The COVID gig economy by Kate Arnold

Not so long ago there was a young violin student of mine who wasn’t making much progress and seemed deeply unhappy about playing the violin at all. I suspected parental pressure might be at work and I had a chat with his dad.
‘I really want him to be a musician’, says dad.
I was a bit surprised.
‘Oh right. Great!’ says I. ‘Any particular reason?’
‘So that he’ll be rich and famous’, dad replies.
Surprise levels now off the scale, I explain that most musicians are not rich and famous.
Genuine disbelief from dad: ‘Well, all the ones I’ve ever heard of are.’

When I was asked to write an article about ‘the absolute state of music and trying to make a living from it’, I wondered why. Everyone knows that musicians struggle to make a living, don’t they?

That even the famous ones often have to do other jobs to make ends meet? That for every artist you’ve heard of, there are hundreds of others just as good, just as hard-working, whose names you’ll never know (although you will have heard their work)?

That this is true in every musical genre, from classical to industrial death metal? That digital technology and the internet have made it easier than ever for artists to record and share their music, and thus harder than ever for them to get that music heard?

That every time you stream an artist’s track, that artist gets… nothing? And that this is all before the ‘double whammy’ of Covid-19 lockdowns and Brexit has dealt live music in this country a blow from which it may never recover? This isn’t news to anyone. Is it?

Then I remembered Violin Dad and His Incredible Circular Logic…

Perhaps you have a sneaking feeling that musicians shouldn’t make a living from their work? Maybe it isn’t really work? Prancing about on a stage for one or two hours of an evening certainly doesn’t look like hard work (if you’re doing it right), and sometimes it doesn’t feel like it either. But I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you, gentle reader, that what you see on the stage or hear on the record is not the work but the end product of the work. It takes time to reach a point where you can deliver something people want to listen to – and time is money. My work is not just doing the gig; it’s also the daily hours of technical practice; the hours, days, weeks and months that it takes to write a song or piece and to arrange, record and produce it; the rehearsals, the soundchecks, the setting up and packing down, the travelling. Not to mention that like many musicians I am also my own manager, agent, promoter, accountant…

I think some people have a mental image of musicians and artists that owes too much to the Romantic-era idea of the gifted but eccentric genius, lounging around among the daffodils – or, more likely, in the pub – until inspiration suddenly strikes and they write their magnum opus in ten minutes… My experience is it’s more like bricklaying. You learn how to do it and then you just bloody well get on with it, brick by brick, until you’ve built something that’s useful to somebody.

But if you do feel that musicians shouldn’t necessarily be paid you’re not alone; the major record labels and digital streaming platforms certainly believe so. You might assume that a proportion of your Spotify subs would be going to the artists whose music you listen to, and you’d be right.

That proportion begins with £0.00 per stream.

It’s impossible to calculate exactly as the amounts vary between providers and they go through several stages of divvying up before reaching the artists in an arcane process arbitrated by the streaming providers, the major labels and distributors, and the royalties organisations, but let me give an example of how it works out for an artist in reality.

Last February I released a solo EP, about two weeks before the first lockdown. Because the live gigs which would normally help to promote and sell it would no longer be happening, I decided to make the EP available on streaming platforms as well as directly from me on Bandcamp. At least that way more people might get to hear the stuff. A year later, my earnings from streaming amount to a grand total of £12.38. Although I am greedy for neither money nor fame, this is pitiful. However, when I did the sums, it worked out at perhaps around 5000 streams – an average of about 14 streams per day, which doesn’t sound too bad to me, considering I am pretty much completely unknown. Of course, this could be 5000 different people each playing a track once, or it could be one crazed superfan streaming a track 5000 times, or it could be anything in between. But in any case, if just two or three of those listeners had bought the EP from me directly instead of only streaming it, that would still have paid me more than I received from an entire year of streams (even after Bandcamp fees, tax, PayPal processing fees and what have you). Factor in the costs of paying for digital distribution in the first place and streaming starts to look like a mug’s game. So forgive me if I don’t bother making the follow-up EP streamable.

I’m just looking at the financial side of things here of course. I know there are lots of other considerations. There maaaaaay be longer-term benefits to streaming in terms of reach and ‘exposure’, but that’s gambling on the future when I need to pay the rent right now. I do understand that other artists may do their own sums and decide that streaming is worth their while. But when someone like Gary Numan makes only £37 from one million streams of a song you’ve got to wonder.

This has been a shocking revelation to some music-loving friends I’ve talked to, but I bet it hasn’t stopped them streaming music, and I wouldn’t expect it to, just as I wouldn’t expect non-musicians to have much idea of the time and costs involved in recording and releasing music. In our minds we have bought the music, because we’re paying our Spotify fees. We just don’t realise that the artists we love don’t see any of the dosh.

This is why musicians get excited about Bandcamp Fridays. They give us some chance, if not of actually making money, then at least of recouping some of our costs. There’s currently a government inquiry into streaming and we all wait with bated breath to find out what the outcome will be. I expect it will be that the government give themselves a pat on the back for holding an inquiry and then decide it’s not their responsibility to do anything about it, but let’s see.

Why am I going on about streaming, though? Musicians have other sources of income, don’t they? Well, I think musicians have accepted streaming as a kind of necessary evil for years, but many haven’t been so worried about it because they knew they could still earn money from playing live. Now however, in the absence of live shows over the past year, recorded music is a musician’s primary, or only, source of income. As people now listen to music mostly via streaming as opposed to buying from artists directly, that income will be next to nothing – literally.

Artists who have focused on touring for their entire careers now can’t get to the ‘office’, can’t work from home and therefore have no income at all. Some can get help from the government’s Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, but the eligibility criteria seem designed specifically to frustrate musicians. We typically have ‘portfolio careers‘ or fluid working arrangements where we may be partly ’employed’ and partly self-employed, with the proportion of each varying from year to year. To qualify for the SEISS you need at least 50% of your income in the previous tax year to be from self-employment. Mine came to 48%. Fortunately I’ve been able to keep some online teaching going and even managed to do some bits of recording and session work between lockdowns, but it’s not really enough, and many have not been so lucky.

Plus, it’s about more than surviving financially. Playing live means connecting with an audience, communicating with other humans in actual real time and space, building communities, reaffirming relationships and identities… all those things music allows us to express which we can’t express in any other way. Not being able to play live has made musicians question their purpose in life and their whole sense of self. This doesn’t only affect musicians, but also sound engineers, lighting engineers, tech and stage crew, roadies… everyone whose living (in all senses of the word) relies on the intricate infrastructure of the music world that has built up over decades.

But we only have to hold out a little bit longer because we’ll all be vaccinated soon, and then pubs and venues can open again and gigs will happen and it will all be back to normal, right?

Well let’s hope so, but there are worries that when we all emerge blinking into the light the musical landscape could be unrecognisable. Large venues which have had government or private support might be OK, but many smaller venues, pubs, clubs, studios and rehearsal spaces will have disappeared because they weren’t allowed to open during lockdown and couldn’t afford to stay closed. The musicians who haven’t already been forced to abandon their careers and find other jobs won’t have anywhere to play. After a few years the larger venues will run out of artists to put on; the big new names who have worked their way up won’t be there, because there won’t be anywhere to work their way up from. The Music Venue Trust reports some slightly more positive signs recently, but it all feels very fragile.

Then there is Brexit. Le sigh! Again, the feeling is of an enormous and essential infrastructure collapsing around our ears. I have colleagues whose fan base is at least as big in Europe as it is in the UK, and up until now touring over there has been pretty essential to their livelihoods. Now they’ll have to pay for all kinds of things they didn’t have to before, beginning with a travel carnet that costs £360 per year. Other new costs include visas and work permits, health and other insurance, vehicle hire certificates, instrument and equipment documentation, import and export duties, various types of tax, permission to sell merchandise… the list really does seem to be endless. It will all be beyond the means of most freelance musicians – and most musicians are freelance. Even if you can cover the costs, there are practical issues. Things will take much longer to organise. You won’t be able to do short-notice gigs or accept last-minute depping opportunities. Obviously all this will also be the case for musicians coming to the UK from other countries in Europe. The thing that really irks is that the UK negotiators could have tried to reduce the impact on musicians, and seem to have chosen not to.5

And yet despite all my whining I do not despair. I don’t want to adopt the kind of victim mentality that seems to prevail in many quarters at the moment, and I don’t want this article to be all doom and gloom. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic; of course things are tough, for everyone. In government we have a corrupt chumocracy devoid of imagination and empathy; of course they don’t care about music, art and culture. They don’t even know about them, and they don’t care that they don’t know. They won’t help us, and neither will the mainstream music industry.

So we shall have to go full DIY. If there are no venues left, we’ll have to create our own spaces and organise our own micro-economy. We’ll have to help each other out. It will be possible to tour in Europe but it will take planning, organisation, good strong networking and everyone working together to make things happen. It will also be more important than ever that everyone involved gets treated fairly. I’ve never really understood the competitiveness that goes on in the music world but we can especially do without it now. The rock-star egos and ‘artistic temperaments’ are going to have to be put to one side for a while.

Music will survive, because it’s an essential part of our humanity, so it will be around for as long as we are. But in what form? That’s more tricky to imagine.
Music in our society seems to be ever more ephemeral and expendable, It’s a fashion accessory, wallpaper, taken for granted. Music listeners are just consumers. But as consumers we have the power of choice – not just about what we buy but how we buy it. If you can buy direct from an artist instead of just streaming their stuff, you’re making it much more likely that they will be able to afford to make more stuff for you to enjoy in the future.
And we all need to see the bigger picture. The particular bands I happen to love can only thrive if music as a whole thrives. It’s an ecosystem; full of niches, and each niche is eventually dependent on all the others.

Here are some things we can do:
• Check in with any muso friends; are they alright? Is there anything you can do to help them out?
• Buy direct from artists, or from Bandcamp, especially on Bandcamp Fridays
• Spread the word about our favourite bands and artists
• Support our local small venues – check out #SaveOurVenues
• Keep an eye on the Fix Streaming campaign: #FixStreaming #BrokenRecord
• When live shows do come back, go to them! And enjoy!

Otherwise, pretty soon, it will be only the rich and famous who can be musicians. Imagine how excruciatingly boring that will be.

Kate Arnold‘s new EP is out now.

Also check out Fear of The Forest



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