COVID-19 AND THE MUSIC INDUSTRY: KITTY TURNER, MUSICIAN AND PRODUCER

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Kitty Turner is a singer, musician and freelance audio/video producer. She works with two groups of people with learning disabilities – a podcasting group for young people funded by Mencap and an all-female group of musicians with learnings disabilities called Under the Stars. She also makes podcasts for DocFest and is in a Sheffield-based band, Speed for Lovers.

We interviewed Kitty on 24 July 2020, after the easing of lockdown but before the government announced emergency funding for some small venues on 25/7/20.

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

My income stopped overnight as soon as lockdown happened – all my work for DocFest, Mencap and the Under the Stars group literally just stopped. I lost around £2,500 in income during the initial weeks of lockdown.

The work did pick up again after a few weeks of lockdown, mostly helping the groups of learning disabled people I work with get online. This was super-difficult work, but I did manage to get around 80% of them up and running. The Mencap work (a podcasting group for young people) came back in May, but with reduced hours and all delivered via Zoom. We’ve actually created more on Zoom than in comparable face-to-face time, but digital doesn’t work for all the kids.

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

I applied for Arts Council emergency funding of £2,500, which I received and was immensely grateful for. It gave me a breathing space to upskill in video and graphics work, giving me the time to equip myself for what I predicted would be a big area of my work in future. Also, the Musicians Union have been brilliant – they were sending daily emails at the height of lockdown, it really felt like someone was looking after you.

The application process for the Arts Council funding was obtuse – writing the proposal was fine, but the online application process was really clunky to the point where I (as a pretty IT-savvy person) got some of it wrong and then had the stress of trying to get through to someone on the ‘phone to put it right’. I know they were up against it too, but it was a fraught business.

I also applied for support from the self-employed income support scheme (SEISS), and I’m now having conversations with friends about whether to apply for the second payment in August, as there’s a very real chance I won’t have any income – or maybe only half a day a week – after Christmas.

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

The most direct and immediate effect of lockdown for me was the cancellation of DocFest, which meant a whole year’s cycle of podcast work disappeared. I had just come to the end of producing content around the previous festival, and was looking forward to taking on the podcast work that I would have got from this year’s event, which would have sustained me through this current tax year and the beginning of 2021/22. However, I have picked up a bit of work from other festivals as a result of recommendations from the DocFest team.

I now deliver most of what I do with the learning disabled groups via a video call, rather than face-to-face, and am having to break things down into much smaller pieces in order to create podcasts from the content that arises during these calls. I also need to develop new ways for the people I work with to access these new digital delivery methods. For some people with learning disabilities, this has not been easy, but there have also been moments of pure magic and joy.

I guess I’m the kind of person who just throws themselves into things and enjoys problem-solving on the hoof, but some of my colleagues have struggled. The “new normal” takes IT and digital literacy skills for granted, or even a decent broadband connection for granted, let alone the specific ability to run two screens simultaneously and record the content. For people who are less literate in new media, adapting to all of this is super hard.

I’m constantly discovering new ways to do things, new little tricks. On a personal level, lockdown has been quite a creative period, but in the back of my mind I’m always worrying about if I’ll have any work in January – it’s a bit like Game of Thrones: “winter is coming”.

Some of the new ways of working I’ve developed are sustainable beyond Covid-19, particularly those that negate the distance between people, or the travel involved in bringing people together in a room. But singing doesn’t work on video, and this is a massive part of what I do. Singing brings people together and galvanises them; you feel this when you are with people in a room, and it’s a feeling that cannot be recreated remotely.

We were gigging with the band (Speed for Lovers) before lockdown, and getting paid fairly regularly, enough to support making an album. But we can’t sell this album now as we’re not performing, and I can’t begin to imagine when we might be able to perform our dance music live again. There are things the three of us can do remotely, but all the rawness and spontaneity goes out of it. Also, to live stream our particular music we need a high-quality, treated room to perform the live drumming, which we don’t have access to.

Meanwhile, we’re still paying for a rehearsal/recording space, and need to keep paying as we don’t want to lose it. We can afford to do this, but this is not the case for all musicians.

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

I have a property that I rent out which gives me a couple of hundred quid a month, so am supremely lucky.

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

I am worried about what will happen this winter and into next year. The weather does affect us and I think Christmas will be a difficult time for everyone in terms of emerging from the impact of lockdown. People are managing at the moment because it’s Summer, and they can be outside, eating and socialising, with or without the cultural stuff. Come winter, with ongoing restrictions, I think lots of people’s mental health will be affected.

My Mencap work is on a rolling basis – each time Mencap receives funding I usually pick up some work, but it’s not a huge project, just 5-8 young people. There is a real possibility that this funding might be diverted to something else in future. The project is due to restart in September, but I’m yet to have the conversation with Mencap about my involvement.

If the worst happens and I don’t get any other work after Christmas, I probably need to consider a radical change of course by April 2021. I used to be a chef, so if this industry is not on its knees, I do have these skills so could go back to this work. Also, with the drift to digital, everyone wants to stream or broadcast, so there is the prospect of using my current work to demonstrate a track record in this field.

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?

The government response has been a complete shambles. There obviously wasn’t a plan in place to start with, and the one that was eventually produced was written on the back of a fag packet. It’s all reactive and there are still parts of our cultural landscape that haven’t been talked about yet in the official response, e.g. comedy. We will lose loads of small venues, which were already under threat.

The financial support provided is helpful, but should have been available sooner. I haven’t looked into the national package in detail, so can’t comment on the ins and outs, but given that I’m not a professional musician, I doubt I will be able to access it. In terms of accessing information on sources of funding, I would probably go to the Musicians Union initially, as they have been so good so far.

I think there could be a role for the region in supporting the types of venues locally that are likely to be overlooked by any national support. The places where my band performs are often either small or warehouse-type spaces, which are usually off the beaten track, with no big PR machine or management to promote them. These are the types of venue that need the support of the region as they are most likely to be overlooked by national support – I’m thinking of Hope Works, which runs an international festival called No Bounds.

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”?

There will be gaps in the training and education colleges provide, and they need to adapt their offer to what people will need to work in the “new normal”. Video calling is an example – there is plenty to learn around best practice and most people wanting to work in the industry will need to have these skills in future. Those already working in the industry will also need to upskill – for example, creating and delivering virtual festivals. There may not be a simple crossover between job roles in traditional AV events to those required to stream virtually. On the plus side, there is free software available online for people to train themselves, such as Open Broadcaster Software, a video recording and live streaming tool.

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

I think ultimately this comes back to how we measure our lives. At the moment, there is too much emphasis on monetary value, rather than health and wellbeing (where music has a huge part to play). The council and region need to think about the impact of music and the arts on the wellbeing of people, rather than only consider financial measures all the time. The role of music is massively undervalued. What should we do? Go out on the streets and make a fuss

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