• Max Burt


Updated: Mar 6, 2021

With our winter lockdown in place, will the government learn from their previous mistakes? Will the music industry receive the bolstering that it needs, or will musicians and small venues be – for the second time this year – left frostbitten?

England’s second national lockdown has landed – and with it, another slew of gig cancellations and postponements.

Musicians have taken hit after emotional hit since the Spring lockdown, living in uncertainty as the hope for a quick return to gigging rises, only to be routinely dashed every couple of months. Lockdown 2.0 has fed this fear moreso than ever, indicating that live shows may not return until far into 2021. Whispered in hushed tones, there is an anxiety that the 2020 routine will become the despondent cyclical norm; months of no gigging, followed by a few socially distanced gigs, then back to no gigging, and so on. As Rou Reynolds has coined it, “Schroedinger’s Gigs.”

Yesterday, 5th November, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a surprising U-turn – the furlough scheme in England has been extended after the government said they would avoid doing so. Businesses that will struggle to make ends meet during this lockdown are receiving a grant of 80% of their profits, to the relief of millions across the country. The cynic in me says that thanking the government for extending the furlough is like a cat thanking its owner for feeding it regularly, but credit where credit is due; this was not an easy call for the Chancellor to make when the country is already massively in debt, and it’s refreshing to see the prioritisation of human welfare over profit after ten years of austerity.

This is a short-term win for small music venues – hopefully, the furlough extension is enough to keep them afloat at least during this one-month lockdown. For self-employed musicians, however, it’s a dangerously different story.

How much aid will self-employed bands & artists get?

When the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) was first introduced in the Spring, it covered 55% of self-employed income – for Lockdown 2.0, the grant has been thankfully upgraded to 80%. However, where the furlough scheme has been extended until March 2021, the SEISS only covers November, December and January. A followup grant covering February to April has been announced, but the government aren’t willing to share the details of it yet. The future financial security for the self-employed is being treated with less import than it deserves – but that is far from the only problem. The following is a quote from the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ report into the new SEISS grant:

‘We estimate that 18% of those for whom self-employment makes up at least half their income are ineligible for SEISS, while 38% of those with any self-employment income are ineligible.’

That’s right – one in five self-employed people will receive no aid from the government, and over one in three people with any amount of self-employed income will receive no aid. This is largely due to 1) eligibility for SEISS requiring that the self-employed person gets over half of their income from self-employment, and 2) eligibility for SEISS requiring that the self-employed person filed a tax return in 2018-2019.

As we know, the vast majority of bands and artists are self-employed. With gigs cancelled and streaming services not being held accountable to pay their fair share, the lifeblood of the music business itself – the music – is being clobbered with every single step. The most promising new bands and artists who are beginning to earn an income will likely be denied the financial aid they need, considering they do not earn above half of their income from the music and gigs, or did not earn an income from the music and gigs back in 2018-2019. This is exactly the same situation that occurred in March – where businesses have been given a decent (but wonky) pair of glasses, the self-employed have been given a pair with one broken lens.

The closure of small music venues: will the government learn from their mistakes?

This Summer into the Autumn, many small music venues in England faced the horrible threat of closure. For some venues like the Welly in Hull, that threat became a reality. If the government makes the same mistakes again this time around, it’s unlikely that even more venues will be able to survive.

With the decade-long backdrop of arts underfunding, the initial Spring furlough scheme failed to give small music venues the financial security they so desperately needed. After a few months of vigorous campaigning, the government rolled out a £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund in July; a stimulus package for the survival of British culture and arts during the pandemic, £2.2mn of which was given to roughly 150 small music venues in England. This was a bolstering boon for many, keeping venues afloat as income began to trickle in once again from socially-distanced gigs. For other venues, it was too little too late – or just plain too late.

According to the Small Music Venues Index, roughly 377 small venues operate in England. The government’s £2.2mn was distributed between 150 of these venues. If the Small Music Venues Index’s and the government’s definition of ‘small music venue’ is at all similar, then we can estimate that only 40% of England’s small venues received aid.

That is not good enough.

The clear argument in the government’s defense here is that money is finite – already billions upon billions in debt, the government was simply prioritising, and small music venues are lower on the funding list than, say, keeping the NHS alive. This is a sensible point, but let’s take a closer look at how the £1.57bn fund was divided (for the sake of argument, we’ll say that the £1.57bn is the absolute limit of the budget that the Culture Recovery Fund was given, as increasing the fund any further would eat into the budgets for the NHS, the furlough scheme, unemployment benefits, etc.). The £2.2mn given to small music venues was 0.14% of the full £1.57bn – a microscopic slice of the cake. Even if the government had covered all 377 venues with roughly the same amount of money given to each one, it would’ve cost them £5.5mn – 0.35% of the whole Culture Recovery Fund. Meanwhile, a whopping £468,000 was handed to the massive Wentworth Woodhouse manor, a stately home in Yorkshire, one of over 400 heritage sites receiving a total of £103mn. That is 50x the amount of money given to small music venues.

As creatives, we recognise the huge value of history, heritage and culture, and of course the maintenance of heritage sites is always going to cost much more than that of small music venues. Though, in a time of widespread sickness, rampant unemployment and rising poverty, we as a country need to consider where our priorities lie; the maintenance of property, or the livelihood of an entire industry?

It is clear that the government needs to give small music venues, as well as bands and artists themselves, a larger slice of the cake. From a practical sense, while that slice would need to double or triple in size to become satisfactory, it would still remain a minuscule fraction of the money that Rishi Sunak is already spending. From a sense of justice and wellbeing, that increased aid seems owed to the non-corporate music industry. A decade of arts underfunding and the lack of regulation over predatory labels and music streaming services has taken a vicious toll, made all the worse by the pandemic, and the future of the industry potentially faces stagnation and oligarchy.

Apologies for the doom and gloom – all is not lost! Despite services like Spotify considering the implementation of even more profit-over-music functions, this year has seen a huge surge in campaigning for the rights of musicians. MPs are set to examine the negative impact of streaming services on bands and artists at the end of this month, the first time legislative-level attention has been given to these predatory practices. New methods of artist-friendly streaming payment models are being pioneered by existing services and startups, and the #BrokenRecord campaign has been snowballing since Spring. It’s a long road, fret with potholes – but there is a tangible rise in demand for new-age labour rights for bands, artists and allied labels.

As for the short-term survival of England’s small music venues, will the government once again play with the livelihoods of venue owners, staff and musicians? They need to learn from last time; bolster the small venues that are so essential for England’s individual wellbeing, local pride, and national culture.

Or to put it in terms this government understand: don’t leave $5.2bn of economic contribution out in the cold.

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