We need to change the tune

As the term ‘precarious work’ becomes ever more prevalent in discussions surrounding workers’ rights, you can almost hear the collective voices of musicians echoing that ‘we’ve done it for years’. Sadly, the word ‘precarious’ is becoming ever-more pertinent in most industries and sectors and what we are seeing is the gradual erosion of full-time, permanent work. However, for professional musicians this isn’t a new concept and 2017 has been quite a year for professional musicians in Scotland; and 2018 is shaping up to be just as challenging.

The Scottish Government announced the development of a ‘Cultural Strategy for Scotland’. This is a welcome and positive idea, and arguably much needed given the recent chaos surrounding the issuing of funding by Creative Scotland to Regularly Funded Organisations. Will there ever be enough funding to go around? We need more money for the arts, as opposed to constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul. A Cultural Strategy must be instructive and practical as opposed to philosophical. Its findings should also be implemented in consultation with the relevant unions and cultural bodies who have made submissions to the strategy.  

There has been significant discussion around the subject of the protection of our grassroots live music venues. The UK has lost around half of these venues which can be characterised as small venues (under 350 capacity). These venues serve a hugely important role in local communities. They are where music fans discover new talent, where young, up-and-coming bands and artists perform for the first time; where they ‘cut their teeth’ and learn the craft of live performance. These venues are important cultural hubs and an integral part of our live music ecology. In spite of this, they have fallen under the swinging axe of planning and licensing laws meaning that they easily fall victim to noise complaints. No-one would dispute the right to live a peaceful quiet life. However, if one chooses to move into a busy, city centre location, then one should expect a bit of noise. Such issues have been exacerbated by new building developments going ahead with wholly inadequate sound proofing and often without highlighting during the planning submission process the presence of the nearby music venues. The result is unhappy residents who complain to the local authorities who typically side against the noisy venue, without considering how long the venue has been there or the purpose it serves within the local community and to the wider live music ecology of the town or city.

Venues across the country have been calling out for the implementation of the Agent of Change principle, which dictates that if a development goes ahead next to a live music venue, then the negative impact of any noise emissions will be mitigated by the developers; and conversely, if a new venue opens in a residential area, for example, then it is the venue who should fork out for the costly sound proofing. This common-sense approach has now been welcomed into planning legislation in England, Wales and now to Scotland – a small yet significant win for the venues, their audiences and the musicians who work in them. However, this doesn’t spell the end of threats to venues, as other problems such as inordinately high business rates remain.

Brexit continues to be a looming concern for working musicians. Our union launched a campaign in 2017 and focussed on five key issues: free movement of musicians in Europe, copyright protection, workers’ rights, the rights of the EU citizens in Britain (just imagine the devastating effect on or orchestras, for example if these incredibly talented players who have created lives here were forced to leave) and the retention of current levels of arts funding from Europe.

Our instrumental music services have for years now been under threat from austerity, year on year cuts to council budgets and cuts to education budgets – so there has been an ever-reducing number of Instrumental Music Teachers and the concern that the provision of instrumental music services is being eroded to the point of no return. The number of music teachers has declined with 350 less working in schools now than there were in 2007. Whilst the Youth Music Initiative is valuable, it cannot be a substitute for a fully resourced instrumental teaching service. We are seeing more cuts and more charging by councils which is impacting on the poorest students with the greatest force. Music is a subject that could help bridge the Poverty Related Attainment Gap, with the positive cerebral effects it has on other areas of learning and yet we increasingly see this subject reserved for those who can best afford it. Without music education, there will be no musicians and subsequently, no music industry. The situation requires urgent attention before there is nothing left.

Caroline Sewell is the Regional Organiser for Scotland and Northern Ireland for the Musicians’ Union.

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