TAITMAIL Where the art leads us, and we lead the art

ENO are accusing the Arts Council of making a “howling mistake” in its three-year investment announcement, the one that reduced the opera company’s subsidy to nought unless they agree to go to Manchester - which may not want them even if they did, no-one has asked Manchester. Elsewhere the act has been described as “shocking”, “devastating” and “cultural vandalism”.

The real howling mistake, though, was not so much how ACE dealt with ENO as the fact that the howler completely overshadowed whatever else there was for music in the national portfolio plans for 2023-26, some of which was interesting if, almost by the ACE chairman’s own admission, driven by the government’s spurious levelling up dogma.

The ENO row also deflects from a much more important effect of the series of catastrophes that have befallen our musicians and their support in the last three years, highlighted in a new report this week from the charity Help Musicians.

Successfully making music is probably the finest achievement one can aspire to, and it happens that in the global reckoning that our politicians love to measure the UK against (as long as we’ve got a decent rating) our musicians are the best, and especially popular in Europe.

But our music is being strangled by a combination of Covid, Brexit and now recession. The Help Musicians figures show that almost all, 98%, of our 37,000 or so musicians - who have lost 35% of their work this year - doubt that they can survive the winter in their profession. Think about it – nearly all our musicians fear they won’t be able to make music anymore.

Evelyn Glennie is the president of Help Musicians (which has just announced a new £8m aid package). She is depressed, she says, by the growing reports of musicians being forced to change career, arts organisations shutting down, community orchestras and choirs folding. “It takes a great deal of physical and mental energy to function and sustain a career in music” she says. “The current challenges are unprecedented which is resulting in a catastrophic avalanche of stress, disillusionment, lost talent and shortened careers”.

The government shows indifference, while the Arts Council knows the situation but is stymied by government policy fashioned by successive culture warriors at DCMS that insists that the future of the performing arts is in car parks and pubs. The urge is for artists to change what they do if they can’t manage, and if that means abandoning their art so be it.

Samana are a multi-instrumental duo, Rebecca Harris and Franklin Mockett (pictured here), with huge ambition and a growing reputation who are determined to change how they make music in order to be able to continue to make music. In the absence if the kind of substantive state assistance European artists enjoy, they have taken their fate into their own hands.

Before the pandemic they bought a near derelict house in the remote Carmarthenshire countryside to restore and turn into a cultural hub, a home and recording studio. They built a rustic hut to live in while the project progressed but now, their savings all but depleted, they’re having to turn the hut into a b&b earner while the hub waits for better economic weather. Harris has become trained as a film-maker and they are supplementing their income by making promo videos for other bands.

Their genre is described as psychedelic folk, art-rock and alternative indie and they have just released a new record, Two Wrongs, on their own label, Road Records, created so that they don’t have to be squeezed by a retracting label and agent system. They have been championed by BBC 6 Music’s Guy Garvey as his favourite artist of the year, Clash Magazine described them as “incredible songwriters” and Mojo Magazine chose Samana’s second album, All One Breath, as one of the best of 2022.

Harris, 29, and Mockett, 31, are partners as well as a duo who launched themselves as Samana in 2017. Samana is Sanskrit for “living in tune with nature”. They built their reputation in Europe, touring from town to town, often only one step up from busking. Their European jaunts gave them an income that helped pay for performing in the UK. Samana has grown to be the nucleus of the larger session band, and their new record involves seven players. But they cannot perform their work live because the small 50-250 seat venues they appear at will pay a fee of £150; Musicians’ Union rates for the musicians they need to hire is £139 each (“quite right” says Harris). Covid closed venues, and more than once since then bookings have been cancelled because the venues have gone into liquidation. Brexit took away vital European earning, and the cost of living is taking an increasing toll on both the physical and mental health of all professional musicians, Harris says.

They’ve had temporary help from the Welsh government in terms of universal credit, and grants from Help Musicians have ensured performances from time to time.

“There’s an increasing squeeze on artists” Mockett says “and there’s this weird allocation of resources that’s just starving the very heart of where music and the art is coming from.”

Samana have a dozen years’ music experience, he says, which has allowed them to build a network of contacts and support as well as know-how, “but for an 18-year-old starting on a career it’s really scary. There’s no chance with Europe closed and touring here sparse. It’s so sad”. Many friends, Harris adds, have had to turn their backs on music.

European countries value their artists much more with comprehensive support systems. Mockett and Harris have done everything they have been asked to by diversifying, finding ways of supplementing their dwindling income, going to the grassroots to increase their audience, but as freelancers they have fallen through the gaps in the funding system and their future in the UK is in the balance. “If you value something in culture, I don’t see how you can suffocate it” he says. They may decamp to Europe where the grass is less parched.

But they will not cease making music, Harris insists. “It would be really lovely to just be able to focus solely on creating, and that's what we're trying to do with self-releasing our record. With all the stress of survival, it’s still exciting see where the art will lead us, and where we can lead the art” she says.

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