Chancellor’s speech offers more fear than hope for UK musicians

Music industry bodies have reacted with a mixture of anger and cautious optimism to the speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, on 24 September.

UK Music’s Acting CEO Tom Kiehl said he welcomed the emergency jobs scheme but with qualifications. No specific aid was targeted at the performance arts sector with Chancellor Rishi Sunak announcing that help will be focussed on ‘viable jobs which provide genuine security’.

Tom Kiehl responded, ‘It is good to see the extension of the 15% VAT cut and the breathing space to businesses facing VAT bills through the New Payment Scheme. However, there appears to little to give comfort to the many talented people in the music industry who are key to our entrepreneurial future.

‘We need special arrangements and sector specific support for the music industry, where 72% of the workforce is self-employed, until our industry can get back on its feet.’

The freelance sector and music venues are particularly outraged by Rishi Sunak’s statement, which all but ignores their needs.

Live music industry ‘on almost complete hold’

The Musicians’ Union issued a carefully worded report on the new support scheme. ‘Whilst today’s announcement is, of course, welcome for many workers, there are a huge number of outstanding questions to be answered. Our surveys have shown that 38% of musicians were never able to benefit from either of the previous job support schemes, so we urge the Chancellor to ensure that these workers are not excluded from the plans announced today.

‘We also need to see more detail of how the replacement of the furlough scheme and the extension of SEISS (Self-Employed Income Support Scheme) will work in practice. The live music industry has been put on almost complete hold due to the Coronavirus crisis and 70% of our usual members are currently unable to work at more than a quarter of their usual hours.’

The Chancellor’s plan says that the government will pay two-thirds of workers’ wages but only if they work a minimum of one third of normal hours.

‘If the bar for qualifying for these schemes is set at 33% of normal hours this will be a huge problem for musicians,’ said the MU statement.

‘The extension of SEISS, while welcome, is set to cover only 20% of average monthly trading profits. Is the government seriously expecting many musicians to survive on 20% of their usual income for the next six months?’

The Union has urged its members to write to their MPs to amplify these concerns.

The Incorporated Society of Musicians’ Chief Executive, Deborah Annetts, echoed those fears saying Sunak’s scheme dealt a devastating blow to self-employed musicians. Philippa Childs, Head of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (BECTU), agreed: ‘It is clear that the Treasury has once again overlooked their needs.’

Prospects are little better for live music venues who may see no help from a government that insists most of them stay closed.

Music Venue Trust CEO Mark Davyd expressed deep concern saying, ‘The new job support scheme is built around the premise of returning to work, and employers returning to some level of income arising from that work to support those workers.

‘No part of the live music industry is in a position to pay 55% of its employees’ salaries’

‘The government has made it clear that it does not believe that the time is right for the live music industry to return to work, and where limited events under substantial restrictions are permitted, the income generated is insufficient to meet any of the government targets for employer contributions.

‘Bluntly, no part of the live music industry is in a position to pay 55% of its employees’ salaries in order to access the government support, which is entirely conditional on doing that.’

Davyd also pointed out that the music venue sector is still waiting to find out how the £500 Cultural Recovery Fund will be distributed after 5 October. As the government’s own Covid-19 restrictions dictate that most venues cannot trade, the government’s new approach of targeting only ‘viable’ businesses could mean many venues will see no help at all.

As Mark Davyd says, ‘The live music industry faces a crisis which is not of its own making. It is vital that it survives this crisis. The challenge is manageable with sensible, targeted interventions by the government. Music Venue Trust awaits the outcome of the Cultural Recovery Fund to assess if that is the action required.’

Julian Bird, Chief Executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, said that the world-beating UK theatre industry faced decimation because the government’s own restrictions prevent them generating enough income to bring staff back.

‘The government must act to protect musicians’

During his press conference, the Chancellor responded to questions about the arts sector being unable to bring staff back for even one third of their usual hours: ‘It is important now that support is focussed on those companies that can provide viable jobs with genuinely viable, secure futures for their employees.’

The Musicians’ Union reacted with thinly veiled anger, ‘These jobs are entirely viable jobs, they have just been completely paused during this crisis and the government must act to protect musicians.’

London Mayor Sadiq Khan backed the industry’s concerns. ‘Many of these businesses can’t afford to keep people on even part time, with London’s nightclubs, theatres and music venues that operate late at night unable to re-open at all. And many self-employed people reliant on sectors such as our creative industries will need more support than what the Chancellor has proposed.’

Jon Morgan, Director of the Theatres Trust, said the Job Support Scheme would only benefit the lucky few theatres and venues that can find ways of opening. ‘Sadly, it will not benefit most theatres and we fear that it will not be enough to stem the flow of redundancies across the sector nor ultimately to protect the fabric of our cultural landscape.’

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