The implications of the impact of COVID-19 for musicians and live performance venues: an agent’s perspective

As international concern about coronavirus spreads and different governments give different advice and introduce different measures to deal with what has now been designated a pandemic, those of us who work in live performance are facing an uncertain professional and financial situation as venues close, engagements are cancelled, and predictions over the severity and duration of the outbreak seem confusing, not to say downright contradictory.

As a boutique music and events management agency, we at Polyphony Arts are extremely sensitive to the impact this will have on our clients. We are a team of three women with differing demands on our time, which means we are used to flexible and remote working, enjoying the ability to use email and videoconferencing calls to manage our clients’ business around the world as well as enjoying each other’s company in our regular co-working sessions. If we have to self-isolate, we can, technically, continue with business as usual.

But our business is dependent upon the artists and arts organisations we represent, and our concern has to be protecting their careers in the medium to longer term, and their income as an immediate priority. These are the questions we have been increasingly facing as the virus and the accompanying measures dominate our headlines.

There are, of course, several aspects to this crisis which have implications for musicians who rely on their physical presence and skill to earn their living, and venues and organisations who rely on the physical presence of those performers and the wider public to generate their revenue.

So the first question, of course, is how is the virus likely to impact the performing arts in light of this?

The evolving medical situation

We know the virus is highly contagious. The statistics show a high rate of infection and spread within the population. People with compromised immune systems and other underlying health issues, especially the elderly, are particularly vulnerable. All of us are asking, how can I protect myself and how can I protect those who are close to me and those who are especially vulnerable? This is, understandably, almost immediately followed by question: what are the implications for my work is a live performer or for my business is a live performance venue or event?

Our first port of call for help and advice on how to manage ourselves is, not unreasonably,  our government(s). In the UK this can be found on the UK government website under various headings. The current advisory for those who believe they have contracted the virus can be found here:

The main messages are:

  • if you have symptoms of coronavirus infection (COVID-19), however mild, stay at home and do not leave your house for seven days from when your symptoms started.
  • plan ahead and ask others for help to ensure that you can successfully stay at home
  • ask your employer, friends and family to help get the things you need to stay at home
  • stay at least two metres (about three steps) away from other people in your home whenever possible
  • sleep alone, if that is possible
  • wash your hands regularly for 20 seconds, each time using soap and water
  • stay away from vulnerable individuals such as the elderly and those with underlying health conditions as much as possible
  • you do not need to call NHS111 to go into self-isolation. If your symptoms worsen during home isolation or are no better after seven days call or contact NHS 111 online.

Arguably these measure should also apply if you believe you have been in contact with someone who has contracted the virus.

Travel restrictions

Staying home is fine, if you have no engagements and need to put in some serious time practising your scales (assuming the dry cough that is one of the symptoms will let you), but not if you have engagements in your calendar.

And what if you feel perfectly well, but those engagements are overseas? We now know Italy is in lockdown so all concerts and public events are cancelled even if you could get a flight into the country. The US has (reluctantly) introduced a ban on travel to and from various countries (but not the UK and Ireland?!) The landscape is changing every day. When I began researching this article two days ago, there was a page on the government website with advice for travellers returning to the UK from overseas. Visiting it again today, I find it has been withdrawn and I am redirected to the page quoted above giving stay at home guidance.

International travel seems to be pretty much off the table. Flights are being cancelled (we might spare a thought here for the airline industry which operates on extremely tight margins and which is also deeply worried about the survival of some carriers).

But, even if you managed to get yourself to your venue in Belgium, say, or Japan? The likelihood is that you will find it closed and events cancelled. Yesterday,, the official website of BBC music magazine, published a list of tours and festivals that have been cancelled or postponed due to coronavirus (which we should now refer to by its proper title: COVID-19)

That list is only set to grow.

Contractual matters

So the next question for both performers and venues is, inevitably, what about our contracts? What are the terms for cancellation and how will this affect my income?

Solicitors, Harbottle & Lewis, who represent a number of significant music clients have a issued an overview of the likely legal position regarding those contracts in English law – many of the principles are likely to be similar in other jurisdictions. You can read their insight here:

To summarise, it is likely your contract contain a force majeure clause. This is a clause which spells out what happens if any one of the parties to that contract cannot perform their contractual obligations because of events outside their control. This is likely to cover the coronavirus pandemic as a “triggering event”. The clause will also set out if the parties are allowed more time to perform their obligations, who pays any increased costs, and whether there is a right to terminate the contract. But this is a matter of interpreting the contract’s exact wording. Many force majeure clauses require contract performance not to be possible at all. If a venue has been closed because of government requirements that may be seen differently from a musician deciding to self-isolate because they feel unwell or have had contact with a sufferer. This is important! Harbottle & Lewis are very clear: “careful analysis of the wording of your contract is important to make sure that you are not jeopardising your position. Getting it wrong can have serious consequences, and may put you in breach of your contract.”

But what if you have read your contract and it does not appear to contain a force majeure clause? In that situation you may find you are subject to what lawyers call “the doctrine of frustration”. Now, we are all feeling pretty frustrated with the whole COVID-19 situation, but this is a specific legal concept which arises where a party to a contract simply cannot fulfil a fundamental obligation under that contract, due, for example, to an unforeseen event such as the government locking down all travel or a venue closing due to a contamination. In this case the parties are released from their contractual obligations. (Again, it all depends on the exact wording of the contract in question).

Financial consequences

But, of course, that includes the obligation to pay fees. It may be frustrating and disappointing to find you won’t be playing the Walton viola concerto to a packed audience in King’s Lynn, but it is downright worrying to know that you won’t be getting paid either and there’s plenty more of that coming down the line. Similarly, it may be heart breaking to see all the careful preparation and plans you have made for your beautiful festival coming to nothing, but it may also, and more importantly, be actually bank-breaking to have paid out in anticipation of the event and not being able to realise the income. And what about all that grant funding you have been awarded and, in part, already spent? We are still waiting upon the Arts Council to decide on its policy in this regard and many other grant funding bodies large and small will have to be taking similar positions regarding the repayment or otherwise of moneys awarded to projects that have to be cancelled.

What can you do? The answer at the moment is not a comforting one. If you have cancellation insurance, that’s great, but it is very expensive and only large venues and events can really afford to carry it. The latest budget announced by the Chancellor this week offered a lot of help to small businesses who are affected by COVID-19, but most of this is unlikely to reach arts organisations and individual, self-employed musicians.

People who are not eligible for sick pay such as the self-employed will now be able to claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) from day one of illness rather than day eight. ESA is form of aid to those who are too sick to work (provided they meet certain conditions) and is worth £73.10 a week (£57.90 if you a child genius i.e. under-25). Not exactly riches. There are now calls for statutory sick pay to be extended to the self-employed.

But there are also knock-on effects that are not caught directly by advice or legislation. How do people with young children manage to continue working if child care centres and schools close? Our founder and director, Katie, has a three year-old son. She is very dependent on regular childcare to run the agency. We have had a lot of conversations among ourselves about the implications for her and all three of us if Sam can’t go to his pre-school. We all know musicians who are in a similar situation.

Some options you may have

As agents we can’t force venues to open or contracts to be honoured nor should we if we want to be responsible in doing our bit to help mitigate the spread of the virus, but what we can do for our clients is be proactive in managing cancellations and asking for rebookings even if these are as far ahead as 2021. If a venue liked our artists well enough to book them now, why wouldn’t they be sympathetic to moving that booking to a time when we all hope this situation will have finally passed? There is a lot of good will out there amidst all the stress; tap into it!

If you do not have representation, this advice still works for you. Speak to your promoters and venues. Some circumstances are out of your control; being pro-active about managing cancelled engagements going forwards is something you can and should be exploring.. 

A final word

Finally, and this is a personal message from us all at Polyphony Arts, one of the best things you can do, and one that can get lost in the blizzard of conflicting information and anxiety, is to take care of yourselves. This is a stressful time for all of us and one of the hidden casualties of the virus is not our physical, but our mental health. Take care, and be aware of your stress and do your best to manage your well-being. The music community is a close knit and supportive one. We need to stand together, to be responsible, and to take care of ourselves and each other. Our livelihoods and our industry depend upon it.

Margaret Pinder

Music Manager, Polyphony Arts

At Polyphony Arts we strive to support musicians through the opportunities and challenges of being part of the modern music scene. If you’d like to join our mailing list for free tips and advice, you can sign up here

If you are interested in our range of services and online courses for musicians, you can read more about them here

Disclaimer: this article is drawn from a number of identified sources. Polyphony Arts does not hold itself out to have any expert knowledge of the medical or legal content of this article. If readers have any questions or concerns about the issues touched on here, we recommend they seek appropriate specialist medical or legal advice.


The World Health Organisation also provides some advice on how to cope with stress during the outbreak: (USA)

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