Why 400 musicians appeared in Parliament Square – then went quiet

Jessie Murphy, who masterminded the Let Music Live UK protests in London and Birmingham, explains why we cannot let the arts die

On October 6, 400 freelance musicians gathered in Parliament Square in the hope of making ourselves visible and audible to the government. To make a case for the value of freelancers within the creative industries as whole.

Who are we? “Freelance musicians”? We are a bonafide profession, and we are everywhere. We’re in the UK orchestras and in the pit for West End shows; we support bands and solo artists on their albums, tours and TV appearances; we’re the musicians playing the incidental music for TV shows; we record the scores for movies, we’re the quartet at your wedding ceremony and the band that play for the party.

We wanted to remind parliament of the value of a profession where 400 people can come together, with no rehearsal and make something beautiful happen.

In July the government famously pledged a £1.57 billion fund for culture. But the complications of distribution mean arts organisations and venues across the country are yet to receive this rescue package.

In the meantime, self-employed freelancers make up the vast majority of the music profession –  even among orchestral players the figure is 80 per cent. With venues either mothballed or functioning at a bare minimum, most freelancers have been unable to work since lockdown. Nearly nine in ten of my colleagues face severe financial hardship.

Personally, I have performed once since March, for a birthday party in a garden with eight people attending. I loved every moment but every single other date I had this year has been cancelled.

The creative industries make the bulk of their earnings during the summer and Christmas seasons. When the cancellation of Glastonbury Festival happened we knew the summer was gone. We desperately hoped we would at least be starting to work again by the autumn. Now the hope of a Christmas resurgence has evaporated too.

In purely financial terms, the arts and culture industry contributes £10.8 billion a year directly to the UK economy, according to the Office for National Statistics. For every £1 directly spent on music and events, an extra £2 is generated in the wider economy. When you see a band at the O2, or in a pub, go to a music festival, watch TV or Netflix, or go to a wedding, many of the people who work to make those things happen are freelancers. Each one a very small business, powering the economy across the country.

The Parliament Square performance reminded us that, at its essence, music is about human connection. It felt amazing. It was a physical sensation as the conductor raised his baton. The sensation was overwhelming. It was not just that we were so starved of human connection for six months, but it was the adrenaline rush of performing again.

Whether you are playing in small gigs or to audiences of thousands, this is the best part of life, of being human – it makes life worth living. It felt like coming home, even though we were 400 musicians, most of whom had never played together before. This is the essence of our years of training, sometimes for decades — to trust that we are able to pick up anything and deliver on the spot. Like in sport, our skills are honed from early childhood, through National Youth Orchestras to conservatoires. It’s a training which calls for as much determination sustained over 20 years to get to the top as it does with elite sportsmen.

Just before we started the performance, there was an explosion of cheers from musicians when a passing car tooted out the rhythm of Mars on his horn. It was our secret language. TV crews surrounded us hungry to film this shortest of performances – we had travelled from all over for 90 seconds. One cellist came with her baby on her back. A harpist came with her gleaming golden harp and placed it on the immaculate lawn.

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Musicians filled the lawn at Parliament Square for the performance-turned-protest. Credit: Tor Hills photos

No matter your taste, we all know that feeling, of that rush of emotions whether from a film score or a symphony. Whether you are looking out on a sea of people at Glastonbury with Kasabian, or in a care home, hospital or intimate jazz venue, it’s that feeling, when the music takes over the heart rate of musicians and audience alike. This is the most joyous aspect of being human — making others happy, that shared experience of life in all its guises.

Five MPs came down to Parliament Square to hear our stories. Nickie Aiken called a debate in parliament an hour later to question whether musicians could be offered targeted support, whether there could be a subsidised ticket scheme for events.  Government responded to our calls for venues to have insurance should there be another lockdown. And there will be a second  debate.

All the national TV channels heard our call that we are ready to work, that we are valid. Rishi Sunak gave an interview to ITV that musicians needed to re-train and then retracted his statement to make it apply to all professions needing to adapt and change. Musicians, unlike politicians, train for 20 years and hone their skills over a lifetime.  We, whether pop or classical, are a huge asset to the UK for our award-winning film scores and outstanding orchestras. Liam Gallagher tweeted a response that government needs to re-train, not musicians.

Above all, Tuesday was about professionalism in the organisation of an event planned only six days in advance which has kept us up in the early hours and got us up in the early morning with a renewed sense of purpose.

The lawn of Parliament Square had been laid out as a grid to ensure social distancing of two meters between players. Everyone knew their position and their role. Even the smiling policewoman (and actress when stages can re-open) understood.

We are viable, valuable and, above all, ready to work.

Like #WeMakeEvents, 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.