People working in the arts deserve our respect

If we don’t find a way to support musicians through the hard times now, there will be less around for people to come into in a hopeful future, says Big Issue editor Paul McNamee

There is a bit in the prelude of Bach’s Cello Suites that slays me every time. It comes just under two minutes in.

There’s increasingly intense wrestling between a steady bass and speeding high notes for about 20 seconds and then, just at the right moment, there’s a gallop up the scale that feels like taking flight. And when we’re floating up there free and above everything, for a moment there is nothing. Just the moment. It’s a hell of a thing.

I really love the cello and the sounds it can make. But I can’t play it. I rely on skilled and practised people to be able to take the dots and marks that Bach scratched on to a page and then translate them into joy.

During lockdown and the months of uncertainty that followed, music has not just been a crutch, it has been an essential. So many people have spoken and written of a similar feeling. Yet, the curious thing about musicians is that when push comes to shove, they are still seen as extravagant hobbyists.

Yes, I know you have spent years perfecting that skill, studying with masters of the art, playing for a pittance as you gain experience and contacts. I know you have performed or written music that has genuinely changed lives, but it’s not REALLY work is it?

It’s the mentality that informed remarks that musicians facing hardships right now should train to do something else. One of the by-products of Covid is a snobbery, or inverted snobbery, about the value of certain work.

Let’s be clear – there is nothing wrong with suggesting somebody look for new work in the short term to supplement their income. It’d be pretty hard to swallow for somebody who has just lost their job in retail, or the aeronautics industry, to see a trained timpani expert refusing to take a very different job to tide them over.

And clearly there are some people who will need help with training and repositioning themselves as they lose their jobs and those jobs don’t return. We are doing that this week in this magazine as part of a push on our Ride Out Recession Alliance.

But I think those in the arts, and I’m focusing particularly on music, deserve a bit of respect.

And not just because what the arts do is worth a tidy £10bn a year to the British economy. I noticed Tim Burgess, the frontman of The Charlatans, got out his ICI worker’s badge last week as they’d told him they’d keep the job open when he hung up his spurs and went full-time with music. Thirty years ago.

Burgess also made a good point about accessibility to music. If we don’t find a way to support musicians through the hard times now, there will be less around for people to come into in a hopeful future. That could mean only those from more privileged backgrounds who can afford to be hobbyists will be in it.

There is a future in music. There will be a time when great bands will play sweaty, tightly packed dives and there will be shared communion in the moment. Before long, we’ll be in concert halls when a great philharmonic orchestra will knock our socks off and smack us back in our seats like a jumbo jet.

Before then, support for musicians should come from government. But also from their more successful contemporaries. Those who’ve done well should stick their hands in their pockets and pony up. And we, as music lovers, should find ways to back socially distanced or remote shows.

Imagine a world without it.

Image credit: seabamirum/Flickr