MUSIC:ED asks: how can any civilised nation call music ‘unviable’?

Classical spectacular at the Royal Albert Hall

The watchword for the UK Government is ‘viable’ and we will be hearing it more and more in the coming weeks.

‘Unviability’ is Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s reasoning for not extending his Covid-19 support schemes to thousands of UK businesses. It has caused panic through many industries that we take for granted as part of British life.

24/09/2020 – the day the music died

Musicians’ Union (MU) and BECTU members were among those who carried out a silent protest in Parliament Square against Sunak’s measures last week. Placards said, ‘The Wolf Is At The Door’ and ‘24/09/2020 – the day the music died’. T-shirts dangling from makeshift gallows read, ‘Our entire industry hung out to dry’. One sign spelled it out, ‘400,000+ theatre workers, over 15.3 million audience members, over £14 billion in revenue – we are viable.’

This week, the events industry warned of 90,000 redundancies if companies don’t get help. The Musicians’ Union and UK Music have denounced the Northern Ireland ban on live performance and the MU has released figures suggesting a third of its members may have to give up music as a profession. Unions and industry bodies are united in begging the Chancellor to rethink.

The government is responding with a ‘tough love’ stance. It has started saying that businesses that can’t survive weren’t viable in the first place and that it is turning its support to retraining the workers who have lost their ‘unviable’ vocations.

Who decides what job is viable or not?

On the last day of September, in response to Ed Milliband MP’s question about the lack of support for the cultural and tourism sector in Rishi Sunak’s plans, The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma, effectively said that the cultural and tourism industries were unviable and that the government would pay to retrain them to get ‘better jobs’.

The problem is, who decides what job is viable or not and how do they come to that conclusion? How can any civilised nation call music ‘unviable’?

British music is a huge contributor to the Exchequer and a powerful global soft power influence. British music contributes far more than the fishing industry, to use a provocative example. Music earns more money, employs more people, has greater global influence and has a positive impact on the health and well-being of the nation (accepting, of course, that the fishing fleet would also do the latter if we ate more fish).

The government’s own policies have driven hundreds of thousands of people out of work and pushed thousands of businesses to the brink of collapse

Music is not a luxury. Whether a musician is a teacher, a therapist, a busker, orchestra member, band member, session player or superstar, one would be hard-pressed to think of them as disposable. Music is vital to mental health and wellbeing and musicians have a right to earn a living from their profession.

The twist in the government’s logic is that the only reason these businesses have become ‘unviable’ is because of the government’s Covid-19-related restrictions. The government’s own policies have driven hundreds of thousands of people out of work and pushed thousands of businesses to the brink of collapse.

What happens when the members of the LSO have retrained as plumbers?

However much one might agree that these measures were necessary to save lives, they are the reason musicians and music-related businesses have suffered, not through any self-inflicted ‘unviability’ or flawed business models.

And what happens when things head towards normality? What happens when the members of the LSO have retrained as plumbers and Mumford and Sons are picking fruit in the People’s Republic of Kent? What happens when music therapists have replaced foreign care workers and music teachers are bricklaying for Persimmon? What happens when the pub musicians of Northern Ireland have become customs officials?

The record industry has fared well through this. It makes money from streaming and everyone is streaming more than ever before. Tens of thousands of new singles are released digitally every week and although each makes pennies for the artist, the owners and shareholders of the platforms are coining it.

Talent, skill and passion make all our lives worth living

Some of them are putting a bit back into the pot, recognising that their talent source is under threat. But they cannot help the thousands of freelance musicians who have been denied access to the Self Employment Income Support Scheme, skilled artists who can teach, perform, compose and run their own businesses. They can do nothing for the technicians and support industries who have built viable careers and viable businesses on the back of British music. They cannot keep the venues open that their star signings will need to promote themselves.

The only way to keep this invaluable national resource intact and ready is for the government to wake up and recognise how important music will be to our recovery and support the thousands of people who may never become famous, but whose talent, skill and passion make all our lives worth living.

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