IT’S funny how a political honeymoon can suddenly end.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak could do no wrong till he was asked by ITV News if musicians and other creative industry workers should look for alternative employment. He answered: “I can’t pretend everyone can do exactly the same job they were doing at the beginning of this crisis. That’s why we’ve put a lot of resource into trying to create new opportunities.”

Ok – he didn’t say musicians should retrain.

But clearly that’s what he meant.

And that’s what musicians heard.

Cue outrage.

Capercaillie’s Donald Shaw said: “It’s like Norman Tebbit’s get on your bike slogan. Essentially the message is your wee hobby is over – get a real job. Musicians don’t expect help. We haven’t spent the last 20 years, cap in hand – in fact we’ve all driven 500 miles to play for 60 quid because it’s just a privilege to perform.”

Actor Dougie Henshall put it a tad more forcefully: “Is there any Prime Minister retraining programme around? Or Culture f***ing Secretary retraining? Or any other member of the f***ing Cabinet retraining? F*** sake.”


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Fearless and outspoken, actors, musicians and creatives are the wrong bunch of people to try to reprogram. Independent-minded and able to exist from gig to gig without the comfort or support of a single employer, they are very unlikely to take a finger-wagging from a former hedge fund manager in cowed silence.

Especially artists like Liam Gallagher, who tweeted: “So the dopes in [government] telling musicians and people in arts to retrain and get another job, what and become massive c**ts like you, nah yer alright.”

Little did Rishi realise he was prodding a musical hornet’s nest.

So, the man with a cheery (cultivated) reputation for handing out cash has tried to retract the whole story.

Indeed, he leaned so heavily on ITV they posted this correction to their own story: “UPDATE: This article has changed to reflect that the Chancellor’s comments were about employment generally and not specifically about the music or arts sector.”

Still, the damage has been done.

And not just because of that single televisual blurt.

Yesterday two big musicians’ organisations – the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) and Musicians’ Movement – launched a new campaign. It wasn’t triggered by Rishi’s interview gaffe but by his “Winter Economy Plan” announced a fortnight earlier. The lack of any provision for musicians and creatives in that package was the real last straw.

According to ONS, the creative industries were the fastest-growing sector of the British economy pre-Covid, with a £111 billion turnover (£5bn in the music industry alone). You’d think Boris would instantly want to “put his arms around” such economic winners.

But the way musicians and creatives work has let them fall neatly between every support system devised by the UK Government – and has demonstrated why a basic income would be a far fairer system.

Musicians aren’t usually employed – so no furlough. A musician’s income fluctuates wildly from year to year. So if they took time off to write a new album, did no touring and therefore earned very little last year, they got next to nothing in the self-employed grant, which is based on the last 12 months’ income.

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Many young musicians don’t qualify for the self-employed grant though, because they set up companies and live on tiny dividend payments. That doesn’t mean they are Rockefellers – it does mean they missed out on all support.

But what about the massive £1.57bn funding package announced by the British Government in August?

The Arts Recovery Fund – distributed to devolved governments – is welcome. But it’s mainly been allocated to bricks and mortar, organisations and venues – and thanks to social distancing, that’s only allowed venues to be mothballed without any trickle down to actual musicians or artists.

The Scottish Government has tried to help.

According to Liam Budd, of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM): “Each of the devolved nations has allocated funds for affected freelancers – £5 million in Scotland. This best practice from the devolved nations should be adopted in England.”


But musicians need more than musical mitigation.

The ISM #MakeMusicWork campaign has proposed a Freelance Performers Support Scheme to provide a guaranteed fee for performers plus grants for venues to cover the income difference between a full auditorium and the reduced capacity during Covid.

They also want a VAT exemption on all “cultural” tickets and improvements to the Self- Employment Income Support Scheme.

Will this fall on receptive ears in Downing Street? That seems unlikely, since hospitality and sport (especially football) have got to the top of the queue faster, and Tory-supporting tabloids still portray musicians as whining “lovies”.

But even if this package did get the Chancellor’s backing – it wouldn’t immediately help musicians in Scotland, thanks to our tougher rules about indoor (and indeed outdoor) entertainment.

South of the Border, big venues like the Albert Hall are currently selling tickets for December, subject to the usual precautions and one-metre social distancing.

Why not here? The answer may well be that Nicola Sturgeon wants simple, universal rules that are also tougher in Scotland than south of the Border. But that leaves Scotland’s musicians and our big music festivals up in the air.

Will Celtic Connections go ahead in January? It’s hard to see how it can and doubtless plans for a digital event are afoot.

According to the Festival’s creative director, Donald Shaw: “We are desperately hoping for one-metre social distancing to be introduced in Scotland and if not, to understand why Scotland is different from England and the rest of Europe. I don’t have the scientific knowledge to challenge the guidelines but it’s a confusing and frustrating situation.”

So, what can be done? Musicians themselves have some great suggestions.

The tireless and award-winning fiddler/composer Duncan Chisholm reached new audiences during lockdown, playing a live tune online every morning. He’s also collaborated with other musicians and poets on Zoom and helped organise an online music festival. But since music is usually streamed “free”, he’s found it hard to make a living in the new normal.

Duncan says: “I think the answer is for broadcasters to open up their schedules and provide a short-term platform for live music and theatre. There are so many highly skilled musicians, actors, producers, directors and engineers in Scotland desperate for the opportunity to work again.

“It could be a massive opportunity for broadcasters and artists – and audiences who are keen to see and hear new, exciting and engaging work.”

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Donald Shaw thinks this is the ideal moment to challenge the big online music-streaming platforms: “The trillion-dollar companies, Apple Spotify and Amazon, have made no effort to support the ecosystem of musicians worldwide despite distributing music that’s largely supplied to them free. If they didn’t have music, they would struggle to exist in the same way supermarkets would struggle without farmers.

“One possibility is that big performers like Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran could ask the big three streaming platforms to support artists with smaller followings. If artists with this profile could encourage some income redistribution, it would make a huge difference to other musicians.

“The big online platforms style themselves as benefactors showcasing the diversity of music across the world. It’s time for them to give a helping hand and behave more like record labels not online shops.”

In short, there’s a stack of good ideas coming from performers who want to inspire, re-energise and reconnect Scots through their own creative work.

Is anyone in government listening?