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Hundreds of Musicians Protest Outside UK Parliament

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Musicians protest outside Parliament in Westminster, London

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.

Violinists Nicola Benedetti and Tasmin Little were among the performers who played a short segment of Mars, from Holst’s The Planets, in central London.

They then held a two-minute silence, to put pressure on the government to give more support to self-employed artists.

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

The events were organised 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.

Standing in Parliament Square, the protestors played for just 90 seconds – approximately 20% of Holst’s Mars – to represent the maximum of 20% support that eligible freelancers can claim from the government.

Benedetti, who filmed the performance for her Twitter feed, called the moment “unimaginably moving”.

Keith Ames of the Musicians Union, added that concert work is looking scarce “over Christmas and probably through ’til March”.

“That would mean a complete year with no work,” he added.

“Many musicians are facing retraining, many are talking about leaving the country,” Benedetti 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.”

‘Adapt to new reality’

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

“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.

The first announcement on how the recovery fund would be distributed was due on Monday (5 October), but 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.

Wigmore HallVenues 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 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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