COVID-19 FREELANCERS AND THE LIVE MUSIC INDUSTRY: THE PERFECT STORM?

Earlier on in the week, I was asked to write a blog for my university’s Centre for the Study of Media and Culture in Small Nations. The subject was on the impact of Covid-19 on the music industry and yes – I had to turn it around quickly. I have copied the article below as it was submitted a couple of days back, but the question I am interested in asking is – has the government’s decision to now include self employed workers in the compensation package helped creative practitioners like musicians, sound enginners and the like? You can find a few transcripts from musicians in the original article (which is copied below and you can find here), but I would really appreciate it if you could do something I rarely get with this blog – COMMENTS! It would be so useful to have some sort of collective expression of how, as things stand, self employed people in the music industry are supported. Please share if possible.

COVID-19 FREELANCERS AND THE LIVE MUSIC INDUSTRY: THE PERFECT STORM?

Starting to write a blog post on the impacts of COVID-19 on the music industry, on the day Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a firm ‘UK lockdown’ on public gatherings (on March 23rd), was a sharp reminder that stakeholders in the live music sector were going to be impacted for a significant amount of time, with the implications for the music industries being potentially very serious. Indeed it is terrifying to consider that as recently as November last year, the live music industry was regarded by The Guardian as hitting a “record high”, with its value to the UK economy estimated to be circa £5.2 billion (with music tourism alone regarded as generating 45,530 jobs), which contrasts sharply with recent well publicised narratives concerning the cancellation of  tours and landmark events such as Glastonbury, South by Southwest and The Great Escape, not to mention the general decimation of the live music sector. However, returning to the music industry of only a few weeks ago, despite some individuals making a great deal of money, The Guardian article is quick to point out that the £5 billion generated does “not reflect the financial struggles of many music creators”, whose average earnings are reported to be £23,059 per year (although the recent research conducted by Sound Diplomacy into the music ecosystem in Cardiff, estimated the average to be £18,000). Earlier this week, we explored the impact of the pandemic on freelance screen sector workers, and as with screen, the majority of music practitioners work on a freelance basis, with the Musicians Union reporting that a staggering 94% of musicians earn at least part of their income via this means. It is therefore no surprise that it is this sub-sector that is particularly vulnerable during the current pandemic crisis.

Although the UK government’s £350 billion pound financial package for British business, announced on March 17, will no doubt assist some music companies staying afloat, concern for the freelance sector is understandably real, with industry bodies such as UK Music, the Musicians Union and the Music Managers Forum all announcing that they have “significant concerns that the benefits will not reach [this category of] music makers, their representatives, [or] their teams”. So, although the government’s financial pledge is welcome, it needs to be highlighted at the highest level that music freelancers are ‘slipping through the gap’, as they simply don’t qualify for many of the rights other workers take for granted, including access to sick pay or indeed the promised 80% of wages the government pledges to cover. Indeed currently, although freelancers can access the ‘Universal Credit’ system, this is also restricted if their partners work!

This may be the bleakest moment in living memory when it comes to making a living as a freelance music practitioner. However, a glimmer of positivity can be seen when one examines some of the ways the sector has responded, ranging from grassroot to world famous musicians and venues. For example, Ronnie Scott’s is now streaming selected live concerts as part of its ‘Lockdown Sessions’, with the musicians performing in an empty venue to a ‘virtual audience’, spread around the world. In order to monetise these activities, viewers are encouraged to donate direct to the musicians via a live Facebook feed, a practice also made possible via web sites such as Stageit, Facebook Live and Crowdcast. Indeed band members from Snarky Puppy, who usually tour extensively every year, are currently offering musicianship lessons, once again asking attendees to offer a financial contribution so they can sustain their livelihoods. As outlined by Graeme Virtue, artists such as Chris Martin (from Coldplay), John Legend and Ben Gibbart have also joined in a now pervasive practice of musicians performing live from their homes in ‘virtual house concerts’, where finance is not the objective, but simple ‘good will’, to entertain their fans for free during these difficult times, a gesture not too dissimilar to the escapism Dame Vera Lynn provided the nation of Britain during World War 2.  However, and as pointed out by the BBC, although shows by the likes of Chris Martin “provide a much-needed creative outlet and sense of community for artists and fans alike […], they [don’t] make up for the loss of income as the touring circuit effectively shuts down”. Former Ocean Colour Scene and Paul Weller bass player Damon Minchella, describes the current situation well.

“The professional touring and studio community has been devastated due to across the board cancellations. All the summer festivals I was playing with Richard Ashcroft have been cancelled, as has all previously arranged session work. A friend of mine who has been doing (and still is doing) onstage sound for Madonna for over 10 years has just applied to Tesco to become a shelf stacker. The idea of online gigs is partially relevant, but this cuts out trucking crews, venues, security, tour managers, and so on. It’s devastating for everyone […]”.

When one reflects on the current situation, it is not sensationalist to suggest that some creative music practitioners may never recover, as they attempt to maintain their professional status and remain solvent during the financial storm they are currently experiencing.

What Can We Do To Help?

The ideas below are intended as a starting point

  1. We can stream more music than usual by artists who would benefit, although this will have negligible impact in the short term.
  2. We can watch out for streamed concerts and donate generously.
  3. We can purchase products such as CDs and merchandise direct from channels such as Paypal, where artists obtain all of the profit.
  4. We can look out for altruistic gestures by mainstream music hosting sites such as Bandcamp, who have waved all of their fees during the current pandemic, and purchase accordingly.  
  5. As indicated by Ellie Mae O’Hagan in The Guardian on March 24th, the UK government must ensure all freelancers who work within the creative industries are supported in the same way as the employed workforce. (The artists themselves can of course investigate UK based national support funds, specifically targeted for freelance musicians, such as that organised by Help Musicians UK. Examples currently in the US include funds established by Music Cares and Sweet Relief).
  6. We can lobby service providers such as iTunes and Spotify to temporarily increase the royalty rate for artists who earn under an agreed threshold.

The media coverage of the The Covid-19 outbreak has in some respects become the distorted mirror through which we see ourselves, as supermarket shelves are emptied, government safeguards are ignored, and wealthy business leaders don’t pay staff. However, this is an opportunity for both the general public and most importantly the UK government, to contribute towards a more positive narrative, by showing their appreciation of this fragile sub-sector of the creative economy by providing important financial support. It has been well reported over the last decade or so how the live music industry has been a lucrative sector, on which the music industry as an entity depends. So, this is also an opportunity to assist its recalibration, by ensuring that many of its lower paid freelancers can remain within it, once this pandemic has run its course.

In terms of the situation in Wales, the impacts of Covid-19 are obviously impacting here too, ranging from the grassroots venues on Womanby Street, to larger venues like Tramshed and the Motorpoint Arena, not to mention the impact on countless working musicians throughout the country who make their living from music. One such musician stated the following when asked how Covid-19 was impacting her day to day work.

“[…] my main source of income is gigging [and] all my gigs for the next two months have been stopped. I had a residency at a hotel in Cwmbran – all cancelled. Residency in Tenby – stopped, Mother’s Day gigs – cancelled. I also play at least once a week in Care homes for a company called MusiCare – all stopped. Huge impact.”

A similar situation was reported by the owner of One Louder Studios in Newport, who verified that they were now “completely closed” with “no band rehearsals or recording sessions taking place. Income is now £0”. At the time of writing, the studio was remaining closed until at least April 5th. Another freelance musician based in Crickhowell reported the cancellation or postponement of over 40 shows, which has resulted in a loss “just shy of £5k”.

These stories are of course the tip of the iceberg, with many local stories still to be told. Indeed as this blog was going to press, stories of Owen Money having to cancel his 20 date mainly sold out tour of Wales was just emerging. With major events such as the Greenman Festival and Focus Wales, taking place later in the year, they will surely be watching with trepidation to see if the pandemic settles.

Important Note: Freelancers who are looking for advice on factors such as cancelled shows, travel, insurance, working from home, campaigning and wellbeing,  please refer to the following links as suggested by UK Music: Musicians Union, the Music Manager Forum, Association of Independent Music, the British Phonographic Industry, Music Producers Guild, the Performing Rights Society. Also, the Featured Artists Coalition, the Musicians Union, the Music Managers Forum are all doing surveys to try and assist the impact of Corona-19 on its members and the music industry at large.

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Rock Music Pedagogy in the UK and US: Ignorance or Elitism?

In this new reality that many of us find ourselves in, I have been experimenting with Panopto as a means of recording content for my students. So, please find below a synopsis of an essay I have written for the Bloomsbury Handbook of Rock Music Research. Is Rock and Popular Music delivered and assessed appropriately in our mainstream music curricula?

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The Rock Instrumentarium

Well, we have spent the last few weeks going through all of the proof edits for the Bloomsbury Handbook of Rock Music Research, including an enormous bibliography and an even larger index of close to 9000 words. Despite the various issues associated with corona virus, the book is on schedule to still be released in July. So – it has been a few weeks since I blogged about a chapter, but here we are at Chapter 6 – entitled The Rock Instrumentarium. Abstract copied below…

Considering all rock instruments as a type of technology, Steve Waksman surveys the fundamental components of rock music instrumentation—namely guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and wind instruments. In addition to providing an historical evolution of the individual instruments, his essay concentrates on the variety of playing styles, as well as accompanying styles of physical stage performance where applicable. Waksman frames the essay throughout by also considering the small but growing literature on musical instruments as cultural artifacts, in connection with rock and popular music. The chapter provides not only a useful overview of the scholarship and contributions of practitioners and instrument designers, but also how these combined innovations shaped the history of the genre.

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Rock Vocalities

Chapter four of the Bloomsbury Handbook on Rock Music……

In a chapter focusing on rock vocalities, Katherine Meizel points out how the ways in which rock vocalists sing vary not only between subgenres, but from performer to performer. Meizel highlights how singers and listeners use particular sonic cues in the voice to identify music as rock: because those sounds index specific ideas and ideologies of authenticity that matter to them. The chapter, in addressing the production of the rock voice and the scholarship in which it features, investigates how the sounds associated with rock voices correspond not merely to superficial aesthetic values, but rather to concepts grounded in a culturally authenticated, genred, gendered, racialized, classed, and dis/abled framework of singing. They are rock values that celebrate imperfection and flawed individuality, and that at once resist and reinforce white cultural power through the appropriation of vocal sounds associated with black American singing.

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The Definition of ‘Rock’ and Stylistic Overlaps

The third essay of the Bloomsbury Handbook of rock music Research is provided by Taylor Myers and Brad Osborn, who initially examine the music theory, musicological and cultural studies literature that has emerged relating to rock scholarship over the last thirty plus years. Myers and Osborn then assert that a rhizomatic as opposed to arborescent approach is a more appropriate way of philosophically considering the genre formation of rock, which is regarded not as a ‘family tree’ with development branches, but a non-hierarchical construction, with multiple entry and exit points.  The essay subsequently provides a chronology of the literature that has helped define rock’s stylistic parameters, ranging from the work of Fabbri and Tagg in the early to mid 1980s, through to more contemporary scholarship. 

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The Bloomsbury Handbook of Rock: Writing About Rock

Screenshot 2020-01-21 at 18.02.39

The Bloomsbury Handbook of Rock Music Research is now in the ‘post proof’ stage, with the publishers getting back with their various tweaks and suggestions. So I have just spent the day responding to 33 authors, who will soon be finalizing their chapters. As we move toward publication, I will be sharing the abstracts of the chapters, so here is the chapter by Sarah Hill

The second essay of the prefatory is by Sarah Hill, who surveys some of the key themes in academic writing about popular music in general and rock music in particular, considering the commonalities and ruptures that have emerged in the past forty years, and the variety of disciplinary approaches that constitute popular music studies. After outlining how the Beatles garnered positive critical attention in the late 1960s, Hill verifies how rock music entered the realm of academic discourse fairly late in its history—with the genre not fully solidifying until the early 1970s, after the first dedicated peer-reviewed journal, Popular Music and Society, was established in 1971. After the formation, ten years later, of both the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and the peer-reviewed journal, Popular Music, popular music studies is regarded as gradually becoming established into a recognizable field of ideas and approaches. Hill discusses how much of the early scholarly writing about popular music concerned not only ‘perimeters’ (what is popular music?), but the very groundwork of the field, with definitions of genres, audiences, styles, histories and cultural interactions emerging. These early publications of the field’s discursive fabric, alongside their inter-disciplinary dialogues and critical reassessments, are regarded as underpinning the academic study of popular music today.

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Popular Music History: Merthyr Tydfil has a Place!

Well, after two years, one of my most gratifying publishing moments to date is to receive this edited collection today. It features six chapters, focusing on places such as Aberdare, Liverpool, Ebbw Vale, Birmingham, Liverpool and Merthyr Tydfil. I am really proud that three of the chapters are focused on South Wales, with Merthyr Tydfil being of particular significance to me. When I moved here five years ago, it quickly became apparent that this place had a rich musical history, but popular music seemed to have been written out of any documented history. So, I set about a quest to find out about it, document it and most importantly celebrate it. This resulted in a fantastic event as part of the Being Human Festival, where in addition to older generation recording their memories, the younger generation had the opportunity to reenact the music history of the town. This was followed by a one month exhibition at the Redhouse and a one day symposium, which ultimately was the beginning of this edited collection.

So, the fact that this history is now documented in an ‘official’ journal, is another step in the right direction of ensuring histories such as these are not forgotten. All of the histories covered in the special edition focus on musical histories that have been ‘lost’, so I am really grateful to Equinox for providing the publishing environment for this. The introduction is available to download for free here, and I am looking forward to speaking about it at at some conferences over the next few months.

At a time when Wales is in the middle of a government investigation into its live music industry, I think these case studies provide an interesting snapshot of what we can learn from looking at the past, before we look at the future.

To check out some of the images on Peoples Collection Wales, click here

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