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Tackling Low Pay in the Music Industries

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To coincide with Living Wage week, we reflected on why paying young people a fair wage must matter to the music industries, and what more needs to be done.

“Young creatives are so eager and driven to make their mark and they put so much time and effort into what they do, so there is no reason that they shouldn’t be paid for their time like anyone else doing any other job,” said Livvy K, music artist and Youth Music NextGen Creative from Manchester.

“The cost of living is only going up and everyone is really just out here trying to make a living to pay bills, eat and support themselves financially,” she went on to say. “So it is absolutely essential that people are receiving payment for the time they dedicate to their work.”

Livvy K was one of 21 emerging creatives paid more than the real Living Wage to work on the Youth Music Awards 2023 in association with Hal Leonard Europe. Sadly, only 5% of young people we surveyed said they have been paid the real living wage for all their opportunities in the music industries.

a group of young people wearing black youth music logo t-shirts pose together on a red carpet
Youth Music NextGen creatives hired to work at the Youth Music Awards 2023 / Credit: Nic Serpell-Rand

She told us about the difference it makes to young people to be paid a fair wage for creative work: “It’s so important that young people aspiring to work within the industry are being paid. There needs to be the space, time and financial support to help bring young people into the industry and allow creatives to make a living out of their passion, creativity and hard work.”

The real Living Wage is independently calculated and based on the cost of living. In October, the Living Wage Foundation released the new rates for 2023-24: the UK Living Wage is £12.00, while the London Living Wage is £13.15 (London has a separate rate to reflect the higher living costs).

The differences between being paid national minimum wage and the real Living Wage are stark for young people.

In a positive move, the UK Government recently announced that the National Living Wage will be extended to those aged 21 and over (previously 23 and over). It's a step in the right direction, but still fails to recognise the contribution and circumstances of those below age 21.

Whilst the national minimum wage for 18- to 20-year-olds will increase in April to £8.60, the real Living Wage is paid to all those aged 18 and over, in recognition that young people face the same living costs as everyone else.

This means an 18-year-old full time worker on minimum wage will annually earn £6,630 less than if they were paid at the real Living Wage; a drop of over 30%.

The impact of this is seen in the music industries. Our NextGen Feedback Survey 2023 found that 84% of young people said a lack of access to relevant opportunities that pay enough to cover living costs was a barrier to pursuing a career in the music industries. The survey goes out to our NextGen Community, made up of 18-25-year-olds looking to pursue a career in the music industries.

Freelancers and work insecurity

“There's enough money [in the music industries] to be setting ourselves that bar; it's the minimum we should be doing,” said Mick Ross, CEO of Generator. Based in Newcastle upon Tyne, they are a music development agency with a focus on skills, talent development, community and partnership.

“I don't think the market understands the amount of money that gets spent on rehearsal rooms, recording studios, transport to and from those [spaces], buying equipment, all that kind of thing; just to play one show. No one's factoring that in,” Mick explained.

Generator decided to become an accredited Living Wage Employer in October 2021, committing to paying all their staff the real Living Wage as a minimum.

With freelancers making up a huge forty-nine percent of the cultural sector workforce (Arts Council), Mick also spoke about the importance of paying them at least the real Living Wage. “It’s about knowing their value. This sector doesn’t exist without freelancers, it’s as simple as that,” he told us. “It allows them to set their minimum bar for what they expect to be paid to do what is normally a really highly skilled job within the sector.”

Many freelancers struggle financially, even when paid the real Living Wage, due to a lack of regular hours. This uncertainty leads many to find work elsewhere, which means the sector loses vital skilled workers.

a photographer takes a photo at the youth music awards
NextGen photographer Livy Dukes working at the Youth Music Awards 2023 / Credit: Nic Serpell-Rand

“We know that low pay and precarious work is a real issue for many of those working on Youth Music funded projects,” said Carol Reid, Programme Director at Youth Music. “Our grants programme has a set of budgeting principles, designed to promote equity and wellbeing in Youth Music projects. This states that people should pay the real Living Wage as a minimum, and more for freelancers.”

Carol continued, “We also encourage projects to try and meet the terms of the Living Hours scheme when they engage freelancers or part time workers, as even the real living wage is not a living wage if you don’t have enough work to make ends meet.”

The Living Hours scheme asks employers to guarantee 16 hours of work a week (unless less is requested by the individual), along with at least four weeks’ notice of shifts and a payment guarantee if shifts are cancelled within that notice period.

The cost-of-living crisis

At a time when the cost of living is going up, fair pay is more important than ever. The Mental Health Foundation recently reported that nearly a third of adults in the UK felt stressed about their financial situation, while almost one in ten felt hopeless.

We spoke to some of our funded partners earlier this year about the impact the cost-of-living crisis was having on their organisations, workforce and the young people they work with.

They told us about the impact it was having on their staff, including anxieties surrounding personal finances and job security.

Last year, funded partners also reported an increase in young people having a lack of access to food, often arriving hungry to sessions as their families struggle under extreme financial pressures. Across the UK, the Trussell Trust reported that they had distributed close to three million emergency food parcels in 2022/23, more than they ever done before in a year.

two young people look at clipboards in a dark room. they are both wearing black youth music awards t-shirts
NextGen event runners working at the Youth Music Awards 2023 / Credit: Raj Sabareesh Ramalingam

All of this underlines the importance of paying a wage that reflects the current cost of living.

What needs to be done?

“[The music industries] should be leading the way,” Mick believes. “There's enough money, albeit it's not evenly distributed.”

Last year, the music industry contributed £6.7 billion to the UK economy in terms of gross value added (This is Music 2023). Yet at a grassroots level, many projects are struggling to keep their doors open while the UK is set to lose 10% of its grassroots music venues before the end of 2023.

Investment from the commercial music industries into grassroots music can help to sustain the sector and build a more equitable future. This can also help to ensure people receive fair pay for their work, meaning they can cover their living costs.

Many of our funded partners want to pay the real Living Wage but aren’t financially in the position to do so. As a funded partner who is already accredited, we asked Mick what advice he would give to other organisations.

“[There are organisations] out there that might be simply fighting for their lives to stay open,” he said. “It should always be the expectation that you want to try and get there […] Make it a target as an organisation that you are going to be a Living Wage Employer by [a certain] point. But it is dependent on funding because of the sector we’re in.”

As a Living Wage Funder, Youth Music is committed to supporting funded partners to pay at least the real Living Wage through our funding. This includes our programme responding to the cost-of-living crisis, that supported projects with grant uplifts for their increased expenditure. 

The real Living Wage also helps pave the way for the next generation of creatives. Paying a wage that reflects the true cost of living is vital to bridging the gap between learning and earning is music.

“At Youth Music, we have used our influence as a funder to advocate for the Living Wage movement in music and wider creativity,” said Youth Music COO, Angela Linton. “We recognise that affordability is a real issue for many employers, which is why we actively advocate for all funders to register their commitment.”

Together, we can help make a fairer, more equitable society for all by paying people at least the real Living Wage.


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