Harold Heath examines multi-millionaire re-training advocate Rishi Sunak’s advice to the music industry to simply get another job.

We experienced a rare moment of unity in dance music this week. Traditionally riven by format wars and genre battles, we all collectively sighed with despair at Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s suggestion that out of work musicians should simply retrain.

Following the outcry over this statement from a music industry already dismissed by this government as ‘unviable’, Sunak then insisted that, in an interview specifically about the arts, the cultural sector and Britain’s musicians, where each question was about the arts, the cultural sector and Britain’s musicians, when he was being asked a specific question about what Britain’s professional musicians should do, he was actually answering generally about all employment and not just about musicians. You can make up your own mind what he meant. 

What next we wonder? Take all emergency service calls through WhatsApp perhaps, or maybe we could move HMRC onto a Minecraft server?

Still, if anyone knows about re-training, then it’s man of the people Sunak, who the Times reported earlier this year was part of a team of hedge fund managers who “shared nearly £100m after an audacious stock market bet that lit the touchpaper on the 2008 financial crisis” and has since successfully retrained as an inept politician.

Despite Sunak’s admirable impression of Trump flatly denying what he said yesterday, it’s clear that the night-time industries and the people who work in them are being left out in the cold by the Conservative government. Yesterday’s news of the first round of sub-£1m awards for cultural organisations was welcome. Out of 1385 awards between £50,000 and £1m, 394 went to organisations and businesses classified as ‘music’ including dance studios, community music projects, recital halls, PR companies and Student Unions. A small proportion of these were music venues, bars and night clubs.

While this is a great start for these organisations, only a very small proportion of the UK’s clubs have actually been awarded funds. Shadow Minister for the Cultural Industries Tracy Brabin described this as “a sticking plaster over a gaping wound”. But crucially, this is money aimed at organisations – what about all the freelancers who make up around three-quarters of the UK’s music industry and who still don’t have any work? 

Honestly, you could get more coherent policies meeting someone off Craigslist in a pub car park.

Many DJs, artists, sound engineers, security, promoters – the whole club eco-system – are looking at a year or more out of work. But Sunak’s Winter Economy Plan brings to an end the furlough and self-employed job retention scheme while leaving out support for the live music and club industry. The Winter Economy Plan is the perfect solution for freelancers who don’t want to buy food or pay bills.

Even his own party members are highly critical of Sunak’s plan, with Ed Barker, a musician and former Conservative parliamentary candidate reporting in the Guardian that Sunak’s plan will require the self-employed “to survive on just 20% of their usual salary until they are allowed to return to work”. Meanwhile, those with salaried jobs will receive government assistance only if they’re being paid for a third of their hours – by venues that are currently shut or operating at vastly reduced capacity. Barker: “How can they be paid or employed when their bosses aren’t practically – or indeed legally – able to open up their places of work?” 

The answer is they can’t. The Tories simply don’t care about the creative freelance community. It is in this context in which Sunak suggested that musicians – and presumably DJs too – should retrain. We shouldn’t be surprised. The Conservatives have never been a friend to the night-time industries or its associated culture. John Major’s Tory government famously legislated against the ‘repetitive beats’ of rave culture and travelling sound systems. Brixton’s 414 Club would still be open if the Tories actually valued our precious cultural institutions and community spaces rather than the interests of property developers. And look at the disproportionate attention paid by the authorities to substance use at clubs compared to similar-sized events elsewhere. 

This government is refusing to take responsibility for the break-up of the creative arts industries in the UK, just like they refuse to take responsibility for their woeful handling of the pandemic. Their latest policy shocker is the thought-up-at-an-after-party 10 pm curfew plan, which cleverly creates the ideal conditions for super-spreading whilst simultaneously putting the final nail in the coffin for night-time businesses. Honestly, you could get more coherent policies meeting someone off Craigslist in a pub car park.

Yet we’re the ones who are ‘unviable’? How any government who put their ‘world-beating’ track-and-trace system on MS Excel causing nearly 16,000 cases to be missed is ‘viable’ is beyond me. What next we wonder? Take all emergency service calls through WhatsApp perhaps, or maybe we could move HMRC onto a Minecraft server?

Boris Johnon’s excellently thought-out, scientifically backed-up 10pm curfew in full effect this week.

UK club culture is the envy of the world; we are home to many of the world’s best DJs, finest club nights and most innovative producers. Music, nightclubs, DJing, live shows – this is a massive industry that generates huge quantities of tax revenue each year as well as hundreds of thousands of jobs. 

But aside from the funds flowing into the exchequer, the arts in general and dance music / DJ culture in particular provide hope, community, warmth, joy, creativity, the chance to contribute and to belong. For many, it offers meaning, sanctuary, a lighthouse of positivity in the current storm. Research has consistently shown the positive effects of music and dancing on mental and physical well being, social cohesion and the building of community. as well as genuine, important positive educational effects too. Music articulates our deepest emotions, it’s an expression of the human soul: it’s worth is beyond value. 

It would be nice to live in a society where culture, the arts and music were valued. If only the Tories loved us the way they loved the bankers, who were bailed out to the cost of £137bn in 2008 for simply being shit at their jobs. Perhaps everyone in the night time and performance industries should retrain as hedge fund managers and cause the biggest economic crisis since the great depression that has to be bailed out by the public purse, then maybe we’d get some genuine love from the government eh.

The Musicians Union accept DJs as performers and until an actual DJ trade union shows up they can help support DJ culture. You can use their template to write to your MP  to pressure the UK government to include freelancers in government relief during the pandemic.

Main photo by Aditya Chinchure

14th October, 2020

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