It has been three months since the UK’s live music and arts circuit was shut down. Live events are not only one of the culture industry’s most consistent sources of revenue (they contribute £10.8billion per year to the UK economy), but also the most common access point for fans and artists alike. Coronavirus makes it unsafe to attend such events, and becomes an existential problem for independent culture.
When the global economy was first hit by the pandemic, some on the left regarded the situation with optimism, from a long-term perspective at least. In many places the conventional workplace no longer exists, and we’ve seen unprecedented levels of state intervention. Yet capitalism, and neoliberalism in particular, has a way of weathering crises, adapting to them, and maintaining its hegemony on their other side. As Alex Doherty wrote in The Guardian recently, “neoliberals have long understood that their project requires state intervention to create and maintain markets”. Neoliberalism has always relied on intentional, state-based activity – most obviously the bank bailouts in the 2008 financial crisis. In short, greater state intervention does not necessarily herald the end of very much at all. We should consider what this means for culture, and music in particular.
Since the internet fundamentally changed the ways in which music was paid for and consumed in the late 1990s, we’ve been experiencing a gradual, insidious monopolisation of the music industry. Like so much of the global economy, the last twenty years have seen more cultural and financial capital pile up in the coffers of a handful of giant, unaccountable corporations – Spotify, Netflix, Amazon, Apple – while small record labels, promoters, festivals, venues, publications, and artists themselves find it increasingly difficult to eke out a living.
Now, coronavirus is accelerating that trend at a phenomenal rate; as Grace Blakeley writes, “those large, monopolistic corporations that do not find themselves reliant on state support will see their market power rise as their competitors go under.” As Amazon and Spotify consolidate their control over consumption and distribution (Spotify’s premium subscriber base rose 31% in the first quarter of 2020), the vast majority of music businesses lower down the food chain – from magazines facing closure to artists threatened by homelessness – are confronted with financial oblivion.
As Nathalie Olah has argued, the effects of recent capitalism on cultural production have been stifling, particularly in the UK. Yet in the latter half of the last decade, it felt like something was beginning to change. Somewhere between the resurgence and evolution of grime around 2015, the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership in September of that year, and the eventual, crushing defeat at the 2019 general election, we had a glimpse of something different. Most relevantly here, the 2019 Labour manifesto promised to reverse the £640m worth of Tory arts cuts with £1bn of investment and a raft of other grassroots cultural initiatives. Labour’s platform demonstrated a more acute understanding of the importance of culture and its inextricability from its political context than any other British electoral project in recent memory.
Now, the optimism many felt in the run-up to the 2019 election feels very remote indeed, and it might be time to prepare for things getting worse for British culture before they can get better. The Tories may be shifting away from Austerity, and we may well see some investment in the NHS, and some lip service paid to the low-waged key workers who’ve kept Britain going through the pandemic, but the zero-sum illusion that informs so much Tory economic policy will need something to cut or freeze in order to “justify” this. In the context of the so-called culture wars, in which cultural and aesthetic issues are mobilised to distract from material and economic reality, we should be aware that arts funding, and cultural policy more widely – so easy to dismiss as the preserve of some bourgeois metropolitan elite – could appear an easy target for Rishi Sunak and co.
Culture hardly seems to be much of a priority for the Tories at the best of times – their 2019 manifesto dedicated a single, short paragraph to culture policy, boasting of “unparalleled” investment, yet the only figure specified was a quarter of the equivalent sum in Labour’s manifesto.
Today, only 18.2% of people in the music, performing and visual arts industries come from working-class backgrounds, and only 4.8% of workers in the same field are from BAME communities. If you don’t fit the easily marketable mould, over which Amazon and Spotify are exercising increasingly monopolistic control, you’re less likely to be successful. The more of a stranglehold those giants have over our culture industries – as government stands idly by while they exploit their workers and tax loopholes alike – and the more small, independent organisations succumb to the financial cataclysm of coronavirus, the harder still it will become for those whose art transgresses, innovates and challenges to break through, support themselves financially, and create. If government compounds this by attacking our already-meagre public arts budget, fewer and fewer people will be able to access or create genuinely exciting, progressive culture.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Over the last few years, certain venues, initiatives and artists have provided some hope of meaningful change, of a shift towards democratising music and culture, and making the arts more accessible. First Timers is one example – a scheme which operates as a series of open-access workshops at cooperatively-run venue DIY Space for London in South Bermondsey, culminating in a weekend-long festival at which the bands who have formed at the workshops can play their debut shows. Each band must feature at least one member who has never played their instrument or performed live before, as well as at least one member from a demographic which is under-represented in the music industry. The basic values of First Timers – from the simple act of opening up the opportunity to perform to the more explicitly radical work of prioritising underserved voices – are key here. As one of its participants, Steph Phillips of Big Joanie, points out: “spaces where people can be as creative as anyone else are imperative if we want to address the imbalance of the music industry at the moment. It’s overwhelmingly skewed towards white, male, middle class groups, but that doesn’t mean they’re the most creative people. People need the time and the privilege to be able to think that others will want to hear what you’re saying.”
In many ways, First Timers represents a kind of mutual aid-based model for cultural organising that will only become more important amidst the uncertainty of the coming years. It may not be the most conventionally glamorous of events, watching people wobble their way through their musical debuts, but then that’s not the point. As Phillips says as we wrap up our conversation, “Letting people know they have something worth saying and reminding them that they’re as important as everyone else – that’s really revolutionary.”
Inevitably, the festival has been mothballed due to coronavirus, but the organisers of First Timers have been running a series of online workshops on a pay-if-you-can basis, and the non-profit, DIY nature of the scheme means that the financial hit of the pandemic will have less of a direct effect on its long-term sustainability. Whether venues accessible and affordable enough to host the in-person events will survive is another question – DIY Space itself has announced its closure until it finds a new venue. There are many reasons, not just directly musical, why we should try to save them.
First Timers is only one scheme, and a very small one at that; action on a much larger scale will be needed to provide an effective alternative to monopolised, corporatized culture. Yet autonomous, non-profit schemes which sidestep neoliberal orthodoxy could provide a valuable entry point for many otherwise alienated consumers and producers of art, an alienation which periodic lockdowns can only increase. Furthermore, with the next election feeling very far away at this point, and the current Labour leadership hardly inspiring much hope of a transformative cultural agenda, this kind of grassroots approach seems far more immediately viable as a strategy of resistance than anything electoral. The left needs to prepare for the political and cultural challenges that await us, and one way it can do that is by building – and supporting – an independent musical infrastructure.