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Opinion

It’s time we reclaimed the power of music, in all its forms

The lives of most professional musicians are precarious at the best of times, writes Phil Ryan. The pandemic has made this worse, but we can do something about it.

This column is about music and the lives of those who make it. When the Covid lockdowns came into effect in 2020, millions were affected. Tens of millions. Jobs and incomes vanished overnight. And professional musicians were among them. 

Every bar, club, concert hall, venue, teaching facility was closed. Overnight it seemed. Worse than that, it was for an indeterminate length of time. Musicians suddenly faced a bleak and uncertain future, one which is still going on. But help was at hand. A small organisation created in 1921 came to the rescue. For many, it became a lifeline. Help Musicians changed, and is still changing, countless lives. 

The lives of most professional musicians are precarious at the best of times. I’m not talking about huge stars, I’m talking about the vast amount of people who play or teach or work in the music industry. The band down the local venue or at your wedding. The nice lady who teaches piano. The studio engineers recording our favourite songs.  One minute they had a reasonable income, the next, because of the Covid crisis, zero. Yes I mean zero. 

It may come as a shock but the vast majority of people in the music industry are self-employed. On very short contracts. Reliant on live work, session work, teaching work, repair work. The list is long. In 2020 they suddenly faced utter desperation. That’s where the heroes of my story at Help Musicians came to the rescue. They instituted a huge new fundraising programme and set up a special Covid Hardship fund. They faced an unprecedented demand. They realised the amount of musicians suddenly thrown into disaster was bigger than anything they’d ever faced. Remember this is a small organisation of only sixty five team members, they’re not some massive group with a huge infrastructure.

Somehow they managed to find a staggering £18.5 million to hand out to over 19,000 devastated individual musicians across the UK, an incredible feat. Now, in 2022, incomes and opportunities are slowly returning. Slowly. It is the biggest loss of work for musicians I have ever seen. Careers have ended. Many musicians, although broken-hearted, had no choice but to give up playing. To seek another way to feed themselves and their families. Many were even forced to sell their instruments. It has been a hidden and ongoing tragedy. The one tiny ray of hope for many has been Help Musicians. A lifeline. Offering a range of help beyond just money.

At the time I’m writing this there’s an inhumane war being rained down on innocent men, women and children in Ukraine. So it’s pretty clear where you should donate to if you can. But one thing to remember: the music of those people is a strength to them. It is their story. It is their tradition. It is in their very DNA. In shelters and underground stations they still sing. Songs of hope for better times. That’s the power of music. It is a very precious thing. Like the people who make it.

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