COVID-19 AND THE MUSIC INDUSTRY: OTIS MENSAH, MUSICIAN

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Otis is an up-and-coming hip hop artist/poet and is the poet laureate of Sheffield. Otis started writing and performing in his early teens and took a course in artist development at college. He is one of Sheffield City Regions’ best known emerging artists and has also recently completed a residency at the University of Sheffield. We interviewed him on 8 July 2020 –just after the Government announced its rescue package for the arts and its “five steps” road map plan for the industry.

How did Covid-19 affect your income and/or earnings in the weeks immediately following lockdown?

In the run up to lockdown, I was earning an income as an artist, topped up by employment in a coffee shop. My main source of income was from performing live and from curating festivals, plus workshops and public appearances as part of my role as Sheffield’s poet laureate. Covid-19 stopped all this work as many of my creative work opportunities were public-facing and the coffee shop was forced to close. My income dropped 100%.

However, I was owed money from shows I’d done before lockdown, so these outstanding payments helped a bit in the early weeks of lockdown. As lockdown continued, some of the organisations I work with adapted to digital delivery and I started to pick up more work, all of it online.

Did you apply for any Covid-19 loans or grants and were you successful?

I didn’t apply for any government loans, but did apply successfully for Arts Council support. Usually, I find applying for funding difficult due to my dyslexia (often the forms are over-complicated and long), but the Covid-19 Arts Council process was really easy to access. I think I was successful because I could demonstrate a track record of artistic work.

Before Covid-19, I had plans to invest in a number of music projects, so I used the Arts Council grant to continue with these once lockdown set in. One of these was a release project involving music I’d already recorded; the other was an animation collaboration with another Sheffield-based artist.

Have you developed new ways of working, or diversified what you do, in response to the impact of Covid-19?

The immediate impact of Covid-19 and lockdown was huge. I had a whole summer of shows and festivals planned, for example, I was due to play the Blue Dot festival [a national academic/performing arts festival], which would have paid well. Luckily, the residency at the University was moved online, but is now finished.

I have continued to perform and curate, but online. The most creative and rewarding of these online experiences has been the Migration Matters virtual festival in June 2020. This involved liaising with different global artists, curating and performing – all from my home. This experience provided me with freedoms I would not normally have, for example, the freedom to use my wider international network of artists, getting them involved in a UK-based festival. This is not usually possible with face-to-face festivals due to the high expense involved in bringing overseas artists to the UK. I found this freedom really inspiring.

I have also had to adapt to recording live performances for streaming from my home; I also took on a new poetry commission from the BBC, which was all about the impact of lockdown on community – again delivered digitally.

The artist residency I had at the University of Sheffield continued during lockdown – I curated a series of events which all moved online once it became obvious that face-to-face events would stop. Initially, I wasn’t sure about moving everything online, but now I think it provides me with opportunities to explore new creative projects.

What about alternative sources of income other than that earned in the music industry?

I usually work in a coffee shop to top up my income from music/poetry. Initially, I was furloughed by the shop owner but then they went bust and the business was sold. In theory, my employment contract still exists, but it’s zero hours, so I’m not guaranteed any work.

It now looks like there will be work after 4 July 2020 (once shops and cafes can open) but I’m weighing up whether to go back as my focus now is getting myself into a position to go fully self-employed with my music and writing. Lockdown has shown me how diversifying into digital delivery might work in the longer term.

How do you see yourself emerging from lockdown in the medium and longer term?

I’m sitting on a new album, so am thinking innovatively about how to release it in the next few months in a way that will generate income, for example, crowdfunding with exclusive access to the album for sponsors. I need to use the music I’ve been creating to generate income – I always used to have the safety net of live performance, but this is now impossible, so I need to develop new ways of supporting myself.

As for the longer term, this is scary and makes me anxious. There is a danger of over-saturation of online material as all artists are forced to move to digital platforms. It is making me think carefully about the field I’m in and how to monetise the virtual offer. This has already come up as an issue in the sense that I’m noticing a fall in social media engagement with my feeds as so many artists are releasing online music or curating virtual festivals. This was already an issue, but Covid-19 has magnified pre-existing trends – independent artists have to fight even harder for “air time”.

What about support for the arts from national and local government and agencies? What do you think needs to be done to help artists and venues access information and sources of financial support?

I think the government’s response to the arts has been pretty poor and reflects how it views music in particular [Otis was not aware of the DCMS roadmap for recovery]. It rarely takes contemporary music seriously and independent artists always face stigma and a struggle for creative survival – Covid-19 has just put a new spotlight on an old issue.

As for accessing information and sources of financial support, I honestly think there needs to be a huge effort to demystify the process of applying for funding. I know lots of artists struggle with this – the money that is available often goes to those who are most able to navigate the application process (or those with big management team), not those who are most deserving.

There is inconsistency in how funding is allocated. I had support from family and friends with my application for funding, but I know so many artists who would not think of applying, or do not know what funding is out there due to the process being over-intellectualised. The Arts Council have a scheme where you can ask someone to help you with a funding application: this kind of partnering between a funding mentor and an individual artist is a good idea and might be a role the region could adopt.

I don’t know too much about the detail of the government’s national rescue plan for the arts, but I am worried that the focus of funding will be on the biggest institutions (the likes of the O2) and not on independent artists and those without management teams. I will attempt to claim once the details of the scheme are published, but I’m also worried that the criteria for funding might exclude me (for example, by over-valuing aspects such as social media presence).

What about regional support for the arts? Sheffield as a City tends to focus on supporting the same sorts of artists (rock bands) and institutions. We need to broaden this out and ensure that new up-and-coming artists get a look in; more support for black artists in particular.

Jobs in the music industry will change as new ways of working are established – how should training opportunities develop to meet the needs of the “new normal”?

In some ways, Covid-19 has speeded up a process that was going to have to happen anyway – the drift to digital. I always thought live shows would survive digitalisation, but this is now in doubt and some job roles will change, especially as many are based on traditional touring and stage shows.

The industry that provided an income and a sense of purpose for so many will change. We need to be able to offer educational support to those affected to enable them to move with the switch to digital delivery. Also, stigma is attached to being a creative in our society, which affects the range and quality of educational opportunities in the industry. There should be less focus on achieving celebrity status and more on equipping people with the skills to have a career in virtual production/streaming platforms, for example.

Live music is vital for the wellbeing of people, but how can we get this message across to politicians and funders?

It is not the artists’ responsibility to get this message across, but that of the education system and institutions. These organisations need to tackle the stigma attached to the creative industries, or artists as a whole – we are not “slackers”. Artists know their work is valid – they invest all their time and life into their work – it just needs to be recognised.