openJustice: Feature

‘That’s me done’: How the UK government abandoned artists to COVID-19

For many artists, the pandemic has confirmed that the government either doesn’t care about the arts or is actively contemptuous of them

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Oscar Rickett
29 April 2021, 5.55am

“It was the culmination of years of work,” says Kareem Samara, as he reflects on how things were supposed to turn out.

The composer and musician finally felt like he’d arrived. The year 2020 was going to start with a production at the National Theatre, followed by a move to Stratford and then back to London for a stint at Shakespeare’s Globe. There were gigs, tours and recording sessions lined up, too.

A week into rehearsals for ‘Welcome to Iran’, a National Theatre co-production, Samara and his fellow cast and crew gathered together to watch prime minister Boris Johnson announce that the country was going into lockdown. The theatres were closing. Samara packed his bags and went home. He hasn’t been in a theatre or played a live show since.

Newly registered as self-employed, Samara, a British Palestinian from south-west London, was not entitled to the government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). Not the permanent employee of any company, he was unable to benefit from the furlough scheme. He picked up some manual work. A few of his old guitar pupils were able to keep their lessons going online. He scraped by.

Samara is far from alone – and for many, the situation has been worse. Self-employed musicians, actors and artists have told openJustice that the COVID-19 pandemic – and the government’s failure to provide them with any help – has left them struggling to cope, both financially and emotionally.

“Most people are playing the waiting game,” said Samara. “Going on Universal Credit, maxing out credit cards and loans, moving to cheaper places, leaving the country. But I’ve seen a couple of performers say, ‘OK, that’s me done’.”

There is a strong feeling that the pandemic has confirmed what many in the industry already suspected: that Britain right now is a place where those who hold power either don’t care about the arts or are actively contemptuous of them. This feeling has been deepened by the government’s response to Brexit, with musicians and crew saying the failure to negotiate visa-free touring to the EU will end up hitting the industry harder than COVID-19.

“In the years to come I believe our government will be put into the stocks for the mess they’ve created, the blatant lack of compassion towards our arts and the international viability of those arts,” Charles Cave, from the indie band White Lies, told openJustice.

Most people are playing the waiting game... Going on Universal Credit, maxing out credit cards and loans, moving to cheaper places, leaving the country

The Musicians' Union, which represents more than 30,000 musicians in the UK, said in January that almost half its members still do not qualify for either of the government’s financial schemes and that 50% do not qualify for SEISS because less than half their work is freelance.

For women, particularly those who have recently taken maternity leave, the situation has been worse. The gender pay gap between self-employed people is estimated to be 43%.

Jen Downer, a music teacher and musician in Wales, told openJustice that because she had recently taken maternity leave, her income over the past three years had been reduced. Her SEISS grant was significantly lower as a result. Campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed brought a judicial review against the government for indirect sex discrimination and maternity discrimination, but a judge ruled against them. Olga Fitzroy, a campaigner with the group, says they plan to appeal.

Equity, the actors’ union, says that 40% of its 48,000 members have received no government money. Paul W Fleming, Equity’s general secretary, told openJustice that in spite of the success of the industry he represents – and the fact that the work of performers has been a lifeline for many through the pandemic – “its workforce has been largely abandoned”.

“The hardest hit are, of course, the lowest paid and those who struggle with access to work in the industry in the first place,” Fleming said. “Everybody should be concerned for what this national scandal says about who is welcome to be an artist – and who our government feels is worthy of pursuing careers in culture, art, and entertainment.”

Tom Clues, a stage manager and guitar technician, told openJustice all his income came from touring with bands. It’s how he’s made a decent living for two decades, working with a host of big bands and performers. In April 2020, he started claiming benefits. “I grew up working class – I come from poor – but it’s not easy on Universal Credit,” he said. “I was also eligible for the SEISS grant. If I hadn’t been, it would have been very hard.”

Charles Cave said that 85% of his income came from performing live and that the summer, “where a weekend of festivals can provide the same kind of income as perhaps 12 to 16 headline shows”, was the most lucrative time for performers like him. “The pandemic has ruled out 18 months of live performance, and so 18 months of regular income,” he said. Selling merchandise is also a part of this, though Cave said his band White Lies make less than metal and emo bands, which “can make a killing on merchandise”.

While ordinary musicians, actors and artists have been forced to seek other work; celebrity performers have been able to fall back on brand collaborations and a vast array of passive income streams, from radio royalties to property investments. Cave told openJustice that he was in, “the category of musician that basically has two roles: writing and recording, and performing… There’s no income to be made from the actual work of writing and recording… The bottom line is that, for me, touring is nearly everything.”

The hardest hit are, of course, the lowest paid and those who struggle with access to work in the industry in the first place

OpenJustice spoke to a dozen self-employed artists who, like Cave, had received “no help whatsoever from the government”. Before the pandemic, he spent much of his working life touring in Europe, where he said the venues he played in were “often supported with government money and it shows… The venues in the UK on the whole are an absolute state”.

Jonathan Bonnici, a British actor who has lived in Denmark since 2015, echoed Cave’s point about the different levels of support available to artists outside the UK. “The major difference”, he said, “is that my unemployment insurance is £1,500 a month.” In the UK, it would be less than a third of that.

This lack of support – and an absence of creative work – has taken a toll on the mental health of many arts workers. As a single father, Tom Clues and his daughter lived with a friend and her child, but they had to move out on their own during the first lockdown. “There have been times when I’ve struggled. I’ve got up to get my kid to school and then gone back to bed. I think so many people from my industry have suffered from it,” he said.

A number of other self-employed artists echoed Clues’s sentiments. One actor, who wanted to remain anonymous, told openJustice they had gone through a mental health crisis in the winter of 2020. A lack of financial support, an enforced move and the absence of creative work and community had all contributed to a situation in which the actor felt as though they could not cope.

In October last year, with the pandemic raging, a government-backed advert featured “Fatima”, a ballet dancer whose “next job could be in cyber”. Here, it seemed to many artists, was confirmation of how the government – and perhaps society as a whole – felt about them. That they were people who did jobs that didn’t matter and would soon no longer exist. “I don’t think the government understands what art is,” Clues said. “That live music is the new church and has been for a long time.”

The removal of educational grants, the cutting of music and drama teaching, the changes made to the benefits system: all of these have contributed to the creation of a society in which it is harder and harder for people from working-class backgrounds to make a life for themselves as artists. The response to COVID-19 has deepened this crisis. Brexit could take it further.

“What never seems to be considered is the way in which the world is better for having people that create art that entertains and educates, that digs deeper into our psyche,” says Samara. “It takes away a lot of the worth of what people do to think in terms of numbers. It’s not how much you bring to the economy, it’s what you do for communities.”

This story is part of our series The Unlawful State: Stories from a Pandemic where we lift up the voices of those whose lives are being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus crisis and hear stories of how civil society are responding. Click here for more

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