Tote bag with a selection of instruments from home, by Dougal Perman

Culture’s Role In The COVID-19 Crisis

“Music Makes The World A Better Place”

PPL Tote Bags

So says the bold message on the tote bags that PPL give out at their events. I agree with the sentiment; I’m sure most people do. And while music won’t help combat or cure the current COVID-19 crisis, it — and many forms of culture — will play a vital role.

As we explore progressively more measures to try to contain, delay, mitigate and hopefully eliminate this coronavirus, we will experience increasing restriction on travel, mass participation and human interaction. We are experiencing many of those things already; some as a result of policies being implemented by the UK and Scottish Governments and others as people adopt their own defences, such as social distancing. Unfortunate by-products by some people include panic buying and a massive increase in calls to the NHS 111 helpline, despite instruction to use their website rather than call, wherever possible.

The threat to people’s health and safety, and to the lives of those in the high-risk category, is a real and present danger. After that the plummeting economy is just as worrying. Everyone I speak to is very concerned about people’s jobs. What began in a wet market has hit the stock market. That seems too abstract for many of us to comprehend but loss of income, and jobs, are all too real.

As the trade body for music business in Scotland, we are hearing from our members distressing stories of how the COVID-19 response is affecting their livelihood.

Scottish Music Industry Association members tell us how COVID-19 affects them. Shortly after global governments’ policy announcements on Thursday 12 March, losses from member anecdotes exceeded £250,000 from cancellations suffered by a booking agency, music manager and music media producer, music festivals poised to postpone and all imminent events cancelled for an AV supplier.

In music, artists will be hit hard. The independent sector in Scotland relies heavily on income from live performance. That has ceased for the foreseeable future, leaving many in a perilous position. We are also extremely concerned about promoters, venues, bands, orchestras, recording studios and teachers. Loss of earnings leads to job losses and the deficit cascades throughout the creative industries. Other industries are similarly fragile. Transport, tourism and hospitality are on their knees; not to mention the gig-economy.

Many companies that can are opting to work remotely. Social distancing is reckoned, by health experts and epidemiologists, to be one of the most effective ways of slowing the infection rate. Some creative industries sectors may continue to trade with relative stability. In music, composers, producers, record labels, distributors, media and platforms can feasibly run close to business as usual. Some event managers and marketing agencies have been considering how they can repurpose activities online. My production company is being asked to help live stream events which would have been public but will now be digital-first, or digital-only. We are working on models for entirely virtual activities.

Pivoting the business model from live event to online alternative could help salvage some income for artists, performers, promoters, event managers and venues. Normally I advocate remote participation technologies like live streaming as an excellent audience development medium but am cautious to suggest they can be monetised easily. But these are not normal times. Pay-per-view, sponsorship, ad-funded, donation and patronage are all revenue models we are exploring; within the SMIA’s core team and membership, with our contemporaries in other creative industries development organisations and in my company.

However we consume it, in live events that do take place to be consumed online as live streams or on demand content, culture is crucial. Music, drama, comedy, writing and literature, visual art, performing arts, film and video, radio and TV, heritage, crafts and games lift our spirits, give us hope and make life worth living. And while we may binge on content from on demand platforms instead of going out, that will get stale. We will crave shared experience, which is where live streams, interactive content, virtual and augmented reality could help keep us going until the crisis is over and we define our new normal.

New neighbourly and community movements have emerged to help people locally. Business can do something similar. Along with financial help from UK and Scottish Governments, charities like Help Musicians and public agencies like Creative Scotland, if there is any money to be made from these alternative ways of reaching audiences then we can consider how it can be used to help those in need. Those companies who can trade during the crisis could allocate a percentage of profits to a hardship and sustainability fund for those individuals and businesses who have lost work as a result of the crisis. We are talking with our members, other industry bodies, public agencies and Government about how we can pool resources to help. The SMIA is compiling resources, help and information on our website at smia.org.uk/coronavirus.

Because music doesn’t just make the world a better place during the good times, it can make the world a place worth living in during times of crisis.

Dougal Perman (@dougalperman) is Executive Chair of the Scottish Music Industry Association, Director of Inner Ear a member for the Scottish Government’s Creative Industries Advisory Group and a consultant for XpoNorth.

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