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OPINION Despairing notes

With venues closed for the foreseeable future and no financial support from the government, musicians are facing a very bleak future, says JAMES DICKENSON

DESPITE increasing press coverage of the plight of music and musicians, little of any substance has been forthcoming for them in Britain.

A careful inspection of the grants given since the government’s £1.25 billion financial package for the arts was announced makes grim reading for individual musicians.

Not a single one has received any funding. Many are facing bankruptcy, homelessness and finding new careers after decades of work.

Why is this? What is happening to the industry is a political assault on music, on culture, on critical thought and on the political left of centre. It has been going on for a long time.

The first major shots of this conflict were fired in 1979 with the new Thatcher government cutting £5 million from the arts budget.

Over the following years, those cuts continued and a new mantra introduced, that music should be a “business.”

As Richard Luce, Lord Gowrie’s successor as arts minister, announced as far back as 1987: “There are still too many in the arts world who are yet to be weaned from the welfare state mentality.” 

On the ideological front, Norman Tebbit led the way, calling the Arts Council elitist and politically biased.

During the early 1990s, the struggle took a new turn with the creation of grant-maintained status for schools, allowing them to bypass local county councils for funding and receive their money directly from the government.

The result was that schools generally chose to remove free school instrumental lessons, instead opting overnight to ask parents to pay.

A project that had started after the war with the provision of free musical tuition was decimated.

County music services, the bedrock of the music industry, were destroyed.

Previously, counties like mine, Bedfordshire, had thousands of children learning violin every year and, from this, they built a state-funded world-class orchestra that rivalled the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, a predominantly privately educated band of young players.

Bedfordshire was not unique. This success was repeated all over the country but slowly, due to the cuts, standards dropped and three decades on these orchestras are either unrecognisable or defunct.

The third wave of attacks on the arts came in 2011 during the new wave of austerity, with the Arts Council losing some £100m by 2014.

The arts have been in rapid decline ever since. Wages have stagnated, costs have risen, small concerts societies have shut down, teachers who had had their careers seriously curtailed in the early 1990s now found themselves unemployed as councils had to prioritise essential services, of which music was not one.

Many counties now had no music provision at all. Increasingly, music became the preserve of the rich, with candidates from public schools dominating auditions into music college.

With the lack of funding and stagnation of work and wages, many freelance musicians moved into teaching, adding extra pressure on this already declining sector.

Alongside the cuts, increasing bureaucracy meant than an Arts Council grant application was now more about box-ticking than musical integrity.

The first round of processing is done by an algorithm, with diversity, accessibility and equality key factors and a larger organisations with effective management structures dominate the application process.

Small societies, chamber music and small festivals were simply unable to compete.

Music was now seen not only as elitist and left-wing but also intangible, not quantifiable and therefore impossible to directly fund.

No-one in these organisations seemed willing or even qualified to make artistic decisions any more and the lack of talent and musical knowledge in such circles is simply mind-blowing.

Brexit and the reaction to it heralded phase four. Previously at least orchestras and musicians could easily tour in Europe and, as a working freelancer, I knew I had 27 other countries that I could visit and work in.

I still can until December 2020 and there are attempts by the Musicians’ Union to create a “musicians’ passport.”

But I am not hopeful. In reality, the paperwork will be excessive and almost certainly a financial impossibility for many.

Even if people can tour, which German promoter, for example, is going to book a British quartet for 2022 with the Brexit shambles continuing apace?

With rumours circulating that the Home Office intends to treat EU musicians as non-EU workers, London, once a world-beating centre for music, boasting international artists and orchestras, will rapidly be out of reach, or not of interest to most.

And now we are at a final stage, a complete rout. Is this the final chapter for music in Britain? Note that while almost every other sector has been allowed to restart, concert halls are allowed to open but not to give live concerts, akin to pubs opening but not being able to serve drinks.

As musicians, we gaze jealously at other countries, with Germany providing its state-supported orchestras €1 billion and Australia $250m.

Most countries are giving money to support the arts but not so Britain, where the much-lauded self-employed income support scheme failed to help around 40 per cent of musicians.

Even the new leader of the Labour Party, who himself studied music at the Junior Guildhall in London, cannot muster an argument in support of musicians.

Similarly we have heard nothing from Jo Stevens — a prize for anyone who actually knows what her role is.

The right-wing philistinism we are now witnessing, the passive-aggressive silence deeply rooted in Conservative politics, reflects an ideology that sees the arts and music as radical, left of centre and dangerously free-thinking, the preserve of softies and prissy artistic types who lack leadership qualities.

Anyone who can create a career for themselves in music, which is ostensibly about creating a better world for people and is not a “real job” anyway, is definitely not to be trusted.

This government sees the money given to arts as “welfare state grants” or “subsidy,” unlike business or banks where it is labelled investment or in Germany, where the Culture Minister says that artists are “not only indispensable, but also vital, especially now.”

Has the war to keep the music industry alive in Britain as an art form with integrity, one deserving of respect and support from the state and the general public finally been lost?

I suspect it might have.

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