Interview: Q+A with UK Music's Tom Kiehl

Covid-19's effect on the UK music industry has been devastating. We spoke to UK Music, the industry's representative body, about Let The Music Play and the future of the industry.
Posted: 9 July 2020 Words: Miles Ellingham

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep the globe, one of the hardest-hit industries has been the music industry. With venues barred from providing live music due to social distancing measures, recording studios unable to record and struggling artists finding it harder and harder to make a living, on 5th July the UK Government, four months into the crisis, injected £1.57 billion into ‘the arts'. But will it be enough? 

GigList talked with Tom Kiehl, acting CEO of UK Music to get some perspective on the issue. UK Music is a lobbying group representing the collective interests of ‘The recorded, published and live arms of the British music industry.' As an umbrella group, they act as the parliamentary voice for, among others: The Musicians Union (MU), The Music Publishers’ Association (MPA) and the Music Producers’ Guild (MPG). 

First off – parking the recent stimulus package, which we’ll get to – Covid is often discussed via its impact on ‘the arts’, which is a very wide term encompassing multiple industries. So, in a broad sense, how has Covid-19 affected the UK Music industry - which in your words was being treated as a ‘forgotten relative’ by the government until recently? 

Yeah, I don’t think it’s unfair to have said that. Obviously the recent support packages that have come through have been positive so we should commend the government on their actions in that area. But the virus has had a devastating impact on the music industry.  For the live sector alone we estimate £900 million in losses and now is actually our busiest time for festivals, event season etc. So with that being all cancelled the outlook is not good.  

Coupled with that there’s been studios being closed, retail has been closed (though some are coming online now).  So yeah, it’s had just as huge an impact on content creation as it has on other areas too. The Music Industry is a hard hit industry – possibly one of the first industries to get hit and may well be one of the last to fully recover. 

And just to put the recent stimulus package into perspective: what kind of revenue does the UK music industry provide for the British economy? 

Well, annually we contribute in GVA (Gross Value Added) terms upwards of £5.2 billion to the economy. The creative industry as a whole is roughly £100 billion and exports for the music industry is £2.7 billion. So taking into account the £900 million we’re going to lose from the live sector already you’re looking at a very sizeable chunk of the overall pie diminishing. 

And tell us about the ‘Let The Music Play’ campaign.  How did it come about? 

That’s a campaign that’s been gathered together by the live music industry: organisations such as UK Music, our live music group, The Concert Promotors Association – basically we’re all working together in order to highlight the devastating impact that the pandemic has had on the live sector.  

There are three central asks in there: Firstly is to provide a funding and support package – which they’ve done to some extent. Secondly, the need for VAT relief on tickets – that’s very important.  And thirdly, the need for some kind of conditional date where we can hope to get back to work. This is an industry that relies heavily on planning so having a workable date is key.

To some extent it worked.  You’ve now got this stimulus package of £1.57 billion as a “Pot for cultural institutions and The Arts” – is this going to be enough? 

Umm, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. What we’re not sure yet is how it will all work in practice. The music venues, it seems quite clear, are included within this package, but to what extent other elements of the sector are going to be included we don’t know. Which is a problem. So it all depends on how the process is set up and how the funds apply.  Some businesses are already in very perilous states so hopefully, this won’t be too little too late. I know that rent deferrals were put in place until July so we’re getting to quite a critical point now.  

How do you think the money could be best used to protect the music industry? 

It needs to be as broad as possible. There are so many different facets of the industry and each is hurting in different ways. The best use will be a holistic approach. Things will have to be considered on their merit but we can’t have anything that’s too restrictive. 

Is there a danger it will all go to big music venues and arenas that have a lot of costs while small venues that nurture up-and-comers will fall by the wayside?

We certainly hope not. We understand it’s the government’s intention to support large and small venues.  The challenge is who’s administering it. Is it going to be the arts council? And certainly, the commercial aspects of the industry aren’t used to going through the traditional arts council funding route. So hopefully the applications will be designed in such a way that funding can be achieved and secured relatively easily. 

But it’s notoriously difficult to get money from the Arts Council, and aspiring musicians already feel immense pressure – often working two jobs.

Yes. It needs to be as easy as possible. 

UK Music is closely tied to the Musicians Union which is one of your members. At a time when it’s harder than ever for new musicians to make money from recording, and many rely almost solely on income from gigging - how can new musicians be protected in a world where they can’t gig? 

Quite right. What we have been calling for, particularly after the Government have produced this new self-employed package, is that the gaps within it are filled in. How you define ‘a company’ is important: many young creatives have actually classified themselves as a company, which would exclude them from that. So, there are gaps within the existing provisions and they’re due to be wound down very soon anyway. The government will need to ensure that proper furloughing is extended for the sectors and isn’t cut away, and those with as fragile a career path as musicians are protected.  

As well as ties to the MU, UK Music also looks out for the interests of the MPG (Music Producers Guild). What do you think the plan should be to safely re-open recording studios?  Some of which, particularly independent studios, have not been eligible for business rates relief. 

That’s true, and we’ve been campaigning and if the new package is being defined in terms of ‘cultural institutions’ then we’d hope that the Arts Council and the Government would view recording studios within that definition – though we’re not sure yet that they will.  Recording studios are incredibly important.  There’s been a lot of internal industry work with Government and Public Health England with regards to safer working and getting things up and running.  There’s at least some guidance coming out soon with regards to production and studios so that should be helpful on how they can co-exist with social distancing.  So, it’s a start. 

UK Music is, in a broad sense, a lobbying group with the ears of some prominent cabinet members. As the acting CEO, do you think the current cabinet is particularly focused on the Music Industry?  

The Government Ministers and Officials have actually been quite forthcoming on this, the challenge has been to get something in place and obviously this week’s announcement is a big step forward.  But I think it’s unfair to say they don’t get it… 

What’s Rishi Sunak’s favourite band? 

I haven’t got a clue.  He loves Star Wars so that’s the most cultural thing I could think of.  

I can’t really imagine any of them at a gig, to be honest...

You’d be surprised.  We’ve taken a few of them here and there. We took Grant Shapps and James Cleverly to see Stevie Wonder last year. 

Finally, do you think everything’s going to be okay? Do you think the industry will recover? 

Well, I think peoples hunger for music will continue but the challenge is how we can adapt to a new working environment and obviously how long that will be in place for before we can get back to some semblance of normality.  I’ve no doubt that the public’s love of music has been undiminished. 

Well, people's love for music might be undiminished but if the infrastructure isn’t there then musicians can’t make a living.

The infrastructure’s having to adapt. But we’re an industry that’s adapted to challenges like this before. We changed the whole industry’s format after the advent of the internet, we dealt with grounded planes and cancelled tours after 9/11. We’re capable of evolving and changing the way we engage with the public. 

Find out more about Let The Music Play and UK Music here

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