Labour Research July 2020


Can the show still go on?

Entertainment sector trade unions are warning of dire consequences for live entertainment in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

The UK festival season should have been well underway by now. Thousands of music lovers were due to enjoy the 50th Glastonbury festival at the end of last month and bands were looking forward to playing at events including Camp Bestival in Dorset and Creamfields in Merseyside this summer.

But the coronavirus crisis has cancelled festivals and closed down live music venues and theatres overnight, with dire consequences for performers, creators and crews.

“There was a fairly instant impact on a lot of theatre members,” president of the WGGB writers’ guild Lisa Holdsworth told Labour Research.

“Work supposed to go into theatres or on tour was cancelled overnight.”

The Bectu broadcasting and entertainment section of the Prospect union says workers providing audio-visual and technical skills, in lighting and rigging for stages for example, are often offered work a month in advance. They were expecting things to start in April as the festival season got going, where they earn a big part of their income. Instead it was cancelled.

And live performance is a “big earn” for members of the MU musicians’ union, according to its deputy general secretary Naomi Pohl: “Live is where they make 90% of their income.

”As well as seeing their livelihoods suddenly vanish, live entertainment looks set to be one of the last areas to be able get back to work, with organised gatherings of people likely to be prohibited for some time. The impact on the sector was not only instant, it will also be long-lasting and potentially devastating.

After Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre went into administration in May, Christine Payne, general secretary of the actors’ Equity union, wrote to chancellor Rishi Sunak.

She explained: “While it may be possible for some sections of the audiovisual industry to go back to work in the coming months, health and safety issues such as social distancing provide complex challenges to a sector where audiences are an integral part of the experience.

“We anticipate that the majority of theatres, pubs, comedy clubs and other live entertainment venues across the country will not start to open their doors until early next year — if indeed they manage to survive until then.”

Pohl told Labour Research: “West End theatres are saying even opening at Christmas looks over-optimistic and that March next year is more realistic.

“Social distancing is a huge issue in pubs and clubs, but even in really large music venues, how do you enforce it? With two-thirds of theatre seats empty, how do you make the finances work?”

The coronavirus crisis has cancelled international touring and, even when things do get going again, Pohl says musicians wanting to work in Europe will be facing the impact of Brexit. Things will be more difficult because they will need work permits, for example.

Holdsworth says that while WGGB members initially sought to “hunker down and weather the storm”, their mood has shifted to enormous fear and uncertainty as it begins to look like “the storm might wipe everything out”.

“It is still unclear for a lot of writers what will be picked up when we get back to some kind of normality,” she said.

And while live entertainment workers are among the hardest hit by COVID-19, they are also some of the least supported. Many have been unable to access financial help through either the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) or the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS — see page 19).

In response to this bleak picture, unions organising in the live entertainment sector are demanding the government take urgent action to deal with the immediate financial problems for workers in the sector and put in place long-term support to ensure the sector can survive.


Their immediate priority is to make the CJRS and SEISS fit for purpose. The Federation of Entertainment Unions, which brings together Bectu, Equity, MU, WGGB and the journalists’ NUJ union, is running a #nocreativeleftbehind social media campaign.

This encourages workers to take selfies and post them with their job title, and write to their MPs to highlight the breadth of the people whose jobs have been affected by the pandemic but are not getting support.

At the end of May, unions welcomed the extension of the SEISS to October (see page 19). But Bectu head Phillipa Childs says the measures “will not help many workers in the creative industries who have been largely ignored throughout this crisis”. She said the chancellor had failed to reassure them by saying there will be “no further changes or extensions” to the schemes. The union proposed a range of solutions to government to make sure no creative is left behind.

These include a new freelance worker income support scheme using HMRC PAYE data to calculate average earnings for people who declare as “PAYE freelancers” (see box below). This would cover anyone who cannot be furloughed by a current or previous employer.

It says start-ups should be allowed to submit 2019-20 returns and have their incomes assessed on this basis, and HMRC should use dividend vouchers and examine self-assessment tax returns to enable public service companies (see box below) to fairly claim compensation for the amount of dividend income from their own company.

Self-employed workers who have taken maternity, paternity or sick leave in the last three years should be allowed to choose the highest earning year, rather than the three-year average when calculating qualifying income, or exclude certain periods from the calculation; the government should raise the £50,000 annual profit cap so it only excludes the genuinely rich; and it should suspend the Universal Credit savings cap so people with savings of more than £6,000 are not penalised.

Childs added: “The changes to the CJRS will lead to mass redundancies in theatre, film and TV, as many employers won’t be prepared to contribute for someone who won’t work for them again in the near future or they simply can’t afford the contributions.

Freelancers losing out

The Bectu broadcasting section of the Prospect union says tens of thousands of creative freelancers are losing out on financial support because they are:

• newly self-employed;

• “PAYE freelancers” who were not working on 19 March. They are on fixed-term contracts and their tax and National Insurance deductions are automatically processed for them, usually because they have no choice in this, via employers and HMRC.;

• employed through personal service companies — often a condition of engagement rather than a decision by the freelancer — which are excluded from the SEISS;

• earning more than the £50,000 profit cap set out in the SEISS; or

• self-employed workers with a long period of time out of work recently.

Bectu surveys have found that 50% of those who do not meet the threshold for support under the SEISS are borrowing money through overdrafts, loans and credit card debt.

A survey by the MU musicians’ union found that two in five (38%) of its members were falling short of the criteria required for the government’s assistance schemes.

Of those who do qualify, a quarter (26%) said they would still struggle to survive financially in the interim period before they receive payments.

More than three-quarters (77%) of West End musicians told the union they will be in financial hardship by September when, potentially, they will be looking at another seven months without work. The MU and other industry bodies have set up hardship funds which had received around 20,000 unique applications by the end of May.

Writers’ guild WGGB president Lisa Holdsworth says 67% of creatives are falling through the gaps.

“Writers’ income is very up and down and unpredictable,” she told Labour Research. “Some have had a great year, so it looks like they are earning too much [to qualify for support], but they barely make any money at all some years.

“The one-size-fits-all support was welcome at the start, but now the government needs to make it fit for purpose.”

The WGGB writers’ guild provided evidence to the Treasury to explain the barriers for people “who are perfectly deserving of help” but are giving up because of the “labyrinthine” application process, she added.


”In May, the MU joined forces with the Ivors Academy of Music Creators, which represents UK songwriters and composers, to launch a campaign to Keep Music Alive, starting with a petition to #FixStreaming. This calls for a government review of streaming revenues.

“The crisis has seen the live sector fall away and royalties from recorded music is musicians’ only income stream,” Pohl told Labour Research.

“It’s clear that the vast majority of creators and performers don’t receive their fair share of royalties.” She said that labels get a large share but don’t pay out fairly to many artists.

“If you are a new artist, currently recording with a new deal, you may get 50-50. But if you are an artist who was playing and was big in the 1990s, and no longer recording, you are more likely to be getting 10% if you are lucky.”

Songwriters and their publishers currently share around 13% of the overall pot, but the MU says this should be more like 25%. Some artists, who signed a deal 30 or 40 years ago prior to streaming, are completely “unrecouped” and get nothing.

In the longer term, Pohl said, the government needs to step up with a lot more subsidy. “Small grassroots venues will struggle to open.

“These small spaces are precarious businesses at the best of times, and they don’t get any subsidy. If they can only operate at one-third capacity, they need two-thirds subsidy.

“We don’t want to see the sector shrink and disappear. We want to see people continue to have the opportunity to have a career in music in the future.”

The union has put forward a number of ideas for restarting and supporting live music. This includes suspending VAT on tickets for live events, which would effectively be a 20% subsidy (see box top of page 10). The response from the government has not been hopeful so far, she reported. It is keen to have proposals for practical, rather than financial, support.

Council of Music Makers’ post-lockdown priorities

The MU musician’s union is a member of the Council of Music Makers which acts as a “voice for all UK music creators and performers”.

Its recommendations for government support for the industry include:

• a VAT holiday on event tickets for 18 months to act as a stimulus for the live sector, injecting a boost of 20% of sales value into the supply chain to venues, promoters, agents, artists, crew and managers;

• protection from eviction from commercial premises beyond July 2020;

• increased investment into Arts Council England, Arts Council of Wales and Creative Scotland to enable them to make further funds available to creators and businesses across the arts sector, including commercial music;

• delaying the implementation of Brexit, which “poses a significant threat to the recovery of the music industry”; and

• repurposing the Music Export Growth Scheme government funding into a digital export fund. This would help artists continue to build audiences overseas without the ability to tour over the rest of the year.

Ensuring future of creative industries

But unions say the lack of priority for the sector is ignoring the huge impact it has on other parts of the economy, not least those also struggling, like tourism and hospitality.

Holdsworth emphasised that for every £1 of funding the arts gets, £5 goes back into the economy. Pohl said that live entertainment has benefits for the mental health of the public.

Calling for an income guarantee for the self-employed and freelance workers to be at the heart of a recovery plan for the creative industries, Payne pointed out the sector contributes £111 billion to the economy.

The WGGB has prioritised safeguarding livelihoods sidelined by the pandemic, and health and safety as some people begin to return to work. It is also keeping an eye on equality and diversity.

“In financial extremis, organisations make safe choices,” Holdsworth told Labour Research. “When it comes to going back, we will be making sure we continue to make gains and they are not just thrown on the COVID-19 bonfire. It can’t be just straight white men.”

The third wave of union action will be making sure there is still an industry.

“In the middle of a pandemic, theatre is not a priority. But coming out of it we will need culture and safe spaces to discuss what’s happened, and theatre and performance will be a big part of that once test and trace is in place,” Holdsworth added. “It’s important not to create a cultural desert.”

She believes smaller and regional venues will feel the pinch more than large, London venues, and will need particular support.

There is, she said, a need to make sure “the ecosystem that feeds the big beasts, regional and fringe theatres, doesn’t just wither and die. If writers, actors and musicians don’t have somewhere to start in their home town — opportunities there are so important and it will be so utterly damaging if smaller venues to go the wall — there will be an existential threat to the industry.”

Holdsworth pointed out: “It’s not just Benedict Cumberbatch standing on stage. It’s the popcorn sellers, the taxi drivers. They are such an integral part of the economy and the knock-on effect is unconscionable if we let creative industries die.

“It’s not just a load of luvvies saying ‘please save our theatre’. This is one area we really are ‘all in it together’. It’s an important part of British life — let’s make sure we don’t lose it.”

Oxford Economics, The projected economic impact of COVID-19 on the UK creative industries (

Council of Music Makers, Music sector: post lockdown priorities and stimulus package (,%202020.pdf)

Prospect, Bectu takes practical solutions to Treasury to plug gaps in freelance income support (

Equity, Lobbying Government (