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Opinion

Without support, freelance musicians will continue falling into hardship

Musicians are falling through the cracks in the government’s Covid safety net and it’s pushing millions of freelancers into financial hardship, says Hugh Morris

In an alternate universe, Róisín Walters would be in the middle of a busy patch of work, spending the early weeks of January fine-tuning the logistics of her hectic schedule for the year ahead.

In January 2019, her career took her from Liverpool and the salaried position of Associate Principal Second Violin of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, to London, the Britten Sinfonia, and the Assistant Concertmaster seat. Her work is varied. Alongside her freelance orchestral job, she usually works almost every day of the week, playing up to four weekly concerts and travelling across the country to fit in gigs with UK’s top orchestras whenever possible.

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Fast-forward to 2020 and Walters found her work stopped by the pandemic, as concert halls closed their doors for the foreseeable. Whereas the government’s furlough scheme offered a lifeline for salaried employees unable to work from home, the UK’s self-employed experienced a lottery on government support.

Walters, who moved out of salaried work into freelancing in the middle of the 18/19 tax year,found herself ineligible for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS), leaving her feeling stranded. “At the very start I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’ve been left out of this. I must be so unlucky, there must be so few people like me.’ When I found out there were millions of others who were being overlooked time after time… We feel we just don’t matter.”

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Walters is not alone. The non-profit organisation ExcludedUK represent some three million self-employed people ineligible for government support. This group is unfortunately well-represented by members of the UK’s musical community.

A recent survey by the Musicians’ Union states that between 38 per cent and 50 per cent of its members still do not qualify for either of the government’s financial assistance schemes (SEISS or Universal Credit), including 50 per cent for whom freelancing makes up less than half of their earnings but are not eligible for furlough either, and 15 per cent who had been self-employed for less than a year when SEISS began.

Walters feels that the government’s responses have over-emphasised the flexible, individualised nature of self-employment, in the face of distinctly inflexible eligibility criteria. One such SEISS stipulation is the need for 50 per cent of the previous year’s self-employed income to come via self-employment. Walters’ 18/19 tax return tipped a couple of percentage points over into PAYE, meaning she is now effectively ‘newly self-employed’, despite being registered as self-employed since the beginning of her time in Liverpool.

The 50 per cent threshold has also proved costly for Adam Collins, a tuba player who freelances alongside studying for a Master’s at the Royal Academy of Music. His work for the past three years has been a mixture of freelance gigs and zero-hour PAYE contracts, which include teaching and pastoral care for young musicians on residential courses.

The threshold doesn’t work for Collins because it assumes part-furlough from one of his PAYE gigs, something that hasn’t been forthcoming. As the zero-hour contracts fell through, he was forced to find support from the Academy’s Hardship Fund, Help Musicians UK, and now supports his studies by working in a supermarket. “I found out that I didn’t qualify for SEISS after filling in my tax return. There’s this perception that the self-employed are not claiming their income, or dodging tax in some way, but I found out I was ineligible just as I wrote my cheque to HMRC!”

“I found out that I didn’t qualify for SEISS after filling in my tax return. There’s this perception that the self-employed are not claiming their income, or dodging tax in some way, but I found out I was ineligible just as I wrote my cheque to HMRC!”

There’s a feeling among the freelance community that their hard work is being punished, and even stigmatised. “We’ve all paid all our taxes the same as everybody else, and we all work extremely hard,” says Walters. “But when you’re sitting at home, you’ve got no money coming in and your bank account is going down, I don’t know how they expect you to survive on nothing for month after month. It’s an extreme feeling of injustice that currently sits alongside the financial worries.”

The Musicians’ Union has lobbied steadfastly for changes to the SEISS scheme, and there are some solutions that might cushion the double blow of heavily diminished income and zero government support.

The Union currently advocates waiving the January 2021 tax bill for musicians without support, as well as advocating individual investment programmes for freelancers in England through the Cultural Recovery Fund to match those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Earlier this month, Labour MP Tracy Brabin, chair of the Gaps in Support Group in Parliament, successfully tabled a Ten-Minute Rule Bill in the House of Commons that, if passed, will create a watchdog dedicated to the reporting and fixing of gaps in the government’s coronavirus financial support.

But with a Prime Minister who, when probed during a recent Prime Minister’s Questions, declared that “nobody had been abandoned”, the struggles of hard-working musicians will likely continue until something resembling a regular schedule reappears.

Hugh Morris is a freelance musician and writer

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