Paul Heaton, as unlikely as it might sound, is the new Orange Goblin. In 2016, when Classic Rock magazine was shut down by publisher Team Rock, Ben Ward of the aforementioned London hard rock stalwarts launched a JustGiving fundraiser to help the laid-off staff. A few months later Classic Rock was rescued by Future Publishing, but the substantial sum raised by those sleeveless Samaritans helped keep some of the country’s most dedicated and talented AC/DC fans in denim patches and bandanas that lean Christmas.
In the same pay-it-back spirit, while the remaining rock press was pouring out a Courvoisier for Q, indie-pop hero Paul Heaton – as the magazine’s final editor Ted Kessler revealed on Twitter last week – dug deep to make a sizeable donation to the venerable mag’s staff and writers and became an instant pandemic superhero. It wasn’t Heaton’s first behind-the-scenes donation to the greater good either; in 2017 he revealed that he’d once offered to nationalise The Beautiful South’s back catalogue, passing on any further profits to the nation’s coffers. Morrissey might claim the union flag is emblazoned across his heart, but would he have it similarly stitched across his wallet?
Heaton’s act was also a sign that the hippies were right – selflessness, as rare a quality in the world of music as a sober breakfast, really will make you more content in the long run. Rock history has countless examples of kind-hearted financial karma paying off. Elton John and George Michael, famed for their unspoken charity, will forever be ‘much-loved superstars’ while Bono and Gary Barlow, famed for their labyrinthine offshore tax arrangements, will always be shady shysters no matter how many Pudseys they help shift.
Those bands who equally share their publishing and royalty credits, a la Coldplay, tend to become enduring, supportive creative units, while resentments tend to grow and fester in the ranks of acts where the singer’s rocking up to rehearsal from their Montreux winter retreat in a Bentley full of specialist lobster chefs, while the bassist’s hitching in from a drainage ditch in Huddersfield.
How many times have we watched a band with one breakthrough album and limitless potential fall apart in a tawdry royalties court squabble, see their lacklustre solo careers bomb and have to reform for a reunion album that might as well be called ‘Through Gritted Teeth’ and a tour on which they’re all clearly counting down songs like zeroes on a tax bill? That’s where indulging your inner Axl Rose will get you. That Hollywood Hills swimming pool gets a few degrees colder with every bitter tear of a screwed-over schoolmate that goes towards filling it.
I heartily salute Heaton’s selfless gesture towards a particularly vulnerable group; after all, the average music journalist’s transferable skills only qualify us to retrain as professional drug scroungers, hecklers and Twitter arsehole magnets. But, just as I worry that the Government might use the pandemic as an excuse to convince the public that the NHS should be entirely funded by retired generals being whipped around 10,000 laps of their allotments, I hope Heaton’s generous act doesn’t set a precedent.
Last week, a newspaper headline correctly interpreted Rishi Sunak’s tangled Tory-speak on ITN as meaning that those musicians with no work and zero help from his colander support schemes should retrain as something else (handy Tory translation: “adapt” means ‘get a different job’ and “new opportunities” means ‘building your own robot replacement’). As, among many others, Sleaford Mods gave the chancellor a taste of what it’s like being a Nottingham Job Centre Work Coach trying to cancel their giro, the Tories who have somehow outwitted all my online anti-bastard filters began chorusing a familiar small-state argument. It was like this week’s Songs Of Malaise was being brought to me from the 12th Century chapel of St. Cunt’s in Wiltshire.
It shouldn’t be up to the Government to save an arts sector that gives them £5 billion in Treasury income each year, they bleated. It should be the major record labels, festival promoters, top-tier agents and superstars that step in. It didn’t matter to them that Sunak was planning to raise the taxes of the three million people who were excluded from support – including almost 40 per cent of the UK’s musicians – so that, over the long term, they’ll pay dearly for grants they didn’t even get. “No”, go the I’m-alright-Tobys, “let Ed Sheeran put his hand in his pocket and save music.”
It’s a callous idea, and one which Rishi Sunak appears to be trying to force upon us, seeming to shift the onus onto the industry itself. “Adapt”, he’s saying, or die. He’s expecting big-name musicians to hold fundraisers, make secretive donations, play charity livestreams and support hundreds of thousands of crew and technicians out of their personal slush funds, long-since decimated by multiple alimonies, fraudulent accountants and ill-advised Presidential runs. He perhaps hopes that labels will throw their profit margins to the wind, re-sign every act they’ve ever dropped and expand their rosters to take in thousands of Covid-hit piano tutors in anticipation of huge returns from the tsunami of ‘Chopsticks’ covers released in 2021.
Unfortunately, the music industry is notably short on Heatons and awash with Bonos; no amount of rock star charity will be enough to keep the entire arts sector afloat. Only Sunak really has the means to rescue it and we’re right to be horrified that, so far, he appears to be planning to let it sink or swim, but with his boot on its head. Music is a viable industry not a charity, and Rishi Sunak needs to treat it like one.