“A drop in the ocean”? Funding and support for UK Musicians in the COVID-19 crisis

Olivia Gable

Independent Researcher

Emerging musicians already faced challenges making a living from music; the COVID-19 crisis has rapidly exacerbated these difficulties. We need a deeper understanding of the unique challenges musicians and workers in the music industries face through this crisis and plans to address these challenges both in the short and long term.

During my PhD research, I discovered the many ways that the — then Arts Council England funded — grant programme Momentum (now the PPL Momentum Music Fund) was used to develop popular musicians’ careers (Gable, 2019). Through interviews with popular musicians and managers and analysis of application data, I observed that the funding helped some emerging musicians move into full-time music careers. For some of them, becoming full-time musicians would not have been possible without funding, and it was valued for the ways it helped them undertake projects on their own terms. It is widely accepted that many musicians have portfolio careers. These are where workers possess and exhibit multiple skills and may hold multiple jobs — in and outside of music — to cobble together a living. This is not exclusive to popular musicians, with Bennett (2008) seeing this in classical musicians. In 2012, a survey done by the Musicians’ Union (MU) reported that:

“… only 10% of musicians are full-time salaried employees. Half of musicians have no regular employment whatsoever. The vast majority of musicians (94%) work freelance for all or part of their income… Just over half (59%) are working full-time with 52% spending all (100%) of their working time as musicians… For a sizeable minority of working musicians, earning money outside the music industry is necessary to maintain an income. A third of the musicians surveyed (34%) worked additional jobs not connected in any way to their music careers.” (MU, 2012: 14).

The MU’s members surveyed clearly had varied and complex income sources, with dominance of freelance working and only a small majority working as full-time musicians. At the time I conducted research for my PhD in 2015-2016, I found that the emerging popular musicians funded by Momentum were indeed working other jobs to sustain their music careers. These included working part-time at a bank, doing graphic design, working in a restaurant and the ever popular choice of teaching — although not exclusively music (Gable, 2019).

The complex nature of musicians’ working patterns was recently commented on in evidence presented on COVID-19’s impact on musicians. The evidence was given on the 9th June by the MU’s General Secretary, Horace Trubridge, to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee. Drawing from a survey of roughly 1,500 MU members, Trubridge raised concerns that most members were already earning less than £20,000 annually from music pre-crisis, with 20% of respondents stating they didn’t think they would be able to stay in the industry following the crisis (House of Commons, 2020: Q315-316). Even those who had other jobs, in the case of teaching, were finding their work in that field had also dried up, leaving them without any income. The creative industries more broadly are also facing similar challenges. The Creative Industries Federation (CIF) head, Caroline Norbury, delivered early findings from commissioned research on the effects of the crisis to the committee, warning that the UK may be facing “the sector losing about a third of its revenue and maybe half its workforce” (House of Commons, 2020: Q325).

In this crisis, the UK Government has created two primary forms of support that musicians theoretically can access. These include the Coronavirus Jobs Retention Scheme (CJRS) for employees and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). Given that musicians are largely self-employed, the SEISS should largely be supporting musicians, but the eligibility requirements mean there are gaps. Any self-employed worker organised as a limited company is not eligible, a 2018/2019 tax filing must have been submitted by 23 April 2020 and profits must not be greater than £50,000, to name a few. A survey by Help Musicians UK (HMUK) showed that 25% of respondents believed themselves to be ineligible for the SEISS (HMUK, 2020). In their own survey, MU found that about 40% of their members said they wouldn’t qualify for either SEISS or the CJRS (House of Commons, 2020: Q307). Even if they are eligible, the calculations could lead to small grants going to these portfolio workers. Data from HMRC shows that as of 31 May, grants averaged £2,700 for Arts, entertainment and recreation, £200 lower than the average for all sectors (HMRC, 2020).

Because of this, many workers in music would likely find the SEISS grant, although extended for a second round, is not enough to sustain them till they can earn a living again. For workers in music, the standstill of live and recording activities due to the lockdown and social distancing requirements will have effects on the pipeline of work for months to come, with some workers likely to see diminished income well past any sort of ‘return to normal’. Indeed, Trubridge’s evidence also pointed out that music can require a lengthy lead-in time, which he suggested was a minimum of 3 months, to get things like tours and festivals planned and running. That is, once we’re even allowed to have such gatherings again (House of Commons, 2020: Q313).

Beyond these challenges, one of the difficulties in supporting creative businesses through this crisis, as outlined by Norbury, is the diversity of business models and the blend between publicly funded and commercial activity (House of Commons, 2020: Q325). Small labels and small management companies who also support emerging artists to develop may or may not qualify for the SEISS due to their business structures. These businesses, already facing so much uncertainty about their future income, could be forgiven for shying away from the loans offered to small businesses in England, with the exception of the Small Business Grant Fund and Discretionary Local Authority Grants Fund. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have opted to offer additional grants to small businesses, and Scotland created a Hardship Fund for newly self-employed workers who couldn’t meet SEISS eligibility.

It might be expected that the arts councils would be the main source of support for arts organisations at this time, and Arts Council Northern Ireland, Arts Council of Wales, Creative Scotland and Arts Council England have all set up emergency funding. However, many of the funds have already closed due to demand. Norbury called the overall amount of funding, compared with schemes like Germany’s 156bn Euro fund for small businesses, “a drop in the ocean” (House of Commons, 2020: Q325), with concerns that the funding available to freelancers and creative businesses isn’t flexible enough to work for all variations of business structures.

We are still very much in the triage stage of the crisis. The sheer number of funds set up by music organisations and private funders show that the government provision is not reaching everyone. Thinking back to the emerging musicians in my research, only those earning more than 50% of their income from their self-employed earnings would actually be able to qualify for the SEISS. This can be particularly difficult to achieve for an emerging musician. Those who cannot meet that threshold are ineligible for support. The mass of funds that have sprung up from membership societies (The Association of Independent Music, PRS for Music, the Music Managers Forum, The Royal Society of Musicians), unions (Musicians’ Union), private foundations (Help Musicians UK) and corporate/foundation co-funds (Spotify and PRS Foundation’s COVID-19 Music Relief Project) are a testament to the persistent crisis and need for support that hasn’t been quelled through existing government funds. But these funds also come with their own criteria, can give small grants and many have already closed due to high demand. PRS for Music’s Emergency Relief Fund, for example, considered songwriters and composers eligible if they were members for at least 2 years and earned over £500 in that time. Help Musicians UK have launched a second phase of their Hardship Fund due to demand from musicians ineligible for the SEISS or who are unable to live on their payments, showing that demand is very much still there.

While it’s true that pubs and restaurants have set up crowdfunding pages, as they similarly face extremely uncertain futures, the seemingly ever-growing number of surveys created to assess the damage occurring in each of the creative industries shows that we are just beginning to see the full extent of help needed by musicians and other creative workers. Undoubtedly many musicians will struggle during these times, but the emerging musicians who had perhaps only recently become full-time musicians may face some of the toughest times. They’re unlikely to qualify for government support, may have missed or not qualified for other funds and won’t have another job to fall back on. Those portfolio workers for whom music was one of several roles will also struggle, if their other income streams have also dried up. If we want music industries that can support and nurture musicians from many different backgrounds and financial means, we need to learn from the situation and rapidly improve provision of support to those who have been excluded from the current schemes.


Bennett, D., 2008. ‘Portfolio careers and the conservatoire’. In: Inside, outside, downside up: Conservatoire training and musicians’ work. (eds.) Dawn Bennett and Michael Hannan. (pp. 61-72). Black Swan Press.

Gable, O. (2019). Public Funding for Popular Musicians: What is it good for? The case of Momentum. PhD thesis. The Open University. Available at: http://oro.open.ac.uk/60442/

HMRC (2020). Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) Official Statistics. 11 June 2020. Experimental statistics. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/self-employment-income-support-scheme-statistics-june-2020

HMUK (2020) Applications Now Open for Phase 2 of Help Musicians’ Financial Hardship Funding. Website: https://www.helpmusicians.org.uk/news/latest-news/applications-now-open-for-phase-2-of-help-musicians-financia

House of Commons (2020). Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Oral evidence: The impact of Covid-19 on DCMS sectors: Creative industries, HC 291, 9 June 2020. https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/477/pdf/

MU (2012). The Working Musician. Online report. Available at: https://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/Files/Reports/Industry/The-Working-Musicianreport

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
ldebraba (June 29, 2020). “A drop in the ocean”? Funding and support for UK Musicians in the COVID-19 crisis. Working in Music. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/varm

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