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

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

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."

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAV HOLST'S "THE PLANETS - MARS, THE 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.