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Musicians struggle as Covid support hits the wrong note

“If lockdown happens again, if there were no musicians, no arts, no music, no TV - what would people do?” Performance Accountancy’s Louise Herrington asks AccountingWEB.

23rd Oct 2020
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The arts industry is not just at the heart of our culture, but our economy. In 2019 alone, the music industry contributed £5.2bn to the UK economy, with almost 200,000 full-time jobs playing a part.

The events of this year have forced creatives to put down their instruments and apply for various government schemes, the majority of which have not delivered the help they desperately need. 

“I feel the arts industry in particular have been left as an afterthought,” said Frank Drake of Flag Promotions, “rather than treating us as they should have like all the other people in different workforces.”

A large majority of performers work across a combination of self-employed and PAYE work, meaning they are unable to claim help from the self employed support scheme. “A lot of my clients couldn’t make claims under furlough,” said lead accountant of Performance Accountancy, Louise Herrington. “An awful lot have just had zero support.”

Social distancing

The effects of social distancing are even greater for Herrington's opera-based clientele: “It’s a completely different ball game to musicians that can still go and create in their own studio,” said the Performance Accountancy lead accountant. 

Even if theatres were to open their doors, it would only be to around 30% of their capacity. “You’ve already lost most of your revenue,” said Herrington, “so there’s absolutely no point in opening to make a profit.”

“Social distancing for theatres is darn near impossible,” Herrington admitted. The only safe option would be to create a support bubble for the performers, meaning they would have to split from their families for the foreseeable future.

Struggling for support

A £1.57bn arts fund was promised a few months ago, but this is mainly aimed towards supporting the buildings and companies in the theatre industry. “It doesn’t help the individuals,” said Herrington.

A large majority of creatives have struggled to access the various grants and schemes on offer due to the nature of their work. “Self-employed incomes are very lumpy,” commented founder of Pell Artists, Stephen Pell; people end up falling through the cracks.

This has had a knock on effect on their advisers. Even as her business stays afloat this tax year, Herrington is concerned for the health of her practice in 2021: “It’s not going to take them very much to put zero on a tax return.”

Struggling musicians can simply no longer afford the fees: “People are leaving bigger firms and seeking out smaller ones,” she said. “Money talks, unfortunately.”

The wellbeing impact

The need for emotional support has grown with the financial strain: “It’s reached breaking point… We’ve been having to act as that support network as well for them,” said Pell. “That’s the same for our team internally - it’s very important that we have a regular person that people can speak to.”

“People’s mental health is gonna be the next big issue countries are going to have to deal with - it’s obviously creating a massive strain,” commented Frank Drake. “The creative part of [musicians’] lives is what makes it more bearable.”

Whilst he admitted it is a very difficult job for any government to deal with, he also felt some  of the methods they’ve employed have simply been insufficient.

Vital workers

The Chancellor recently caused a stir amongst the creative industries after he stated in an ITV interview that he “can’t pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job that they were doing at the beginning of this crisis”. 

There was some speculation around this statement after ITV News tweeted and then deleted: “@RishiSunak suggests musicians and others in the arts should retrain and find other jobs”.

Sunak’s comment was a major kick in the teeth for the industry: “Some musicians have been training since they were three years old,” said Herrington of her clients.

She considered the idea that any job in the arts industry is ‘non-vital’ as ridiculous. “What are your children watching?” Herrington questioned Sunak. “I’d love to know if lockdown happens again, if there were no musicians, no arts, no music, no TV - what would people do?”

“It’s treating the arts as if they’re not proper workers,” said Frank Drake. To suggest that anyone retrain felt “insulting to put it mildly”.

The government even launched a tool to suggest what people should retrain as.

The next stage

Instead, Herrington advised struggling creatives to delve into the digital world of teaching to see them through.

Stephen Pell stressed an adaptable approach: “If you ask people to pivot or explore or grow, that sends a better message and inspires people to try different things.” He has personally been trying to encourage his clients to embrace their inner entrepreneur.

“Build assets, write songs,” Pell said. “Record things that might make you some money, or at least might make you feel good because you’re doing something you love.”

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