‘Go and do something useful’

Jennifer Johnston

When lockdown began in March, live music stopped and my career as an opera singer ground to a halt. I’ve tried to hold onto a nugget of hope that the arts won’t be allowed to fall over the edge of a cliff into a bottomless abyss. But that hope has been steadily chipped away, as the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, talks about ‘viable jobs’ and suggests people should look for ‘fresh and new opportunities’; Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, tells those who work in the arts to ‘hang on in there’ (he didn’t explain how, when innumerable members of the community are on the breadline); and Edwina Currie, forced to resign as a junior health minister in 1988 for misguided remarks about bad eggs, instructs the UK’s freelance music community to ‘go and do something useful’ and get ‘an education’ – all perhaps taking their lead from Dominic Cummings, who allegedly said in a meeting in August that ‘the fucking ballerinas can get to the back of the queue.’

Insult was added to injury this week with a government-sponsored advert suggesting that Fatima the ballerina’s next job should be in ‘cyber’. Downing Street hurriedly distanced itself from the ad and the outrage it caused, but it’s consistent with the message we’ve been getting from the government since March: those of us in the creative industries who are not able to work are an unviable bunch of whingeing dunderheads who need to ‘rethink, reskill and reboot.’

Like every other musician I know in a similar position, I have done all I possibly can to find gainful employment, and will continue to do so. Any of us would take a paid job outside our industry if we were lucky enough to be offered one. But getting an interview is proving impossible, regardless of my qualifications (a degree from Cambridge) or the number of jobs I apply for, because I don’t have relevant work experience. Musicians’ experience and skills don’t match the very few jobs that are out there, so it’s difficult for us to compete against the five hundred other people applying for every position – assuming the job even exists. In some cases companies have gone into a recruitment freeze, but haven’t taken the advert down. The Job Centre hasn’t been much help, because the staff aren’t used to dealing with someone who has a degree but doesn’t have a PGCE or an HGV licence or a nursing or social work qualification.

Retraining costs thousands of pounds, with living costs on top, and most of us are struggling to survive as it is. Forty per cent of freelance musicians have, for various reasons, not qualified for government help, and no one can live on Universal Credit alone. Most arts organisations need to fill at least 70 per cent of their seats to break even. Thousands of musicians will never be able to return to work unless specific, targeted government help is given to support the arts beyond the bailout: what a waste of talent, skill and experience, in what was until March a world-leading industry (the ‘music, arts and culture sector’ used to be worth more than £9 billion; the fishing industry, by comparison, is worth £1 billion).

It’s starting to look as if Sunak has decided that the only way forwards is for the arts to be abandoned to their fate, to remove all government subsidies, and force the sector onto a commercial footing supplemented by private philanthropy. The picture is further complicated by Brexit, removing arts freelancers’ right to work in Europe from 1 January 2021. The prospect for musicians couldn’t be bleaker.


  • 14 October 2020 at 4:28pm
    Charles Evans says:
    It's such a strange thing. I imagine you'd be hard-pressed to find a Conservative politician who doesn't adore some form of artistic output, be it music, opera, ballet, art or something else. Yet this Government seems totally disinterested in the fate of the people who create that art! I genuinely can't understand the cognitive dissonance. A Tory rallying-cry was around the Last Night of the Proms, but it seems many wanted to hear Rule, Britannia! and then chuck the orchestra on the scrapheap...

  • 14 October 2020 at 9:31pm
    Graucho says:
    I know sympathy doesn't pay the bills, but you have it none the less. Is it possible to organise opera drive ins screened across multiple car parks ?

  • 15 October 2020 at 12:23am
    freshborn says:
    "Forty per cent of freelance musicians have, for various reasons, not qualified for government help, and no one can live on Universal Credit alone. Thousands of musicians will never be able to return to work unless specific, targeted government help is given to support the arts beyond the bailout."

    I'm sure when live performances become commercially viable again post-pandemic, they will be able to return to work. But it certainly is possible for people to live on Universal Credit, by simply raising the basic payment (which is rarely suggested by critics of the welfare system, for some reason). Could somebody please explain why certain unemployed people deserve an especially large welfare payment, just because they're proficient at playing the oboe or prancing about - or have an Oxbridge degree? Perhaps the Tory welfare system is too egalitarian. We need a two-tiered system, a Pleb Credit and a Bougie Credit.

    • 15 October 2020 at 5:34pm
      prwhalley says: @ freshborn
      Why would anyone need to explain something that wasn't actually mentioned. She said "no one can live on Universal Credit alone", not "One really can't maintain one's living standards on Universal Credit alone".

    • 18 October 2020 at 3:29pm
      Alexander Page says: @ freshborn
      Why on earth would you say this to someone writing an article about losing their job, their income and their sense of dignity that comes with all of those things? Your argument rests on the idea that it’s possible to live on Universal Credit only if the amount it pays is increased, which would seem to indicate that indeed it is impossible to live on it at the amount it is at present.

  • 16 October 2020 at 1:57am
    rebecca seger says:
    Hi, you might try applying directly to senior living facilities. I know a few actors and comedians who have been hired as activities staff during the pandemic at assisted living homes. Because activities were confined to small groups they needed more staff. Later when they stopped even that, they still needed more staff to help residents Zoom or Skype with their families. It's one of the few non-creative jobs I've ever seen where they've been trying to recruit people with performance type skills.

    Good luck.

  • 17 October 2020 at 8:07pm
    Lesley Jordison says:
    Does Charles Evans really think most Conservative politicians “adore” one of the arts?? I think very few of them do and like politicians on the left would do anything not to appear in any way “cultured” . We’re not in Germany!

  • 24 October 2020 at 10:56pm
    Paul Czubay says:
    Who in Virology is talking about this Lock-down ending? Serious minded Scientists talk about getting ready for the next Pandemic not a Post-Lockdown phase where we return to "Normal". Sorry to tell you this but we have entered that New-Normal Phase, where climate-Change and new Virus Structures now have an ability to mutate quickly and are smart enough to figure out Weaknesses of Humans like our need to Breathe. When Climate Change takes over and receates the Planet's basic Atmosphere and our need for controllable rain so flooding and droughts end giving new viruses chances to gain footholds in society, until we all understand Trump cannot read a book and stops telling our population to inject themselves with household cleaners, (Bleach) leading to 8-12 deaths worldwide, the Global Community is F----D. Stop waiting for a new normal way of life- it is here and among us, and we all will be wearing Masks for the next 50 years, if we want to stay alive, Paul Czubay

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