As the novel coronavirus continues to flourish, it is with a sad inevitability that some of our most beloved musicians will be taken from us. Today it was the turn of the 86 year old Afro-jazz legend Manu Dibango to join the “gig in the sky” after contracting COVID-19. The 86-year-old Cameroonian, whose best-known hit was “Soul Makossa,” was based in Paris, France, where funerals have now been limited to 20 people to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Musicians and performers who have touched our hearts are rightly mourned all over the world when they pass. But those still alive and working in the music industry are now facing unprecedented financial disaster due to coronavirus, as lockdowns are being deployed and tours and concerts canceled. Music data company Viberate revealed today that over 300 festivals have already announced cancellations or postponements, via their tracking website SickFestivals.
“Our industry has almost ground to a halt,” reveals Olga FitzRoy, the award-winning recording engineer and campaigner who counts Coldplay and the TV shows Dr. Who and The Crown amongst her clients. “The recording industry has been badly affected by the pandemic, and many studios are completely shut down now.” FitzRoy is also an executive director of the Music Producers Guild, the trade body for music producers, remixers, engineers and mastering engineers, and she sees some dark and challenging times ahead for the industry. “I think people often only see the glamorous side of the music business, forgetting that musicians, studios and engineers usually live at the bottom of the supply chain, and are often living hand-to-mouth with not much in the way of savings.”
FitzRoy is dismayed by the U.K. government’s tone-deaf approach to supporting the creative industries which, at £111.7 billion per annum, are a significant contributor to the economy. “The government has so far only guaranteed around £95 a week in Universal Credit for the self-employed, compared to up to £2,500 for employees. 94% of our members are self-employed so this is devastating for them. We are getting messages from members saying they don’t know how they’re going to feed their families or pay the rent next month.” Renowned musician Midge Ure echoed FitzRoy’s frustration with the government’s treatment of musicians. “Most of these people are self-employed and now face a devastating future. At this time the U.K. government has nothing in place to help self-employed workers. It’s time to give a hand to the people who generate untold wealth for the country.”
Trade body the Musicians’ Union (MU) yesterday published research warning that tens of thousands of musicians are set for financial devastation during a “job loss pandemic,” with financial losses so far totaling £13.9m. The report revealed that 90% of those working in the industry have already been affected, with job opportunities down 69% compared to the same period last year. Horace Trubridge, general secretary of the MU, said: “Music is one of the few certainties we can rely on to provide happiness and relief in tumultuous times. But musicians–whether they work in theatre, teaching, orchestras or gig-playing–will feel the full financial force of this global disaster.”
The repercussions of COVID-19 are already being felt at every level of the industry. Devotional “kirtan” music performer, TV composer and session guitarist Matt Coldrick, who has worked with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn and Benedict Cumberbatch, has already seen the sudden cancellation of all of his bookings in the next three months, with an instant loss of £3,600 in performance and rehearsal fees. While the U.K. remains under lockdown, he reveals that there are no apparent solutions to his immediate problem of cashflow, “That’s where I’m scratching my head. In the past, if things got really tough, I’d go busking.”
Rami Even-Esh, aka rapper Kosha Dillz, was scheduled to deliver a TEDx talk, join a tour with RDGLDGRN and Little Stranger, and also perform an important showcase at music festival SXSW in Austin, Texas. All of the events have been canceled, with an estimated loss of $20,000 from SXSW alone. “We are all in limbo,” he admits, “but this is the new normal for indie DIY musicians.” Despite the circumstances, and with admirable hustle, Even-Esh is offering remote music business consulting and coaching for improv rap, hosting a podcast, and sharing exclusive content via his Patreon channel. “Just because the world is stopping doesn’t mean we have to.” He is also keeping busy during the lockdown by signing up for trumpet, singing and Hebrew lessons, and has just released songs with reggae legend Matisyahu and EDM super producer Kaskade.
South London band Meatraffle was also on course to play a showcase gig at SXSW, and raised £3.5k via a fundraiser gig with the Fat White Family and by selling new recordings and merchandise. The band’s manager Tim Harper reveals that all of the money went towards flights, visas and accommodation. “United have refused to refund our £2.5k in flights. We feel awful for everyone affected by this turn of events, particularly those independent venues, bars and restaurants in Austin that are gonna suffer.”
Jazz singer and burlesque performer Fraulein Frauke and her partner John-Paul Bichard, a photographer and filmmaker, are event organisers in Stockholm. “This crisis has all but wiped us out,” admits Bichard, “Two weeks ago, our whole spring was busy with European bookings and commissions, now wiped, and our two upcoming events that we have invested a lot of time and money into are postponed at best, and possibly cancelled.” Bichard confesses that they are struggling to stay afloat on their freelancers cashflow. “We live frugally under normal circumstances, but now we have had to cut everything to the bone and we are playing a waiting game. We see our buffer disappearing weekly and need to invest in order to get the next events back up and running, and make it through to the Autumn when our next chunk of contracts kick in. It’s like a horrible game of poker.”
Rick Finlay, an experienced drummer, teacher and gig organizer comments, “My income is normally made up of a mixture of live performance work, recording, teaching as well as running a regular jazz venue where we provide employment for many musicians; all of these sources of income have dried up.” Finlay, a member of the MU, is grateful for the support they are providing. “The MU’s efforts to support musicians that have been affected by the pandemic are widely appreciated.” The MU launched a “Coronavirus Hardship Fund” this week, offering £200 grants to those who are facing financial difficulty in the wake of COVID-19, and called for the U.K. government and record industry to do more to support freelance workers through these uncertain times.
Paul Pacifico, CEO of industry body the Association of Independent Music (AIM), reveals that they are witnessing immediate hardship in the sector first-hand. “We are fielding heart-breaking calls every day from AIM member businesses struggling to figure out a pathway through this crisis, and from the self-employed whose income has dropped to zero overnight. The MU hardship fund is an amazing initiative, but, in reality, it only scratches the surface for these hardworking and taxpaying workers in music. The U.K. government needs to step up or face an even greater crisis once these people can no longer afford to pay their bills and feed their families.” AIM has created a petition to the government calling for a temporary income protection fund for the self-employed.
Other initiatives to support the music industry include the Corona Musicians advice website put together by Help Musicians, the PLUGGED IN virtual festival being funded by Audio Assemble, and £160 million of emergency measures and funding being made available by the Arts Council Of England.
Rachel Millar manages artist Shabaka Hutchings, whose forthcoming tours have been canceled. She is candid about the scale of the losses and their impact. “The loss of income is in the tens of thousands and will tip into hundreds of thousands by the end of the year if the live industry doesn’t recover quickly, meaning the musicians, agents and managers like myself have little to zero income. On top of that, the lack of touring will have a major impact on record sales and merchandise, equaling more loss of income. The government needs to provide support for the self-employed, to the same extent they’re supporting the ’employed,’ and the music industry as a whole needs to consider ways to support us financially during these times, whether through grants, loans, recoupment breaks or other paid opportunities. As it stands, if there are no changes and support put in place, this could do irreversible damage to people’s careers and the industry overall.” The Music Managers Forum is currently gathering evidence of the impact COVID-19 has on music makers and their representatives in an online survey.
Recording artist Sam Duckworth, aka Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. agrees that the government needs to see the big picture. “Music is an ecosystem. For every one person holding a mic, there are 20 people in the chain, from promoter to crew, from ticketing staff to vendor. Within my professional circles and friendship groups, most of us have lost months of work. Whilst we are all disappointed, we understand what needs to be done for the good of us all. The U.K. government has declared itself the government of small business, and whilst the self-employed may be low in direct employee numbers they are still a large proportion of the £5.2bn generated by the industry for the U.K. economy last year. They are part of a network of thousands of sole traders and SMEs, who co-exist in the professional sphere. None of us are asking for special treatment, just for parity with other sectors, and a guarantee that once this thing is over the show can still go on.”
The COVID-19 lockdown repents an almost total collapse of the most meaningful revenue streams for many musicians and other professionals working in the business. It remains to be seen how the government will support the mostly self-employed £111.7 billion creative sector during the current crisis. One would hope that the government’s actions, or lack of them, will not forgotten in future elections.
Update: The day after the publication of this article Spotify announced a financial contribution of up to $10 million to help the music community during the coronavirus pandemic.