When people talk about the ‘music industry’ what we often really mean is the musicians’ industry. After all, there is no music without musicians, without writers. Of course the song and the composition are critical but, wherever music comes from, it is musicians’ industry, their work, perspiration and inspiration that brings it into the world. Then from there, wherever the rest of us have the privilege to sit around the table we loosely call the ‘music industry’ – record companies, publishers, managers, streaming, services, distributors, aggregators, studios, promoters, retail, radio and many more – we are, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, merely ‘ stoking its machinery’.
I have had the privilege to have sat around the table for over 40 years, stoking. I have had the privilege to have worked with many incredibly successful musicians and artists.
When I became a press officer at CBS records, now Sony Music, in the mid-70s, it was instilled into one that you worked just as diligently and professionally on all acts you were given in your respective roster – new, young, old, known. They had given up their lives, staked their future to play a trade, follow their calling as musicians and the least we could do in return was respect that; give them time and ideas and help them achieve the goals they had, and in helping them and their music reach as many people as possible. We helped them make a living.
No one said it was easy. Not easy, as in easy for us ‘stokers’, but not easy for musicians who had staked much in the process.
Last month I officially became a trustee at Help Musicians UK, formerly Musicians’ Benevolent Fund. It is a great honour. Many people reading this will know me and will know that my musical skills are zero. Music is like magic to me. I have had a wonderful life/career as a ‘stoker’ and now is my chance to help give back to musicians. To people who have staked their lives and given me a life I wouldn’t have been able to dream of as I stumbled up to the table over 40 years ago.
It is estimated that there are about 70,000 professional musicians in the UK. Before one considers the absolutely tiny percentage of them that are successful, and success brings its own set of issues, let us first of all acknowledge that together they go a long way to create the ‘industry’, and so in turn provide the other approximately 111,000 stokers of us with jobs we otherwise wouldn’t have. The industry, after all, that goes a long way to defining the rest of the world’s perception of the UK.
We all owe them. We owe them because, famous or unknown, wealthy or poor, they have problems and issues that the rest of society doesn’t. An the re-branded Help Musicians UK, now 94 years old, does, as it always has done, what it clearly says on the tin. It helps musicians.
I was shocked to discover that recent findings by the charity reveal that across 552 musicians: 75% suffered medical problems (the majority musculoskeletal), 24% regularly suffered stage fright, 27% took beta-blockers and 83% felt training had not prepared them for the physical and psychological stress of playing. It’s hard to image another industry where the stress and strain of working can be so potentially demanding and damaging.
In 2014 Help Musicians UK had a 12% increase on 2013 in musicians looking for support for the first time, which in turn was a 28% increase on 2012. 84% of those were of working age (under 65) and 46% were under 50. During 2014 the organisation spent £2.2 million helping 983 musicians experiencing illness or injury, needing help with continuing care or in retirement. Coupled with the support and advice that Help Musicians UK gives to up-and-coming musicians (for example they enabled more than 400 musicians to receive professional development and performance opportunities by funding 19 partnership projects with artistic organisations across the UK), we spent £3.3 million in 2014 changing the lives and careers of over 2,500 musicians.
Following work with other industry organisations including the MU, PPL, PRS for Music and the BPI, and the charity’s modernising rebrand last year, the key areas, not surprisingly, where Help Musicians UK will now be focusing on are hearing, muscular and skeletal injures, mental health, performance anxiety and issues surrounding retirement – not just relating to financial difficulties but importantly, identity adjustment as well. It is just a salutary reminder of the price, in the tricky business, ‘industry’, that many of the people who actually create it, have to pay. We owe them. Help Musicians by supporting Help Musicians UK.
This story is featured in Music week, published on 8 May 2015.