Coming out of their cage but doing just fine: ‘himehabu’ on musicians in the pandemic

Musicians have been hit hard by pandemic restrictions, but there is hope for their industry yet.

When Leeds-based jazz/funk quintet ‘himehabu’ planned to drop their debut single in April of this year, they could not have imagined the circumstances they would be releasing it into. With all associated gigs cancelled and opportunities to practise as a 5-piece band sparse, drummer Ben admits ‘maintaining momentum with all of this has been pretty difficult to do’. 

After playing their first gig at Belgrave in September last year, the band began rehearsing religiously ahead of their first release. ‘We were planning on using gigs to promote the single and to have a small single launch in the spring to generate a bit more hype around us in the Leeds scene’, they tell me. However, all of these activities were quickly cancelled in light of the emerging global pandemic. 

“34% [of musicians] were considering abandoning the industry completely”

The band have since been relying on various other avenues of work – including as a photographer, a tattooist, a barber and a shop assistant in a vinyl store. ‘We’re all creative people and have been trying our best to continue with creative work through lockdown,’ says Ben, ‘but we’ve definitely all suffered at some point during corona with lack of work or infrequent work, so we are all just taking it one day at a time as best as possible’. 

himehabu are not alone in having to rely on a plan B for a means of income. A survey conducted by the Musicians’ Union of 2000 of its members in September found that 34% were considering abandoning the industry completely, in light of financial hardships caused by the pandemic. 

Leeds based band himehabu. Credit: Himehabu

The decline of CD sales and rise of streaming services in recent years has lead musicians to rely heavily on touring for a means of income. Within the constraints of the pandemic, the survey found that around 70% of musicians were unable to do ‘more than a quarter of their usual work’, and more than half have turned to employment outside of the industry on account of this.

Online streaming services like Spotify do little to compensate for this gap. Whilst Spotify doesn’t release any official breakdowns of its revenue streams, it has been estimated that only 46p of the £9.99 monthly membership fee is actually paid to its artists, after Spotify’s own take-home pay and fees to record labels have been accounted for.

This translates to an average pay-out to songwriters of 0.04p per stream – meaning artists would have to reach 174 000 streams before earning the national minimum wage of £70 a day.

While the July rescue package was a welcome break for venues, musicians themselves are still falling through the cracks.

Government support schemes have gone some way to addressing problems caused by the pandemic – including a £1.5 billion lifeline for arts industries announced in July. Yet, despite the music industry contributing £5.8 billion to the UK economy in 2019 (up 11% from 2018), those closest to the action argue that government policy still demonstrates a lack of understanding of the profession.

While the July rescue package was a welcome break for venues, musicians themselves are still falling through the cracks. Further research from the Musicians’ Union also found that a third of its members have not been eligible for any of the government’s income support schemes – including individuals set up as limited companies and those whose earnings are split between self-employment and non-furloughed taxed income, who do not qualify for self-employment assistance. 

“I still don’t think the government realise the impact that industry has on English culture to be honest.”

-Ben, himehabu

Whilst himehabu acknowledge that disruption to the industry has in part been a necessary consequence of recent events, they still believe that more could have been done to protect musicians and others working in the industry. Ben points out ‘I think restrictions have been a little unfair when a lot more support has been given to sport… it’s now got to the point when bands breaking through are missing out because there’s not much consistent support for unsigned bands and without gigs, it’s hard for them to build their presence in a music scene’.

One enterprise that is doing its best to thwart the structures of the industry that work to disadvantage its key workers, is DIUO. Launching this month, DIUO will stream exclusive one-off concerts on a pay-per-view basis and allow artists to set up their own subscription-based channels to host their events. 

Artists are encouraged to use small venues to stage their shows, which will act as a revenue stream for these struggling businesses and their staff as well. They will also take-home the majority of revenue – which DIUO estimates should turn into profit after the sale of around 400 tickets to cover costs. 

“We feel more motivated and less down about the prospects of our band now”

-Ben, himehabu

Thanks to another initiative working to help new artists, himehabu are also starting to feel a little more optimistic about their future as a band. MAS Records is a government-funded programme for artists across England providing partial funding for bands’ rehearsal time and recording and assisting with gigs and other opportunities to help them kick-start their careers. After a successful application and audition himehabu were accepted on the programme for the coming year: 

“As it has been hard to build momentum since the first lockdown, it’s boosted us and given us the opportunity to really make a big go of the next year to tighten our sound…and hopefully by the summer have the chance to play some gigs. We feel more motivated and less down about the prospects of our band now, and we’re just excited to get going with it once we’re out of Tier 3!”

Despite the heavy weight the pandemic has placed on the profession, initiatives like these represent a significant lifeline. For many working in the industry, music is not just a job but a lifestyle. Ben agrees: 

‘I still don’t think the government realise the impact that industry has on English culture to be honest. Music is pretty essential for the majority of people whether it’s their main or passing interest and music in England has a huge influence around the world too’. Global pandemic or not, it is clear that the music industry won’t be giving up without a fight.

Listen to himehabu’s deubt single ‘Orbifolia’ on SoundCloud now.

Header image credit: himehabu