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A few weeks ago, I spent £27 on a record with the enticing title Live Drugs. I bought it because I am a fan of its creators, the Philadelphia-based rock group The War on Drugs, and also because I was in the midst of a pandemic-related phase of insomnia and anxiety and it seemed to offer the prospect of a bit of uplift. But the main reason was the prospect of some kind of reconnection with something I almost seem to have forgotten: live musical performance, and what it’s like to hear and watch a band with a multitude of other people.
Live Drugs was recorded in an array of places across the world over a period of five years; one review called it “a grand love letter to live music”. Its best moments suggest a kind of inarticulable dialogue between the group and its audience, something heard most spectacularly on the 12-minute evocation of 21st-century living titled Under the Pressure, when thousands of people passionately sing along not with the words, but the guitar part. They sound like a football crowd.
It takes a lot of human labour to create a moment like that, and right now all of that work is in a state of suspended animation. People who earn a living seeing to sound, lights and the transport of people and equipment are either unemployed or doing another job. Something similar applies to the string and horn players often hired by successful bands, who also play in orchestras and ensembles. The advertising sections of music magazines and Sunday supplements are smattered with announcements of gigs and concerts scheduled to take place from the spring onwards; having written off 2020, the people behind the UK’s summer festivals seem to be tentatively starting to put next year’s run together. But no one knows for sure if any of these events are actually going to happen.
A comparatively small number of successful musicians – like, one imagines, The War on Drugs – may have used the last nine months to take stock and quietly work on new material. But for most, the Covid crisis boils down to struggle, anxiety and, in many cases, mounting debt. The UK Musicians Union reckons that 70% of its members are unable to do more than a quarter of their pre-pandemic work, and that 87% of musicians will this year earn less than £20,000. Thirty-four per cent are apparently considering leaving professional music altogether. About a third of the union’s members do not qualify for any of the government’s help for people whose professional lives have been upturned: in Scotland and Wales, at least some of the public money dedicated to emergency help for the arts has gone to individuals, but in England, the so-called Culture Recovery Fund is exclusively focused on organisations and venues.
For many musicians, all that remains as a source of income is the revenue from recordings. But if the conventions that govern paying people in this way have always been stacked against actual creators, the 21st century has made things even worse. The facts may now be well known, but that does not make them any less shocking: Spotify is estimated to pay about £0.0028 (or 0.28p) per stream to “rights holders”, a term that encompasses both massive record companies and artists who put out their own music; and on YouTube, the per-stream rate is put at a mere £0.0012. Thousands of musicians who have signed contracts with corporate record companies and ended up in debt to their overlords (or “unrecouped”) receive no money at all. Shut down live music, and the result for many will be instant penury. as Guy Garvey, the lead singer with the Mancunian band Elbow, recently put it: “Musicians can’t eat, they can’t make the rent. We need to make the system better.”
Culture is subject to the same basic economic rules as everything else. In 30 years of writing about music, I have seen it enough times: when the industry is subject to shocks, the victims tend not to be the big music companies, large-capacity venues or huge-selling artists but people and businesses on the edge, both financially and artistically. In recent years there has been sporadic panic about the arts increasingly being dominated by people from privileged enough backgrounds to enable them to ride out hardship. Here lies a danger that is too often overlooked: that starved of funds and deprived of the live element that represents its absolute foundation, what we used to call popular music will become elitist, wholly dependent on big money, and lousy with it.
Even in impossible circumstances, musicians still work transcendent miracles. In spite of this year’s grimness – or, in some cases, because of it – this has been a very good year indeed for records. The artists of the year, to my mind, are a mysterious British collective called Sault, who have released two albums thematically connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, seemingly conceived as sweeping song cycles, and full of brilliant tracks. Plenty of the other names on this year’s end-of-year albums lists are almost as revelatory. Some of the best musicians in there probably sell a comparative handful of records and CDs, count their streams in the tens or hundreds of thousands and, outside festival season, play gigs to small audiences. In other words, they live precariously – and in times like these, their situation will verge on the impossible.
So which way back? Last week, I had a conversation with Mark Davyd, the founder and chief executive of the Music Venue Trust, the charity that represents 270 such establishments all over the country. He talked about piloting fast pre-gig Covid testing, which could establish within an hour whether a ticket-holder was infected with Covid-19, and “anti-viral snoods” that might be worn by audiences. The Musicians Union is pushing for a musical version of the “eat out to help out” scheme, so that public money might subsidise the takings lost when venues can only admit socially distanced audiences. Streaming needs to be fixed so that musicians earn money from it as a matter of right. And over and above occasional charitable donations, the corporate music industry should find a way of making a sustained contribution towards grassroots musicians’ survival. Talent is not best served by poverty, and creators and their associates ought to not to starve.
The rest of us need to wake up at last to the fact that the expectation of free recorded music is now in danger of killing something that human beings cannot live without. If you have the money and some remaining Christmas spirit, you should log out of Spotify, go to either an online outlet or a bricks-and-mortar record shop, buy a few physical products, and contribute a little to the livelihood of a musician or two. Given the magic they conjure up, it’s a very small price to pay.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Unless we start paying, making music will become the preserve of the elite | Music