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The British music industry entered 2020 with a spring in its step. The previous year had seen its gross value added (GVA) to the UK economy rise by 11% to £5.8 billion; a record-breaking 33.7 million people had attended live events and spending from ‘music tourism’ had added a further £4.7 billion to the British purse

But what began as an exciting year for the sector quickly turned to one of its worst. Lockdowns made live music all but impossible, with online revenue for music events forecast to fall from £1.025 billion to just £440 million. The live music industry, previously valued at around £1.5 billion, lost an estimated £900 million, while many freelance musicians lost up to 75% of their income during consecutive lockdowns. 

Relative to society’s other sufferings at the hands of the pandemic, this may not look so exceptional, but the tragedy here is how avoidable many of the worst effects are. Amid the scramble to reach a deal with the EU in December, negotiations were too pressed to address the needs of the sector. Under the new deal, artists from Europe’s largest music industry, which is four times larger than our fishing industry, have lost their right to free movement around the EU, adding significant and, in many cases, insurmountable hurdles to touring the continent. Whilst the change won’t hugely impact the biggest artists, the financial and administrative burdens of navigating European visa and instrument import laws and costs country by country will stifle up and coming acts, hampering the industry in the long run. 

Furthermore, such an effective source of soft power could be protected better. British music has an annual export value of £2.9 billion and in 2020 two of the top five most streamed albums in the world stemmed from British artists. While the Cultural Recovery Fund that was unveiled in July provided some desperately needed relief, the economic devastation of the pandemic endures and the self-employed need ongoing support. However, in October Rishi Sunak set the limit of governmental support under the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) to just 20% of trading profits before raising it to 80% in the face of fierce protests. Such volatility has raised doubts among musicians’ organisations as to whether the level of support will remain the same for SEISS’ fourth term, from February to April. 

Nor have musicians seen much financial respite in the boom of music streaming throughout lockdown. Over the course of 2020, pent-up Brits racked up a record 139 billion streams, a 22% increase on 2019. But in the face of such impressive figures, it’s easy to overestimate the ability of musicians to negotiate. In October, an inquiry by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee into the economics of music streaming found that artists in the UK usually receive as little as 16.5% of the revenue generated when one of their songs is played on a streaming service; for context, almost 40% is taken by the record label. 

Whilst the Government rightly has bigger and more urgent fish to fry at the moment, long-term legislative solutions to all of these issues exist and could be easily implemented. For starters, the Chancellor should consider continuing to support musicians financially until the pattern of lockdowns recedes for good. Regarding the digital realm, the introduction of a new system of Equitable Remuneration being proposed to the DCMS committee could promise artists a 33% increase in revenue from digital music streaming. Furthermore, a petition calling for a Europe-wide visa-free permit that would replicate the circumstances that artists thrived in before Brexit has received over 250,000 signatures, and the Government could revisit this issue to generate political as well as economic capital. 

History tells us that the industry has survived worse; after Cromwell came Purcell, from the trenches came The Planets; even Britpop eventually passed. But if the Government wants to maintain British music’s financial and international clout, these issues must not fall on deaf ears. 

Ralph is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.