Will it take Arts to be Silenced before they are Appreciated? Is their Resilience their Downfall?
Each of us feel we have a duty to reveal our individual experiences and hardships whilst recognising that so many others in different sectors of society face similar problems. Are musicians a special case? Probably not, but our problems may too easily be subordinated by a society which seems dominated by the needs of the economy.
The tragedy of the COVID pandemic comes at a time when the sector is already reeling from years of austerity and the prospective impact of Brexit. Whilst all musicians have endeavoured to find a path through this crisis, the problems are insurmountable without the support of Government. I cannot help feel that the glimmers of strategies filtering through appear to be focusing almost exclusively on temporary measures related to paralysis of activity in order to accommodate the Government’s social-distancing ‘advice’. For instance, talks about licensing car parks as concert venues, or transforming concert halls into film studios so music is ultimately recorded and streamed rather than heard and experienced live.
Are these not temporary ‘fixes’? Surely, the United Kingdom does not intend to instil this as a ‘new normal’ as the ideal vision for cultural life post-COVID- 19? What distresses me greatly is the apparent blindness – or is it lack of sympathy? – for the fact that the arts sector relies heavily on forward planning and mobility. Despite this no longer-term vision is being communicated. Indeed, when social distancing ultimately falls away the very stark visual representations of the desperate fate of the cultural sector – the empty hall, the technologically ill-equipped but valiant home-made efforts at streaming free online events, the closure of all grant-giving bodies for cultural projects – will simply move conveniently out of sight, and out of mind.
The crisis has denied me the ability to work as a performing musician with all concerts and festivals cancelled for the foreseeable future in the UK and internationally without compensation. I refuse to stop ‘working’ – and like so many of my colleagues have instead been streaming free content through YouTube with the now iconic inadequate home set-up. However, even Lockdown relaxes I still receive news of cancellations reaching me for events I was due to take place in 2021 and beyond.
Yesterday’s announcement that concert halls will be allowed to open, but live performance in them will be forbidden, demonstrates that policy makers have decided that streamed (and in many cases edited) concerts have been the favoured solution to the socially-distanced world.
Much praise has rightly been given to the way initiatives such as the Wigmore Hall’s concerts in an empty venue have found a creative ‘solution’ to these barriers. It was set up as a symbol of art’s resilience, but is the brutally honest result actually that that message has been corrupted by policy makers? As cinemas, pubs and restaurants are deemed safe enough to be allowed to open to live groups of people, has art’s message of refusing to be silenced somewhere been confused with the notion that live audiences are somehow ‘non-essential items’ in our ecosystem, and indeed reason for performing at all?
Initiatives like the Wigmore Hall concerts are only possible because of incredibly generous private sponsorship. The online streaming of live concerts is by no means at all a new initiative, and has supplemented professional performances in recent years quite regularly. Sadly, as a self-sustaining initiative it is as economically unviable as the flurry of live-streamed and pre-recorded COVID concerts that have been posted on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram all across the world by professional musicians whether in amateurish quality from their own home, or professionally recorded performances from hired empty venues.
From professional experience I would like to share a sobering fact. As of the start of 2020, irrespective of the length of music (and classical music tracks can easily be 15-30 minutes long, compared to 2-3 minutes for popular music):
- a ‘stream’ on YouTube will pay me $0.00087
- a click on Spotify will pay me $0.00318
To put that into perspective: to professionally record that one track could easily cost the performing artist over £1,000 without inclusion of any performance or recording fees for creating that content (i.e. only covering venue hire, technicians, sound engineers, minimal editing). In other words, £5,000 barely covers an unedited ‘live-stream’ concert, whereas £10,000 is a budget small-scale CD-length recording of around 70 minutes.
This issue predates the COVID pandemic. Such ridiculous financial returns means that the unviable but necessary expenditure of streaming is now set for disaster with a looming financial crisis that will impact sponsorship and arts charities reserves now empty. If lack of money becomes an even greater barrier to musicians – particularly emerging talent – in presenting their work on the online or digital arena to make a name, and hence career, this has dire impact on the social diversity, equal opportunity and diversity of those able to enter the profession. The mammoth efforts to ‘level the playing field’ and of inspiring the next generation in the United Kingdom by charities, institutions and individuals are all for absolutely nothing.
As a partial remedy to this, there has been suggestion from the Labour Party that a system of ‘enhanced busking’ might be the way forward: socially distanced concerts outdoors. I cannot say I am filled with joy. The desperation of performing artists to get any outlet to keep their career alive and find a source of income – especially when they have completely ‘fallen through the cracks’ of the Government’s Self-Employed Grant Scheme – will inevitably mean this suggestion will find support. Is it not a cruel gimmick at a time when such performing artists are at their most vulnerable? Busking again is not a new initiative. It has always been an outlet for particular genres of performing arts: street and outdoor music & dance festivals and carnivals. They interact with small audiences, usually have amplified rather than live sound; and are dependent on donations and the weather, neither of which they can predict. How about a classical music recital that relies on the acoustic properties of a hall of some sort (whether church, concert venue or other room)? How about an instrument – such as an irreplaceable violin, or an intricately complex piece of machinery such as the concert piano – that is so sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature that it is prohibitive for it to be used outdoors? Furthermore, classical music’s nuances do not stand up well to amplification.
To compound matters further, unlike most of the eminent names participating in discussions with the Government, I am part of the large minority who have built up a career that financially relied on a mixture of PAYE and self- employed work. This mixture, as I have painfully found out, despite being anticipated to bring in an income of below £20,000, is a recipe for in being disqualified from any of the Government’s COVID-19 help schemes for workers.
For most professional performers, teaching is an integral thread of income. For PAYE work in education it is typical for contracts to be for individual courses or modules, which only go ahead if a set number of students are enrolled. Restrictions and fear (of COVID-19, and looming or actual financial crisis) have stalled enrolments to unviable levels cancelling most of this work. The same reasons have kept away private students. And although Zoom has been touted as a workable and pleasant solution. I would urge politicians to think how satisfying it is to have parliamentary debates over this medium. Then to consider how ridiculous it is to talk about delicate nuances in sound or movement in such a crude set-up. So, stripped of giving all but a few online music lessons, I am – like this large minority in the cultural sector – not covered by any of the Government’s measures to support workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I feel the Government must be honest as to how far into the future the damage from COVID-19 Lockdown has been considered in relation to the performing arts in these respects:
- Once social distancing is eased and the performing arts can go back to their ‘normal’ venues and allow in live audiences, would this be then be the trigger to end active discussion about saving the arts sector from the COVID-19 Lockdown and its funding?
- Concerts and festivals are planned years in advance in many cases. Cancellation of all pre-planned live 2020 events until at least the autumn had generally been accepted already by mid-March. However, this has an impact on 2021 and beyond as organisers terminate existing contracts with pre-planned young artists without compensation (citing force majeur or similar) in order to employ ‘big names’ to boost ticket sales and to get noticed;
- Classical music has sought to prove itself as being accessible to disadvantaged audiences for a long time, and so made an emphasis on free or very cheap tickets to remove financial obstacles. Compared with the EU, professional concert fees in the UK have been notoriously insignificant – sometimes even a joke. The expectation of free and cheap music has become an integral element to Lockdown streaming. If audiences are slow to return to live concerts due to fear or inconvenience, or venue capacity is required to be cut to accommodate for some social distancing, ticket prices would need to rise – yet, this very action would potentially put off audiences, and indeed in light of what seems to be inevitable economic gloom, make it prohibitive.
- Live concerts in concert halls and festivals have started making a return in Europe. Some very tentative offers for performing opportunities are appearing for heavily reduced performance fees, but insurers will not cover any disruption or other emergencies that are even remotely COVID-19 related in their opinion, including insolvency of an airline. What safety-net in terms of insurance can protect people who need to travel to work, rather than for a holiday, from potential changes in the situation that are beyond their control?
- How will it be ensured that any funding from the Government reaches individual performing artists who are partly or completely self-employed (many of whom have not been covered by any of the Government’s COVID-19 schemes), and not just big organisations who already have always had much more access to charitable grants?
- Brexit threatens an imminent decrease in performance income that UK performing artists can expect from opportunities in the EU. Will this be treated as a separate funding issue, or will it be combined with the COVID-19 ‘rescue’?
I appreciate how trivial these concerns may seem when so many other issues magnify the fractures in society in the wake of this pandemic. The COVID pandemic has proven that the arts are resilient. But, sector has literally been crippled to its knees by the double-strike of COVID-19 and Brexit. Will it really take arts to be silenced before they are appreciated?
The arts are vital for nourishing a unified spiritual identity for all those who regard this country as their home. Artists are, in a unique way, committed to selflessly promoting and demonstrating social inclusivity through ambitious outreach and voluntary work. They provide solace at a time when the mental health of the nation is desperately strained and actively reflect the vibrant historical and ongoing cosmopolitan spirit that each generation brings to this country.
What would the world be like where no one experiences the thrill of hundreds of people identifying and breathing as one, no sound comes through people’s headphones and speakers, no one sees the live testament to the grace with which it is possible to push the human body, the imagination is not stimulated to lift us beyond our day to day concern, and moments in our lives are not given meaning and significance beyond a forgotten ‘like’ on a social media feed.