I was still signing on at the dole office when Darts, the band I joined when I was just 18 years old, had their first top ten hit record. I signed off the dole when someone in the queue pointed out that they had seen me on Top of the Pops the week before.
It was only then that I started to see some money from the band. We were all put on the princely sum of £35 a week by the manager who had managed to squeeze a bit more cash out of our tight-fisted record company. Up until then, my dole was all I had to live on. I know it sounds crazy but that's what you did back in the late 1970's. Once we had decided that we were going to try and make the band a success we packed up our jobs on the South Coast, moved up to London, dossed in a crappy flat and signed on the dole. Once or maybe twice I had to go for an interview with one of the social security (of course we referred to them as the SS) officers who would ask what efforts I had made to find work. I would explain that I was a musician in a band and we were hopeful that we would sign a record deal and I would be able to come off the dole soon and that was all they needed to know. I wasn't alone, almost every musician I knew who was trying to make it in London at that time was signing on. OK, many of you will be muttering stuff about lazy, scrounging work-shy good for nothings and/or that's why Britain needed Thatcher etc. However, many of the great bands that emerged in the late 1970's simply would not have happened if it hadn't been for the 'relaxed' attitude of the dole offices at that time.
Of course, come the 1980's and the Thatcher years, that 'relaxed' attitude vanished and it became almost impossible to stay on the dole as a musician. However, ironically, it was Margaret Thatcher herself who threw musicians a life line in the form of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme. In order to try and do something about the mass unemployment that Britain was experiencing in the early 1980's, Mrs T launched this new scheme which gave a guaranteed income of £40 a week to people who set up their own business. The idea being that it would create new businesses and stimulate growth through entrepreneurship. There were some hoops to jump through in order to qualify but the' Starship Enterprise', as it quickly became known as amongst the musicians of the day, helped launch the careers of Jarvis Cocker and Pulp amongst many other bands of that time. The Enterprise Allowance Scheme also helped a number of successful businesses get off the ground including Viz magazine and Superdry. Critics of the scheme pointed to the fact that one out of every six people who signed up for the new scheme saw their enterprise fail in the first year and that most of those 'businesses' consisted of sole traders. Nevertheless, it was a notable financial safety net for emerging talent who would not otherwise have been able to fund their work as musicians and songwriters.
Fast forward to 1999 and we see the Blair Government launch the New Deal for Musicians scheme. After a trial period during which 2,500 musicians found employment, the scheme was made permanent in 2003. Basically, the scheme offered financial help to young people who had been jobless for six months or more provided that they undertook training. In the case of New Deal for Musicians this meant attending mentoring sessions. The Musicians' Union was involved in the roll out of this scheme by providing suitable mentors around the UK and the scheme was very popular, helping to launch the careers of The Zutons, James Morrison and Jem amongst many others. However, the Labour Government decided to scrap the scheme in 2009 and since then there has been nothing.
In fact, things have got a whole lot worse recently. As well as there being absolutely no way of a young impoverished musician getting financial help from the Government whilst they develop their talents, there is now very little chance of enjoying any family tax credits for musicians on a low income. The Universal Credit has replaced all of the old social security payments but, due to the irregular payments and long hours of unpaid work (rehearsing, song writing etc.) that typify a musicians work, this new scheme is a very poor fit for musicians. Under the new system, self-employed people (musicians) who for whatever reason were unable to earn the equivalent of an employed person paid on the National Minimum Wage would have their working tax credit stopped, reducing their income.
Can it get any worse? Well, yes it can, the Government's plans to cut £12billion pounds from the annual welfare bill will have a direct effect on low income families. We know from our own research conducted in 2012 that as many as 56% of the MU's members are earning less than £20K annually, how long can they continue to work as musicians in the face of these cuts?
The media has been awash of late with the ongoing 'posh actors' debate. Such notable luminaries as Julie Walters, James McAvoy and David Morrissey have waded in suggesting that working class people simply wouldn't be able to afford a career in the arts and that, the acting profession in particular, is fast becoming a career choice only open to the independently wealthy.
I am a governor of the BRIT School in Croydon and I am particularly proud of the fact that this school offers genuine opportunities to young talented people from all social backgrounds looking for a career in the Arts. That said, I am painfully aware that young working class kids from Leeds, Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle and pretty much anywhere else around the country outside of Croydon have little or no chance of getting into the BRIT School. These young people will struggle to make it in the music business without a constant source of independent income; it just isn't doable any more. Of course new bands and artists will still emerge but will they come from social housing estates and the poorer parts of the country? I have my doubts. Not only for the reasons given above, but also I think the 'cat is out of the bag' when it comes to earnings potential in this business. With the advent of piracy and recorded music having little or no financial value, young people are only too aware that unless you are Adele (BRIT School Graduate by the way) Ed Sheeran or 1D you just aren't going to make a lot of money in this business.
For my money, some of the best music that this country has produced over the last fifty years has been the product of musicians from humble roots. I worry that we won't see again the likes of a Madness, Happy Mondays, Oasis or Pulp unless or until we have a Government that is willing to provide a financial support mechanism for musicians from poor backgrounds. What a dismal prospect.