British artists hit back by pandemic ‘can’t get onto global stage’

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New research shows 83 percent of musicians, knocked down by the coronavirus pandemic, are finding it impossible to get their careers back on track, and industry insiders are pointing at red tape as an additional “drag” for artists’ contracts in the EU. James Ainscough, Chief Executive of charity Help Musicians, told “This isn’t me making a Leave versus Remain point. This is simply a point around whether the Brexit deal enables or hampers musicians.”

Help Musicians has given £18.5m to almost 20 thousand musicians throughout the pandemic. Mr Ainscough says this has been an “absolute lifeline” for many who were not eligible for the Government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS).

He said: “It is important to remember the vast majority of musicians are freelancers and are low-paid.

“When the pandemic hit, that meant no work, no employer to back you up, no furlough scheme to support you… just completely on your own.

“The eligibility rules for it [SEISS] restricted 30 to 40 percent of musicians from benefitting from it.

“We always think of musicians as the big star on stage — Elton John, Adele… — but that is not the norm. They are the few who won the jackpot, and they are brilliant but they are not your typical musician.

“Most musicians are second violinists in orchestras or double bass players in jazz bands…”

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Countertenor Tim Mead, who mainly works in opera, has in the last two years seen the chances for musicians to make a living out of their passion greatly diminish.

Mr Mead, who amasses 20 years of experience in the industry, told his earnings this season are half of what he “would expect them to be”.

He said: “We’re in a host of incredibly expensive testing procedures.

“We’re very fortunate that many companies cover that burden but, for example, I am in Paris over the weekend for one concert, so I’ll be in the city for less than 24 hours, and I have incurred £250 worth Covid testing costs.”

He emphasised he can “afford” this thanks to his age and trajectory, though worries for others: “You can only do that if have resources.

“It is not the case for a vast number of performers.”

The countertenor believes the current circumstances will erase many emerging artists from the picture and put many others off from pursuing their ambitions.

He said: “We’re in a very competitive field and Covid has only made the field more competitive.

On similar lines, Mr Aisncough said: “When I think about my top five global favourite musicians, the ones who meant most to me as a music lover, I can’t see anyone missing from that list, and yet, for the next generations of musicians — and the next generations of music lovers — that is the situation we have got.

“Paul McCartney is not disappearing from the face of the earth, but the next generation of talent may not make it through.”

Touching upon the financial difficulties within the profession, he added: “Nine in 10 musicians are earning less than £1,000, which is below the minimum wage, and a third of them are actually earning nothing.”

Speaking about the energy required for artists at the early stages of their careers, he added: “Yes, every musician must build their career at some point, they know how to do it, but they have all these headwinds that make it harder.”

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Nearly two years into the pandemic, Mr Ainscough said the challenge “is not just about going back to work, it is about rebuilding your career”.

He explained many have found it incredibly difficult to “connect with your fanbase”, while some “have lost the contacts within the industry”, which ultimately are their sources of work.

The charity boss asked: “Can the current professional musicians, and particularly those who were just emerging before the pandemic, hang on long enough in order to catch the wave?

You don’t have an international career without freely travelling internationally

Tim Mead, countertenor

“There is a great wave and it takes a lot of paddling to get back to the top.”

To whether he believes the Government will help the sector stay afloat, he said: “I just want the Government to give the industry care in the same way they fought for fishing during the Brexit deal.

“This is a special sector. It is special in terms of what it means to the country status and it is special in terms of how it was impacted by the pandemic. And so, it needs special treatment.

“It needs nurturing and it needs the Government to listen to what the leaders of the industry are saying is necessary so that we can return to our pre-eminent position as a global leader in music.”

Mr Mead, laughing at the question, answered: “If they haven’t thought people like me are worthy for two years, do I think they are going to change their mind now?

“Government tends to get out the message that problems are over.”

Frustrated, he said it is inevitable for UK artists to lose business abroad – firstly because many won’t make it through the health crisis; secondly because of a barrier he says has more to do with how Brexit is viewed across the world than with paperwork.

He claimed: “There is a problem not necessarily with the technicalities Brexit has brought to us but there is a problem about perception.

“I was in touch with a promoter in Paris whom I have worked with my entire career and he turned around to me and said, ‘What a shame, because of Brexit we won’t be working together anymore’.

“However talented, however successful an artist you are, if there are five people who can do a job and one person has potential obstacles — me, due to Brexit — it’s easy to look at the other four.”

About getting onto the global stage, Mr Mead added: “You don’t have an international career without freely travelling internationally. 

“There is work in the UK, sure. But in London, you want international level artists, and you are not international unless you have developed your career internationally.”

Help Musicians’ Chief Executive concluded: “The government wants Global Britain, that is the kind of rhetoric that we hear from Boris Johnson.

“That should be great for musicians, but they have ended up with the opposite of what Brexit should have been about.”

“The Government delivering Brexit wanted to reduce red tape and create Global Britain but they’ve massively increased red tape.

“They’re forcing musicians to stay Local Britain rather than Global Britain.

“There could have been a good deal. It’s a bad deal.”

Research was conducted amongst 929 musicians in August 2021 by Help Musicians.

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