Why Welsh independent music is at risk of joining the growing Covid-19 death toll

When it comes to financial support, musicians are not getting nearly as much attention as small businesses and other freelancers

Independent musicians Silent Forum with flowers black and white
Destroy//Exist describes Silent Forum as “a combination of shadowy post punk and the more accessible side of indie rock” (Credit: The Shoot)

Since the pandemic started, the arts have once again fallen victim to the stereotype that a creative career is not a “real” job, and musicians are getting the brunt of it. But this time it’s more than judgemental relatives urging them to get a ‘stable career’. Without sufficient funding, independent musicians might become another casualty of lockdown.

Unlike many establishments which reopened when lockdown ended, the nature of gigs makes social distancing harder to introduce in music venues. And for musicians, no gigs means no shows, no income, no publicity, and no record sales. 

There is some support for the creative industry. On 11 November Welsh Government announced additional funding for arts and culture. Meanwhile, the Welsh Music Prize went ahead online, showcasing new talent despite the challenges this year presented. 

But can the government money keep independent musicians afloat? Is digital-first a worthy substitute for live shows? Here’s what the numbers, the experts and the musicians themselves say:

The state of the Welsh music scene

In Spring 2020, Welsh Government announced grassroots music venues funding aimed at supporting venues and freelancers affected by Covid-19. The statement also acknowledged that the live music industry is intrinsic to the success of Welsh independent musicians. 

Samantha Dabb, manager of Le Pub, who cancelled over 50 performances in the first three months of the pandemic, shares that view. “Grassroots music venues are vital to … the future of Welsh music,” she said in the press release.

The flip side of the funding

Fast forward to August, shortly after Welsh Government pledged financial support for the arts, and we hear from Sam again. Speaking to the BBC about Welsh Music Venues, she shared that the original government funding was insufficient. 

“We cannot do gigs under social distancing,” Sam complained. “At 2m the venue has a capacity of 17. It isn’t financially viable.”

Since then, Welsh Government has offered a £10.7m support package. But it spans all arts and culture. So how much money would independent musicians actually get?

According to professor Paul Carr from the University of South Wales, many freelance musicians didn’t qualify for government support schemes. In his Welsh music industries report, the professor highlighted important findings from the Musicians’ Union.

The Union revealed that 70% of musicians could only take on a quarter of their usual workload, nearly half were looking for employment in other industries, and over a third were completely out of work. 

The fallout of gig cancellations

The struggle of music venues has far-reaching consequences for independent musicians. 

In an article announcing this year’s Welsh Music Prize shortlist, co-founder John Rostron claimed: “The entire live music sector has been decimated.” 2020 has been devastating for musicians, who rely on live shows to generate album sales and grow their fanbase, he pointed out. 

Luckily, bodies like Help Musicians offer support when opportunities to earn are limited. Their Financial Hardship Funding is an alternative to government funding which helps musicians “make ends meet”.

Chief executive James Ainscough cautions: “There are still many thousands struggling to make ends meet. 

“This year, perhaps more than ever, we have all valued the comfort music has brought but without further financial support, we risk losing so many of the musicians behind the music.”

Independent musicians Silent Forum bundled together black and white
For Silent Forum, 2020 would have been a year of touring and gigs dedicated to promoting their album (Credit: The Shoot)
The musicians behind the music

In a regular year, Welsh Music Prize finalists Silent Forum would have released a new single by now, shares lead singer Richard Wiggins. Unfortunately, Covid-19 restrictions have kept them from practicing and forced them to “bring [themselves] into other people’s living rooms.”

Everything Sold at Once

Their short docuseries cheekily titled Everything Sold at Once (a play on their album title Everything Solved At Once) has been a great substitute for the exposure of live shows, and a way to get their personality across on social media.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Music Prize nomination has bumped Silent Forum’s streams and sales, says Richard. And, according to bass guitarist Oli Richards, “[the recognition] will have a ripple effect when gigs are back on.”

Money & Indie Music: Silent Forum on their experience of the scene
Future of independent music

Looking ahead, Oli feels a mix of dread and optimism. On one hand, people will be keen to immerse themselves into the music scene. Silent Forum themselves are eager to attend gigs and perform again – an appetite which many undoubtedly share. 

However, Oli fears the appetite alone might not be enough without infrastructure. And with Cardiff steadily losing its indie venues even pre-pandemic, building the music scene back up could take a lot longer than it’s taken to destroy it.

Ultimately though, the band feel positive about the future of independent music. “Venues might struggle,” says Richard, “but there would hopefully be a lot of people eager to spend money.”

People will be keen to immerse themselves into the music scene

The light at the end of the virus

Local musician Georgia Ruth told Wales Online she is hopeful about how musicians are coping in 2020, because “there is such resilience … spirit and an energy [within the industry].”

John from Welsh Music Prize shares Ruth’s sentiment in his BBC interview. “Covid-19 hasn’t quashed our appetite for … discovering new music,” he says. “Streaming and buying new records has been a lifeline for performers to reach audiences.”

By all accounts, these are rocky times for the Welsh music industry. But between the government support and private organisations banding to help freelance musicians, the overarching mood is hopeful. 

Musicians, it seems, are biding their time until they can dive head first into producing and performing again. Until then, they are relying on all of us to stream and share their music, as much as we’re relying on their music to get us through the pandemic. 

Silent Forum playing a gig at Welsh music venue
The band have only managed three meetups since March, instead of getting together several times each month (Credit: Silent Forum)
Welsh Music Prize finalists

For Silent Forum, the Welsh Music Prize nomination was a coming of age moment

The guys consider themselves very much a Welsh post punk band, even if none of the members are actually Welsh. Every song they have has been written in Wales, and seeing their band name on the WMP shortlist is the most Welsh they’ve felt. In short, to them the nomination is an acknowledgement that Silent Forum are a legitimate part of the scene.

Breathing new life into their music

Alongside their other creative projects, Silent Forum are releasing a hit song remix

In a bid to breathe new life into the music they produced last year, the band have just released a remix of their hit single How I Faked The Moon Landing by Charlie Francis. The anniversary release is packaged together with a bonus B-side track of their previously unreleased song Don’t Overcook It, which they recorded alongside their debut album.

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