How the pandemic has affected women in the music industry

Pre-pandemic, women in the music industry faced huge challenges that impacted their mental health, from being taken less seriously to juggling their careers with childcare. Here, Lydia Smith explores how the sudden shift created by COVID-19 has both magnified and exacerbated these pressures.

  • By Lydia Smith
  • 2 Mar 2021
  • min read

Three days before sound engineer Hannah Brodrick was due to go on tour, she was told it had been cancelled because of the COVID-19 outbreak. It was 9 March 2020, two weeks before the UK would enter its first full lockdown.

‘I was absolutely devastated because it was my first solid chunk of work since November 2019 and I was low on cash and morale,’ she says. At that time, Brodrick, who runs the organisation Women in Live Music, had no idea the rest of the year would be wiped out by the pandemic too.

‘In some ways I’m glad because I don’t know what I would have done,’ she says. ‘I have been luckier than most however to actually have had bits and pieces of streaming and socially-distant gigs. Only a handful, but it has kept me somewhat together.’

Nonetheless, the crisis has taken its toll on Brodrick and her wellbeing. ‘It sounds odd, but I don’t recognise myself from a year ago,’ she says. ‘I feel very disassociated and am having a bit of an identity crisis. I am constantly questioning everything and wondering what to do with my future, whereas before I felt very secure.’

Almost overnight, the live music industry shut down. Gigs were cancelled, tours and festivals called off and pubs, clubs and venues forced to close. Not only did it affect artists, but the thousands of people working alongside them, from sound engineers and road crew to venue workers and tour managers.

'Every source of music income for me has been put on hold.’

A year on, the UK is in its third lockdown and those in the music industry are still facing employment uncertainty, financial hardship and a lack of government support. In September, a survey by the Musicians’ Union revealed that one third of musicians in the UK have considered abandoning the industry entirely. Unsurprisingly, the crisis has taken a dramatic toll on the mental health of those working in the music industry, particularly women.

Research has shown women are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the economic fallout, with women’s jobs 1.8 times more vulnerable to the crisis than men’s jobs. Huge numbers of women in music have found themselves taking on the burden of unpaid care, while trying to keep their heads above water financially and grappling with the loss of their independence and careers.

Prior to the pandemic, Mary Leay’s work as a published songwriter signed to Reservoir Media consisted of going to writing and recording sessions, meeting artists and producers and more. With a two-year-old daughter and a separate role as the co-developer of Mamas In Music, a group supporting mothers in the music industry, her life was busy but fulfilling.

‘There’s no getting away from it, the pandemic has turned our world upside down and the daily struggles are very real,’ she says. ‘My income stream depends on the artist performing the songs I have written, live performances, tours, and DJs playing my songs in clubs, along with writing for film and TV. Every source of music income for me has been put on hold.’

'I had already had a year of feeling quite isolated at times being a new mum. I had just started to find my feet again and it all changed pretty much overnight. I’ve suffered with anxiety and stress.'

Her daughter was due to start nursery last year, but when childcare facilities closed, all parenting duties fell on her. ‘We couldn’t share the ‘daytime’ duties because my husband works long hours and was on back-to-back meetings most of the day,’ Leay says.

‘I love my daughter more than anything and it goes without saying this is a full-time job in itself and one parents should be proud of,” she adds. “The key thing is that I was doing both beforehand and although that juggle was hard, losing the job that had been part of me for most of my life and which had given me my identity felt so much harder than the challenge of juggling.’

Prior to COVID-19, the motherhood penalty meant women in the arts were already more likely to be in part-time or freelance work, earning lower wages or facing job insecurity. Now, the pressure of school and nursery closures combined with lack of job opportunities is having an enormous impact on their wellbeing.

One in four women in the arts are doing 90 percent or more of the childcare and are struggling to work, or look for employment, according to Parents and Carers in Performing Arts (PIPA). More than a third of women with caring responsibilities are experiencing a mental health crisis, with many reporting feeling lonely, stressed and anxious.

For Leay, the impact on her mental health has been significant. ‘I had already had a year of feeling quite isolated at times being a new mum. I had just started to find my feet again and it all changed pretty much overnight. I’ve suffered with anxiety and stress,’ she says. ‘I had to find my creative time as though it was a part-time hobby, working when my daughter slept.’

For many music professionals, work isn’t just about making ends meet financially. It’s a part of their identity and sense of self, and a way of expressing themselves.

‘When you’re a creative person, you don’t realise your job is your creative outlet,’ says Dom Frazer, who runs The Boileroom in Guildford. The venue, a hub for the local alternative music scene, closed last year but has made ends meet since with a combination of arts funding, crowdfunding and live-streaming gigs and interviews.

‘We shut The Boileroom on 17 March 2020. From that point we could sense there was something bad on the horizon. It felt very apocalyptic,’ she says. ‘Suddenly you’re like, what else can we do? The live-streaming is great for that, and for connecting with other people in the same position as us. I don’t think we would have ever done that because we were so busy working and putting on shows.’

Although Frazer and her all-women management team have adapted to the difficult circumstances, it hasn’t been easy. ‘It’s a positive thing, but it’s brutal, and there have been days where I can’t get out of bed. It’s really challenging and I know I’m not alone in that.’

 ‘Nobody is reaching out anymore or asking to shadow. Everyone is being advised to go into other professions.’

Frazer also acknowledges that The Boileroom has been lucky to receive support, as for many, the lack of government funding has been the final straw. Unsurprisingly, musicians have accused the government of failing to recognise the sector’s cultural, social and economic worth, particularly with the distinctly unsympathetic advice to ‘retrain’ and find a new job.

Tight eligibility for the SEISS grants mean thousands of self-employed musicians and music workers have fallen through the gap. For many women, taking a period of maternity leave or working reduced working hours due to care responsibilities has meant missing out on financial support entirely.

With fewer women already working in music jobs, there are fears the pandemic will have a lasting impact on gender equality across the industry. As a mentor for women sound engineers, Brodrick has already noticed a change in the number of women looking for advice. ‘Nobody is reaching out anymore or asking to shadow. Everyone is being advised to go into other professions,’ she says.

‘It makes me incredibly worried about the future generation of women in the industry, as often they do need a bit of extra encouragement and guidance. If a pandemic had happened when I had just graduated, I probably wouldn’t have stuck around trying to get a job in music.’

If you're struggling - mentally or financially - as a result of the pandemic, you can find a list of helpful resources on the PRS for Music website