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B L O G  P O S T

The crisis of self-employment within the music industry

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

Six months ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic kicked off, many self-employed musicians and other music industry professionals were already struggling to sustain - never mind grow - their careers within a highly competitive and increasingly technologised industry.

I think it's fair to say that most people who work as freelancers or self-employed have what is known as a 'portfolio income', which basically means, instead of having one main source of income, say from a full time job, a person will instead have multiple sources of income from various places. This was certainly my experience when I worked as self-employed, and I have spoken to many people over the years who say the same thing. In fact, a friend of mine who is a professional drummer in a well-known touring band, also works as a composer, session musician, peripatetic music teacher and hourly paid lecturer. In isolation, these paid jobs are not enough for her to live a comfortable life - when taking into consideration family commitments as well. Altogether, however, it provides her and her family with financial stability and - in certain periods of the year - financial prosperity.

COVID-19 hit most subsectors of the music industry hard, but none more-so than the live industry, and this has had a devastating effect on self employed individuals working in all areas of live music - as gigs and festivals were cancelled all over the UK and the world. When lockdown was imposed, performers, artist managers, promoters, booking agents, venue owners and sound engineers almost instantly lost one or more income streams. Not forgetting the potential negative impact that the pandemic has had on individuals' physical and mental health, as musicians have openly talked about losing purpose as well as work.

Back in March, as the coronavirus crisis worsened, there was a wave of criticism about the government's approach to supporting self-employed individuals as they felt let down by the lack of economic support as the pandemic quickly escalated. For companies who were unable to pay staff due to the effects of COVID-19, the government agreed to cover 80% of employed staff's wages - up to £2,500 per month - which was in stark contrast to that of freelancers and self-employed people who were simply offered a revision to the existing Universal Credit system - the equivalent to £94.25 per week.

Guardian (2020) 'Socially distanced outdoor music venue to open in Newcastle in August'
The Guardian (2020) 'Socially distanced outdoor music venue to open in Newcastle in August'

In response to the government's apparent lack of support for self-employed individuals working in music, organisations such as UK Music, Musicians' Union (MU), Association of Independent Music (AIM) and Music Managers Forum (MMF) - to name a few - all offered a helping hand with different types of finance, grants and funding opportunities. In fact, several of these organisations came together, led by Help Musicians, to create Corona Musicians, which has been a central source of support and advice for all musicians during the coronavirus period - offering health advice, business support across the UK.

Whether this support has been enough remains to be seen, but it's possible that many self-employed individuals working in music have had to change career path - although I hope that is not the case. Of course, certain subsectors of the music industry have thrived, with a movement from physical interaction - such as live events - to more online engagement. Digital marketing, for example, has seen a huge boost in client engagement, as well as live streaming of artists via platforms like Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. Interestingly, webinars have become a staple of the "new normal" with recent networking and training events, which would normally have been face-to-face, taking place completely online. I have attended more than a dozen networking and training events online, most of which have been free due to COVID-19, and have to say they've been extremely inspiring and rewarding.

But what now? Initially, the main goal will be to make up for lost time and try to regain some much needed revenue, especially from the live sector. Recently, Newcastle Racecourse hosted a socially distanced Sam Fender gig, with a mixed response. This was an innovative attempt at getting back to normal. However, I feel we need to embrace other positive aspects of what we've experienced during lockdown and bring them into our "new normal", socially distanced music industry.

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