Entertainment & Arts

How some stars are helping music's unsung heroes in lockdown

Melody Gardot Image copyright Decca Records
Image caption Melody Gardot is paying standard studio rates to musicians who join her online project

Whether they're guitar players, backing vocalists or studio engineers, career musicians struggle with pay even in regular times.

Many take on extra work to make ends meet when their services aren't needed on stage or in the studio.

For them, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a double whammy. Not only have tours and recording sessions been put on hold, but those second jobs in wedding bands or school classrooms have vanished, too.

According to a Musicians Union survey, 92% of its members have seen their livelihood affected by coronavirus, losing an estimated £13.9m in earnings in the first two weeks of the lockdown.

Meanwhile, the Ivors Academy of songwriters and composers said it anticipated a loss of £25,000 per member over a six-month period.

The figures may come as a surprise, given recent headlines about record-breaking royalty payments and Rihanna's £468m fortune, but the wealth in the music industry tends to accumulate at the top.

For the rest, the "industry has ground to a halt," says Olga FitzRoy, an award-winning engineer and producer whose credits include Coldplay, Foo Fighters and The Beatles.

"I did my last session in the first week of March and I've had nothing since then, and my colleagues are pretty much in the same boat," she tells the BBC. "There's no money coming in".

Image copyright AIR Studios
Image caption "The longer-term effects are going to be with us for years," says FitzRoy, who is also an executive director of the Music Producers Guild.

In the midst of the pandemic, however, some artists are finding ways to support their sidemen and women - and hoping they can establish new precedents along the way.

In Paris, jazz artist Melody Gardot is making a new record from her apartment, and inviting musicians from around the world to form her "virtual orchestra".

Anyone can sign up - and they'll receive musical charts, backing tracks and instructions with on how to record themselves performing at home.

Crucially, however, she is paying standard union rates to anyone who appears on the finished record.

'Bread on the table'

"The reality is I can't do what I do without those musicians," the Grammy nominee tells the BBC.

"If I stand on stage by myself, it's way less interesting than if I have a beautiful array of colours to offer. So these people are equally important and we can't forget about them during this time."

So far, Gardot has received submissions from players in "Croatia, Santa Monica, France and England," ranging from top-level professionals to "an 11-year-old girl who really wants to be a musician".

Her song, With Love From Paris, is a sumptuous, melancholy ballad whose refrain - "maybe one day I will see you soon" - pre-dates the lockdown, but has taken on added resonance over the last eight weeks.

She decided to ask out-of-work musicians to complete the track after recalling the long weekends she would spend playing piano bars in Philadelphia as a teenager.

"I remember playing gigs for food, just to get dinner," she remembers. " Then it got a little better and I do the gig to get 25 bucks and then 50. I was hustling, you know? And I know musicians are in that place right now.

"They don't know how they're going to get by, they need to put some bread on the table, and all of a sudden, not only can they contribute [to this song], doing something they love, but at the end of the day, there's a pay check coming in."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Charli XCX's lockdown album, How I'm Feeling Now, will benefit other creators

Gardot isn't the only artist leveraging her influence to help others.

Pop star Charli XCX has spent the last six weeks recording a new album from scratch in her house - partly to keep herself sane, but also because she realised her regular collaborators would be struggling to make ends meet.

"There are a lot of other creative people who can't work during this time," she told the BBC last month.

"So, for me, doing this project is also a way to support some of those people, whether that be video editors, or the painters who are doing my artwork, or 3D designers, or video directors."

Indie band The National are donating all profits from their merchandise store to their road crew; while Good Charlotte's Joel and Benji Madden have re-tooled their e-commerce site Veeps to help other bands raise money.

The site, which started out as a way to market VIP packages for concert tours, now allows artists to sell tickets to streaming online gigs.

So far, it's been embraced by musicians like Angel Olsen, Bat For Lashes and All Time Low, who've used the income to support their touring crew, raise money for charity or offset lost earnings.

Typically, the artists are those who can't afford to stage pro-bono live-streams on Instagram - or who are wary of Facebook and Spotify's "tipping" systems, which can both produce varying results.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Good Charlotte are helping musicians make money from the now-ubiquitous live streams

All of these ideas are all still taking shape, but they're going to prove crucial if the industry is to survive.

Gardot says she hopes other artists will follow her lead in paying musicians for recording their parts at home.

"We got to get some of the big cats on board, like John Mayer or Ed Sheeran, and keep creating opportunities for other people," she says.

That could be crucial, says FitzRoy, as it could be a long time before things return to normal.

Although recording studios could re-open in June, with an initial backlog of work to get through, the picture is a little less rosy further down the line.

"There's no live work, so a lot of artists won't have had any income, so they won't be able to afford to make records," she says.

"And the fact that film production has ground to a halt means that, in six months' time, those projects that should have been recording scores at the big studios just won't be happening.

"So there'll be a little bump of activity when things resume, but the longer-term effects are going to be with us for the next couple of years."

Echoing calls made by UK Music earlier this week, FitzRoy says the government should work closely with the industry to make sure it survives as the UK emerges from lockdown.

"The music industry makes a lot of money for them in the good times," she says. "They need to think about that."

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