WHEN the art you create is so intrinsically linked to your identity as a person, it’s hard to find a sense of purpose when you can’t do what you love doing – what you were trained to do – and overnight, you go from professional musician to helplessly unemployed.
Whilst many other industries have experienced small bursts of normality in between lockdowns, musicians and creative freelancers alike have been unable to work and perform in-person gigs for the best part of two years. My industry is still far from normal.
Yet, on the June 21, I performed in front of a live audience in Scotland for the first time in 18 months at The Scottish Crannog Centre in Kenmore with a rotating audience, all socially distanced, wearing masks and sitting outdoors. The rotating audience meant that we had to perform for three hours, with the backdrop of the charred remains of the Crannog, which had suffered a devastating fire just days before. At this stage, I wouldn’t have minded singing for six hours, if it meant I got to connect with people through music again.
The event was family-friendly and the audience were all ages; the youngest being a girl who had been taken along by her family, who smiled and clutched her CD as she left. I caught a glimpse of an audience member crying during a song and felt back in my element – sharing my traditions, language, and heritage only to experience a weeklong emotional rollercoaster that I like to call a “gig come-down”.
The thing is, I felt safe. Safer than I’d felt at the hairdressers, or a supermarket, or a coffee shop, or a restaurant or a pub. My place of work, with its strict distancing protocols and its mostly stone-cold sober audience, was one of the safest environments I’d been in during the entire pandemic. Yet music venues, festivals, and events, who have received little substantial financial support from the UK Government, have been the last to slowly and tentatively open back up.
The support that both creative freelancers and venues received during the pandemic was pitiful at best. Some 38% of musicians surveyed by the Musicians Union fell through gaps in government support and were ineligible to claim grants through the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. Whilst the SEISS was extended in line with the comparably generous furlough scheme, the UK Government did very little to close the gaps and reduce the number of workers who were ineligible for the scheme. The ongoing failings of the UK Government to provide meaningful support for freelancers is in stark comparison to the Creative Scotland Hardship Fund which was set up within a month of the national lockdown beginning in March 2020.
Then there was the Cultural Recovery Fund, amounting to the tune of £1 billion, which Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden stated was a “huge helping hand to the crown jewels of UK culture”. But didn’t exactly trickle its way down to the country’s most financially at-risk venues, creative practitioners, and freelancers.
Instead, £40m of the Culture Recovery Fund quite literally went towards a new display of the crown jewels at the Tower of London through a loan to Historic Royal Palaces (HRP). The National Audit Office (NAO) found that Historic Royal Palaces was “the largest recipient of the fund”. At this point, I’m not even surprised at how little the UK Government cares for the arts and the country’s cultural ambassadors.
The hospitality sector gained a much-needed boost with Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme running in August and September 2020, totalling a cost of over £849m. What about a live music or theatre equivalent? A petition calling for a “Seat Out to Help Out” scheme, where theatre and gig tickets would be subsidised by the UK Government to encourage people back to live events, reached over 50,000 signatures but, surprise, no such scheme has been introduced.
In the 2021 budget, Rishi Sunak (above) announced that the SEISS would be extended until September 2021 and workers, who were previously excluded, who had a 2019-21 tax return would be eligible for the scheme. But again, the measures don’t go far enough in providing for freelancers, with the Musicians Union tweeting that Sunak’s measures only cover “15% of musicians falling through the gaps”.
FOR most freelancers, the pandemic has highlighted just how important being a member of a trade union is, with the Musicians Union working tirelessly to lobby on behalf of the 30,000 musicians it represents in the UK.
Even with the gradual development of outdoor and under-canvas performances in Scotland, there’s only so many performance opportunities to go around. With quarantine and logistical difficulties of Brexit ruling out the possibility of international touring, musicians have found themselves travelling for performances in England, which poses different risks of new variants, and logistical difficulties of working with separate Test and Trace technology.
With several colleagues travelling to England to perform at festivals, outdoor events and indoor shows, the overarching message that musicians are sending to their audience is “please be safe”. In England, Boris Johnson lifted the mandatory wearing of face masks in public spaces like restaurants, café’s and shops on Monday July 19.
Scottish folk band, Gnoss who have embarked on a three-day tour of outdoor spaces in Bristol, London and Sheffield, have warmly reminded audiences via Instagram that if they “still want to wear a mask then please do so”.
The emerging band who are touring their second album, The Light of The Moon, suggested that even if audience members weren’t feeling poorly a “lateral flow test would be an idea”.
After so-called “Freedom Day” in England, businesses and organisations have been left with the responsibility of enforcing and policing the wearing of masks and social distancing themselves.
But it is not a musician’s job to enforce or police what should be UK Government public health messaging during a pandemic in which case numbers are rising, but since Boris Johnson has relinquished responsibility and effectively washed his hands of Covid protocol, bands, and musicians, much like hospitality businesses, are bearing the responsibility of keeping their audience and themselves safe.
Boris Johnson also announced that from September, vaccine passports would be required for nightclubs in England, with vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi stating that the vaccine passports could be introduced for business conferences, sporting events, music venues and festivals as well as nightclubs.
As well as narrowing inclusivity and access to the arts through the exclusion of people who can’t get vaccinated for clinical reasons, the introduction of vaccine passports could very well be another financial blow to the music industry, in particular grassroots music venues that provide formative experiences for emerging musicians.
For musicians and creative freelancers, the blows just keep coming. We still don’t have normal.
Iona Fyfe is an award-winning Scots singer from Aberdeenshire. www.ionafyfe.com