If music be the food of love and life, then musicians need state support to play on

Caroline Sewell shows what the Musicians’ Union has done during the pandemic but demands state support to go further.

The music industry, and indeed the wider creative industries, have been amongst the most deeply impacted as a result of the global pandemic. The music industry relies on the ability to tour both domestically and internationally, and to perform live in front of audiences of all sizes. Musicians work from small rehearsal, recording studio or lesson spaces and are in close contact with other musicians, be they students or fellow players in bands, ensembles, orchestras or studio settings. During the pandemic all this work disappeared and the playing of some instruments – specifically voice, brass and woodwind were effectively banned from being taught and being performed out with very specific circumstances.

The music industry in the UK was already facing certain existential catastrophes in the form of Brexit and in the face of disappearing sales of recorded music, paltry music streaming revenues and, of course, the all too familiar expectation for artists to work for free … or the promise of exposure which amounts to the same thing. As the world took an enforced simultaneous hiatus, further stories of sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse came to the fore. The pandemic exacerbated all of this by shining an unescapable light on these issues and ensured the continued decimation of the work and ability to earn for the artists and music creators. It further exposed the sheer vulnerability of the industry and the all too often toxic nature of the culture surrounding it.

When all of this is put into context, perhaps we should not have been surprised when instead of haemorrhaging members – which would have been understandable with so many no longer able to work and earn – the membership of the Musicians’ Union (MU) is currently at its highest since the days of the closed shop. This achievement was no doubt assisted somewhat by the provision of MU Hardship Fund and subscriptions fees holidays but still, it speaks volumes.

Whilst there is no doubt that the pandemic has been devastating for working musicians, in terms of organising and campaigning, it has also acted as a catalyst in some respects as the urgency to address these pre-existing issues became even more pressing. Solidarity with fellow unions and similarly minded organisations has never been more important or, indeed productive as it has been in the last two years.

So, the MU joined forces with the Ivors Academy to ‘Keep Music Alive’ and #FixStreaming. This campaign seeks to address the issues which mean that artists earn very little from streaming royalties – even when achieving significant numbers of plays. As a result of the campaign, the issue became the subject of a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Inquiry and study by the Competitions and Markets Authority.

In Scotland, we now work with more of our fellow creative unions than ever before – and more regularly. Previously established as the Scottish Federation of Entertainment Unions, the MU, Equity, BECTU and NUJ are now joined by Scottish Artists Union, Scottish Society of Playwrights and Writers Guild of Great Britain in our regular meetings with the STUC and Scottish Government officials. These levels of engagement had never previously existed, and it is essential that they remain to ensure that we achieve not only a recovery, but a vastly improved landscape for working creatives.

We need meaningful ongoing support for low earning artists. Hardship funds have been made available by many unions and arts organisations and have been welcomed by many – after all, they helped pay the bills and kept the wolves from the door. However, something more substantial is required which speaks to the intrinsic value of art and culture to society and also to the low paid precarity of this work and everything that comes with that – including a mental health crisis with musicians being three times more likely to suffer from depression as the general public. The 2021 MU Biennial Conference passed a motion in favour of Universal Basic Income (UBI) and many other unions are calling for the same. A pilot basic income scheme for artists is being trialled in the Republic of Ireland and we will be watching closely to see the results which will hopefully determine whether this could be the future here.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we are more acutely aware than ever of the importance of solidarity with fellow creatives and unions. Art and culture provided a lifeline for many during the lockdowns of the past two years which would for the vast majority have been unbearable had it not been for online concerts, theatre and television. Yet, those who work in these spheres suffered the most acutely. If the past two years has taught us anything, it is that it’s vital we continue to protect the existence of our arts and culture for ourselves and for future generations as our achievements have been hard won; and when we lose these gains, there’s no guarantee they will return.

Caroline Sewell is the Regional Organiser for the Scotland & Northern Ireland Region of the Musicians’ Union