The value of artists and their art has been forcibly drawn into the spotlight with the government’s handling of the pandemic. Wil Baines speaks to Rats, HAARM and Lazygirl about perceptions of self-worth and altered mindsets towards their practice.
It’s never been easy to be a musician. It’s never been an easy gig to work in the music industries, wherever you are in the world. Though, as a country, we’ve always been quick to assert our pride toward the artists we’ve produced, often creating a national sense of a larger ‘ownership’ of their contributions to the annals of culture. In general, their profession makes us happier. They synthesise the sonic drug-like stimulation of endorphins we’re all addicted to. This last year, UK musicians have been facing both unavoidable catastrophe (as we all have to different extents) and entirely avoidable miscomprehension on the part of their government.
In light of data published by Music Mind Matters in the end of 2019, the picture for UK musicians’ wellbeing was already a dimly lit one, even before a pandemic reared its head. 74 per cent of those respondents working in the music industry said they had experienced panic attacks and/or high levels of anxiety. A staggering 69 per cent reported they had experienced depression.
Are we to be made to believe that the trope of the ‘tortured artist’ is a necessary evil of being a musician or working in the music industries in the UK? The conversation has been further expanded in light of the government’s recent re-upping on a 2017 campaign to ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.’, seemingly directed at the creative and arts sectors, taking in the loss of work due to the effects coronavirus has had throughout 2020. Sectors that contribute £5.8billion a year to the economy, according to UK Music, and generate a further £23billion a year and 363,700 jobs, according to Arts Council UK.
To get a picture of the current landscape for artist wellbeing, three Merseyside based musicians, each at a different stage in their careers, discuss two central themes. In a largely unsupported industry, how do artists define their sense of self-worth or value as musicians in society. And , in light of the year so far, how has that changed?
Beth Harris, or LAZYGIRL, is at an exciting point of her career and a soon to be music graduate of the University of Liverpool, now faced with the prospect of retraining. Chris MacIntosh of HAARM, a longtime musician and father of two, is now considering both their dependents and their passion. Finally, Joe Maddocks from RATS, whose explosive brand of scouse-indie was building real national momentum barrelling into 2020 with a huge sold-out show at Invisible Wind Factory at the end of 2019. Recently, his social media address to comments made by Rishi Sunak went viral.
I want to get a sense of what their personal experiences within these topics had culminated in to begin with, before the events of the last year had taken place. To try to get a clearer picture of the changes I’m sure we will discuss. We discuss the most recent news – the reappearance of ‘Fatima’, the weight of her accompanying message what retraining means to these people – and consider their most recent activity going into the pandemic that spurred the campaign.
Each gives a unique perspective; Beth sees her options as fairly clear in her mind though difficult to consider; a sensibility I think encapsulates a grander sentiment in these issues. She believes that as an artist that is able to self-manage and be self-sufficient in their primary avenue of income, uploading to streaming services such as Spotify and enjoying the audience expansion generated by their algorithmic playlists, she will be able to continue her work as Lazygirl. As a student studying music, she has been able to shift her time between her already commencing career and her education (or rather, initial ‘training’). This model is one that she feels will be adaptable in the future, instead swapping her education for whatever employment is able to supplement what she readily calls “not a great amount of income to live off of. So if I did want to still be pursuing Lazygirl, and there wasn’t any gigs or any means in which I could be proactive… I feel like I probably would have to retrain. Or do something, at least on the side.”
Beth’s considered pragmatism in the face of what is an extremely emotive consideration is refreshing, as a soon to be graduate myself, I think the water’s looking very cold in the proverbial pool that we should all be getting ready to jump in to.
Chris’ take offers me a thought that echoes throughout all three discussions. “Some of the people that say these things, are so far removed from everyday life,” he begins, talking over Zoom. “And it’s not just their lives, it’s their parents’ lives, and their grandparents lives that are so, so far away from where we are on the ground. I honestly don’t think that when the Tories say this shit, they know what they’re saying.”
In our conversation we find that misunderstanding the music industries is not something unique to these entrenched parts of our society, but rather a symptom of a general aversion to consider being a musician a ‘real job’. This may be because it is an extremely competitive field, or indeed a career of instability; and I’m sure many of us have been told that it’s best left as a hobby. It’s an attitude that all three musicians raged against – one that devalued their sense of self-worth, and their role in society. Chris continues: “If I didn’t have people that were dependent on me, I probably would be a bit more, ‘fuck you’, but I probably will have to retrain – definitely. I’ve already started thinking, just in the back of my mind .”
Both Beth and Chris have already identified, at either end of the range of ages in our conversation, a key finding taken from the 2019 Music Minds Matter data. It’s one that points out that “damaging precarity and unpredictability is at the very heart of a musical career,” adding, “musicians often work several different jobs as part of a portfolio career that can result in them being afraid to take a break, and a culture of applying themselves ’24/7’.”
As somebody that made it abundantly clear when pacing up and down a deserted Matthew Street that they’ve “never had a proper job, Rishi.”, Joe is a voice of positive energy that causes me to further consider ‘Fatima’ and her message in a new light.
“It’s hard for me not to swear, but still, swearing doesn’t get my point across any more. I can’t understand the logic that they’re getting behind,” he begins, characteristically bounding with energy on the other end of the phone line.
“I’ve got a student debt which is about 30-40,000 quid, and I’m asking people like Rishi, ‘can you either cut that student debt for me because this degree has been made void, or can you get me a free degree where I’m allowed to retrain?’
“Or are you trying to get me in more debt?,” he adds, putting the question back to the chancellor who suggested jobs within the arts might not be the best avenue in a Covid winter. Joe also raises the extremely valid point that a bachelor degree usually takes between three to four years in the UK, with current projections of relative normality’s return for the entertainment sectors at one to two years. A mass re-education of our musicians would leave a vacuum roughly the size of £5.8billion a year.
It would also be equally short-sighted to suggest that Joe leans more towards the ‘fuck you energy’, and that Beth and Chris were ‘sensibly’ pursuing portfolio careers while considering a pragmatic choice (though an extremely difficult one). As a musician, 2019 into 2020 was going very well for Joe and Rats, and he insists that this last year has not been a downturn by any means. Instead, he offers the idea that, as creatives, they have always had to adapt (read: Rethink, Reskill, Reboot.) to remain afloat long before an international pandemic. They describe their activity over the first national lockdown as having been damage control.
“I moved the studio into the front room and did my mum’s head in for three months”, he notes, in reference to an action that many musicians have had to forcibly stomach, delaying/cancelling live work or studio recordings and returning to the creative process.
We begin to consider that the state of musicians’ wellbeing in the UK, and the most attacked complex throughout the last year – the balance between your own sense of value as a musician, and how society values you (more often than not, financially).
Talking about wider society begs the question of our location here in Liverpool, and if that has had a noticeable impact on how our artists view their sense of self-worth, value in society, and support. Joe begins.
“It’s definitely one of them towns where people are more encouraging, you are encouraged to go out and see somebody that might not necessarily be their mate, maybe they went to school with – or their from the same estate as…” he paused to summarise, “I don’t think you’ll get that anywhere else.”
I agree with his sentiment, and we discuss further the importance of Liverpool’s myriad situations of wider different cultures, cliques, and similar denominations’ willingness to cross comfort-boundaries, and show support for their own. Even, indeed, their recently adopted citizens. Beth and I draw attention to her recent activity as a Liverpudlian musician in lockdown.
“Through lockdown I’ve become part of the LIMF Academy, and been given some amazing opportunities, even in lockdown.” she says in reference to the homegrown promotion and development academy supporting burgeoning local talent yearly.
“I think I’ve gotten close to other artists,” she notes. “Seeing people talking about all the crap that’s going on about retraining at the minute it has made me closer to others.”
Beth’s take is a unique one, not only as a musician that was attracted to relocate to Liverpool to work and study, but because of her chosen medium. As a bedroom-pop artist, she prides herself on being the sole voice of control from the initial inception to the final mastered version of each track; and though this is certainly not a workflow that is unique to her genre, particularly in the era of digital-commoditisation. In the same manner that Joe relocated his practice to his home environment, Beth’s has always been there. She stresses that the beginnings of her musical career as Lazygirl came from “an all-time low” in her mental health, that the investments she had made (and support she had received) in her own musical ability up until that point, gave her an avenue through which to begin to soothe and eventually process her experiences.
Now at university and living with other music students, each actively pursuing their own careers, we consider a parallel to the film School of Rock. Perhaps Rishi Sunak has inadvertently painted himself as Miss Mullins/‘The Man’ and we are all bound together by ‘sticking it to them’.
Though the communities created around musicians are not always ones in which comfort is found. Beth continues to discuss the finely kept, and often disrupted, balance between snakes and ladders of ‘the game’.
“I didn’t touch music, I didn’t pick up a guitar, I didn’t sing for, like, the longest time. I was just in such a bad way, no motivation. and then I just looked at a different approach to it – I was writing these songs about how terrible I was feeling, and it was able to become cathartic. So in that way it really did help – but in terms, of the music industry, I have gotten myself into so many panic attacks.”
I begin to understand the power that the communities that these musicians operate in, by choice or otherwise, have in dictating their security; their sense of validity and worth. Contrasted with Joe, who asks to pay special tribute and thanks to his most close-knitted home community (particularly Rats’ manager Harry Griffiths), the danger of imposter syndrome seems unfathomable when one’s target audience are infinitely distributed and yet connected. Beth elaborates.
“I think, as a bedroom artist, I’m not good enough,” she begins. “I don’t know how to master a song. I suppose the way that it’s affected my mental health has been to do with imposter syndrome I suppose. Rather than so much the music.”
We discuss that as a musician that draws the most sizeable portion of her income from online streams, notably Spotify, she feels constant stress (particularly as a young woman) to always be “a different new thing”. Beth talks of her “Spotify-induced existential crisis” as something that should come as no surprise. After the most recent comments made by Daniel Eck, regarding a proposed industrialisation of the modern musician’s output, it doesn’t. It seems that we are forced to accept the market-dominating injustices served to artists by Spotify nicely packaged alongside the society-spread opinion that: ‘perhaps getting into music isn’t quite what you should have in mind’. We are told to hold no value in society, and then have billions of pounds drawn bleeding from the stone of our ‘cultural capital’, nicely wrapped up in ‘Cool Britannia’.
From the data published in 2019 as a part of the Music Mind Matters research, we compare one of the central findings – “[a] Music maker’s relationship to their work is integral to their sense of self. It is how they define themselves” – to our own cases here and see that the last year has only exacerbated issues that were deeply seated and (for the most part) unilaterally experienced across the UK.
When government support isn’t even sufficient to maintain any stability to a musician’s side hustle, or primary earner, we begin to see the true spectre of what our government deems useful and valid. “What could I do? It’s just so hard because my entire life I’ve just been in bands, and written songs,” Chris laments. “Before this lockdown my other source of income was being a host for Bongo’s Bingo, which is a bit of mental job, but of course that’s gone too.”
This has never been unique to musicians, working multiple jobs, often within the same sector, but perhaps it means that it is an obstacle that should be addressed as a social reevaluation, rather than a lack-lustre package of inaccessible funds. That throwing seemingly non-existent money at such a huge issue is representational of the ever-baffling Tory solution process.
“I think this will politicise a lot of people, Chris suggests. “For the first time for [these musicians] it’s like, ‘fuck. What the government is doing is now directly affecting me’, and I think that’ll be the first time that’s happened for some,” he adds. Our view shifts towards the idea of what changes and reevaluations must be made in light of the mismanaged global pandemic, and ensuing social and labour crisis.
“Johnson, Hancock, Gove, Sunak, he begins, “they should all be in The Hague once this is over.” The sentiment that is shared by all three of the musicians, is not that musicians should be encouraged to rethink, instead that we should be held to account as a society over our failing to provide proper support and provisors for our ‘cultural capital’. Our Weltanschauung is one that chooses whether or not we assign value to one of our most celebrated products, based on a notion that some jobs are more viable than others. That through this elitism we create a further isolated, depleted, and uninspired class of musicians; along with those that could never be. This is what we must ‘Rethink, Reskill, and Reboot.’; an unfounded, culturally damaging, and divisive view of the value of musicians and creatives in society.
Throughout our conversations we found that it is not the work that perpetuates the trope of the ‘tortured artist’ (at least not primarily), but the effects of the most inhospitable society, that beckons them like a banshee to dash themselves on its rocks.
Words: Wil Baines (They/Them) / @billiamjnwaines
Illustration: Abbiegail Hayden (She/Her) / @craftydaveart_