Musicians and crew warn government of bankruptcy and industry damage without urgent support

"Culture is one of our biggest exports and at the moment it just feels so abandoned. We can ride this out with government help, but without it we’ll be left in tatters"

As the events industry braces for a global day of action, musicians, artists, crew and venues are echoing the call for government support to prevent jobs being lost, workers going bankrupt and catastrophic damage being done to the £5.2billion music scene.

After UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced details of the government’s new Winter Economy Plan for the next six months last week as the furlough scheme comes to an end, the music industry hit back for its lack of support for the many musicians, self-employed and the staff within venues forced to close due to COVID-19. Industry and nightlife figures then doubled down on their criticism yesterday after Health and Care Minister Helen Whately claimed that it “doesn’t make sense” to keep supporting jobs in the beleaguered sector.

The live music sector remains in danger with two thirds of the UK’s grassroots music venues still unable to go ahead with socially-distanced gigs, and hundreds still fighting for funding in a bid to survive COVID closures. With early April 2021 earmarked as the earliest that full capacity gigs might be able to return, #WeMakeEvents have planned an international day of action tomorrow (Wednesday September 30) to call for jobs in the sector to be mothballed until then.

“The Chancellor’s statement gives no encouragement to artists at all,” Blur drummer and Featured Artists Coalition member Dave Rowntree told NME. “Music remains in lockdown. Any hope we had of re-starting live shows has gone. The reality is, in the last week, the horizon has moved even further away.

“Many artists have received zero support so far. There is no acknowledgement of their plight or any hint of a solution to get them through this crisis. We are at risk of losing much of our music industry, the jewel in the crown of one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK economy.”

Blur (Picture: Getty)

Music Venue Trust CEO agreed that the current situation was a “serious concern” – particularly for the crew and staff who work behind the scenes to make live music possible.

“It’s about the permanent loss of vital skills, knowledge and experience in our industry,” he told NME. “If we lose them, these jobs simply won’t come back. These are viable jobs. The government restrictions have made them temporarily not viable. It’s a ludicrous position to say that they’re permanently unviable. They are viable and they’ve been viable for 60 years.”

Fiona Brice is a solo artist who also works as a touring musician with the likes of Placebo, Elbow, Phoebe Bridgers and Stereophonics‘ frontman Kelly Jones, as well as a session musician and orchestral arranger with artists including Anna Calvi and John Grant. Having had over six months of touring and tens of thousands of pounds of income wiped out in March, she told NME of her fears for the future of the industry and many of her friends and colleagues.

“Shows that were rescheduled for about now still can’t happen so we’re looking at rescheduling again for the same time next year,” she said. “We’re looking at holes in earning of around 18 months.”

She continued: “I’m quite fortunate because I have multiple jobs, but I know many trained musicians who haven’t done any paid work in six months and no assistance. It doesn’t look like they’re going to get anything. It can be a very bleak picture for some at the moment – especially for crew members. They are incredibly skilled technicians who are rarely out of work but are now going through an unprecedented lull. Some people I know have managed to get temporary work in supermarkets or doing deliveries, others are retraining, but nothing will replace what they had.

“A lot of them run their own businesses and need to store their own gear and are looking at huge costs for truckloads of equipment and not being able to earn from it.”

Fiona Brice on stage with Placebo in 2009 (Photo by Chiaki Nozu/FilmMagic)

Brice said she was hopeful of a tailor-made support package being available for the live music industry to be able to ride out the next six months until “we’ve lived with this virus for a year and understand how we can operate”, however she also warned of serious implications for the practicality of shows being able to return if not.

“Some people are going to have to find other means of employment at a very, very competitive time or go massively bankrupt,” she said. “That’s the reality we’re looking at. Without government assistance, we’re looking at the very real possibility that people will have to sell their houses, sell their equipment and sell their instruments. The danger of that is that when the industry does start up again, half the components or half the people are going to be missing.”

Speaking of the disenchantment felt by many, she claimed: “People feel so peeved at the moment and we understand what’s happened, but our industry is so massive that we’re all so proud of and feel completely ignored – largely by the media. We’re hearing about footballers every day but we’re not hearing about crew or session musicians. It feels like an insult. It’s like people don’t respect what we do. We thought we were valued and it feels right now like we’re very much not. I know a a lot of people are struggling with that on a mental health level, asking ‘Have I been working for 20 years on top of my game for nothing?’

“I also think it sends out a horrible message to anyone who’s about to do an arts degree. Why bother if the industry is being decimated? Culture is one of our biggest exports and at the moment it just feels so abandoned. We can ride this out with government help, but without it we’ll be left in tatters.”

Fiona Brice performs live at Bush Hall on June 15, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Burak Cingi/Redferns)
Fiona Brice performs live at Bush Hall on June 15, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Burak Cingi/Redferns)

Andy Lenthall is the general manager of the Production Services Association. When asked about the extent of the government’s support to the behind the scenes workers of the music industry, he replied: “What support? It will help a few employers, but just a few. It falls way short of what our sector needs.”

“I’m sure they understand that they’ve basically outlawed what we do,” he told NME. “I’m sure they’ll understand even more that those events that do plan to go ahead with a safe, risk-assessed environment are still getting closed down by local authorities. It’s an uphill struggle for a company to survive, it’s an uphill struggle for a company to provide for their staff, and the support that we need to just keep the sector dormant for the next six months wasn’t there.

“Whether outdoor events or indoor events, the sector is down in revenue generation by over 90 percent. That means that revenue supplied into that sector is down by a similar amount. The impact is catastrophic.”

The #WeMakeEvents march in Manchester. Credit: Getty

Asked if he was confident of a positive response from the government in the coming weeks, Lenthall told NME: “The only real confidence that exists for the sector at the moment is that whatever’s left at the end of this will build the sector back up again. We can only be confident in ourselves. We’re rapidly losing confidence in the treasury, the chancellor and the government to provide what we need. Our hope is being tested to the limit, but there’s absolutely no point in giving up.

“Now that the support for self-employed people has really dwindled, we’ve turned our attention to fundraising through our welfare fund, Stage Hand. We’ve launched a COVID-19 crew relief fund that we need to fill with money then empty with grants to the people who need it most. We’re at the point now where the roofs over people’s heads and the food on their table is under threat. We need to protect the people who have fallen through the gaps.”

NME has contacted various government bodies for a response on what further action will be taken a number of times but had no response.

The latest day of action comes after music crews marched in Manchester last month to demand action from the government. They warned that over 100,000 jobs could be lost in the events industry if government support is not received.

The distribution of the £1.57billion Culture Recovery Fund will also begin in October – but many music spaces are expected to not receive funding and be forced to close for good.

You can donate to the Save Our Venues campaign here, the StageHand fund hereand the #WeMakeEvents fund here.