Economic Struggles of Music and The Arts During the Covid-19 Pandemic
Although it seems we are now emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no doubt that 2020 has significantly damaged the music industry. In 2019, a ‘delighted’ Nicky Morgan MP announced that the industry contributed to a fantastic £5.2 billion to the UK economy in the UK’s Music by Numbers report. The music industry is now expected to lose £3 billion, and at least 114,000 jobs as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Across the UK, concerts have been cancelled, world premieres postponed, and freelancers left in a state of limbo over the dystopian rules of our bonkers ‘new normal’. The Royal Opera House, one of the UK’s bastions of classical music, was forced into selling a significant asset – a David Hockney painting worth £18 million – in order to ensure its survival. One can only help but wonder if all this misery was really necessary. Undoubtedly people will have raised the question: has the national response to the crisis both generally, and in our institutions, been balanced?
When we examine the response to the pandemic in our institutions, we begin to see that the mistreatment of musicians is not only unreasonable, but also, largely avoidable. Why, for example, in Michaelmas 2020, has Durham University permitted students to book sports pitches and tennis courts, allowing elite level sport to take place, but not consider musical activity as equally essential to our wellbeing? How are the country’s strongest student-led orchestras and choirs going to retain their national reputation if they cannot function? In a global pandemic, one must of course target funding sensitively, however, there is no reason why music should not be funded appropriately, as it is just as a crucial to our mental health as kicking a ball. The psychological benefits of music are by now well documented and would provide many people with a renewed sense of purpose. Besides, is a university contact sport really more Covid-secure than an orchestra distanced two metres apart? Are we set to forget the importance of our arts under the duress of lockdown? Even Churchill, when questioned why he refused to cut funding and support to the arts during WW2, allegedly responded ‘I do it, sir, to remind us what we are fighting for’.
These are times of great instability for the working musician, particularly for freelancers who have been given a third less than employees in government support. Allan Clayton, one of Britain’s foremost tenors, who caught significant attention for playing Hamlet in Brett Dean’s opera of the same title, has spoken about the insecurities of his own position – “I’m still going to prep for concerts that were set to happen, even if they don’t”. Music is not just an unstable livelihood, but an activity which gives thousands of people a purpose in life. As such, it is dangerously myopic of the government and our universities not to realise the value of this industry and to take steps to ‘level up’ support and support it. To rub more salt into the wound, after having deemed musicians as ‘unviable’ and ‘low-skilled’ workers in the Brexit classifications, musicians were reminded how undervalued they are by a recirculated government campaign saying artists should ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot’. Given their total reliance on the state and their seeming inability to contribute to the fight against Covid, why not ask politicians to retrain as NHS workers? They might have a career there – they just don’t know it yet! One might have thought that both Sunak and Johnson, having undergone the classical education which supposedly values culture and tradition, would have instinctively pursued the preservation of the arts. Furthermore, why could concerts not take place in accordance with social distancing rules? As was seen from the protests in Parliament Square led by violinist Nicola Benedetti, people are itching to get back to work. To use the government’s own phrase, people want to safely ‘Take Back Control’ of their own lives and get on with supporting their families, improving their mental health, and – by extension – contributing to the cultural and economic pulse of the nation.
The government’s response to this economic collapse was to administer a £1.57 billion support package to the arts in July 2020, followed by a £257 million package in October 2020. As can be seen however, this does not come close to repairing the damage caused. The arts are a significant contributor to our national GDP, with a study from the Arts Council England in 2019 showing that they contribute more than agricultural industry. In 2019, they provided a total of £23 billion to the UK’s GDP. Can the country really afford to lose its painters, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, actors and everyone else who contributes to this vital industry? Those who have the opportunity, such as British soprano Louise Alder, are jumping ship and working abroad. The industry is already facing great challenges as both Brexit and the government’s new immigration policy are going to drastically limit who can contribute to the artistic life of the country. As ‘unskilled workers’, how does the government imagine that the London Symphony Orchestra is going to source some of its best players? ‘Homegrown talent’ might be the answer some people give to this, but where is this homegrown talent going to be nurtured if there are continuing cuts to our arts and culture? For a government that prides itself on Britishness, our identity in the world, and a rich heritage which supposedly sets us apart, what can we possibly stand for if we lose the most important part of what it means to be British – our culture. Stop all the clocks! Will Shakespeare go mute? Will Elgar fall on deaf ears? Will we, like John Turner, go blind to his art? It seems that there is a simple reality here that the government must face: allow the arts to function safely, or risk losing them altogether.
There is, perhaps, a distant light of hope which lies beyond the shackles of Covid. Some figures such as Grayson Perry have suggested the broader artistic culling is a welcome chance to clear the ‘dead wood’ of the cultural world, like ‘turning a computer off and on again, and seeing which files reappear. Some of them we don’t really give a damn about’. Whilst provocative, his position almost suggests that after the current artistic decimation, there will come a sort of ‘renaissance’, grown from a re-injection of cash at a time when the basic infrastructure of society has been replenished. Historian Richard A. Goldthwaite, has suggested that the artistic explosion of the 16th century Renaissance was in large part caused by the ‘inheritance effect’ of the Black Death. Following that pandemic came a period of economic revival and an improved quality of life for those who had survived the plague. As a result, the Medici family were able to patronise artists such as Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raffaello, playing a significant part in the invention of the piano and of opera. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was commissioned by Duke Francesco of Mantua, the husband of Eleonora de’ Medici. Can we expect to see such a parallel in the post-lockdown world? Time will tell, although for the foreseeable future, the life of musicians and artists in general is going to be hard and precarious.
Basciano, O. (2020) ‘Anger after Grayson Perry claims Covid will clear arts of ‘dead wood’’, The Guardian, 2 November [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/nov/02/grayson-perry-coronavirus-covid-19
Goldthwaite, R. A. (1987) ‘The Economy of Renaissance Italy: The Preconditions for Luxury Consumption’, I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, 2, p. 17.
Kustanczy, C. (2020) ‘Allan Clayton: “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Days If They Don’t Have Music In Them”’, The Opera Queen [online]. Available at: https://www.theoperaqueen.com/2020/03/27/allan-clayton/
Mack, E., Bourscheidt, R. and Lynch, R. (2017) ‘Funding the arts is more than preserving culture. It’s big business.’, The Hill [online]. Available at: https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/uncategorized/320235-funding-the-arts-is-more-than-preserving-culture-its-big#.WKnIbt1scic.facebook