In an ITV interview this week, Rishi Sunak suggested that musicians were ‘unviable’ and that they should start should looking for other jobs. Outraged, hundreds of musicians across London and Birmingham came together to protest the government’s lack of support, warning of an impending cultural desert if not supported. Was Sunak right? Do musicians need to develop thicker skin and start looking for new jobs or has he missed something?
If Sunak looked at any musician’s tax returns he would quickly realise that many musicians already have a portfolio career; they perform in concerts, they teach, they record soundtracks, they play at events, for religious services, in hospitals and care homes, they perform outreach work in prisons, they work in music therapy. There is no one job that a musician has. If they’re lucky they might have a contract with a major orchestra or opera house that gives them some security.
However, most are freelancers. This is unlike the EU, where many venues are publicly subsidised and where many UK musicians are now permanently moving. Of those that can work, they must now juggle ever-changing COVID regulations with the onslaught of free music being posted daily online, where the year’s long debate of how to monetise online content has finally hit a harsh reality.
If Sunak were to look further he would then see the many other costs that lead to the creation of a musician. Most musicians study for years before completing an undergraduate and masters degree, four to six years of student debt. Then there’s the cost of an instrument, insurance for that instrument, sheet music costs, exam costs, sheet music for exams, travel costs, accompanist costs, county youth music group costs, concert dress, tour costs, entrance fees for competitions, entrance fees for auditions, masterclass costs, instrumental courses costs, a vehicle big enough to carry your instrument perhaps, the list is endless. Being a musician is an investment of a lifetime’s work so when you sit down to listen to a concert or soundtrack, everything you hear is flawless.
Of course, this debate goes much further than monetary value. Since the lockdown began, we have flocked online to watch concerts, gigs, plays, ballets, films and television series. Musicians across the world poured their talents online to connect and engage with audiences. In a time where many of us have been unable to see loved ones, sometimes even in their last days, music has kept us together. If we were to go into another lockdown, how long would you survive without music? How would you watch your favourite film or television series, listen to an audiobook or podcast, or even know if your phone was going off?
Musicians are viable. They have been for many years. In 2018 the music industry contributed £5.2 billion to the UK economy, with the arts and culture sector being valued at £13.5 billion. There are studies published every year proving that music helps with children’s development as well as our physical and mental health. We have many of the world’s leading musicians, orchestras, soloists, conductors and composers as well as some of the most iconic venues.
Yet, despite this, Rishi Sunak would throw all this away. He fails to see the financial and spiritual contribution music makes to society and the long term cost of failing to invest. Many musicians have already taken up jobs in supermarkets or driving deliveries to get through the pandemic. Skills that have been honed and crafted for years are being abandoned. Many musicians are moving abroad or simply abandoning the skills they have spent a lifetime perfecting.
If we do not act now, life after lockdown will sound very different.