Singing When Times Darken

Art has always flourished against the odds—but it shouldn't have to. Gaps in Government support for working class artists present an opportunity to rethink culture from new principles.

17 min read

The work musicians make is simultaneously in the background and in the foreground of our daily lives. It exists both as something people work at doing, and as something we enjoy as listeners, as audience members; alone and together. Music is arguably the most immediate and social of the arts in that it can make people dance, transcend cultural and linguistic differences, and create moments of Dionysian collective joy and togetherness. It can also be a communication tool between human and non-human creatures. It is, within itself, a radical and amorphous sonic force—and, like all the arts, is something that can be made and experienced by anyone.

The same can be said for the broader culture from which music emerges, which seems to disappear into the broader fabric of our daily lives in way reminiscent of the anarchist art critic Herbert Read’s reflections on ancient Greece, whose inhabitants apparently

…had no word for culture… it would never have occurred to them that they had a separate commodity, culture—something to be given a trade-mark by their academicians, something to be acquired by superior people with sufficient time and money, something to be exported to foreign countries along with figs and olives. It wasn’t even an invisible export: it was something natural if it existed at all—something of which they were unconscious, something as instinctive as their language or the complexion of their skins. It could not even be described as a by-product of their way of life: it was that way of life itself.1

Read’s proclamation offers a strong basis for understanding how culture can exist as an unspoken, often unrecognised process that occurs between people and communities. But there is a tension between between Read’s rather romantic view of culture, and culture’s actual, coercive role within capital. Under capitalism, culture has become, over time, abstracted as ‘value’. This analysis seems particularly pertinent when we think of music. This opposition—between music as something in which we participate almost without thinking, as part of our daily lives, and music as commodity, with its ability to siphon value and generate capital—has laid bare the fertile ground for exploitation. Music itself has always been abundant and everywhere; industrialisation, globalisation and most recently, the internet have further broadened its reach. As countless aural expressions are mined and morphed by capital, many bodies, traditions, and communities are exploited in the process.

The Conservative government’s arts ideology embraces this contradiction to its fullest capacity. With its reliance on working class and marginalised people—their culture, their communities, their cheap or unpaid labour—the UK has been able to establish its world-renowned music industry. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government has launched a twofold attack on musicians. Firstly, they have severely limited the support available to self-employed workers (which many musicians are), at a time when live performance work has run dry. At the same time, Rishi Sunak appeared on ITV News, making comments that were widely interpreted as suggesting that struggling musicians should re-train for different careers.

These joint attacks make plain the precarious position into which musicians have been forced, while also reinforcing the stratified “creative class” system that has resulted from decades of austerity, arts cuts, technocratic arts education, and lack of intervention in the music industry’s exploitative mechanisms. While this approach might appear specific to the COVID-19 pandemic—an emergency response to an emergency situation—it is in fact entirely congruent with Conservative ideology and the ways in which the Conservative party understands culture.

This patrician and exploitative approach to the arts in the UK dates back to at least the Renaissance. Chamber musicians were typically paid in room and board, while patronage models upheld the production of only those cultural forms that were favoured by the ruling classes. While court music—and later, opera—would prove the most useful to creating a prestigious and stately national-imperial culture, the wealthy were—much like today—not above dipping into less august cultural forms. Taking his inspiration from various contemporary folk music traditions of the times, the inventor of the ‘divine right of kings’, Henry VIII himself, engaged in his own musical endeavours. ‘Pastime with Good Company’, perhaps his most famous composition, was written when he was 18, and remains popular to this day. While Henry’s music was widely praised (further solidifying his position in the process), the countless, anonymous musicians and composers who inspired the work were never remunerated or recognised. Musicians who were not lucky enough to be kings were also far less likely to have their work notated or archived. We know what kings and queens were listening to, but we have very little idea what the everyday soundscapes of peasant life may have been.

Jump forward to the 20th century, and the same approach to the arts remained, but in a different guise. During the Second World War, in an attempt to build confidence among the downtrodden workforce, the Government proclaimed an interest in freedom, democracy, and ‘the common man. Two separate arts institutions were formed: The Entertainments National Services Association (ENSA), established to boost the morale of army and factory workers, and the Council for the Encouragement of Music (CEMA), which nurtured what are still considered the ‘high arts’ (classical music, opera, and theatre). It’s important to note that these organisations were not established in a gesture of generosity. As the working classes looked to the Soviet Union, where new and democratic forms of art were flourishing, the British state had a clear interest in making people feel like capitalism could satisfy their cultural needs.

We know what kings and queens were listening to, but we have very little idea what the everyday soundscapes of peasant life may have been.

After the war, with the advent of social democracy in the form of Attlee government, the ground was laid for much of today’s cultural ecology. The Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB) was established. The Royal Festival Hall was constructed, forming the locus for the optimistic, forward-looking Festival of Britain. While these institutions have been essential to the facilitation and proliferation of arts and culture in the UK, as state agencies, they are ultimately subject to the whims of successive Governments, who have drastically reduced their budgets whilst simultaneously utilising them to further British imperial values. Moreover, despite the ACGB’s democratic remit, its first chairman—the economist John Maynard Keynes—scrapped ENSA, with its roots in the music hall tradition and the arts as a social entertainment, but continued to fund the ‘high art’ activities promoted by CEMA.

As much as cultural institutions and the likes of the BBC have contributed to the success of Britain’s popular music culture, much of our pop canon relies upon the extraction of musical ideas and aesthetics from marginalised communities and colonised peoples. Britain’s most successful group, The Beatles, are the obvious example here. Would the Beatles have been possible without rhythm & blues and rock ’n’ roll, created by and rooted in 1940s African American communities? Can we imagine ‘I Saw Her Standing There’—with its riotous backbeat and raspy ecstatic hollers—without the influence of Little Richard’s flamboyant and incendiary rock n roll? Can we imagine ‘Love You To’—released just 23 years after the Bengal famine and less than 20 years since the end of the British Raj—without the influence of Hindustani classical music? George Harrison adopted the music’s Dorian mode scale system and emulated the khyal vocal tradition, appropriating and combining these elements to form a distinctly oneiric and exotic love song. Later, on Sgt. Pepper’s ‘Within You, Without You’, Harrison collaborated again with the musicians of London’s Asian Music Circle—none of whom were credited on the album when it was released. Processes of influence and exchange are one way in which music develops and evolves over time—but like the success of any booming business, the success of these cultural outputs should not be viewed—or celebrated—in a vacuum. Over the course of history, and specific to the UK and other colonial nations, marginalised and working class musicians, and their cultures, have been put to work for the greater benefit of white and middle/upper-class artists and some nominal ‘national culture’.

Moving into the late 1960s and early 1970s, we find the emergence of reggae: a predominately Black working class youth culture, which flourished against all odds against the stifling realities of racial intolerance and police violence. With their own home-made sound systems, reggae artists brought people together in communal reverie to dance, eat and drink, in venues and on streets. It was an almost entirely self-created and self-sustaining social sound: music as life, community and sonic empowerment. Despite Radio 1 ‘deejay’ Tony Blackburn’s acerbic proclamation that they were all “rubbish”, the scene birthed a series of hit singles by Black artists—along with the predictable parade of white UK artists, who used this music as a basis for their own embarrassing spin-offs.

Reggae was both a music and a culture, with sociality at its heart. As such, it contributed to the cross-pollination of white and Black youth cultures. Reggae DJs would often play inbetween the bands at punk gigs; young punks in London would attend Misty in Roots gigs and People Unite events. Over time, the two cultures would merge in solidarity to form the Rock Against Racism movement. Though the period brought financial success to some Black groups and individual musicians, it is easy to see who the biggest beneficiaries were.

With their own home-made sound systems, reggae artists brought people together in communal reverie to dance, eat and drink, in venues and on streets. Music as life, community and sonic empowerment.

The Clash, a group who were immersed in the culture around the Rock Against Racism movement, developed their sound by assimilating rhythmic and aesthetic cues from reggae and dub. Their 1981 single ‘This Is Radio Clash’ combines dub’s splashing snares and zapping synths with reggae’s rhythmic guitar work with the Black American sounds of hip hop, electro, and funk. ‘Ghetto Defendant’, taken from 1982’s double-platinum album Combat Rock, is haunted by Augustus Pablo’s floating, wispy melodica. Forming shortly after the Clash, The Police took similar cues, absorbing elements of reggae and jazz into their chart-topping new wave pop sound. ‘Roxanne’, one of their biggest hits, is underpinned by a roots reggae beat and carried by Sting’s unmistakably English vocals delivering an attempt at Jamaican patois. The better connected, better supported, and more socially mobile white artists were always preferred—by the state, by audiences, and by the music press. Both the Clash and the Police featured in Rolling Stone’s ‘100 Greatest Artists of All Time’ in 2010. Not a single UK reggae or dub artist made the cut.

In the UK, Black, urban and working class musics, such as jungle, grime and bashment, have had to develop their own cultures and ecosystems from scratch. Deprived of the supportive apparatuses of the state and music industry, the cultures nevertheless came to life; networks of pirate radio stations, artist-run labels and club nights, self-distribution systems, and platforms such as Snapchat have created a closely intertwined and mutually supportive relationship between artists, DJs, and audiences.

Like reggae and dub before them, these cultures have been created and maintained against all odds, and against considerable policing and opposition. The UK government has acknowledged how powerful these communities were in building both worker and cultural solidarity, particularly for marginalised communities Much as Taylorist ideology ensures that workers have no opportunities to communicate, hang out, and build collective strength on the factory floor, the government has attempted to enforce the dissolution of cultures and the atomisation of bodies through targeted policing, urban planning, and gentrification processes.

The treatment of grime and, more recently, drill artists is inextricable from the Government’s enclosure of public spaces, racist social coercion schemes, and promotion of unaffordable private housing developments. In a process as cynical as it is classist and racist, the state extracts the cultural value required to make urban areas initially attractive to investors, then cleanses the undesirables and the undeserving, along with their value-creating creative and cultural spaces. In their place are ushered in a quieter, wealthier, more compliant middle class.

The treatment of grime & drill artists is inextricable from the enclosure of public spaces, racist social coercion schemes, and unaffordable private housing developments.

Between 2005 and 2017, as grime was hitting its creative peak, the Met Police instituted Form 696: a ‘risk assessment’ form that promoters had to fill in 14 days before an event. Information requested by the police included the style of music to be performed, full personal details of all performers, and the ‘target audience’ for the event—including (until the form’s revision in 2008) their racial identity. Failure to disclose this information—and, in many cases, the information itself—empowered the police to forcibly cancel or shut down the event. This hostile environment was clearly intended to stifle the cultural and social expression of Black youth in London. Of course, some grime musicians, such as Stormzy, have emerged triumphant to achieve major success—but only after years of uphill struggle in the face of structural racism. Countless other voices from Black youth culture remain unvalued, unheard, or literally censored.

Voices from Black youth culture remain unvalued, unheard, or literally censored

With the advent of the 21st century and major changes in the music industry, new terminology emerged to loosely describe the movement of the post-Fordist proletariat and cultural workers towards employment precarity. The terms ‘precariat’ and ‘creative-entrepreneur’ surfaced in tandem with the reduction of salaried employment and shrinking industrial employment, as well as expansion of creative industries, the world wide web and proliferating cultural production.

It goes like this: instead of engaging in full-time work, workers embrace a mixture of zero-hour contracts and casual work, often mixing paid and unpaid arts and culture jobs with other bits and pieces, including teaching and service industry work. While part of the ideology of the precariat has its roots in Italian autonomous Marxism, its affective & subjective dimensions are easily mined and controlled by capital. Notions such as ‘a labour of love’ and ‘passion’ are a breeding ground for exploitative industry practices: long hours, the blurred lines between labour and free time, and un- or under-paid work that people are expected to do ‘because they love it’.

In many ways, both the ‘precariat’ and ‘creative-entrepreneur’ were the state’s ideal workers: individualised (and therefore unable to organise against poor conditions), their creative capacities added value to the UK’s self-image as a cultural world power, as well as representing the ‘values’ of ‘social cohesion’ by fitting in alongside urban regeneration planning and social cleansing, and continuing to devalue any sort of work or creativity that exists outside the wage relation. As feminist academic Laura Fantone argues, the imaginary subject of a “single, male, urban artist or creative worker, idealised as the vanguard of the precariat,” is often posited in opposition to the sexist image of the uncreative and ‘backwards’ suburban housewife.2

Whereas the musicians of early 20th century Britain could build collective worker and union power in the music halls and theatres that formed the sites of their labour, a hundred years later, it is more difficult for those classified as ‘sole traders’ to organise under the omnipresent conditions of deregulation, individualisation, and intense competition for jobs that are poorly compensated—if they are compensated at all. While the notion of the precariat can be useful for understanding—and organising against—these conditions and their impacts, without careful consideration, it risks ignoring the real class differentiations within the ‘precariat’ umbrella.

At the time of writing, the Government’s COVID-19 support provides eligible self-employed workers with 20% of their average trading profits, capped at £1,875 per month. This has, of course, solidified the ongoing class stratification of arts workers. While cultural work has dried up, so has the availability of the so-called ‘fallback’ jobs in the service and hospitality industries. Countless academics have lost work, or had their already-exploitative contracts reduced to zero-hours. Moreover, many working class self-employed people do not earn enough to for the Government’s support system to be of any use. So-called ‘fallback jobs’ can be essential for many precarious workers, but the terminology runs the risk of stigmatising service industry jobs, which are far more than ‘fallbacks’ for many people—all of whom are likely to be suffering just as much (if not more) in the current conditions.

Similarly, given the ever-increasing cost of tuition fees, the oppressive workplace culture, the historic normalisation of unpaid labour, and various other structural barriers to access, working-class people are often frozen (or pushed) out of academic careers. While middle-class cultural workers are undoubtedly suffering, a sensitive and thorough class analysis is needed. Without such an analysis, there is a danger that the struggles of middle-class workers who find themselves facing down job losses and income reductions might obscure the historic and ongoing oppression of working class, racialised, and disabled people.

Sunak’s propositions, coupled with the government’s austerity measures, limit the expression of those who make music and other art in their leisure time too. While the Arts Council’s Cultural Recovery Fund has kept wind in the sails of some music venues, it has proved inadequate to the scale of the problem, with almost a third of applicants being rejected. As early as April, 42% of creative business had lost all their income, forcing many to close. Along with these permanent closures, various rehearsal spaces and recording studios, as well as the social spaces where artists tend to meet, have been forced into temporary shutdowns. Culture and art need not just facilities and resources, but physical space and time to come into being. Similarly, basic material needs such as food, housing and education are essential to not only the direct production, but the very existence of any cultural expression.

In many ways, Sunak’s proposals are an ideological attack, intended to subordinate all arts and cultural activity to the profit principle. Rather than investing in artistic communities, in the support of cultural workers, in collaboration, and in planting the seeds of a more creative (and happier) society, the Government relies instead on the hope that the invisible hand will guide culture into its own self-regarding and entrepreneurial cycles of creation, innovation, and recycling. With the proliferation of malignant border controls, the promise of an Australian points-based system post-Brexit, and worsening austerity measures, the Government’s aim is further social stratification, and the creation of a neocolonial ethnostate. It has never been closer to succeeding in its idea of cultural hegemony: that of a fortified, class-driven, racist mini-empire.

Sunak’s proposals are an ideological attack, intended to subordinate all arts and cultural activity to the profit principle.

On top of all this, the internet has contributed to the drive of all musical expression towards commodification. While it has proven vital in those processes of exchange and influence—particularly in the sharing of music between countries previously unreached or ignored by Western distribution networks—the internet also pushes artistic expression into a ubiquitous and largely exploitative marketplace.

Spotify, with its infamously terrible remuneration system, has amassed swathes of recorded musical history, turning manifold forms of cultural productions into streamed commodities, interspersed with adverts (unless you’re a Premium subscriber) and ripe for exploitation. The company have monetised the fact that music is part of our daily lives, capitalising on its ephemerality and our listening habits with playlist-driven oligarchy. As Liz Pelly argues:

Its value—what makes it addictive for listeners, a necessity for artists, and a worthwhile investment for venture capitalists—lies in its algorithmic music discovery “products” and its ability to make the entire music industry conform to the new standards it sets. This means one thing: playlists are king, and particularly the ones curated by Spotify itself. An unprecedented amount of data (“skip rates” and “completion rates” determine whether a song survives) and “human-machine technology” are deployed to quantify your tastes.

Spotify’s success is symptomatic of a trend towards the centralisation of media platforms and their takeover of our leisure time, consumption habits, and data. Similar to the ways in which musicians are exploited in their sharing of recorded material, the possibilities for collaborative performance are also limited by the pandemic and the shift to live-streaming. Performances and meetings on Zoom have become notorious for hacking and data mining, while streaming site Twitch is owned by the perpetually exploitative Amazon. In ‘normal’ times, musicians can organise their own live concerts and set their own fiscal and creative parameters without third-party intrusion. It’s significantly more difficult to organise autonomous, COVID-safe livestreams without significant technical know-how, particular equipment, and reliable internet access.

Spotify have monetised the fact that music is part of our daily lives, capitalising on its ephemerality and our listening habits

Platform despotism aside, there have been some positives. Bandcamp Fridays, a monthly event in which the streaming/download platform waives all its processing fees, meaning that artists earn 100% from all sales that are made on that day. Online streaming co-operative schemes have emerged too, as well as crowdsourcing and fundraising systems inspired by mutual aid initiatives. Outwith the efforts of individuals and communities, the Musicians Union and Music Venues Trust have worked tirelessly since the start of pandemic to sustain musical expression and the creative spaces which make that expression possible. Following a campaign spearheaded by the MU and fronted by Tom Gray of the band Gomez, MPs are now even investigating whether artists are fairly for streaming.

But despite these initiatives—some radical, some liberal—musicians are unavoidably caught in a pincer movement. Game shows like Britain’s Got Talent increasingly read as allegories for the working conditions of musicians. Artists are pitted against one another in an embarrassing charade, competing for exposure, merit, fame, or simply for work. The more educated, supported, or bankrolled you are, the higher your chances of success. Working class or racialised musicians can succeed, too, but they will need to transcend their social position, exhaust themselves through overwork, make countless sacrifices, and probably still need a hefty stroke of luck in order to achieve their goals. Even then, their narratives of struggle and hardship against all odds are framed as their inherent virtue: ironically, they’re praised for overcoming hardship, even when that overcoming is the main thing people talk about. In being used as advertisements for the value of ‘individual hard work’, their actual work, and their actual lives, are obscured.

Bertolt Brecht once wrote:

When the times darken
will there be singing even then?
There will be singing even then.
Of how the times darken.
Translated by Edwin Morgan

And he is right. But instead of embracing his words with rose tinted liberal romanticism, let us never gloss over the difficult material conditions in which so much artistic production or expression happens. Let’s form a horizontal solidarity, unbounded to style or genre, encompassing those who are fully-employed, precariously employed, unemployed, or who engage with music in their spare time. Musicians come from a vast array of different classes and backgrounds, and while it might not appear so, not all of them are privileged. The Tories fear music and art; they know full well the explosive, unpredictable, life-giving and community-building potentials contained within the processes of creative expression. Similarly, the arts can provide a mirror to society. So let us rethink the world around us, and create passages out of the omnipresent darkness. With the tools of empathy and kindness in hand, let’s build and re-build culture together.

Support for musicians

CoronaMusicians is a comprehensive resource, listing support services for musicians in the UK. Includes hardship funds, debt advice, legal/business advice, union support, health/mental health support, and more.

Mutual aid ideas

Some ideas to counteract the individualism that maintains the present state of things:

  • Create an instrument-sharing pool! Lots of people have spare guitars, wind instruments etc. kicking around that could be used by those without access to them.
  • Got a music/rehearsal studio that you can still comfortably afford? Offer it to share it out for free when it’s not in use.
  • Create a pool of people who can provide free lessons or advice for less privileged people.
  • Join Arts Emergency, a pool which supports marginalised young people.
  • Create a pool of people who can provide free childcare and/or support services to struggling musicians.
  • Create a crowdfunding initiative to support musicians in your local community.

Other ideas

If you can’t do any of the above, but want to directly support musicians for their work:

  • Stop using Spotify! Instead, purchase music directly from artists, their labels or through independent record stores.
  • Buy from Bandcamp: if you want 100% of the sale to go direct to the artist, make sure to buy on Bandcamp Fridays. The remaining Bandcamp Fridays for 2020 will take place on November 6 and December 4.

  1. Herbert Read. 1963. To Hell With Culture. London: Routledge, p.10 

  2. Laura Fantone. 2007. ‘Precarious changes: gender and generational politics in contemporary Italy’. Feminist Review 87:5-20 


Fielding Hope

Fielding Hope is a Scottish live music curator and producer currently based in London. Fielding works to support, develop, and platform a wide array of marginalised artists on a local and international scale. He currently works as the Senior Producer at Cafe OTO in London, curating a week-round programme of experimental and underground music. He also co-curates Counterflows, an annual festival of international radical music held in Glasgow. All views expressed are his own.