At last there is more commentary about the challenges facing freelance artists. Yesterday there was a strongly-worded cry for help in The Observer from several leading musicians, warning that if the UK’s musicians are not supported, we could lose them for ever.
I have still seen no explanation of why self-employed people are being so poorly treated compared with employees. It seems morally indefensible.
As I pondered the article, it occurred to me that many people must read such things and think, ‘Well, does it really matter if lots of musicians turn their back on the profession? There’s so much recorded music in the archives already. We wouldn’t run out for years and years. And lots of it is free!’
There are dedicated concert-goers who would be devastated if live concerts dwindled away, but they must be a minority compared with those whose musical tastes are fed exclusively by recorded music on YouTube, Spotify and all the rest of it. For them, the prospect of fewer live concerts probably doesn’t cause them anxiety.
The era of recorded music is little more than a century old, but has affected our attitudes profoundly. If this pandemic had occurred in, say, the mid-19th century, people’s reactions to hearing that musicians were abandoning the profession would be entirely different. At that time, you could only hear music if you played it yourself, or if someone was playing it in your presence.
If some major crisis caused all the musicians in your town to give up their jobs, you might never again hear those symphonies, those string quartets, those lovely songs, those exciting concertos with orchestra, those Chopin piano pieces you can’t play yourself. There would be no music at your wedding, your birthday or your Christmas party. Unless you or your friends could provide it, music would disappear from your life.
Today, recorded music is with us all day long. It’s the soundtrack of our shopping trips, our visits to cafes, our waiting rooms, our TV programmes. I have friends who swear that nothing will ever take the place of a live concert in their lives, but I also know plenty of people who would shrug their shoulders at the prospect of fewer musicians, because subtracting live music from their lives wouldn’t change much about their listening habits. They would just put on their headphones and press ‘play’.
It’s ironic that most concert halls are closed at the moment, because this would be the perfect time for people to go to concerts and discover the pleasure, interest and solace of being in the presence of music as it comes alive in the hands of skilled musicians, connecting us to other dimensions.