On the Financial Situation of Freelance Musicians in Times of Covid-19

Balcony concerts to alleviate social distance. Free streams from opera houses and concert halls. Viral music videos that make us laugh. The media are filled with mentions of online appearances and digital charity concerts. Amidst this crisis, music is stepping up to offer solace and make being alone more bearable.

But for a great many musicians, the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating the freelance music scene’s pre-existing structural deficits. The musical nation of Austria is distinguished by large, established institutions—for the most part (formerly) state-owned—that gobble up the lion’s share of the generous state subsidies and whose market power and reputations wield a central influence over the freelance scene, as well. Highly paid musicians from the full-time orchestras and choirs, for instance, typically have numerous further moneymaking options in the freelance scene or in the education sector, while many freelance musicians—even though they support the prevailing system by substituting in the very same ensembles—remain without the security of a steady employment relationship. And in the freelance scene itself, precarious employment prevails along with income portfolios that consist of various music-related and occasionally also non-music-related jobs.

The current Austrian government, in its programme for 2020–2024, promises to create conditions that “facilitate equal measures of innovation, secure planning, and social support for artists.” (p. 23) And while such conditions may indeed seem close at hand in heavily subsidised areas, the statement does seem cynical in light of the situation in which many freelance musicians now find themselves—for the previous government’s reinforcement of neoliberal market practices that transfer risks almost entirely to the music business’s active protagonists hasn’t been walked back.

In mid-March of this year, Austria’s parliament placed limits on the freedom of assembly including a ban on public events that will still be remaining with us for several months. Nearly all of Austria’s full-time orchestras placed their members on reduced working hours in early April—ensuring them at least 80 % of their normal salaries and hence a degree of financial security. But in the freelance scene, nearly all sources of income have dried up. Previously booked substitutes for full-time orchestras receive nothing. Musical events—including the lucrative Easter and summer business—have for the most part been cancelled with no compensation or at best been rescheduled for later dates. Digital music teaching, where it’s possible, frequently isn’t accepted. Recordings can be made only by those with private studios. Individuals frequently have zero financial reserves because they’d been earning too little to begin with. Minor part-time jobs at cultural institutions are out of the picture. And both artistic development opportunities and practising options have been greatly reduced.

From 13 March to 13 April, during the initial period following the restrictions’ introduction, we conducted an online survey in order to get a feel for the magnitude of the income lost during the initial month of universally cancelled events while also providing a look at the structures of the freelance scene.

201 freelance musicians (from all genres) completed this survey, which asked respondents to list their currently known losses per concert organiser up to 13 April. By now, of course, the financial damage that has accumulated will be significantly higher. And while the respondents may embody just a small, non-representative segment of the affected group, their responses are no less chilling: they reported altogether 2,552 cancelled events and losses per organiser/client valued at between € 40 and € 40,000 (this high-end figure being for performances in Japan) for a grand total of nearly € 550,000. Only 15 event organisers compensated the musicians with at least partial payment (such as for rehearsals). Even at that early point in time, many of the respondents described an already “existentially threatening situation” in which their ongoing costs could not be covered, and they lamented the “great degree of uncertainty”.

The interest group IG Kultur, for their part, conducted an online survey of event organisers. 368 associations and organisers indicated a total of 4,000 cancelled events, and their 291 returned surveys indicated financial damages totalling € 4.5 million as of 13 April. The prolongation of the current restrictions through July will incur estimated damages of € 10.7 million. In order to compensate for these, rental contracts are being cancelled, planned activities are being eliminated, and employees are being laid off—this despite the fact that only about a quarter of the involved workforce is permanently employed to begin with, with the remainder being freelance.

The numerous assistance measures implemented following the initial shock do not cover the incurred losses and have proven to be more bureaucratic and slower than promised. Freelancers, as one-person businesses, are able to request a maximum of € 6,000 from the federal government’s Coronavirus Hardship Fund for lost income extending most likely all the way up to 31 August. What’s more, many of them did not meet the requirements for Phase 1 of this programme. An (either/or) alternative is the € 5 million Covid Fund set up by the Künstlersozialversicherung (the Artists’ Social Insurance Fund). Their website reports the disbursal of nearly € 636,500 to 882 (of 2,559) applicants as of 21 April—which comes out to a per-person average of € 722 paid to 34 % of those who applied. Phase 2 of this programme has not yet begun.

The digital offerings heavily touted in the media are likewise a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they offer urgently desired and occasionally even paid performance opportunities—even if they’re before empty halls (like the “Jazz Delivery Service” offered by the Viennese jazz club Porgy & Bess with its pay-as-you-wish policy and the “Moments Musicaux” offered by the Vienna Konzerthaus). And on the radio, we hear more music from Austria being played (albeit frequently well outside of drive time). On the other hand, the ever-present worry exists that the current discussion and reporting are giving the public and politicians a false sense of security by focusing on the subsidised segment of the cultural industry or on well-known musicians who play and sing numbers like “We Are the World”. After all, the current online activities mostly don’t entail any significant income over an extended period; sustainable digital incomes and revenue models are rare.

Many freelance musicians work without a financial safety net. They do so not out of recklessness but because fees are frequently too low and because contracts (which aren’t always documented in writing) are for the most part one-time affairs—a questionable practice in the context of concert-giving. Therefore, these artists now need sufficient and easily accessible financial support. But in order to have a secure future, the freelance music scene urgently needs measures and concepts that ensure the provision of information, the assurance needed to make plans, and appropriate pay—like in the form of minimum rates (at least for subsidised gigs) and through the avoidance of fictitious self-employment. Otherwise, things will continue to look pretty bad in the post-coronavirus world, as well.

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