The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on arts and culture around the world. Here in the UK, the damage in many ways has been greater than elsewhere. Other European countries were much quicker to offer financial aid to theatres that couldn’t open, orchestras that couldn’t perform, and freelance artists who couldn’t earn a living. The government acted at a glacial pace, allowing the first victims to fall (chief amongst them major theatres in Southampton, Manchester, and Plymouth) before announcing a £1.57 billion rescue package.

During the weeks in which impending doom got closer and closer, it was the too-big-to-fail organisations that dominated the coverage: the National Theatre, Southbank Centre, Royal Albert Hall, and the Royal Opera House. These are the “crown jewels” that the government’s package will most likely prioritize and there are now major fears in the arts world that these behemoths, as during normal times, will soak up a great proportion of the funding, whilst freelancers and small fringe venues will fall through the cracks.

Not much has been said about “the little guys”: small venues that receive little to no funding, touring theatres and opera companies of no fixed abode; and music ensembles that perform the length and breadth of the UK, supporting thousands of freelance artists. These are the organisations that reach the audiences who don’t have regular access to the aforementioned “crown jewels”; audiences which, largely, are outside of London.

I work for one such organization, The Marian Consort, a vocal ensemble. We have no set home or venue. We have a tiny management (a part-time General Manager, an Artistic Director, and some trustees). Our artists are all freelancers, we employ upwards of forty each year. We commission composers and artists, employ freelance videographers and recording engineers. We receive no regular public funding, but rely on performance fees, occasional funding from trusts, foundations, and individual patrons. Through our performance, education, and digital work, we reach about 1.5 million people every year. We’re one of the myriad performing arts companies that make up a vibrant arts and culture scene that has been put on ice for best part of four months.

Back in March, our first taste of what was to come in lockdown came on the morning of a concert. I was called to say our concert that evening was to be cancelled. Back then it seemed a little extreme, almost silly, to cancel. Surely this was overkill? The promoter, very generously, agreed to honour the fee.

By the end of the week though, it was no laughing matter; cancellations came thick and fast. Late March wee were meant to release a new album and begin a tour of the programme to Edinburgh, Cambridge, Japan (itself a week-long tour, three years in the making), and Somerset. We’ve been fortunate that the majority of our concerts have been rescheduled for 2021.

Our latest album, Singing in Secret, consisted of music written by William Byrd in the final part of his life, in which he pondered and celebrated his Catholic faith behind closed doors amid a climate of oppression and executions. The title (innocently chosen back in 2019) spookily mirrored the situation we found ourselves in, and the music offered real solace to our listeners. For me personally, his meditation Infelix ego was a talisman through those initial worrying weeks of isolation (alongside Mahler, Dua Lipa, and Simon & Garfunkel).

Since the initial shock and worry of losing tens of thousands of pounds of income, the vast majority of which goes directly to our freelance artists, we have mounted a successful fundraising campaign. We were fortunate to be one of 2,182 organisations to receive emergency funding from the quick-thinking Arts Council England, awarding grants of up to £35,000 to be spent by October. Thanks to another substantial grant, we’re in a safe financial position – for now.

This funding has provided resources with which we can offer our freelance artists much-needed work as we launch our first digital season. This is work for the short term however; we will perform in Switzerland in October, where lockdown measures started to be relaxed back in early May, but we still have little sense of when live performances can resume here in the UK. The government package will help, but we’re by no means out of the woods yet. There will still be venues closed, redundancies made. What the cultural landscape will look like come 2022, aside from the biggest outlets, is anyone’s guess.

The outpouring of art online has been inspiring, morale-boosting, and Im sure for many artists and audience members, the only thing that’s kept them sane. Ironically, my number one lockdown performance was Igor Levit’s 15-hour performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations, a work which calls for the same page of music to be performed 840 times, which pushes the performer as far from sane as one can get. This was a performance that lost nothing but gained much by being transmitted digitally: we saw his anguish and sweat, frustration and delirium in HD; the bird’s eye view of a growing white sea of A4 sheets, each tossed on to the floor on completion, with the remaining stack seemingly never shrinking. It was a real piece of cinema.

Many large organisations have enjoyed success online. The National Theatre secured huge viewing figures for full productions streamed on YouTube. A few smaller, forward-thinking organisations that were thinking about digital before lockdown provided brilliant online offerings, such as Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, and Manchester Collective’s online programme. Programmes that have cost thousands, even millions of pounds to make, have been available to watch for free (although, of course, many viewers have chosen to donate).

The accessibility is brilliant. But what this is doing to the public’s perception of the value of art is not brilliant. It is of a piece with the way engagement with streaming platforms has proved inequitable for artists and ensembles. Since 2015, The Marian Consort has been streamed nearly 300,000 times on Spotify. Royalties from this have totalled about £1000. Perhaps its too late to reverse the culture, but we must try. Artists and small organisations are beginning to build momentum around a campaign to tackle this incredibly unfair system, and we must continue to put pressure on DCMS to engage with the issue.

On the flip side, much of the online content put out in lockdown revealed an industry that was woefully ill-equipped to produce work digitally. And as I’m seeing other managers and impresarios say that people are tired of watching things on screen, it’s clear many are simply waiting to return to life as it was. They are unwilling to invest in digital capability and the creative and audience-building opportunities it presents.

So, what is The Marian Consort doing? Well, we’re experimenting in our own small way, to see if we can create a model that works and encourage people to pay for the arts online. Our digital season launches on 30 July, and we’ll be offering six 50-minute programmes, centred around our music, and collaborating with poets, actors, academics, artists, filmmakers, and musicians. Each programme will cost you less than a fiver.

Alongside this we’ll be offering plenty of extras for free: podcasts, short videos, interviews, articles, and a series of visual arts commissions. The first of these comes from Kivu Ruhorahoza, a filmmaker and visual artist based in Rwanda. We’ve tried hard to ensure we’re offering something different, something that is made for the platform, and something with broad appeal.

And in the future, we want to build this into our normal activity. When we tour a concert to five different cities, we’ll film it and create a digital version with its own creative integrity that we can disseminate to reach audiences all over, even if we’re not with them physically. It is crucial, though, that it is made for the platform; whatever goes online is competing with Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, Instagram. So, in the same way we make opera for an opera house, or chamber music for a recital hall, performances for online have to be created for online, and draw on the wealth of creative opportunity it offers.

Whether live or digital, classical music needs to live more dangerously. We need to make the case for the intrinsic value of the music more strongly. We need, more than anything, to widen our audience base.

How do we do this? One priority should be commissioning more new music from a much wider and diverse range of artists. We must show audiences, and particularly young audiences, that this is a living, breathing art form, and that anyone can be a part of it. The Marian Consort was founded to perform old music; now, one of our top priorities moving forward is to commission more, building on the twelve works we’ve helped bring into the world so far. Next year we’ll bring three more.

Another priority should be to really question formats and venues. Our traditional concert venues can feel more akin to a sacred space than a stage for creativity and experimentation. The audiences we need to reach often feel intimidated. I’m not suggesting we tear them down, but we must put music into galleries, clubs, pubs, parks, warehouses, care homes, hospitals, and schools far more than we are currently. Discussion on the airwaves, in columns, and online suggests that much of the industry is beginning to recognise this, although as much out of present necessity for large and outdoor spaces as out of desire. Critics and arts leaders herald (the brilliant and hard-working) Multi-Story Orchestra, so-called for presenting classical music in carparks, as if it’s at the cutting edge of audience development: it will be 10 years old next year, and by no means the first to leave the concert hall behind with great results.

Music education is of greatest importance. While state support for music education continues to seep away, it’s down to us more than ever to step into the breach. Whilst I believe the state should be supporting education with cash, we can’t wait around for this to happen if we want a next generation of artists. For organisations like mine, education work is often treated as a bolt-on, secondary to the performance, and budget-permitting. We’ve set ourselves the target by 2023 of ensuring 65% of performances have an educational element attached, but this doesn’t really tackle the problem. What’s needed is more embedded, long-term relationships between artists, venues/festivals, and schools, with regular and varied opportunities for young people to learn and perform.

One project we’re particularly proud of combined many of the elements I’ve talked about. In commissioning composer Gabriel Jackson to create a new work for us, we asked him to write a part that could be sung by a children’s choir alongside us on stage. We performed the piece ten times throughout 2018 in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales, joining with children’s choirs to do workshops, rehearse and perform. It’s not every day that a child performs in a world premiere. Gavin, ten years old, said “I learnt that music can be fun and brings people together.” Brady, also ten, said “Thank you for visiting our school – I loved it so much. I really hope you can come again.”

This work is going to be difficult. We’re going to have to change our priorities and our measures of success. I’m making more work for people like myself and stretching budgets further than ever before. But I sincerely believe it will result in a culture of healthier and happier artists, working in a more interesting and prosperous classical music scene, reaching bigger audiences both live and online.

James Hardie is General Manager of The Marian Consort

The Marian Consort’s digital season launches on Thursday 30 July with Byrd Song. Find out more details here: