Scotland's musicians must hold out against rip-off merchants who offer a poke of chips instead of pay – Linda Boyd
It’s been a turgid year for professional musicians – and that’s probably an understatement when you consider the dire situation many are now facing.
The traditionally dead two months of January and February have been immediately followed by another ten of enforced inactivity.
The phrase “stick together” has become commonplace throughout the pandemic, almost to the point it has lost its meaning.
But for musicians across Scotland, sticking together might be even more essential when the venues they play in reopen. The battle to save the live music sector in Scotland is only just beginning.
Call for collective action
Many high-profile recording artists have spoken of the problems caused by streaming music services replacing traditional means of buying music.
It makes it harder than ever for people to make money from writing, recording and producing music, and world-famous acts like Elbow and Taylor Swift have long called for collective action.
Good luck to them, but a more urgent coalition may be required from those who make their money in pubs and restaurants as cash-strapped businesses vie for custom after a year of financial hell.
We recently received a call from a major entertainment venue asking for musicians to perform at a future city centre event. Their payment? Food and drink.
Of course, the workers pulling pints at this event would have been paid, as would the door staff, the organisers, the promoters and the cleaners.
But for those laying on the entertainment, drawing the customers in and keeping them happy, there was no financial reward.
They would be expected to offer up their professional services – with skills acquired over hundreds of hours of practice and often professional tuition, along with their thousands of pounds of equipment – for nothing but a poke of chips and a glass of cola.
Beating the penny-pinchers
Of no other trade in the world would this be expected, but perhaps everyone directly and indirectly involved in the live music scene have made it a little bit too easy for penny-pinchers over the years.
Now, the only way to beat it will be if the musicians of Scotland stick together.
Owners must respect the hard yards performers have put in to advance their own discipline. At Morningside School of Music, we see hundreds of pupils who quite literally dedicate their lives to their music.
Over lockdown, and in the absence of opportunities to perform, these people have been shutting themselves away in their bedrooms and improving their skills and talents even further.
We cannot reach a situation where venues know they don’t have to pay bands because, if one says no on those grounds, there will be another ten willing to do it for nothing.
There always have and always will be venues that try this, sometimes through ignorance but usually through malevolent design.
I’m worried that, with such intense financial pressure on these businesses as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, this will become commonplace as the hospitality industry enters a recovery phase.
Tough time for venues
It’s important to say that many venues across the country are passionate about live music and committed to paying their acts fairly and on time.
And let’s not forget that for these businesses 2020 has been awful. They’ve been shut suddenly, urged to invest in new equipment for social distancing, then closed down again.
Publicans in Edinburgh have had to watch on while huge sporting occasions, the Festival and the Christmas Party season have all passed without reward. Usually these places depend on such set-pieces to pay the bills for the rest of the year, so who knows how they’ll manage now.
Going forward, it’s vital musicians share their positive stories with each other about these venues and, more importantly, call out those who are taking liberties.
A failure to stick together in this way will only damage the earning potential of musicians who’ve been so acutely hit by this pandemic.
There’s a role for government too, both in Scotland and the UK.
For Westminster’s part, there is some making up to do after the disgraceful – if exaggerated in some quarters – suggestion that those in creative industries should simply retrain in creativity-sapping, nine-to-five industries.
That was particularly painful for musicians who’ve already been forced to give up a life’s work in recent months and embark on every kind of trade, from delivery driving to labouring.
A sacred industry
The Scottish Government could look at ways to help too, perhaps gathering and publishing information on venues who pay fairly and squarely and promoting those places, or offering tax breaks or cash incentives to them.
Naming and shaming those who don’t would probably be an impossible and controversial step for authorities to take, but perhaps being excluded from such coveted lists would serve a useful purpose in itself.
Governments certainly shouldn’t be afraid to interfere and legislate to protect such a treasured sector which we would all miss were it to vanish.
There may well be the odd musician who accepts a few free pints as compensation for their talents.
But for the vast majority those days are gone. Professional musicians have lives to lead, bills to pay and families to feed.
Venues should resist the temptation to rip off live artists, however bad the books look after a year of destitution.
And if they try, Scotland’s musicians – to a man and women - must rally, hold fast, dig in their heels and ensure it’s not an option.
They’ll be more aware than anyone after these last barren months just how sacred their industry is.
Linda Boyd is director of Morningside School of Music
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