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Covid-19 and the Music Industry : All Doom and Gloom?

by Katie Schutte

On April the 17th at 5pm, the 164 musicians of the National Youth Orchestra gathered on their doorsteps, balconies and opened their windows to play Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ all over the nation. They invited musicians of all standards to download the sheet music and join in this gesture of solidarity and community spirit.  

Across the world, musicians are finding ways like this to continue sharing their love of music despite strict governmental restrictions during the Covid-19 outbreak. But behind this outward expression of optimism is a fear shared by all musicians: that their industry will suffer immense damage, perhaps beyond repair.

An indefinitely empty concert hall – but soon to be definitely?

The most obvious disruption has been the cancellation of music festivals and concerts. From the postponement of California’s Coachella till October, to Glastonbury’s entire cancellation, countless music festivals have been forced to disappoint enthusiasts amid concerns that these large gatherings will be a hotspot for spreading Covid-19.

“the cancellation of one music event sets off an entire cascade of repercussions through the wider music industry”

These decisions are not made lightly by event organisers; the economic impacts are devastating. Live Nation is an American entertainment company that promotes events, operates venues and manages ticket sales. By mid-March, they had suffered a colossal loss of $1.8 billion in stock value from investors fearing the cancellation of upcoming concerts. Included amongst these were Billie Eilish and Post Malone, their highest revenue generating artists. The uncertainty surrounding when restrictions will be lifted means rescheduling and re-planning these events is nearly impossible. 

For smaller event organisers whose income is dependent on large one-off events, they face the grim prospect of potential bankruptcy as no other source of money provides a safety net. Although most events are insured, it’s unlikely these will cover pandemic outbreaks like Covid-19, meaning musicians are unlikely to receive compensation or financial aid for cancellations.

Coachella – one of many festivals postponed or delayed due to Covid-19

But it’s not just event organisers who will struggle; the cancellation of one music event sets off an entire cascade of repercussions through the wider music industry. From lighting specialists, sound engineers, catering and medical staff, to transport workers, stage workers and photographers – this whole chain of workers pay the price. As it is, the splitting of revenue between so many workers means that concerts are only worthwhile if multiple gigs run over a string of nights. What seemed to be a simple decision to cancel is actually a domino effect. 

“projected income is zero”

Further along this chain of devastation are the towns or cities that host these festivals and concerts. From food outlets to merchandise stores, local businesses benefit from the influx of festival-goers. Festivals like Glastonbury help boost local tourism which increases revenue for local hotels and bed-and-breakfast businesses as well as pubs, restaurants and shops. According to the Glastonbury Festival website, visitors typically stay from two to five nights, sometimes even longer, and spend anything between £50 to £3,000 per head. What seems to be a simple cancellation becomes a series of ramifications.

For some classical musicians, their projected income is zero. These artists are classified as self-employed private teachers and some have independent contractors that pay them for each concert performance. Others live on a combination of seasonal contracts and freelance pickup gigs. And this is where Covid-19 has really exposed the vulnerability of musicians. For classical musicians, the formula is simple: no play, no pay.  

According to the Musicians Union, an organisation representing the 30,000 plus musicians who work in British music business, 50% of musicians have no regular employment, and 94% work freelance. With little or no job security, it’s hard to imagine the level of anxiety musicians must be feeling. The financial aid available is in itself limited, and some musicians are struggling to qualify under the criteria. 

“now more than ever we recognise the value of musicians to enrich us emotionally and spiritually

But there is a flip side to all this. Forced to be adaptive, musicians are taking to the virtual stage to broadcast concerts on television or live stream them on social media. Although it closed its doors back in March, the Royal Albert Hall is running a ‘Home’ series where musicians record themselves performing for listeners to enjoy from home. Whilst this venue may not have the same grandeur as the elaborately decorated hall, the music still goes on.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason – the superstar ‘cellist has performed live on Facebook for Decca Classics

Many orchestras have embraced the digital platform. From the New York Philharmonic’s ‘NY Phil Plays On’ to the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s ‘Quarantine Soirees’, musicians are swiftly learning to adapt. Soloists are similarly turning to the camera, with past examples including cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason performing live on Facebook as part of Decca Classics’ #houseofmusic series, and the cellist Jan Vogler presenting a collaborated 24-hour live streamed concert called ‘Music Never Sleeps’. On Easter Sunday, Andrea Bocelli performed from Milan’s empty Duomo cathedral a ‘Music for Hope’ concert, streamed all over the globe via his YouTube channel.

These virtual concerts are a testament to how music is a unifying force during periods of uncertainty and unease. Regardless of culture, country or language, viewers around the world are accessing these “live” performances from their very sitting rooms. For many of us, music is what we turn to during an emotionally distressing experience as it offers something more consoling than words can express. Now more than ever we recognise the value of musicians to enrich us emotionally and spiritually.

One thing is certain: Covid-19 will have transformed the music industry beyond recognition after lockdown measures are alleviated. We can only hope that in the meantime musicians will find ways to survive – the world depends on their music. 

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