Coronaclassical 19: No Longer Viable

26th September 2020

I check my bank balance. I have to do it on an ATM because it’s 1998: the 24th of September, which was a Thursday. I know that for a fact, because pay day was always the last Thursday of the month. But this isn’t a pay day for me. It’s the first one I’ve missed.

I’d been working as a secondary school Physics teacher – in effect a job for life, with excellent prospects given the scarcity of graduates in the subject, especially in the Welsh language sector. But the lure of seeing where my singing hobby could take me if I applied myself to it full-time was too seductive to resist. It isn’t until that first missing paycheque that the reality of the leap I’ve taken hits home.

What have I done?

Last Thursday, as coincidence would have it the 24th of September 2020, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his latest scheme for supporting the UK economy through the next stages of the continuing crisis, which, he explained, “means supporting people to be in viable jobs”. In a contrast to previous Rishigrams, the reaction from most of my self-employed colleagues was underwhelming, to say the least. Later that day the Conservative MP Anthony Browne told BBC Radio 4 that “I advise all musicians to get another job. There are many expanding sectors with job availability”.

Staring down the other end of a barrel which is precisely 22 years long. In a television interview about singing as a career I gave while still a student, I was asked where I saw myself in twenty years’ time. “Anywhere except on the dole”, flippant smart-arse twenty-something me answered. The quip has come back to haunt his middle-aged counterpart over the last six months.

If it was still unclear to anyone in the UK performing arts that this is going to be a long, hard struggle, with no guarantee of there being anything much left at the end of it, the penny must surely have dropped this last week. Wednesday’s announcement that the Metropolitan Opera in New York would remain closed until September 2021 at the earliest sent shock waves through the industry. The Met is the top of the food chain. Maybe it makes sense that the largest carnivores would find it hardest to dodge the meteorite, but the emotional crater was nonetheless huge.

Meanwhile, surely the smaller, more agile omnivores and herbivores should be better suited to survive? The accurate description of evolution is survival of the most adaptable, rather than the fittest, after all.

The problem with that analogy is that we’re facing the wiping out of an entire ecosystem, rather than the ultimately necessary culling of one or two weaker or obsolete species within it. Being a professional musician is a full-time job, even if the bit of it that looks like “work” is sporadic. There’s a delicate virtuous circle of performance, study, rest and practice that in the long run can’t be reconciled with the distraction of a second, unrelated career. There’s really no such thing as a “semi-professonal” musician, only amateurs and pros, and the distinction is not one of talent or knowledge or ability, but one of time and commitment. Once you disrupt that balance and interrupt the cycle, it becomes increasingly difficult to get it back.

In other words, if we send our musicians away to other jobs, most of them will not be returning. The leap into the precarious career of an artist is terrifying, and not one which most people would make at all, let alone twice. So once what we have in this country – our vast reservoir of immensely skilled artistic talent – is gone, it will be gone for good.

What can we do? Anger, criticism and lobbying has thus far been directed at the government and MPs. That’s a good starting point and, in a concrete and focused way, needs to continue; but taking on board three hard realities. Wider public support is mixed and lukewarm. Mr Browne’s attitude is probably quite typical of the modern breed of Tory – these are politicians who would take being labelled ultra-Darwinist as a compliment. And the government clearly feels it’s already done more than enough to help the arts.

Whether they’re right or wrong about the last point, it does raise the question of how the industry intends to help itself – in other words, what are the arts going to do to help artists? Brave pioneering and innovative one-off opera productions are a huge morale-booster, but ultimately the performing model needs to get back to something sustainable – near-capacity audiences on a wide scale – for the freelance operatic ecosystem to survive to any extent. Performances in Paris and other European cities are being held along what seem almost-normal lines, with a little social distancing, compulsory mask-wearing and so on. Surely the UK government can be persuaded to allow something similar; and, at the risk of turning into some sort of aerosolic Cato the Elder, surely the industry can make its case far more persuasive by funding some basic research into how safe it would be?

Opera companies must also think about how they can launch some lifeboats. Even in the face of prospective job losses, they should contemplate how at least a few artistic careers might be saved by moving away from the now-irrelevant brutality of a pure freelance system. What good is an arts industry without artists? Put a few freelancers on contract, even if only for the short term and on minimal wages, and they just might still be artists on the other side of this – and could provide some sorely-needed creative input in the meantime. Not all souls could be saved this way, but that’s no excuse for letting the whole crew drown.

The hardest hit by all of this are the young artists just starting out in their careers. If this is the end of the world as we know it, at least old lags like me have had our moment in the sun, however truncated. Young singers are being kneecapped before they’ve had any time to get going. During their training they’ll have been told to build up a contingency fund – it’s fair to say that very few people saw a pandemic coming, but singers lose voices, break limbs and so on, so a rainy-day back-up of a few months’ income is always judicious. But it takes a few years to build that up, and they haven’t had a chance.

Most of them will not want to follow the official advice and get another job, but many will have no alternative. The problem is that an alternative career, even as a contingency plan, makes its own immediate demands on your time and energy. A young singer might see this now as clearly a short-term stopgap. But as the months and perhaps years drag on, the ex-singer makes progress in their new career – our youngsters are generally a bright and versatile lot, and most would be an asset to any line of work – and they contemplate a return to an industry which is still struggling to revive itself, with singers paid less and singing given less of a priority even than before, that sense of clarity might fade.

What then for an industry model which has evolved to depend on a steady supply of (cheap) young talent? Where then for music colleges which have depended on being able to persuade young people that a viable career exists for them in a thriving classical music industry? Those singers with wealthy family or friends might make it through, but are we really content to stand idle and lose our traditional wealth of talent from less privileged, more diverse backgrounds? No one could blame any young artist for jumping ship right now, and no one who leaves the profession in 2020 should do so tinged with any sort of sense of failure: the failure is the industry’s, not theirs. And the loss would ultimately be ours, not theirs.

Once what we had is gone, it will be gone for good. This crisis is not going away. We need to think seriously about what we want to be left with at the end of it.


Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit:

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Mark Valencia, Opera Magazine

“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – George Hall, BBC Music Magazine

About Paul Carey Jones

All content Copyright © Paul Carey Jones 2010-2023. Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh-Irish opera singer. His first book, based on his hit 'Coronaclassical' blog series, is now on sale worldwide: - You can contact him via comments here or at:
This entry was posted in Art, Coronavirus, Music, Opera, physics, Politics, singing, Theatre, What they don't teach you at music college and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Coronaclassical 19: No Longer Viable

  1. Pingback: Coronaclassical 20: Carthago delenda est | Ranitidine & Tonic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s