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Tom Watson on the Industry’s Darkest Hour and His Hopes for the Future

Neil Churchman interviews the new Chair of UK Music, and former deputy Labour leader, Tom Watson – discussing his experience of taking the helm at a moment of existential threat for the music industry.

Photograph of Tom Watson, chair of UK Music and former deputy Labour leader. Tom is wearing a white shirt and glasses, sitting against a bright background.
Tom Watson, chair of UK Music and former deputy Labour leader. Photo credit: Colin Thomas

Tom Watson’s arrival as Chair of UK Music has coincided with the industry’s darkest hour. The former deputy Labour leader joined the body – which promotes the interests of all parts of the recorded and live music sector – days after lockdown was imposed.

Coronavirus is not the only challenge. Britain’s full departure from the EU is fast approaching, with no sign of a deal on touring visas for musicians or copyright rules. And there are the perennial issues surrounding streaming rights and payments.

In a wide-ranging interview, he tells the MU of his fears, and hopes for the future, and his passion for, among other things, the music of The Specials, Led Zeppelin and Fantastic Negrito.

What has it been like, taking the helm at a moment of existential threat for the music industry?

This is supposed to be a part-time non-executive board job, but since joining on 1 April, I have literally spent every single day trying to deal with some aspect of the impact of Covid on the workers in the sector. I am very concerned that a world-renowned music industry, which pays its taxes and supports public services, is in danger of losing critical infrastructure, because the support packages haven’t been put in place in time.

The only good thing I can say about the current circumstances, is that I am used to dealing with crises. I try to remain very clear-headed about what needs to be done.

What have UK Music’s initial priorities been?

The first month was really about trying to deal with all the member bodies and beyond, to make sure that those people who were really suffering were getting access to the various funds that were set up, and that everyone was talking to each other. In the end there were seven or eight support funds set up and, of course, the MU and Help Musicians were at the absolute heart of that.

While we were doing that, we were making the case for government support and the furlough scheme, and we were lobbying daily to try to close the loopholes, some of which we managed to plug, while others, very sadly, we haven’t been able to close.

What about the next steps, as restrictions ease?

We knew that, at some point, the policy would go from risk elimination, where everyone is locked down in their homes, to risk mitigation, where you are slowly lifting the lockdown.

That’s been the most difficult. In the live sector, people love music, they love congregating in close proximity to each other and communing with artists. That is why so many musicians remain in the industry because they love performing in front of other human beings.

We still haven’t cracked how you move people round big venues safely, so that people can still be paid and make a living. It is tragic, and I am incredibly concerned for anybody who works in live music, from artists to support staff to promoters to venue owners. We are in real trouble.

Do you think the government’s £1.5bn financial rescue package for the arts does enough for music?

We are obviously lobbying to make sure commercial music gets its share. The argument we have put to government is that much of what UK Music members represent does not require public subsidy and has always been commercially successful. We are no longer in that position, so ministers have to understand that we are as valid a cultural sector in this crisis as any other, and we deserve our fair share of transitional support.

How do you think the government has responded generally?

It’s taken time for them to identify the bewildering array of problems that Covid has caused, and it has taken time for us to work out the route map back and to get government to recognise that our claims are valid.

We actually spent the first month trying to look after our own. The first response of most people in the music industry was ‘how do we feed everyone, how do we make sure the rent is paid?’ There was a lot of solidarity and a lot of support and the MU were at the very heart of that, pushing very hard on ministers, shaking the tree, basically trying to marshall everyone’s resources.

I think the government are listening, though it’s a constant struggle, because ministers are getting a thousand problems a day on their desks and we need to make sure we make the case for UK music in all its glory.

What are relations with the government like, particularly as you are dealing with ministers who used to be your political opponents?

Most politicians are pretty mature about this. They know I am playing a less partisan role, and I am not the official opposition anymore. I got through four or five secretaries of state when I was holding down the shadow culture brief and one of my toughest opponents was Matthew Hancock. He welcomed my appointment to UK Music and I appreciated him doing that. When I have been talking to MPs and ministers, they have been very business-like.

The only parallel to Covid I had in politics, was the banking crisis where I was literally working at a desk next door to Gordon Brown. It gives you an understanding of the pressure that the core team at No 10 are under, and also an understanding of the best way to make an argument and to get your case heard in a high-pressure, fast-moving situation.

And that’s what we are trying to do. UK Music is quite lean and has a very small team. We’ve only got nine staff. They are working hard seven days a week to make sure everyone is communicating with each other, and that there are as few surprises as possible. I am really grateful to them and obviously at board level we have got a very great deal of wisdom and experience from all sectors around the table.

You were a high-profile supporter of the Agent of Change campaign to preserve music venues. The government is proposing a relaxation of planning laws, which some fear may pose a new threat to venues. What have you been telling ministers?

Whenever you have these paradigm-shift policy changes, if they get done too quickly there’s always the danger that you throw the baby out with the bath water, or to quote a Conservative philosopher Edmund Burke, ‘change always brings certain loss and only possible gain.’ We have already made it clear to ministers that if they change planning laws it would be catastrophic if we lose the guarantees we have through Agent of Change.

We have got to be vigilant - the devil is in the detail. If you’re rushing through legislation in difficult periods, then these things can unravel quite quickly unless you are keeping an eye on every line in every clause in every bill, and that’s what UK Music does as a service to the sector.

What are your concerns for British musicians and Brexit?

Getting musicians to be able to do European and world tours is the number one priority. We are constantly reminding ministers and civil servants that enabling our musicians, technicians and crews to cross borders has got to be part of the deal.

There’s very great sympathy for the position in government. But this is a negotiated deal between the UK and EU and we need to make sure that both parties understand it’s in everyone’s interest that we allow culture to cross borders as easily as possible.

I was very strongly remain when I was an MP, but there are actually some opportunities for these bilateral trade deals, particularly the deal with US, where we could get a deal that makes it easier for UK musicians to tour in America.

The copyright issue is fiendishly complicated, although the impression I get from ministers I talk to, is that they understand that it is really important that we do get a negotiated deal on that. But we are leaving it awfully late to get that deal.

UK music is respected and revered in every country around the world. What it represents is soft power, and I want to see musicians and leading people from the industry on delegations with ministers in advance of trade deals, making the case for our creative industries and our music sector in particular. But we need a functioning music industry to do that. That’s the long-term prize for both our industry and the government. We want to work in partnership with them on that.

What about the vexed issue of streaming royalties?

There are obviously different views around the UK Music board table. Where we are completely united is that we need to ‘grow the pie’ and make sure that people can have a greater share. That’s our approach right now. I applaud the MU for the campaigns they are running, but at a UK Music level we want to make sure that we can get a shared position on increasing income in the sector in general.

I don’t think anyone in the industry feels comfortable that we have musicians who are having trouble paying bills at the end of the month. Average wages for musicians are much lower than the national average and, sooner or later, if you continue on that downward trajectory, you are going to lose very skilled and brilliant musicians from the market. Britain can’t afford that and neither can commercial music. I do understand how concerned the MU executive are.

Where did your love of music begin?

I am a failed childhood musician. I had guitar lessons and piano lessons and it greatly saddens me that I was rubbish, and very ill-disciplined, but music was in the home. It was the defining characteristic of my early and late teens.

The best live gig I have ever been to was at Birmingham Odeon when I saw Kid Creole and The Coconuts, believe it or not. They were just fantastic live performers. But the band I worship now, and worshipped as a teenager, is The Specials. I was a little bit too young to catch them at the very height of Two-Tone, but I love that band and they have fostered my love of music. They told the story of Britain in the late 1970s and 80s. Their lyrics told the story of people’s lives as they were. And that really reached me.

My first job was as trainee library assistant at the Labour party headquarters in the Walworth Road. It was the time of Red Wedge, and loads of musicians trying to support Labour. So I used to sharpen the pencils for the national Red Wedge committee. The whole experience fostered a real love of culture and music.

I managed to get in the last Black Sabbath gig, with my son, in Birmingham in 2017. Sadly I have never seen AC/DC, and never will now in their original line-up. Obviously from where I grew up in Kidderminster, we didn’t just worship The Specials, we worshipped Led Zeppelin. Robert Plant and John Bonham didn’t live too far away. And I’ve seen Robert Plant a few times now, so I am catching up with my 70s and 80s heroes.

And there’s a whole load of new bands I want to see. About 18 months ago I went up to Dingwalls on the off-chance and saw a roots guy called Fantastic Negrito in front of about 150 people. It was another belting night, probably up there with Kid Creole and The Coconuts. He went on to win a Grammy!

Are you optimistic for the future?

I am optimistic in the sense that, unlike my previous political career, nearly everyone I meet in the music industry is very passionate, very driven, loves what they do and that creates a resilience and an ability to deal with every eventuality.

For someone who has just come from the brutal crucible of politics, it is genuinely uplifting to see people so committed to the sector they love.

It’s too early to be optimistic about how we get out of Covid yet. There are more decisions for government to make, in partnership with us, before I can wave a flag of hope. All I can say is, there is a dedicated team at UK Music doing their best to make sure we pressure ministers every day, to look after what is the jewel in the crown of the creative industries.

Published: 30/07/2020

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