“The five step roadmap given to us last week”, Stephen Maddock tells me, “could have been written by any of us on the back of a fag packet in March. It gave no details, no timescale and no cash.” The Chief Executive of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is by no means universally critical of the authorities, praising Darren Henley at the Arts Council and saying that “the Chancellor has played a blinder in the last six months”. But his patience is beginning to run thin as he plans half a dozen different scenarios for the CBSO’s future in the next six months. It’s not just that there’s a vacuum of information: “because that implies a degree of neutrality. It’s like a sort of Pullman-esque parallel universe”.

An empty concert hall © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
An empty concert hall
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

Struggles like those faced by Maddock are taking place across the entire UK performing arts sector in businesses of every size, from individual musicians and actors to large theatre conglomerates, from freelance set designers to catering providers to venue owners. “I feel like we’ve waited, waited and waited,” says Kings Place Artistic Director Helen Wallace. “There’s no sense of a timeline and no guidance. Even with rehearsal and recording: there’s currently no guidance about the way that one should do that. It’s gone all quiet.”

On a national scale, the performing arts matter. Including indirect effects, the industry was estimated to be worth £23 billion of Gross Value Added to the UK economy in 2016. In the same year, the agriculture industry generated £12 billion of GVA and the automotive industry £14.5 billion.

With carefully judged and sometimes highly creative social distancing protocols, outdoor concerts are already taking place in many countries without ill effect, including Italy, a country which is only a few weeks ahead of us in the progression of the epidemic (see Norwegian Radio's lovely video below on Oslo's Karl Johan, which was made in May). But far from alleviating the situation, the UK government’s 23rd June guidance on opening venues and businesses actually made things worse, banning all live performances in front of a live audience, a blanket ban which flies in the face of common sense. That ban has forced Zoë Curnow to cancel £330,000 worth of tickets for the Minack Theatre, an outdoor venue in a stunning location nestled on the cliffs of Cornwall. Curnow has a whole series of protocols which work within social distancing guidance: single storytellers, pairs of actors maintaining distance on stage, groups of actors living together, all of whom are outdoors and can be positioned many metres away from the audience. She is baffled as to why the guidance applied to a normal person going about their daily life has been specifically overridden for live performance. “I see aeroplanes flying and people going into parks. What is it about us that makes us different? I just don’t get it”.

The Minack Theatre, shorn of its audience © Lynn Batten
The Minack Theatre, shorn of its audience
© Lynn Batten

Sitting as we are outside the corridors of power, it’s impossible to know how policies so ludicrously inconsistent came into being. Maybe it results from turf wars, maybe it’s incompetence, maybe it’s just plain stress and cognitive overload: one has to feel a level of sympathy for officials who must be bombarded on all sides. But where, oh where is the leadership? The Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, has gone missing in action. 

As I write this, the list of latest documents from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport contains recent guidance as to the phased return of sport and reopening of recreation, museums and visitor attractions. But the umbrella list of sectors to which the DCMS has contributed guidance contains no mention of live performance. The last officially published mention was the announcement of the Cultural Renewal Task Force on May 20th – a task force which contains no representative from the music industry. In a press interview on June 8th, Dowden claimed that “Arts and culture have always been a real passion of mine” and that “I will not see our world-leading arts and culture destroyed”. All he has managed since then has been a list of five hoped for milestones with no dates, no explanation and no activities. The silence is deafening.

Massimiliano Rossetti, director of the brilliantly innovative Norwich-based Lost in Translation Circus, has closed down all activity, losing at least £350,000 of revenue in a business that would normally turn over £400,000 and which falls outside any safety net of Treasury furlough schemes (all the staff are freelancers, including Rossetti himself who is scraping a living running deliveries for Amazon). “The way the government is behaving is shameful. They are not giving enough information to understand the reason behind the choice to reopen pubs, which are very dangerous, probably more dangerous than live performance, and they ignore giving us a date when our industry can reopen. I come from Italy, from a country where we've been ridiculous for years about our politics. But the first place at the moment has been taken by England.”

The heads of bigger organisations don’t have to resort to driving delivery vans, and Alex Reedijk, General Director of Scottish Opera, doesn’t think “it’s in anyone’s interest to be too quick to beat up.” But even Reedijk’s time horizons aren’t exactly extensive: he reckons that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) will keep his organisation alive until October. He considers himself fortunate to enjoy support from the Scottish government and is hopeful that this will enable him to sit things out until larger venues become available, probably not until 2021. Reedijk also agrees with “the First Minister’s very conservative stance on public safety”, deriding much of the advice circulating from outside the UK as “crude Wikipedia based”.

That seems harsh given the respectable (although not peer reviewed) study like the research conducted by the Vienna Philharmonic or the carefully crafted risk assessment by the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg. But if Reedijk is right to be sceptical, the UK government urgently needs its own research. The current stance turns Covid-19 into Catch-22: no research of our own and no trust in anyone else’s.

The Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini at Ravenna Festival, 28th June 2020 © Zani Casadio
The Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini at Ravenna Festival, 28th June 2020
© Zani Casadio

For the performing arts industry as a whole, the stakes could hardly be higher. Stripped of its ability to earn revenue, large swathes of the industry could be wiped out within six months. Even if the CBSO were permitted to play on stage tomorrow, they might not have a venue to perform in because Birmingham Symphony Hall relies on commercial presenters of rock and pop, comedy or conferences, for whom the losses are higher if they operate at half capacity than if they hibernate altogether. Orchestras, venues, lighting companies – every business has its reserves. But with no income, those reserves are being eaten into rapidly. Emergency grants from Arts Council are helping some, but those will soon run dry and in any case, many organisations are receiving no assistance at all. The CJRS has enabled survival for many, but for others, it has been perverse in prohibiting furloughed employees, however willing, from doing any work. If you have no income but plenty of work to be done in maintaining fitness to survive, the furlough scheme is a nightmare. The current path will lead to a steady flow of bankruptcies, closure of arts businesses and individual freelancers leaving their professions to seek work elsewhere. Some of our arts scene will survive. Much will not.

The government and the DCMS are abandoning the performing arts industry in its hour of gravest peril. I have plenty of thoughts as to why, but I won’t air them here: I’d rather forgo the angry speculation and keep things constructive. So, Oliver Dowden, if you’re listening, here’s what we need you to do: scrap the “five point roadmap” and replace it by an actual project plan. In addition to the milestones, put in dates, activities and resources (and even dependencies, as you go into more detail). And make the project plan public. And yes, we know, the dates are subject to change.

  • Activity 1: stop making everything worse. Get rid of the individual ban on live performance, replacing it by an instruction that all social distancing protocols for the general public apply to live performance apart from clear evidence-based exceptions. If “1 metre plus” is good enough for people chatting to each other in pubs, it’s good enough for violinists sitting next to each other on a stage or for audience members in a concert hall – especially if they’re wearing face coverings. (Timescale: tomorrow. Cost: zero)
  • Activity 2: make the CJRS work for arts organisations. Allow employees furloughed from arts organisations to continue to make art if they wish to do so. (Timescale: 1 week to sort out the details. Cost: zero)
  • Activity 3: do the science. Convene a panel of scientists to peer review the research done in Vienna and elsewhere, replicating the results where necessary. Task them to report back on the risks posed by various forms of performance: different numbers of artists, different musical instruments, miked or unmiked voice, indoor/outdoor, as many variations as you can think of. (Timescale: 2-3 weeks for initial results. Cost: modest)
  • Activity 4: remove financial barriers – especially for funds already budgeted. Example: allow Orchestral Tax Relief to be applied to performances streamed to an empty hall. (Timescale: 1 month to get some uncontroversial legislation through Parliament. Cost: modest)
  • Activity 5: sort out a rescue package. This doesn’t have to be grants forever for the industry, but it needs to be enough to allow most of the industry to survive until something like normal performances can resume, most probably the end of the year. Try to make it conditional on continuing creation of art: don’t pay people to do nothing like the CJRS does. (Timescale: 1 month to get the Chancellor to agree. Cost: substantial)

Your inaction has already caused severe reputational damage to the United Kingdom. To quote Rossetti again: “They are not interested in the culture and they are showing very well that what they are interested in is football and booze. And that is very sad for a lot of people and also for the heritage of this country, which has created milestones, things in culture and the arts that are known everywhere.” Please, don’t let that reputational damage be capped by real destruction of our culture – be it choral or circus, Shakespeare or stand-up, opera or rap.

For everyone else in the performing arts industries and especially in music, I can’t say it more clearly than Sir Simon Rattle on Radio 4’s Front Row: “We wanted to be extremely constructive and try to work to help and be encouraging. But it may be that now is more of the time to shout.”


References:

Centre for Economics and Business Research, Contribution of the arts and culture industry to the UK economy, April 2019, p8, Retrieved from https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Economic%20impact%20of%20arts%20and%20culture%20on%20the%20national%20economy%20FINAL_0_0.PDF on 2020-07-01

Chris Rhodes, Niamh Foley, Commons Research Briefing CBP-8353: Economic output of industries in the UK, using Gross Value Added data, 2018, spreadsheet retrieved from https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8353/ on 2020-07-01

House of Commons Committee on Exiting the European Union, Automotive Sector Report, retrieved from https://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/Exiting-the-European-Union/17-19/Sectoral%20Analyses/4-Sectoral-Analyses-Automotive-Report.pdf on 2020-07-01

Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Guidance: Opening certain businesses and venues in England from 4 July 2020, 23 June 2020, retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/guidance/opening-certain-businesses-and-venues-in-england-from-4-july-2020 on 2020-07-01

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-on-phased-return-of-sport-and-recreation

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-guidance-for-reopening-of-museums-galleries-and-the-heritage-sector

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-government-guidance-supports-reopening-of-tourism-and-visitor-attractions-on-july-4

https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/guidance-for-dcms-sectors-in-relation-to-coronavirus-covid-19

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/culture-secretary-announces-cultural-renewal-taskforce

 Julian Glover, Oliver Dowden interview: ‘I will not see our world-leading arts and culture destroyed’, Evening Standard, 8 June 2020, retrieved from https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/arts/oliver-dowden-interview-culture-secretary-arts-coronavirus-a4462456.html on 2020-07-01

Vienna Philharmonic says no increased virus risk for orchestras, Medical XPress 18 May 2020, retrieved from  https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-05-vienna-philharmonic-virus-orchestras.html on 2020-07-02

Claudia Spahn and Bernhard Richter, Risk assessment of a coronavirus infection in the field of music, Hochschule für Musik Freiburg,19 May 2020, retrieved from https://www.mh-freiburg.de/fileadmin/Downloads/Allgemeines/RisikoabschaetzungCoronaMusikSpahnRichter19.5.2020Englisch.pdf on 2020-07-02