‘Go and do something useful’
When lockdown began in March, live music stopped and my career as an opera singer ground to a halt. I’ve tried to hold onto a nugget of hope that the arts won’t be allowed to fall over the edge of a cliff into a bottomless abyss. But that hope has been steadily chipped away, as the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, talks about ‘viable jobs’ and suggests people should look for ‘fresh and new opportunities’; Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, tells those who work in the arts to ‘hang on in there’ (he didn’t explain how, when innumerable members of the community are on the breadline); and Edwina Currie, forced to resign as a junior health minister in 1988 for misguided remarks about bad eggs, instructs the UK’s freelance music community to ‘go and do something useful’ and get ‘an education’ – all perhaps taking their lead from Dominic Cummings, who allegedly said in a meeting in August that ‘the fucking ballerinas can get to the back of the queue.’
Insult was added to injury this week with a government-sponsored advert suggesting that Fatima the ballerina’s next job should be in ‘cyber’. Downing Street hurriedly distanced itself from the ad and the outrage it caused, but it’s consistent with the message we’ve been getting from the government since March: those of us in the creative industries who are not able to work are an unviable bunch of whingeing dunderheads who need to ‘rethink, reskill and reboot.’
Like every other musician I know in a similar position, I have done all I possibly can to find gainful employment, and will continue to do so. Any of us would take a paid job outside our industry if we were lucky enough to be offered one. But getting an interview is proving impossible, regardless of my qualifications (a degree from Cambridge) or the number of jobs I apply for, because I don’t have relevant work experience. Musicians’ experience and skills don’t match the very few jobs that are out there, so it’s difficult for us to compete against the five hundred other people applying for every position – assuming the job even exists. In some cases companies have gone into a recruitment freeze, but haven’t taken the advert down. The Job Centre hasn’t been much help, because the staff aren’t used to dealing with someone who has a degree but doesn’t have a PGCE or an HGV licence or a nursing or social work qualification.
Retraining costs thousands of pounds, with living costs on top, and most of us are struggling to survive as it is. Forty per cent of freelance musicians have, for various reasons, not qualified for government help, and no one can live on Universal Credit alone. Most arts organisations need to fill at least 70 per cent of their seats to break even. Thousands of musicians will never be able to return to work unless specific, targeted government help is given to support the arts beyond the bailout: what a waste of talent, skill and experience, in what was until March a world-leading industry (the ‘music, arts and culture sector’ used to be worth more than £9 billion; the fishing industry, by comparison, is worth £1 billion).
It’s starting to look as if Sunak has decided that the only way forwards is for the arts to be abandoned to their fate, to remove all government subsidies, and force the sector onto a commercial footing supplemented by private philanthropy. The picture is further complicated by Brexit, removing arts freelancers’ right to work in Europe from 1 January 2021. The prospect for musicians couldn’t be bleaker.