The UK’s Live Music Crisis:
How we must all work together to save the beating heart of the music industry.
Everyone knows that the UK’s live music sector is taking a real beating from the pandemic. Dealing with it, however, is another matter - and one of fierce contention at that.
So what has been done to help the live sector so far?
Responding to heavy criticism from the industry, the government has now agreed to support venues and festivals whose existence are threatened by the inability to host live events. On 12th October, it was announced that £257m out of the £1.27bn Cultural Recovery Fund had been given to cultural organisations, including music festivals. Importantly, £3.36m of this package was given to grassroots venues that are in particular need of support during the pandemic.
The fund was warmly welcomed by the music industry, although there is a general feeling that it will not be enough to ensure the survival of music venues and festivals until April 21st, which is Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s hope. With a second lockdown already in motion the prospect of live music returning to its normal format seems like a distant dream. Less than 10% of live venues in the UK have put on Covid-friendly shows, but on average they only get ⅛ of the profit they would usually expect. Because live music will be one of the last things to resume as normal it is very likely that they will need further government support after April 21st to survive. Another concern is that the government chose to ignore many of the UK’s most iconic dance venues in their funding, including Printworks, The Drumsheds, Depot Mayfield, Exhibition, Egg London, Studio 338, Oval Space and The Pickle Factory. These clubs have huge cultural and economic significance in the UK and their omission feeds into worries that the government does not fully respect the role of the arts in society.
These concerns, however, are the least of the live sector’s worries.
A far greater concern relates to the self-employed members of the live sector who are not covered by the government. Neither the Furlough scheme nor the New Job Support Scheme have a mechanism to adequately support these members of the industry who do not have full-time employment in cultural organisations. According to the DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport), 72% of the live music sector are self-employed. These include: artists, bar managers, equipment providers (from music equipment to stage infrastructure), touring crews, roadies, promoters, merchandisers, technicians, box office, and engineers. Whilst venue owners have been addressed for now, many other workers who bring the venue alive at night have been struggling immensely throughout the entire pandemic. The consequences of this on the live sector are devastating. An UnHerd article explains how ‘the live music business is shrinking four times faster than the rest of the economy and the majority of the jobs may be gone by the end of the year.’
Rishi Sunak responded by suggesting that these people should ‘retrain’ and ‘find fresh and new opportunities.’ Unsurprisingly, the responses from industry personnel on social media left little room for pleasantries. Glenn Tillbrook from Squeeze posted: ‘If I were to retrain, I would like to retrain as a boxer and then go into the Cabinet and ply my skills on some of them.’ If that’s not enough, drum ‘n’ bass pioneer Goldie dared to say what many people were thinking with his comment that ‘it’s the biggest load of bollocks ever... he (Rishi Sunak) has no sense of what the arts are all about.’ Utilising his strong online presence, Goldie even went one step further by making a satirical video which unapologetically mocks the government’s policy: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1461320977592280
'Whilst venue owners have been addressed for now, many other workers who bring the venue alive at night have been struggling immensely throughout the entire pandemic. The consequences of this on the live sector are devastating.'
Whatever your stance, it is undeniable that there’s a gaping financial wound in the music industry. On average, 80% of a musician’s income comes from live performance in the UK. With no scheme to protect them fairly, musicians need to rely on other forms of revenue to earn their keep and avoid changing professions. It is for this reason that much attention has been directed towards streaming as a form of revenue which has the potential to help artists in these times of hardship.
Streaming contributed £1.1 billion to the UK economy in 2019; a figure which is expected to increase as a result of increased consumption during the pandemic. However, the revenue streams are heavily orientated towards larger artists. Spotify explains how 90% of their streams come from 43,000 artists. The label takes a cut - typically 52% for majors - which itself is a big financial step down from the days when labels controlled music consumption through physical sales as the dominating gatekeepers in the game.
Brace yourselves for some #quickmaths.
Spotify’s latest figures state that they have over 3 million artists. If we deduct Spotify’s 43,000 highest earning artists from this, that leaves a whopping 2,957,000 artists to share the remaining 10% of Spotify’s streams - and since royalties are based on streams, this equates to only 10% of streaming revenue. These remaining artists earn on average £9.25 per month, which isn’t even enough to cover the cost of a standard monthly subscription to Spotify premium! This is no new development, of course, but the pandemic has made the issue more pressing than ever because of the need to support smaller artists in the midst of cancelled shows and job schemes which don’t support them adequately. The issue is now so hot that the government will hold an inquiry to investigate how major DSPs (Digital Service Providers) like Spotify and Apple Music should change their models to offer smaller artists more support.
It could be argued that the government is attempting to use DSPs as scapegoats by urging them to support small artists in the knowledge that their own job support schemes do not. A potential solution which, in my opinion, is not discussed enough is that we - the streaming consumers - should pay more. For a tenner a month (or half of that with various discounts) we get access to an almost unlimited supply of music. Compare that to the vinyl market where for the same cost per year you could get your hands on only 5 or 6 albums! If streaming consumers paid a bit more per month, and DSPs changed their models to support smaller artists, we could help a great deal of artists survive during the pandemic. Major DSPs have been very influential for more than a decade. Most consumers, including myself, are so hooked by their personal playlists that enough people would still pay a larger subscription fee for the sake of continuity, making it a financially viable option for DSPs.
Finding a solution to the UK’s live music crisis during the pandemic is far from easy, and everyone will have their own beliefs about how to move forward. What is important, though, is an ethic of co-operation between all those invested in it, including labels, DSPs, the government and consumers. The music industry is an ecosystem and ultimately everyone needs to work together to help carry the live sector and its members through the economic crisis. After all, the UK music industry brought in £5.2bn p/a prior to the pandemic. It is the second largest in the world and bears huge cultural significance for the country. Live music is at the centre of it all, offering a completely unique and powerful connection with music whilst also contributing over £1 billion to the UK economy and £4.5 billion through musical tourism. It is the beating heart of the music industry, both emotionally and financially, and we must all work together to save it at all costs.
photos by Fleur Adderley
'A potential solution which, in my opinion, is not discussed enough is that we - the streaming consumers - should pay more. For a tenner a month (or half of that with various discounts) we get access to an almost unlimited supply of music. Compare that to the vinyl market where for the same cost per year you could get your hands on only 5 or 6 albums!'