Retrain in vain: Why musicians need support from government, not career advice

Rishi Sunak

A thought occurred to me when mourning the sad death of Eddie Van Halen last week: he’s probably one of the last musicians to ever become world famous purely for his ability to play an instrument incredibly well.

Van Halen’s legendary prowess elevated the band that took his name to rock god status in the ‘80s, inspired an entire generation of rockers and even adorned Michael Jackson’s Beat It.

Oddly, his biggest UK hit, Jump, featured him playing a synthesiser rather than a guitar but, nonetheless, his solo was almost always the most anticipated part of any VH song. Most modern hits don’t even have a solo.

Music moves on, of course, and thank goodness for that. But in a week when the government turned into everyone’s drunk uncle at Christmas dinner and suggested that anyone working in the arts should retrain and get a proper job, it’s worth reflecting on the sheer man hours most musicians put in to the quest to perfect their art.

No one ever told Eddie Van Halen – a man who clawed his way to the top the hard way, gigging night after night – that he should retrain. If they had, he’d have laughed. For most people, music remains a vocation rather than a career, especially while live music’s ongoing hiatus and streaming’s reduced royalty cheques sees many artists seeking a side gig.

Outside of financial services, the UK only has two truly world-beating industries: football and music. Yet the government seems intent on throwing both under the bus

Music Week

But, despite what Chancellor Rishi Sunak appeared to suggest last week (he later said he was talking about all workers, not just those in the arts, but the damage was done and the paucity of sector-specific support continues to speak volumes), music and other arms of the entertainment industry are also big business, at home and abroad. Let’s face it: outside of financial services, the UK only has two truly world-beating industries of note: football and music. That the government seems intent on throwing both under the bus beggars belief.

The biz has long survived without government help, so it’s to be hoped it can also weather this crisis. Today’s musical prodigies may not be able to anticipate the fame and fortune brought forth by Van Halen’s fantastic fretwork alone.

But we must find a way for them to use those skills to earn a living while entertaining others. Otherwise, as Eddie Van Halen would have said, you might as well jump.

* To read our report on live music's plans to return, click here. To make sure you can access Music Week wherever you are, sign up to our digital edition here.

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