Sunday, June 13

MSP Tom’s musical past has him fired up to fight for musicians


When you go from having a fragile income to financial stability, from uncertainty to security, it is easy to forget where you have come from.

Over the now familiar platform of a video call, I tested Renfrewshire South MSP Tom Arthur on whether he could turn back the clock to his humble beginnings as a keyboard player after almost an entire term in a cosy Holyrood seat.

He started our chat admitting he was a “lapsed musician”, but nonetheless assured me he had not forgotten his roots and had, throughout a challenging 2020, attempted to use them to try and keep a rhythm pulsing through a community longing to retake to the stage.

There is no industry which has remained untouched by coronavirus, but musicians are perhaps a group caught up in its unforgiving grip that not many of us would consider.

The 35-year-old SNP man, however, is striving to make sure their song continues to be heard.

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Long before he found a passion for politics, Tom can recall his first notes on the piano as a 13-year-old, which eventually led to him gaining a music degree and a masters in composition.

Music then became his life. As a director and member of function band the Velvet Five, and a freelance tutor on the side, he rode the rare wave of doing what he loved most full-time, all the while experiencing having a career which always feels like it’s on a knife edge, no matter how successful you become.



Tom performs with his band Velvet Five

And, while he’s very aware of the privileged position he’s now in, he tells me it’s not an existence you simply forget, and one he has tried to mentally transport himself back to during this trying time.

“I’m conscious not to use phrases like ‘I feel their pain’ because I can sympathise, but not really empathise,” said Tom.

“I’m incredibly fortunate to have the position I do as an MSP. It’s an extremely well-paid job and it’s a job which is, to an extent, secure.

“Having said that, it’s not difficult for me to imagine being in that position because I remember the often precarious nature of being in music, especially when you are trying to get established.

“Up until I got elected, I was regularly out every weekend doing weddings and corporate events, as well as pub gigs.

“Since becoming an MSP, I’ve sought to raise issues relevant to musicians in parliament and tried to continue my interest.

“When this pandemic happened, I was devastated for musicians. They live to perform and it’s the reason some of them get up in the morning.

“So the fact they’ve not been able to do their job, which gives them a sense of purpose, has been detrimental to a lot of people’s mental health.”



Tom Arthur of the SNP wins Renfrewshire South in 2016

Tom founded and is convener of the cross-party group on music in the Scottish Parliament and, throughout the pandemic, he’s been able to use his real-life experience to fight for support for performers.

He has clear memories of relying on his students to turn up and on clients to keep the band booked in for their events, and of the ongoing battle to remain popular and current to put money in the bank.

Ahead of a members’ debate he recently secured with fellow MSP Claire Baker on the impact covid has had on musicians, he reached out to performers on social media, asking them how they were finding life during the outbreak.

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It threw up stories of players who had exhausted savings, sometimes being forced to use cash they’d saved for their child’s education to put food on the table. Some said they’d had to make the most of mortgage holidays to avoid debt, while others have had to turn to jobs as delivery drivers to make ends meet.

“For many musicians this has been very significant and some of them I think have perhaps fallen between the cracks in terms of the support available,” added Tom.

“I have always promised myself I would be a voice for them, so that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Tom has since used his position to share musicians’ stories in parliament and make sure someone is highlighting their concerns, which existed long before anyone had heard of social distancing.

“The cross-party group on music is the first group of its kind. It brings together people from a broad range of areas within the music sector,” said Tom.

“That has proven to be quite successful and I worked with MSPs to secure a members’ debate in November on the impact covid has had on musicians.

“I tried to use my speaking time in that debate not to go and elaborate my views but to share the views of musicians. I was inundated with stories from my call on social media and I tried to share as many as possible.

“Lots of projects planned for this year have had to be scrapped and it’s not just the people you see out front who have been affected, it’s everyone else involved, like the sound engineers in pubs, right through to roadies and techies.

“Music is a fragile and complex ecosystem – if you lose one part of it, you can lose another. Even prior to covid, one of the key concerns had been the stability of grassroots music venues, as they act as a sort of incubator for acts to develop. We were also talking about the impact Brexit was going to have.

“You take all of those kinds of issues and just amplify it now with the pandemic. I’m just hoping by summer we may start to see shoots of recovery.”

And that is now Tom’s focus. He doesn’t want music fans in Renfrewshire to be left with just memories of great gigs at the Spree and the Bungalow in Paisley, he wants to fight for the future of live music.

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The Scottish Government launched a £59million funding package back in August to help protect jobs in the culture and arts sector and support the industry to recover.

Included in that was a £15m Culture Organisations and Venues Recovery Fund, £5m to help artists to continue developing new work and £3m for youth arts, including a funding boost for the Youth Music Initiative which will provide work for musicians.

These won’t resolve everything, but Tom hopes he and his colleagues can keep sharing ideas to ensure the show goes on for performers in Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about how we can try and get round things in the future. One of the things which could be deployed, potentially, is a testing regime to allow access to gigs, a bit like the one we’ve recently had in Johnstone,” added Tom.

“While I don’t think we will get some big moment when we can just pull up the shutters and live music will be alive and kicking again, we can look for opportunities as we learn more about the virus and about how the vaccine works.

“Parts of the country have Tier 1 recently where pilots have started to take place around live music, and that’s something we’ll look at eventually.

“If and when we get to the point where the authorities say there is no risk anymore, then I’ll be saying to everyone to just try and get to any live gig you can and support musicians.

“But, for now, just look for any other ways you can to support them. If they are streaming gigs, watch them.

“More than anything, we must keep adhering to the guidance.

“The best way to support musicians is to do everything we can to get us to a point where this virus is no longer a threat, so we must keep focusing on driving the levels down.”





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