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U.K. Musicians Protest Government's COVID-19 Response With Music


It's a hard time to be a musician because of the pandemic. Now the U.K. has been cutting support to freelancers, a term that takes in a lot of musicians, who have protested as only they can. NPR's Frank Langfitt was there.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hundreds of musicians stood on the lawn between Westminster Abbey and a statue of Winston Churchill. Socially distanced and lined up like chess pieces, they played a short section of "Mars, Bringer Of War."


LANGFITT: The musicians, who were dressed in black and wore red face masks, played just 20% of the movement by Gustav Holst to protest the government's cutting support to freelancers to just 20% of their average wages. Jess Murphy (ph) is a violinist.

JESS MURPHY: We want to say to this government, we really don't want to give up our professions. Help us find a way to keep music alive. They're also a worthwhile investment financially, not just emotionally, that music and events in general were a part of the joyful fabric of life.

LANGFITT: This week's protest was triggered by Rishi Sunak, who runs Britain's Treasury. Sunak said beginning in November, the government would only support what he called viable jobs. A question about help for arts workers by Britain's ITV, Sunak added this.


RISHI SUNAK: It's a very sad time. I can't pretend that everyone can do exactly the same job that they were doing at the beginning of this crisis. As in all walks of life, everyone's having to adapt.

LANGFITT: After drawing criticism, Sunak clarified he was talking about all jobs, not just in the arts. But musicians like Jess Murphy, they took it personally.

MURPHY: We felt so frustrated because it is a viable job, and it's a worthwhile job. And it's not something we want to just throw in the dustbin and get another job like that.

LANGFITT: As in the U.S., musicians here have been hit especially hard by the pandemic.

URSULA JOHN: We find jobs as we go, and life has been very, very difficult for us.

GIL MOTT: I had many weddings and other concerts cancelled, so I've taken up a second job as a nanny.

JACK JONES: I had loads of gigs lined up this year, contemporary chamber music in lots of venues like pubs and galleries in East London - all of them cancelled.

LANGFITT: That was Ursula John (ph), a viola player, Gil Mott (ph), a violinist, and Jack Jones (ph), a trumpeter. A recent survey by the musicians union found about one-third are considering quitting. But to do what?

JONES: I've already spent 40-odd thousand pounds training to be a musician. And then what am I meant to do instead - go and work in an office when offices aren't even in at the moment?

LANGFITT: The government has already approved nearly $2 billion in emergency support for the arts, and COVID-related spending has pushed government debt past $2.6 trillion or more than 100% of GDP. But some politicians worry what might be lost when all this is over. Kevin Brennan is a member of parliament with the Labor Party. He said Sunak reminds him of Aunt Mimi.

KEVIN BRENNAN: Aunt Mimi, for those who don't know, was John Lennon's aunt who brought him up and told him to get a proper job rather than go into the music industry.

LANGFITT: Advice Lennon famously rejected. The rest is history. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.