What unites Liam Gallagher, Ian Rankin and Badly Drawn Boy (no, I don’t know who the last one is either)? They all had a go at Chancellor Rishi Sunak yesterday after he appeared to say that some workers in the Arts sector need to re-train and do other jobs. In an interview with ITV, Sunak was asked if out-of-work musicians and actors should seek alternative employment, and responded: “I can’t pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job that they were doing at the beginning of this crisis.”
The Chancellor later walked back the comments, saying he was talking about jobs in general rather than the arts sector in particular, but it was too late – Twitter had already got the message and many of the country’s most famous creatives’ responded.
“Without the arts, our lives are impoverished. This is nuts,” Rankin, the Scottish author of the ‘Rebus’ crime novels, said.
It comes as new research from the Musicians’ Union shows a third of professional musicians could leave the industry, with nearly half already needing to seek alternative forms of employment.
I know a few professional musicians, and for them it was a precarious job even before the crisis struck. Many musicians are reliant on working weddings to supplement limited income from the live music scene. This of course is where the term ‘gig economy’ comes from; getting paid per gig, rather than a regular income.
The digital age has not been kind to the music industry; whereas before a fairly broad spread of musicians could make a living from vinyl then CD sales, digital downloads do not generate the same revenue, and does not distribute the revenue that is generated as broadly. Most of us just stream music for free. For those who get a Spotify account or something similar, the revenues mainly go to a top 0.1 per cent of very famous artists (your Liam Gallagher’s), and of course the music platform takes a big commission on every download.
But of course our appetite to listen to music has not changed, neither in the digital age nor in lockdown. It’s just that music’s commodification process spreads income even more narrowly than in the past. As Rankin points out, we need artists as much as ever, but we need new solutions for how to ensure they have a liveable income. Otherwise, the industry will be made up of people who’s parents could afford to subsidise years of band practice and gigging for a pittance Musicians from working class backgrounds will become increasingly rare. That already appears to have been happening.
Common Weal has recommended a form of basic income for the arts sector, and a Festival of Scotland spread across the country to supports the events and entertainment sector, when conditions allow. These measures could potentially be funded in the same way independent media could be funded; through a levy on the revenue of digital platforms.
More broadly, Sunak claimed that they are creating “new opportunities” for people to move into new sectors. This isn’t really true. The only job-creation scheme that has so far been introduced is the Kick-Starter Scheme, which subsidises corporates to take on under-24’s in low-paid work with few prospects. The Scottish Government has its own version of this. Apart from that, you are told to re-train with potentially no job at the end of what is an expensive and time-consuming personal investment. What Scotland and the UK really needs is state-led labour planning, where training and job creation are directly linked upas part of a mission-orientated industrial policy to address the major and urgent social and ecological challenges the country faces. In lieu of that, young folk may be better off just getting the band back together.
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