THE BLOG

Has There Ever Been a Worse Time to Be a Musician?

28/10/2014 16:44 GMT | Updated 28/12/2014 10:59 GMT

I abandoned my career as a professional musician in my early 30s while I was still relatively busy playing sessions and working in bands. I did so because I had the strong suspicion that my 'glory years' were behind me and I didn't want to always be known as that bloke who was in Darts. I can't say that I don't miss it but I know I made the right decision and I love what I do now. I have a good friend who is a much more talented musician than I ever was; he's a bit younger than me too. We have played in several bands together and this guy is without doubt one of the most gifted musicians I have ever worked with. He has MD'd shows on Broadway and in the West End. He has written songs for a number of different artists including the legendary Solomon Burke and he has toured all over the world with some great performers.

I met up with him a couple of weeks ago as he was playing a gig in a little venue in North London. In the break we talked about the business and just how bad things have got and he confessed to me that work for him had dwindled to the extent that he was seriously contemplating jacking it in and getting a 'proper job' (can I just say that only musicians - and I still call myself a musician - are allowed to use the term 'proper job', we know what we mean, we use it ironically. When non-musicians use it they normally use it in a derogatory way, like your Dad: "when are you going to get a proper job?")

The coming of the age of austerity means that the big corporates that used to throw extravagant parties/conferences etc either simply can't afford to do so anymore or have decided that ostentatious displays of decadence and largesse are inappropriate in these straightened times. This has had a massive knock-on affect on what you might call middle-England jobbing musicians.

Corporate shindigs had - up until the global economic crash - become the mainstay of a jobbing musician's livelihood. When he told me that he was thinking of quitting I was horrified. If this industry can't even pay the bills for a talent like his then where the hell have we got to and more importantly where the hell are we going?

Musicians working in what is still called the popular end of the profession are either laughing uproariously or weeping uncontrollably when they open their royalty statements and see what a paltry return they are getting from their labels in the digital age. Streaming may well be slowly turning the tide against piracy but until the majors start passing on to artists a greater share of the moneys they receive from Spotify, Deezer and the like then forget making a living out of recorded music if you're not a mega-star.

Thank god for Live.Most of the musicians I know who are in Championship level bands (as opposed to Premier League level bands where hopefully the parachute payments should be enough to sustain you into your dotage) survive on the money they make from playing festivals and tours. That said, with upwards of 30 pubs closing every day and relaxed planning laws bringing about the closure of inner city music venues - how long can we sustain a vibrant live music scene in the UK?

And what about the classical world? The music colleges and the music academies are more popular than ever, turning out endless hopefuls looking for a place in one of the UK's fine orchestras. Good luck to them, they're going to need it. Cuts in arts funding are pushing the orchestras to the very brink of existence. Even flagship orchestras like the orchestra at English National Opera (ENO) are not safe. ENO has had its Arts Council of England (ACE) funding cut by 30%. The Orchestra of the Swan has lost its ACE funding altogether resulting in the players having to take a (hopefully temporary) ten percent pay cut and the Ulster Orchestra is in crisis due to funding cuts. I pick out these three for no particular reason; every orchestra in the country is suffering and struggling to survive. I think it very unlikely that we will come out of the economic downturn with all our wonderful UK orchestras intact. This coalition government is very fond of praising the UK music industry for its significant contribution to the UK's economy and the unrivalled position that we have, to date, been able to maintain in the global music market. The trouble is, to use an angler's analogy, if you scare the fish away from your swim, your net stays empty for a long time. Unless a more enlightened government takes steps to put back what the last few years has taken away then I fear that more and more of my colleagues will be looking for a 'proper job'.

Here at MU Towers we are working hard with the union's members to devise strategies and campaigns that might help to turn the growing tide of iniquities that today's professional musicians are facing. It's not easy, but we've had some notable victories like the Live Music Act and the recent government U-turn on National Insurance contributions. If you care about where your profession is going then come and join us.