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A wish for 2021

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Last weekend I watched four streamed music events from cultural venues across Europe, involving a range of musicians, soloists and presenters. In the house there was a pretty constant Spotify soundtrack/wrangle between me and my kids over the choice of music. This included our weekly high volume effort to keep the house in some kind of order, which in the first lockdown we named Tidy with Kylie.  Fortunately our neighbours are fans. My children practiced for their next grade exams, using exercises and samples to keep them going and motivated. And we watched our Sunday afternoon dose of His Dark Materials in which music and sound do as much to tell the story as the words and images. All of this is the work of freelance musicians. Without their work, our weekend would have been pretty silent, less interesting and probably a bit gloomy. Music has the power to engage, uplift, challenge, distract. At the risk of rose tinting, as a non-linguistic form, it has a pretty deep rooted connection to how we sense and respond as humans – affecting our mood, our wellbeing and our identity.  For obvious reasons it is a really big part of my life, but I’m not at all alone. Very few of us live without music in our daily lives and for many of us this has become even more important this year as we’ve sought to adapt and cope with the uncertainty and challenge of the pandemic.

This year has been exceptionally tough for musicians, the vast majority of whom are self-employed. What has self-employment meant this year? For the majority, it has meant no or limited income, no or limited work, no or limited professional contact with colleagues and peers. Little wonder that for many it has felt existential. Little wonder that many have wondered whether they should give it up and do something different. Little wonder that the profile of those left after this risks being extremely socio-economically narrow –  for which read a situation which is creatively narrow, underwhelming and downright unfair.

Why would a young person from a less privileged background – without a financial safety net for when things get tough – who has already fought against the odds to get to the point of being able to apply to music college look at the predicament freelance musicians now find themselves in and think for a second that that looks like an attractive career? Why would they take that risk? The risk facing the music sector, along with the other creative and performing arts, is of a more unequal and unrepresentative workforce.

There are alarming statistics about how many self-employed musicians will turn to other work as a result of this crisis; there is division about whether it’s right that they should be in this position and whether, when the pandemic is over, they will return anyway and things will bounce back to where they were.  All of this, it seems to me, isn’t the heart of the matter.

At the crux is whether self-employed musicians should be supported, given that they have very obviously been extremely hard-hit by the pandemic – the cultural sector has been amongst the most negatively affected and the self-employed are at the sharpest end of this.  Do we collectively think the cultural sector is worth supporting?  Although we might have a complicated relationship with admitting this in the UK, all evidence is that we do. If the cultural sector is worth supporting, then we need to support it all. Because it is all interconnected and it simply does not exist without the freelancers who create work and make it happen. Any venue, producer or promoter is only the track over which the musical trains run. Musicians are the centre point of things and asking ‘will things bounce back/can we get away without supporting this part of the sector’ is to miss the point.

So far, as a country, we haven’t got it right. This is partly because of the scale of the financial crisis. But it’s also structural. Who’s in, who’s out and where value is perceived to sit. It’s not a blind spot – people are aware of the matter and a lot of people have given it a good deal of thought. But we’re still not getting it right.

At Sage Gateshead, we are lucky to have Royal Northern Sinfonia, an orchestra which is contracted and whom we have been able to support with furlough and a Cultural Recovery Fund grant through this crisis. But within the UK they are in the minority amongst orchestral musicians and every single conductor or soloist they work with is freelance. Meanwhile my diary still contains a parallel universe of pre-Covid concerts, populated entirely by freelancers from across musical genres – every day it alerts me to a supposed concert. Just in the past two days I’ve had alerts for a piano recital by the great Russian/Viennese pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja and Britain’s biggest Americana phenomenon of recent years The Shires. Everything which pops up involves freelancers. As a result of Covid this has all completely stopped – silenced for 9 months so far. The risk is that without support that the silence might continue. It’s not that the work won’t come back; it’s that the people who earn their living from doing the work might not come back.

If you looked across a year at Sage Gateshead’s stages and its creative learning and took out everyone who was freelance, things would be pretty quiet. This applies across the country, across the world. We are doing what we can to support our freelance colleagues, but we are under no illusion that we can fix things by ourselves.

I’m talking here about freelance musicians and I’m doing so deliberately. Of course I could be talking about actors, writers, dancers or visual artists. About technicians, lighting designers, productions managers, PRs, project managers – everything we don’t see, but which is crucial to making things happen and which are an essential part of the cultural sector. Or I could be talking about freelancers across the creative industries– web designers, games makers, copywriters.  The real issue is about anyone who is self-employed. All have been in the same position as musicians this year. All have borne the brunt of something we’re on the back foot with as a country – that somehow self-employment is secondary in policy and practice and therefore gets a tougher deal or a second thought when it comes to economic and social policy.

As a society we value successful entrepreneurs and employees whilst simultaneously encouraging people into hybrid, portfolio careers. But at a time of crisis our structures support only those whose tax affairs are simple and longstanding: some people with complex work and earnings patterns and people at the start of their career are left out in the cold. Having got a couple of decades into the 21st century, it is time to think about making a shift here. Self-employment is the future – a mid-ground between gig economy and permanent contract.

As a sector with a very high proportion of the workforce being self-employed, we cannot throw our hands up and say it’s a bigger issue and not ours to engage with.  So as we head towards 2021, my new year’s wish is going to be that we find a way to support our freelancers – both in this crisis and in how we rebuild after it.

What’s the point of me saying all of this without having an immediate solution to offer?  Well I’ve been holding off writing this for some time because of that very question. In the end I can’t stay silent on the matter, because it matters too much. I know it in my personal life, I know it in my professional life and I know it from what we’ve witnessed in 2020 – culture and the arts have been a massive part of how many, many people have taken on this year’s challenges. And in our public life the government has put an enormous investment in through its Cultural Recovery Fund and the public have donated vast amounts of money to sustain culture through 2020. These actions show that the importance of culture isn’t up for debate. But we haven’t yet found a way to properly support the most critical part of it.

Let’s fix this in 2021.