The atmosphere is vile — people love being together. We need to work out the protocols for public events, whether they are music shows or conferences. If things don’t happen by next year then dozens and dozens of businesses will go bust. It’s horrible.”
He is right. It is horrible for this industry that I have grown to admire so much when putting on shows and releasing records with Africa Express. And it is alarming to see so many talented artists and technicians struggling as their adored way of life is obliterated. Many other sectors are also suffering, of course, beyond this one with its rare ability to lift spirits and unite people in shared joy. But the crisis in the music industry is reaching a crescendo and, after the Chancellor’s bum note last week, he and his colleagues need to listen a little closer if they want to salvage the future of one of the nation’s few world beating industries.