Covid: Musicians are struggling, but it doesn’t have to be this way

Last week, I learned that one-third of British musicians could quit the music industry due to a lack of support during this coronavirus crisis. Some 2,000 members of the Musicians’ Union were recently surveyed on the issue in the UK. According to the results of the report, 34% of respondents are considering giving up their professional careers in music. Since lockdown began in March, those working in the music industry have been left unable to perform and thus have been hit sharply with financial difficulties.

Johnny Marr – Source: Author

The report published by The Guardian shows that almost half of the members surveyed have already found work outside the music industry, and 70% are unable to do more than a quarter of their usual work. “Musicians are working in supermarkets, being Deliveroo drivers, going back to things they trained for early in life,” Horace Trubridge, the union’s general secretary, told the Guardian.  

This autumn and winter threaten to be several months of no work for performing musicians and their crews if no extra financial support is coming from the government apart from universal credit.

Earlier this year, the Musicians’ Union conducted a survey which found that UK artists have lost £13.9 million in earnings because of coronavirus. The Musicians’ Union received responses from 4,100 of its 32,000 members, and 90% responded that their income had already been affected. Another survey from Music Venues Trust found that only 36% of British gig-goers feel safe returning to live music events. Yet, before the crisis the music industry was worth £5.2bn. How can the British government let this happen to one of the most admired and known sectors of the economy and culture of the United Kingdom?

The music industry doesn’t have to suffer so deeply! There are solutions; and others can be enabled and fostered.

I’ve personally spent the past six years writing on British music history and Bristol’s music scene and developing artists. I’ve also lectured on music journalism and given talks about how music has improved my life. During this pandemic music has been my greatest comfort, calming anxiety and filling the void left by cancelled events and inaccessible family members. It has brought meaningfulness and conveyed powerful messages.

My heart feels for the artists currently in turmoil. They are missing the possibility to express themselves and to perform, as much as their income.

Yet, music is still everywhere: on YouTube, on Spotify, on Apple Music, on Amazon Music, etc. These tech giants have made huge profits during the past six months, precisely because of the pandemic.

I’m pretty sure that music will keep me going through the worst days of the lockdown and a year without holidays in my home country, or anywhere else in the rest of Europe or the world.

So I want these artists to keep on receiving a decent amount of copyrights for all their production. Isn’t this the least we can do? I personally don’t use streaming platforms. I still buy albums, in physical copies or as MP3, because I’ve travelled a lot these past few years. But even if a few of us still do that, it can’t be enough. What musicians need is to receive better payment from these streaming services. We urgently need to rethink how revenues are shared between the artists, the record company, the distributors and the streaming platforms.

There are also political solutions to help supporting musicians while government restrictions prevent music events from happening.

The government has a responsibility to support an industry all of us cherish and benefit from.

According to the charity Help Musicians, “the vast majority of musicians are self-employed, and a recent survey carried out by the charity showed that 25% of these believed they would be ineligible for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme.” Despite strong and sustained demands from across the music industry, the government has not changed the terms of the scheme. In response, Help Musicians has launched a second phase of funding to provide financial support for musicians left with nothing but Universal Credit, or struggling to survive on what other support they receive.

At this stage, the British government could start taxing tech giants and online platforms properly. This could generate an emergency fund for musicians and their touring teams. Many groups and activists are also campaigning for local basic income trials during the second phase of the pandemic; such schemes could support the most vulnerable and the artists, especially musicians, who have no replacement to their work and income. 

Many friends of mine working in music have turned to teaching music lessons online to survive. And parents love the opportunity to keep their children occupied creatively! The government could support a scheme for developing such lessons. 

What can help our musicians?

A measure that could support musicians as well as artists and self-employed people and the unemployed in general is simply the creation of a national basic income. In mid-September there was International Basic Income Week, and many events raised awareness on this issue. A Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a guaranteed, recurring payment to every member of society, sized to meet basic needs. It approaches the problem of people not having enough to live on by giving everyone a check equal to the cost of living. In its fullest form, it should serve all members of society, be unconditional and guaranteed for recipients’ lifetimes. On 25 September, a European Citizens’ Initiative for UBI has started to try and collect 1 million signatures for the EU parliament to start UBI schemes throughout the EU. A few British cities have started similar discussions, like Liverpool and Scottish Councils in Fife, North Ayrshire, Edinburgh and Glasgow. (More on UBI in my interview with its main thinker, Professor Guy Standing here: ).

Finally, locally, we can rethink our events. As cinemas and some theatres have reopened, some music venues could work on socially distant seated events. It seems like a consolation prize now but it might become a precious idea if restrictions continue for another few months. Here in Bristol, a venue like The Lanes has put this into place ( Bands that have a huge fan base could start by performing many nights in a row in their home city, to replace touring. 

Audiences need live music just as much as musicians need to perform. The Musicians’ Union has listed all the funding sources that exist here and now:

 Let’s give music all the support that it needs.