Music News

Robert Emery: Get Musicians Working

The live events industry is in crisis. With all live events shut down and without proper government support, every professional working across the live events sector has suddenly found themselves without a source of income. One-third of professional musicians have not been able to access emergency support, and as a result many are considering giving up their careers entirely. Get Musicians Working is providing a helping hand to these out of work musicians.

Conductor, pianist and serial entrepreneur, Robert Emery is one such professional who has suddenly found himself with a lot of time on his (usually baton-wielding) hands. Last year, lockdown hit just two days before he was due to embark on a year and a half tour as the musical director of the Bat Out Of Hell musical.

He’d already begun work on Ted’s List in early 2020 – an educational website project aiming to be the go-to community for anyone needing advice on anything related to music and instruments – but decided he needed to do more.

Originally planned as an organic growth project, Emery aimed to write the majority of the content himself over the coming years. The unexpected large hole in his diary led him to realise that a far quicker timescale for building Ted’s List could be possible by enlisting other out-of-work musicians.

This is where Get Musicians Working was founded. Run by The Emery Foundation – a registered micro-trust charity – it is providing grants to musicians who are in need, who in return, create inspirational content for beginner and young musicians to be shared on Ted’s List.

By giving grants to these pro musicians, The Emery Foundation hopes to encourage them to stay in the arts and not become one of the 34% who are considering abandoning their careers in music.

“Get Musicians Working isn’t going to save lives,” Emery tells me. “It isn’t going to find a treatment for cancer. But during this period of enforced closure for the entertainment industry, it will help keep musicians in the career they've trained their whole life for.

"If we don’t do this, the nation will be a very quiet place. Imagine no music during films or TV, or in the theatre or venues – life will seem rather hollow; black and white. It's unimaginable, which is why I’m so passionate and determined to make a change.”

Due to recent government announcements in the UK, a hypothetical roadmap has been rolled out, leading to the gradual reopening of the country, and a return to live music and events. With a few music festivals seizing this opportunity to sell tickets with hope in sight for the summer, Emery points out that one of the biggest issues for live events organisers is the matter of insurance.

Whenever we hear music, someone has put their blood, sweat and tears into it.

“Insurance is not really talked about very often; producing a live event is a gamble,” he says. “The producers and promoters hire a venue, a stage, a band or whatever it is. There's got to be enough people buying enough tickets to go to the gig where they can recoup the money that they've spent, and hopefully make a profit. So it's a gambling man's business. The issue we've got at the moment is that a lot of the insurance companies won't insure a production against a loss due to Covid.

"The reality is if you've got a product lined up to go on a stage and then you're thrown into another lockdown, or if a member of the band or a member of the cast gets Covid and then everybody has to self isolate and you have to cancel that gig, or if the tier changes in the UK – all of a sudden you can't do the gig.

"A lot of the insurance companies are saying they won't insure against that, which puts the producer or the promoter in a massively difficult financial position. There are lots of people who are going bankrupt because of the fear of this.

“Some countries, like Germany are doing an incredibly important thing, where the government is giving some sort of backstop,” he points out. “They're saying, ‘if this happens, then we will step in and do this from an insurance point of view’. To my knowledge that has not yet been offered by the British government. I think if they are able to do that, then I suspect that we'll see the live events industry pick up fairly quickly.

"I would hope to start seeing some live stuff in the summer, but I fear if they don't do something like that, then it's going to be the summer of 2022 before we see live events happening again. It's just too big a financial risk, and quite frankly, I don't blame them.”

Emery has not earned a single penny from anything music related since March of last year, but is aware that he is in a more fortunate position than others due to having “fingers in lots of pies”, which is exactly the reason he set up Get Musicians Working.

“As a conductor, I stand in front of an orchestra of maybe 90 people, and over the course of a year I might work with 3,000 musicians. I had a lot of people phoning me up at the start of the pandemic asking me if I had any work for them, and I didn't, of course. It highlighted to me that although I'm in a fortunate position financially, there are a lot of musicians who are not doing okay: 34% of musicians are considering abandoning their career for good because they can no longer afford to be a musician.

"It’s such a crazy thing to say that they can no longer afford to be a musician. There is definitely this public perception that musicians earn a fortune and that they live this life of luxury, which of course some do, but they're the exception to the rule.

A lot of the insurance companies won't insure a production against a loss due to Covid.

"Why Don’t You Just Get Another Job?"

“It's difficult enough in a normal environment to earn a decent living from being a pro musician, but now it’s the final nail in the coffin,” he continues. “I get a lot of people saying to me, ‘well, why don't you just go get another job?’

"It slightly amazes me when people say that because 47% of musicians have tried to get other work, but right now we're in a situation where this country has more unemployment and more job losses on a daily basis than there has ever been in the last decade.”

Emery states that jobs are “few and far between” for musicians to apply for. That coupled with a third of musicians not being able to be eligible for any financial support from the government has combined to form the perfect storm:

“They can't get any grants from the government, they've not been able to work, and they can't go and get a different job. It's meant that there's a proportion of professional musicians in the industry who are really, really fucked. I've got friends and colleagues who have lost their homes. I've got people who have lost their life savings and they've had to move back in with mum and dad. Those are the people who we are desperately trying to help with Get Musicians Working.”

To put it in perspective, in 2019 UK music generated an income of 5.8 billion compared to the fishing industry, which earned 446 million. Yet musicians have been the least supported in terms of government assistance.

“I was actually having a private conversation with a Member of Parliament a couple of days ago, and we were talking about this issue because this particular MP didn't like me comparing the fishing industry and how much time they'd spend in the Brexit conversation negotiating the fishing rights, versus how much time they spent negotiating the rights of musicians,” he shares.

“My simple analysis is: if the UK music industry is worth 5.8 billion pounds in 2019 – and incidentally, it was the fastest growing industry out of all of them in 2019 – and the fishing industry is worth around 446 million, that means music is over 10 times bigger than the industry. So surely they should spend 10 times longer negotiating the deal for musicians than they should do for fishing? In my personal, humble opinion, there is a severe lack of support for the arts and music from this government. I think they don't see it as an important industry.

“With car manufacturing, for instance, you're building something physical – you've got the product, you can sit in it, you can drive the thing, you can touch it, you can see it, you can then sell it on as a commodity for X number of pounds. Music and the arts in general is much more ethereal; you can't see it, you can't touch it, you can only feel it. It is not a product which you can make and therefore trade.

“Music is like an emotional medicine. It's something which is so important. I think we all need to remember that whenever we hear music, someone, somewhere has had to pay for that music to be created; someone has put their blood, sweat and tears into it. We should all try and remember that if we can when we are listening to music, watching TV and films, listening to the radio, or whatever it may be. I think that would help the conversation enormously if we can all remember that simple fact.”

What Get Musicians Working is doing is asking out of work musicians to share their talent another way: funding them to create valuable, motivational and essential online content aimed at the beginner musician.

The initiative aims to provide work to 75 creatives who will create 500 written articles and 75 videos, which will be hosted on Ted’s List.

“We're not there as an income replacement for musicians,” Emery clarifies. “We don't have zillions of pounds; we’re there to give small grants to musicians who are financially struggling, and probably struggling with their mental health as well. We want to keep the faith and to say that what you do is viable; it is an important job, and please keep doing it.”

Emery calls the scheme a “very simple circle of life”: the general public donates whatever they can afford, and all of that money goes directly to the musicians who have applied to receive a small grant.

“Now, you know as musicians, we're not lazy people. We are constantly grafting for our work and hustling around to try and get more work, so we don't want to just be given grants. The feedback we had from the people we were helping out originally is, ‘what can we do in return to say thank you?’”

This is where Emery’s five-year old son comes into the narrative. At the start of lockdown he asked his dad the difference between a violin and a viola. In attempting to show his young son the answer online, Emery found that he couldn’t find anything decent to show him, which led him to create Ted’s List.

“It's going to be the central resource worldwide for English-speaking territories for anybody who wants to know anything about a musical instrument,” he explains.

“Well, that's the grand aim anyway! The musicians we give grants to give their time, energy and their expertise, and they generate that content. We have got a fantastic article called, ‘what is the difference between a violin and a viola?’ That has been written by a violinist who took advantage of the scheme. We've got a drummer who was in dire need of financial support, so we gave him a small grant. In return he has created the most amazing article called ‘what is the best drum kit to buy my seven year old kid?’

"My hope is that this website will be there for years to come and that it will grow into this massive resource. If it inspires just one kid to become a professional musician then I consider my job done.”

Emery is as surprised as anyone that in the space of less than a year, his job has gone from waving his arms around in an orchestral venue, to getting on the phone and asking people for money, but he’s happy to do it:

“We will continue to do so as long as this pandemic is affecting musicians. We're going to fight for the musicians who are struggling and fight to get them the support that they deserve.”

Find out more about Get Musicians Working here.

In my personal, humble opinion, there is a severe lack of support for the arts and music from this government.