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Music industry calls for clarity on government’s £1.57 billion COVID support scheme for the creative sector

By | Published on Tuesday 7 July 2020

Empty seats

While welcoming the UK government’s £1.57 billion commitment to help the creative industries weather the ongoing COVID-19 storm, a number of music industry organisations – including AIF, MMF, MU and ISM – have said they are seeking urgent clarity as to who exactly will benefit from that funding programme. They also want confirmation that general COVID support measures will be extended for those in the still shutdown creative industries.

After weeks of resisting calls to provide specific financial support to those in the creative sector negatively impacted by the COVID-19 shutdown, on Sunday night the government suddenly announced the £1.57 billion cash injection, a significant portion of which will be outright grants for companies and organisations operating in the arts. And while “the arts” doesn’t always include non-classical music for some reason, the government’s Sunday night missive confirmed that music venues would be among those supported.

But the devil, of course, is always in the detail. I don’t know why. You’d think the devil would want to hang out in the world of ambiguous claims and hollow promises at least some of the time. That sounds like the kind of world the devil might really enjoy. But then again, that’s also the world where ‘Boris’ Johnson lives. So you can maybe understand why the devil insists on staying put within the detail.

Among the detail being sought on Sunday night’s big money promise is how the cash will be split up between the different creative industries. Museums and the heritage sector will also be beneficiaries of the £1.57 billion fund, and within that domain are a number of institutions that the government would be pretty much obligated to bail out whatever happened.

Museums are expensive to run and have faced many of the same problems as the live entertainment sector – how much of the £1.57 billion will be spent on them? Then, of the money that goes to culture rather than heritage, how much will be allocated to those strands of the music industry that, in normal times, only get nominal (if any) government funding?

That music venues were specifically mentioned in Sunday’s big announcement is good news, and a testament to the relentless and prolific campaigning of organisations like the Music Venue Trust. But there are plenty of other people and companies in the wider music community also taken to the brink by COVID-19 and it’s not yet clear if and how they will be able to access support.

That includes independent festivals, which – even if live performances start to return this autumn – will have lost a full year’s worth of income as a result of the summer festival season being cancelled. The Association Of Independent Festivals noted yesterday that, while Sunday’s announcement ambiguously committed to support “live music”, “we are still yet to see any concrete, financial support for festivals – independent or otherwise – during this crisis”.

Confirming that his organisation had been in close contact with government throughout lockdown, AIF boss Paul Reed added: “The announcement of emergency support for the arts is clearly welcome but it is worrying that there has still been no specific mention of the UK’s festival industry – a sector that contributes so much to the economy and people’s lives, and one that finds itself in a uniquely precarious position during this pandemic”.

“The time for lip service is over”, he went on. “UK festivals have, to date, largely fallen through the cracks when it comes to financial aid and business support. Boris Johnson has told Parliament that he is doing all he can to support our ‘very, very valuable sector’, but we are yet to see evidence of that. We need the Prime Minister to back this up with meaningful action and confirm that festival organisers will be eligible to access this emergency support package”.

Across the creative sector at large, there is a concern that the vast majority of the money committed by government will go to buildings and infrastructure rather than creators and performers. And while ensuring that that infrastructure can survive however much longer the live entertainment shutdown must continue is incredibly important, it is only half the story. In theory, money pumped into infrastructure could then be spread out to creators and performers, but that would work better in some creative disciplines than others.

That’s a concern noted by the CEO of the Music Managers Forum, Annabella Coldrick, in a post on Medium yesterday. “For all the references to buildings and institutions, the government’s announcement made little mention of performers, workers or audiences”, she wrote. “In a sector dependent upon freelancers and small businesses, the majority of whom have struggled to access existing support packages, this has created a growing sense of unease. Their future still looks hideously uncertain”.

Without support for artists and their core teams – like managers, agents and crew – “the live music sector will not function”, she added. “Annual research by Oxford Economics has repeatedly highlighted how music creators are responsible for almost half of the entire music industry’s contribution to the UK economy. As any promoter will tell you, without the talent, there isn’t a show. This is something we need urgent clarity on”.

Coldrick also noted that, in addition to asking for the sector-specific funding, the music and wider creative community has also repeatedly called on government to extend the general COVID support schemes for companies and people working in those sectors – like the creative industries – where the impact of COVID-19 is going to be felt for much longer. And also to finally address the issues around those freelancers who, because of the way they structure their businesses, have so far not been able to access any support at all.

Horace Trubridge, General Secretary of the Musicians’ Union, also repeated those demands yesterday. He said that, while he was “delighted” that the government had set up a specific fund to support the creative industries, he was still urging ministers to extend the furlough support scheme for employers and the separate SEISS scheme for freelancers “until at least the end of the year” for those working in still shutdown industries.

He also called for action to ensure that those who have previously been unable to access any support at all are now reached, possibly via the new sector-specific fund. “38% of our members do not qualify for either of the government’s assistance schemes”, he said, “so we are also asking that excluded musicians are able to apply for some of the money that has been announced today”.

The Incorporated Society Of Musicians echoed those demands. CEO Deborah Annetts welcomed the sector-specific fund, and stressed again that her members were also “grateful to the government for the furlough and the SEISS”. But, she went on, “the SEISS must be extended past August, which is the last month the second grant payment covers”.

“With no date for venues reopening, what will happen to musicians while they wait to be told that they can go back to work and perform in front of live audiences?”, she added. “Without additional and direct support for freelancers, we risk a flood of talent leaving the industry. The government must urgently extent the SEISS. Otherwise, our talented musicians will face very hard times indeed”.