Bread, Circuses, the Government, and Music

Laurie Wilcockson 8 May 2021
Image credit: Creative Commons

When the ancient poet Juvenal coined the phrase bread and circuses nearly two thousand years ago, he was talking about gladiator fights and the Roman corn dole. What Juvenal was referring to is the fact that largely communities only ever need two things to be content with the way things are – enough food to survive, and enough entertainment to distract. This is a maxim that cynics have brought out to describe governments throughout history, but now more than ever, it appears the driving philosophy of our Prime Minister.

I bring this up because recently, Alex Rice, lead singer of Sports Team, wrote an article for the Independent recently discussing the European Super League, and how the Government’s immediate and vicious response betrayed their apathy towards other similar industries – specifically that of live music. His logic was, if the Government can come out in a matter of hours and swear that they will tear the controversial new league down, then they can just as easily come out and promise an insurance bailout for festivals and music tours.

Boris Johnson has serially been accused of waiting to feel the mood of the electorate, before then pretending that he had been leading the charge the entire time, and this is exactly what appears to have happened with the Super League fiasco, with accusations alleging that Johnson had met Manchester United chief Ed Woodward prior to its announcement and signalled his support for it. However, when these issues affect people from backgrounds that would never vote for him or his party anyway, such as young people, he simply sits back and pretends that there isn’t an issue.

This serial neglect of young people and young-people-dominated industries is a recurring problem with our present government, and a defining aspect of the Johnson premiership. Cancelled exams and a mutant algorithm, voted-down free school meals, pay cuts for nurses, universities left unmentioned in the lockdown-easing until Stage 3, cuts for arts funding, even several (albeit failed) attempts to end furlough. The trend appears to be that when there is an issue involving young people, or nurses, or teachers, the government’s reaction is to mitigate the political consequences by underplaying the problem or making small and often trivial concessions, while changing as little as possible.

Music, as a result of this trend, ranks alongside universities, council housing, nurses, teaching, and feeding children in the list of issues the government has ignored. Live music and festivals belong to a young person’s world, and as a result there appears to be no rush to get it back on its feet, despite its contribution to jobs nationally, as well as adding significantly to the national income and being one of the few industries the UK is genuinely world leading in. It would not even require significant funding, only insurance guarantees for ticket cancellations or venue hire.

Considering we are, by the government’s own admission, not going to go into another lockdown (this current easing being, as it were, “irreversible”), this would ultimately make such a guarantee nothing more than a demonstration of goodwill for an optimistic Conservative government. This has been seriously problematic for festivals and is the root cause of the cancellation of Glastonbury and Boomtown, to name only the biggest two. Back in January, parliament’s Culture Select Committee was told that for smaller festivals, Covid cancellation insurance and an extension of the VAT cut on live music tickets were necessary for keeping afloat in such difficult time. More recently, the Association of Independent Festivals issued a “red alert” warning to festivals, predicting as many as 76% of July and August festivals would fail without insurance.

This is not the only failure the Government has shown in with regards to music. Indeed, this week it was announced that Gavin Williamson plans to cut government funding for arts courses nearly in half, due to them not being amongst their “strategic priorities.” Jarvis Cocker in particular has been critical of the plans, telling the Guardian that “It always seems to be that it’s art education that seems to be this expendable thing, as if it’s not important, and it is.”

These latest cuts raise questions as to how places of higher education, in both universities and specialised schools, will be in a position to offer as high a value of teaching. It has also been discussed that because the arts are so specialist and require significant amounts of equipment, if a school or university cannot afford it, the expenses must fall upon the students, alienating those unable to cope with the financial burden.

Where, then, does this leave musicians? For the past year struggling bands have relied predominantly on record sales, funding through labels, and merchandise, with up-and-coming independent bands pressured to release new music as their only means of fresh income, and while this has been beneficial for some (the Snuts and Vistas come to mind) it has been detrimental to a great wealth of less successful artists and puts increased pressure on musicians to either work to make money or to give up.

All this being said, there has been promise in the latest Liverpool trials, where non-socially distanced, non-mask wearing gig-goers were lucky enough to experience the first trial festival, boding well for the summer. This marks the beginning of a final return of nightclubs and gigs, an industry that has seen over half of all nightclub workers made redundant (according to an All-Party Parliamentary Group February report.) The effect of this return on cases, R numbers and business is impossible to predict, and it is always a risk that this will cause such an increase that the science directs the country into another lockdown.

If this happens, it will have perhaps the most significant impact on small hospitality business and venues of all of the lockdowns thus far and would likely spell the end for the majority of surviving independent clubs and bars. However, with the success of the vaccine rollout, as well as the reduction in cases, one can only hope that once everything has re-opened, especially beyond June 21st, Britain will see a revival of an eager, excited musicians desperate to return to stages and festivals across the country, even in the face of a government that did nothing to protect them.