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Gary Oldman in sid and nancy 1986 film still
Sid and Nancy, 1986 (Film Still)

How the cost-of-living crisis is reshaping the music industry

Dance music continues to soar in popularity, but more and more musicians are finding it harder than ever to make a living

According to new research carried out by charity Help Musicians, 98 per cent of British musicians are concerned about how the cost-of-living crisis will impact their careers. As many as half of 525 respondents said they were “extremely concerned” that they would have to leave the industry altogether. As well as being an acute and urgent problem for the people affected, this is likely to shape the music industry for years to come. 

Musicians are facing the same difficulties as many of the general population, with 91 per cent saying they are worried about being able to afford food with their current income. But according to the report, they are also facing a cost-of-working crisis which is specific to the demands of their industry. Rises in the cost of fuel and energy have made travelling to gigs and heating rehearsal spaces increasingly challenging, while 91 per cent of the artists surveyed said they are unable to afford musical equipment. Over half of musicians say they are earning less than what they were a year ago, while eight out of ten said they are earning less than they were before the pandemic. This level of financial precarity is taking its toll: 68 per cent of respondents said their mental health is worse now than it was before 2020. 

While this new research focuses on the UK, the soaring cost of touring is a problem for musicians worldwide. After the rise of streaming made it increasingly untenable to earn a living from selling records (Spotify pays only a minuscule $0.003 per stream), live music was for a long time seen as the most viable means of making money. But for most artists – the ones who aren’t selling out stadiums – touring is likely to be financially draining. Even objectively successful acts such as British rapper Little Simz (who has won the Mercury Music Prize and has nearly 14 million Spotify listeners per month) and Animal Collective (one of the most influential bands of the last 20 years) have been forced to cancel tours, on the basis that going ahead would have cost them money. This is partly due to rising fuel and energy costs, and partly due to the fact that venues – facing enormous financial pressures of their own – usually take a hefty cut of merchandise sales.

But UK artists are also encountering some unique challenges: thanks to Brexit, and the government’s failure to negotiate visa-free travel, they now face costly bureaucratic hurdles before they can play gigs in the EU. As a result, many young acts are choosing not to bother, depriving them of vital opportunities to widen their fanbase and further their careers.

This means that musicians are facing a cost-of-living crisis at the exact point at which their opportunities for making money are dwindling. Yet despite the music industry being of enormous cultural and financial value to the UK, the Tories are failing to support it. We have some of the lowest cultural funding of any country in Europe (it’s difficult to imagine the government giving 18-year-olds credit cards to be used on concerts and plays, as has just happened in Germany) and the last ten years of reckless property speculation have decimated our venues. If musicians can’t make money from streaming or from playing gigs, it’s time to think about different ways of funding culture. This year, Ireland is piloting a scheme which would guarantee a Universal Basic Income for artists, whereby participants are guaranteed 353 a month, and similar programmes, albeit on a more limited scale, are already underway in New York. While it’s difficult to envision UBI being implemented in the UK any time soon, over half of the public support it. As it stands, it’s clear that the free market is not doing a good job of supporting cultural production.

The cost-of-living crisis will almost certainly shape what kind of music is being made in the years to come. If the costs of recording, rehearsal spaces and instruments become prohibitive, this will further incentivise DIY bedroom production, while diminishing profits will make it more viable to be a solo act than to work with a band. “Producing music is generally cheaper than recording with a full band, and it’s also arguably easier and faster to learn,” says Tom*, who works for a major record label. He suggests that these kinds of economic constraints are a factor in the continuing success of dance music, which has had a huge commercial spike since 2010 and continues to be one of the most commercially healthy genres. This is partly because guitar-based bands still face the expectation to make albums available on vinyl, while commercial dance artists are generally single-based, able to release new music regularly, make more money from touring, and require less spending on marketing and press.

“Honestly, if you are a commercial dance music artist who can get paid a nice rate for an hour-long set four nights a week, while putting out a regular string of high streaming singles that are relatively simple to make, you are a considerably more attractive financial proposition for a label right now,” Tom says.  Even when rock or alternative bands are operating with a similar or much larger fanbase, they are likely to enjoy a markedly less lucrative career than their counterparts in dance music.

“If you are a commercial dance music artist who can get paid a nice rate for an hour-long set four nights a week... you are a considerably more attractive financial proposition for a label right now” – Tom

The death of guitar music is a decade-long cliche which has been somewhat reversed in recent years – which you can see in the enormous success of solo acts like Sam Fender and Phoebe Bridgers – but the fact remains that the traditional band model will continue to be less financially viable. It stands to reason that this will affect the decisions which aspiring young musicians and songwriters make and, according to Tom, it’s already shaping which acts labels are prepared to invest in. “This won’t always mean dance music – the popularity of which is ultimately being driven by consumer behaviour on TikTok and playlists across Spotify and Apple Music – but artists who enjoy lower costs and who can offer more immediately profitable results for major labels have a significantly higher chance of both crossing over and then maintaining a sustainable level of commercial success,” says Tom.

It would be naive to imagine that the pre-streaming music industry was a bastion of pure philanthropy, concerned only with art for art’s sake. Obviously, these kinds of commercial imperatives have always existed, and always influenced the kind of music that breaks through. But squeezed by both the cost-of-living crisis and the dwindling possibilities of making money, it does seem as though it’s harder for today’s artists to elude the demands of the market. It’s great that dance music is doing so well, but a healthy culture has to be able to support all kinds of genres. Until these problems are resolved, the crisis facing musicians will impoverish us all.