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ABO and MU again put the spotlight on COVID support for freelancers

By | Published on Thursday 15 October 2020


The Association Of British Orchestras and the Musicians’ Union have again put the spotlight on the challenges faced by freelance music-makers unable to work because of COVID restrictions.

The new general COVID support schemes from the UK government cap the grants available to the self-employed at 20% of each person’s average earnings. That’s based on the assumption that the average freelancer’s workload its getting back to normal post the full-on COVID lockdown earlier this year, even though that’s clearly not the case for most musicians.

When asked about the fact that many in the creative sector are still basically in full-on shutdown mode, the government usually points to the £1.57 billion of sector-specific funding it has made available to the cultural and heritage industries. However, in England, freelance musicians are not able to directly apply for that funding, and it remains to be seen how much of the grants awarded to venues, promoters and festivals trickles down to music-makers themselves.

Plus there is the other problem that many freelance musicians never qualified for any general COVID support because of the way they have structured their freelance businesses.

On that latter point, the ABO said yesterday that its research shows that more than 30% of musicians have not been able to access any of the funding schemes for freelancers. That echoes stats published by the MU last month regarding how many musicians have so far gone without any COVID support.

ABO adds: “More than a thousand freelance orchestral musicians have had no earnings since the shutdown of concerts in mid-March 2020. Frighteningly, with restrictions such as social distancing likely to continue until at least the end of March 2021, these world-class musicians face a year of zero income”.

Regarding that argument that the £1.57 billion in sector specific funding overcomes other gaps in support for those in the creative sectors, the two musician organisations state “this is misleading”. That funding, they add, “is designed to prevent organisations from going bust before the end of the financial year. It will not enable those orchestras that receive funding to engage their musicians for paid work or support freelance musicians prevented from working by COVID-19 restrictions”.

Formally calling on the UK government to do more to specifically support freelance music-makers, MU General Secretary Horace Trubridge says: “We have been working with the government to try to ensure that all musicians are able to get back to work safely as soon as possible. But as things stand 70% are currently unable to do more than a quarter of their usual work”.

“In the meantime, we desperately need the Chancellor to expand the [freelancer support] to cover more than 20% of monthly profits and plug the gaps that mean that 38% of musicians are ineligible for the wage support schemes’, he goes on. “We also urge the Treasury and the Department For Digital, Culture, Media & Sport to allow Arts Council England to distribute some of the £1.57 billion dedicated to culture to individual freelancers, as the devolved administrations have done in Wales and Scotland”.

Meanwhile, ABO Director Mark Pemberton adds: “Those musicians who have been able to benefit from [freelancer support] will see the third tranche of support fall to 20% of average profits for the period November 2020 to March 2021. This is simply not enough for the working musician to live on”.

“And the word ‘working’ is moot”, he continues. “The purpose of the [scheme] is to support ‘self-employed individuals who are actively continuing to trade, but are facing reduced demand due to coronavirus’. But due to government-imposed restrictions, musicians are prevented from trading, simply because concert halls across the country remain closed. This is particularly acute in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where venues remain forbidden from opening their doors to the public”.