COVID-19 and the Brixton music scene

Music editor Dave Randall on how the pandemic is affecting music and society in Brixton and our wider community and why, when the virus has gone, we will need to fight for a better society

closed sign outside Effra Hall TavernJust two months ago I wrote in the pages of the Brixton Bugle that music is the lifeblood of our unique area. A global pandemic has now stymied its flow. The immediate consequences are deeply concerning to many musicians, promoters, venue owners and staff who face catastrophic losses to their income.

On Monday 23 March the Musicians’ Union reported that musicians across the UK have so far lost more than £14 million in earnings with job opportunities down 69% on this time last year.

By the time you read these words those figures are certain to have worsened. Most of us, this columnist included, are self-employed and the government has so far failed to offer us any economic support.

Currently the advice is simply to apply for universal credit. At the very least we should all back Musicians’ Union calls for the government to:

  • Implement a Universal Basic Income of £400 per week for the self-employed (which equates to the living wage) OR, as in Norway, pay them 80% of their average income over the past three years
  • Announce statutory sick pay that is really for all, from day-one of self-isolation
  • Give easier access to benefits and an application process that recognises how freelancers pay their taxes.

The MU has also opened a £1m fund for members “with genuine and pressing hardship as a result of the coronavirus”. Details can be found on the union’s website.

Another useful source of advice for musicians is the website Corona Advice for Musicians.

Meanwhile the Music Venue Trust (MVT) also provides information for Grassroots Music Venues.

Exterior of Windmill pub

In our wonderful neighbourhood, there will be many community-initiated acts of kindness and solidarity. So far they include the launching of a crowdfunding appeal for the much loved Brixton venue The Windmill. The text of the appeal states:

“ All [live music venues] need desperate help, but orchestrating a campaign broad enough to assist all of them is beyond our resources. However, we can start with those close to us. This is a fundraiser to get some cash over to The Windmill in Brixton. It’s the scuzzy beating heart of London’s independent music scene, and we can’t lose it. Chuck the pint and ticket money you’d be pouring into it in a healthier timeline here, and we can help keep the mill afloat.”

Make a donation here

As well as doing everything we can to support our local musical eco-system in the short term, we must also contemplate the possible long term consequences of these dystopian times.

Nothing can be predicted with any degree of certainly, but some general themes are worth stating.

When a crisis as profound as this hits, the world is changed forever. There are many important lessons that can and should be learned.

First and foremost, we must remember who the key workers in society really are.

Never again should we allow healthcare workers, cleaners, porters, refuse collectors, transport workers, teachers, retail workers and others to be devalued in a market-driven society.

Never again can we allow the NHS and other vital public services to be run into the ground.

Culture, too, is integral to the healthy functioning of society. In the coming weeks we will have to experience it in isolation – a daunting prospect precisely because of our inherent desire to come together.

The people and places that facilitate that communion in better times should also be valued more highly.

But let’s not be under any illusion. Some people will try to exploit this crisis to further expand their own personal wealth.

There will, for example, be plenty of property speculators who would only be too pleased to seize some real estate from its beleaguered occupants in our part of the world.

We must be creative and determined in our efforts to ensure that none of Brixton’s independent venues fall prey to such “disaster capitalists”, as Canadian writer Naomi Klein memorably described them.

We must fight to ensure that when these times pass, the world we emerge into is better, not worse, than the one we have left behind.

Dave Randall is a musician and author of Sound System: The Political Power of Music.