Hundreds of musicians protest outside Parliament

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Musicians protest outside Parliament in Westminster, LondonImage source, PA Media
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Simultaneous protests were held in London and Birmingham

A 400-strong ensemble of freelance musicians has played outside Parliament to highlight the plight of the music industry during the current pandemic.

Conductor David Hill led the performers in a short segment of Mars, from Holst's The Planets, before the attendees held a two-minute silence.

A concurrent protest took place outside Birmingham's Symphony Hall.

The events were designed to put pressure on the government to give more support to self-employed artists.

Violinists Nicola Benedetti and Tamsin Little, and Glastonbury organiser Emily Eavis also attended to support to the performers, and uploaded footage to social media.

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The events were organised by the Let Music Live campaign, and supported by the Musicians Union, which represents more than 32,000 performers in the UK.

It says 70% of its members have lost more than three-quarters of their regular work during the lockdown, leaving many in financial hardship.

Freelance musicians, who make up 72% of the sector, are particularly affected. Almost half of them are not eligible for grants under the government's current self-employed income support scheme, the union says.

Meanwhile, concert work is looking scarce "over Christmas and probably through 'til March," said spokesman Keith Ames. For many, "that would mean a complete year with no work."

Standing in Parliament Square, the protestors played just 90 seconds, or 20%, of Holst's Mars - reflecting the fact that eligible freelancers can only claim a maximum of 20% of their income from the government.

Benedetti called the performance "unimaginably moving".

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"Many musicians are facing retraining, many are talking about leaving the country," the award-winning musician told the BBC. "That's not just fabrication, that's a real-life situation that we don't want to see happen.

"This is not just about saying we want hand-outs, it's about everybody talking and finding a way out of this that is safe, but that looks to preserve music [and] performance long-term."

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'Adapt to a new reality'

The protest came as chancellor Rishi Sunak was asked about the plight of musicians, and suggested they might have to find alternative employment.

"I can't pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job that they were doing at the beginning of this crisis," he told ITV News. "Everyone is having to adapt.

"Theatre companies are adapting and putting on different types of performances. Plenty of music lessons are still carrying on.

"So, can things happen in exactly the way they did? No. But everyone is having to find ways to adapt and adjust to the new reality."

Mr Sunak also highlighted the government's £1.57bn rescue package for the arts - although that money is principally being distributed to museums, galleries and venues, rather than individuals.

In August, £3.36m of the fund was distributed to grassroots venues in England and Wales, to save them from immediate closure.

However, a further announcement on how the emergency funding would be allocated - which was due on Monday (5 October) - has been delayed by a week for "additional due diligence".

'Red alert'

Shortly after Tuesday's protest ended, a debate on the fate of the live events industry took place in the House of Commons.

MPs used the session to outline the perilous state of the music industry as well as the threat of closure hanging over theatres and venues.

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Venues like Wigmore Hall have opened with social distancing rules in place, but the live music sector is in a perilous position

The debate was secured by Conservative MP Nickie Aiken, whose Cities of London and Westminster constituency includes a number of music venues.

She said it was "vital to consider the impact that theatres, music venues and other cultural attractions have on their communities", not just financially, but in terms of "community benefit and wellbeing".

The MP called on the the government to "continue funding jobs" in the entertainment industry, and stressed that venues "need clear signposting as to when they will be able to open".

Aiken also asked for a three-year extension on the reduced VAT rate on tickets; while actor-turned-Conservative MP Giles Watling proposed a government-backed voucher scheme to encourage audiences to return to the theatre.

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Jennifer Saunders has highlighted the plight of theatres

Labour MP Kim Johnson, whose Liverpool Riverside constituency houses the Everyman and Playhouse theatres, said the government's cultural recovery grant was a "sticking plaster on a gaping wound", that failed to address "the looming funding crisis" for many venues, and called for additional intervention.

On Monday, actress and comic Jennifer Saunders led a two-minute silence outside the West End's Gielgud Theatre to draw attention to the "devastating" effect of continued closures within the sector.

Responding to the debate, Caroline Dinenage MP, minister of state for digital and culture, said she recognised the "devastating impact" coronavirus had had on the arts and insisted the government was "doing everything we can".

'Red alert'

She said the government was looking into an insurance scheme that would enable theatres to resume performances, adding: "We want to see fuller audiences returning as soon as possible".

The debate won the support of music industry body UK Music, which says coronavirus has "wiped out at least £900m of the £1.1bn that live music was expected to contribute to the UK economy in 2020".

While some venues, including London's O2 Arena and The Sage in Gateshead have announced plans to open at reduced capacity, smaller grassroots venues are said to be on "red alert".

"We've been dangling our feet off the edge of the cliff for the last six months," said Mark Davyd, chief of the Music Venue Trust last week.

"We can't leave communities and artists permanently locked out from live music after this temporary lockdown is over. We need a Plan B. We need to reopen every venue safely."

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