Manchester’s quarantined music scene is a microcosm of inequality

Manchester, England, has a vibrant music scene, but the musicians and engineers who work in the industry are almost exclusively self-employed.

The rightful closure of venues, bars, nightclubs and theatres, to prevent the viral transmission of COVID-19 has exposed the hidden reality of insecure work underlying an otherwise highly successful live music industry. It has exposed the stark inequality that self-employed workers face as their employment disappears overnight and they are left with no income.

The city was once the home of cotton spinning mills and the fight for ordinary people to be able to cast their vote in democratic elections — leading to the devastating Peterloo massacre of 1819. Following a rising tide of globalisation and the consequent de-industrialisation of Manchester, music, culture and football are now its main exports to the world. We interviewed the people that work and perform within the city’s music industry in order to shed more light on the pandemics effect on their lives.

Manchester has produced world renowned bands from Joy Division to Oasis and The Stone Roses.

On any night of the week, the live music scene in Manchester is thriving with gigs taking place in venues of various sizes across the city, from local bands just starting out, to international touring artists.

On the 16th of March 2020, Kieran Fairweather, had five gigs booked in for the week, working as a live sound engineer, predominantly in the Manchester area. The reality of this work is that it, fluctuates; no one week is identical to the next, and the workload varies. You may work for fourteen days in a row, or you may only work one or two days in the entire week. Cancellations happen from time to time, people are ill, tickets sales for the event are disappointing, or occasionally bands just do not show up.

By Tuesday the 17th, all of the gigs Kieran had booked in for the week had been cancelled and soon every other mass gathering around the world followed suit. Venues were shut, and festivals were cancelled — devoid of the thronging mass spectacle of joyous, vivid emotion that we have been used to delivering night after night. Under the looming menace of COVID-19, the live music industry put out of work.

Ever since the virus has become rampant worldwide, it has closed venues, bars, nightclubs and restaurants — anywhere that live music flourishes.

The shutdown is essential to protect and save lives from the threat of viral transmission, but since the UK government’s announcement on the 24th of March, of the initial UK wide three-week COVID-19 lockdown, which has been extended until the 7th May, when the lockdown will again be reviewed. There has been a ripple effect throughout the live music industry, which has created devastating misery for all workers in the live music industry and the wider economy.

James Cole, who works as a live sound engineer stated, “We work in live music. If it’s not being played in front of us, there’s not a lot we can do really. We need the venues open, bands playing, and people paying in. Or our skills aren’t a lot of use.”
Musicians and associated engineers create the entertainment that facilitates profit-making for businesses. We are their life force. However, it is businesses that have been protected by the Tory government in the UK — they can apply for immediate grants, business rate reductions and business interruption loans, whereas the self-employed are left to fend for themselves in the wilderness, with only universal credit to fall back on, currently at £94 per week.

Two lighting engineers in Manchester outline their precarious position in the UK. “As creative workers, our work is not deemed as important” Daniel Walker states. “I’ve always felt that my position is very precarious.” He continues, “My previous job as a lighting operator in a venue has ceased. My main source of income just stopped”. Afonso Vaz estimated he would lose about, “£20,000 this business year”.

Paulette Constable, more commonly known as DJ Paulette, is an internationally renowned DJ who has held residencies at some of the most prestigious clubs in the world — including the Hacienda, and the Ministry of Sound. DJ Paulette has recently appeared on Manchester’s initiative, ‘United We Stream’ and streamed a set from her home on Boiler Room.

On the initial impact of COVID-19 on her business she stated: “When it happened, it wasn’t like it was anybody’s fault, or that you were working for an unprofitable business that went bust, all the businesses were doing well. Certainly, in my case I’ve gone from working three nights a week, sometimes four, sometimes five, to not working at all and having absolutely zero pence coming in.” On her current incoming revenue stream, she continues, “It’s gone from hero to zero.”

Musicians, engineers and venue workers need a life line.

The music industry is a vital part of the UK economy. According to the UK government’s annual report on the music industry, Music by Numbers 2019, the music industry contributed £5.2 Billion to the UK economy with £1.1 Billion solely contributed from the live music industry. In 2018, the live music sector employed 30,529 people. From respondents to the Greater Manchester Music Review 2019 of people working in the music industry, only 27.93% were able to make a full time living in the music industry.

We also interviewed a touring sound engineer, who wished to remain anonymous. The engineer stated, “I had a tour planned for most of April and pretty much all of May and that’s been cancelled. It will get rearranged, but it was such short notice cancellation and I’ve lost money.” The cancellations of gigs and other events has decimated musicians and engineer’s income for the foreseeable future, without any clear indication when it will be safe for mass gatherings to resume.

DiEMTV has offered public figures such as academics, policy makers, as well as musicians, a platform through which to discuss current events and their implications on our newly quarantined lives. Musicians are getting involved in politics and using their influence for change as they must find new venues to channel their creativity and agency.

The TV programme, available on YouTube, has notably hosted Roger Waters from Pink Floyd. During the episode, he asked: “will our isolation allow us the opportunity to recognise our predicament a bit more clearly than we did before?”

At the present time, venues are empty shells waiting to be resurrected again by the force of music. Musicians, engineers and audiences are poised to re-animate them again, once it is safe to do so. However, for this to happen, musicians, engineers and venue workers need a life line, and not just the crumbs from the table.

Kieran and Shona Fairweather are in a band, Altered Archipelago: their new EP, Push Forward is out now, from which 10% of all sales will go to Partners in Health:

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