Music

Music keeps us sane: We'll need it more than ever until Covid is over

Don’t tell music professionals to retrain, says Malcolm Jack. They’re already spinning more plates than you can possibly imagine

MGMT play live in Cologne in 2008, long before anyone had heard of the new coronavirus. Image credit: Andreas h/Flickr

As the grassroots music industry slides ever closer to the financial abyss while the Chancellor Rishi Sunak and his Conservative cronies thumb their noses with comments to the effect of “sorry but can’t you just all retrain and get proper jobs?”, I think of my mate Gav.

During normal times Gav works mainly as a tour manager and sound engineer, but like a lot of people in the industry in the cash-strapped digital age, he’s got so much side-hustle that even his side-hustle has side-hustle.

He’s the kind of guy who can produce and mix a whole album from his bedroom, laying down some sweet synthesiser and flugelhorn as he goes, while simultaneously sorting out the sound engineer shift roster at a local gig venue and booking hotel rooms in Belgium.

He’ll drive a packed splitter van across Europe and back, drawing on a wealth of knowledge of traffic hotspots, service station cuisine and good podcasts. He’ll kick you out of bed in the morning, fix your dying laptop, design your light show, operate a spaceship-looking mixing desk as casually as if it were a pocket calculator and source booze at whatever o’clock with an unlicensed miraculousness to rival Jesus’ water-to-wine trick. All while rolling a cigarette one-handed and maintaining an unreasonably good sense of humour. He is, quite apart from being a diamond bloke, excellent at his job. Or jobs, plural.

If Gav’s passion were, say, banking instead of music then I don’t doubt he’d be equally as excellent at that. But it’s not, it’s music. And as such, like more or less everyone in the business right now, he’s hurting. I’m sure he could do something else if he had to, but I hope not because working in music is what he enjoys most and thus does best – it’s his thing. I hope he can get back to it soon.

My point is this: all these questions we’ve been hearing lately about the “viability” of music industry jobs in the age of Covid-19 betrays at best an ignorance and at worst an ideological contempt towards the people working in them.

It infers that they are somehow pampered, selfish, lazy, precious – not useful. This from a government which, in a sick-bucket-overloading contortion at appearing cool, spoke through the haunted frame of Health Secretary Matt Hancock who made the fantastic claim in a 2017 newspaper column: “As a grime fan, I know the power of the UK’s urban music scene”, before going on to bombastically hail the “British dominance” of global music exports.

Where, I ask you Matt Hancock, do you think grime came from? Do you think that Dave got his job in grime at the Jobcentre Plus? Do you think that Stormzy earned a BTEC in grime from Croydon College? Before rising out of the grassroots scene on his way to becoming the greatest rapper of his generation, Stormzy, or just plain old Michael as his colleagues presumably knew him then, worked in quality assurance in Southampton for two years.

People in the music business are some of the most industrious, multi-skilled, versatile and fundamentally unprecious workers you’ll meet – the maestros of side-hustle.

When not doing what they love most, many of them wait tables, pour pints, deliver fast food, sell books, press pin badges, run record shops and labels and concert venues and teach guitar.

They are baristas, journalists, charity workers, yoga instructors and, in an increasingly DIY world, their own booking agent, PR and manager rolled into one. They put what extra money they have towards studio hire and equipment and, if they’re lucky, sometimes are able to afford to disappear off on tour for a few weeks or months, maybe profiting sufficiently to self-fund another record that’ll in turn get them back out on the road again.

They are drivers of the gig economy in every sense. And it’s not just a grassroots thing. Look at the number of established musicians who keep up regular presenting jobs on BBC Radio 6 Music – Guy Garvey, Iggy Pop, Cerys Matthews, Huey Morgan and more – and you’ll appreciate how a steady side-hustle can be of value even to those stars who have shifted healthy quantities of records.

The £5bn that the music industry is said to be worth to the British economy grossly underestimates its true contribution to the public good if you ask me. Partly because it fails to account for all that side-hustle cash, spread across countless other sectors. But moreover, because the whole question of jobs and economics matters much less than the fundamental cultural value of music itself and how it enriches us all – or at least any of us with a soul.

I’m sure most people I know in music could and would do something else if they had to, but I don’t want them to, because we’ll need them whenever this nightmare is finally over. Music keeps us sane. It is a conduit to joy.

Humankind didn’t drag itself out of the primordial ooze billions of years ago so we can all sit in the house and proudly balance our fucking budget every night. We did it so we can gather with friends in a sweaty venue, get drunk, let the bass punch us in the heart and feel alive. Tell me that isn’t viable?

The Big Issue’s Ride Out Recession Alliance continues fight to protect people’s jobs and keep families in their homes. To join our campaign, and get weekly updates about what you can do, click here.

Image credit: Andreas h/Flickr

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