COVID-19 has created ‘a crisis within a crisis’ for live performance in the UK

  • Date

    Wed 5 May 21

microphone siloutted against empty stage

Live performers are facing a “crisis within a crisis” according to researchers at the University of Essex, as lockdown devastates work opportunities and leaves the future for live performance venues – already under pressure before COVID-19 – in jeopardy.

As the world opens up to the ‘new normal’ and the industry struggles to its feet, the interim report by Essex Business School’s Centre for Work, Organization and Society, provides an insight into the hopes and fears of live performers in the UK and suggests what the industry will need going forward.

The study, funded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, surveyed 200+ self-employed live performers – actors, musicians, dancers, comedians and other live performance artists.

Their responses showed how the pandemic has highlighted both the value and vulnerability of the UK’s creative workforce. 99% of respondents to the survey told researchers that they had lost all their live performance work, meaning that 76% had lost their sole or primary income.

A third of these performers were not eligible for government support and half the respondents had to take work outside the industry. As well as the worry over making ends meet during lockdown, performers reported concerns that their profile as performers had been damaged, perhaps irreparably, and lockdown/social distancing had negatively impacted on their relationship with their audience.

Paul W. Fleming, General Secretary, Equity (@EquityUK), welcomed the report: “As well as highlighting the profound impact of COVID19 on people working in the creative industries in the form of personal, financial, artistic and technical challenges and opportunities, this report also shows the systemic problems that contribute to structural inequalities and precarity in our industries. Equity welcomes this evidence and further work envisaged in this project which we hope will provide a driver for change.”

Despite many performers reporting lockdown as an opportunity to develop creative, artistic and technical skills, to build a global audience base, to combine work and home more seamlessly, to identify ways of working that are potentially more accessible, inclusive and sustainable, there were serious concerns about the immediate and long-term impact of the pandemic on their working lives as self-employed performers, and on the industry more generally.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the loss of proximity to an audience, and of opportunities to connect in an immersive and interactive way with fellow performers has resulted in significant artistic challenges; practical and skills-based limitations have constrained the possibilities attached to performing online, and of most concern, the financial implications of COVID have been identified as nothing short of potentially ‘catastrophic’.

Concerns are also raised about the impact of COVID on a social justice agenda within the industry. A contributor to the survey, Tom Carradine, shared his fears for the future: “It does worry me that without continued support the industry is going to lose so much diversity and creativity as venues/producers prioritize “safe” programming.”

Professors Philip Hancock and Melissa Tyler, authors of Performing During/After Lockdown: A Study of the Impact of COVID-19 on Live Performers in the UK said: “The live streaming of shows and artistic performances have been vital to keeping people entertained during lockdown. As venues and events prepare to re-open, however, a return to live performance will be important for both social and economic recovery post-COVID. Our research considers what support these performers, and the industry as a whole, might need to make a sustainable and equitable recovery from the pandemic.

“More research is needed, and the next stage for us is to interview 50+ performers to find out more about the challenges and opportunities the last 12 months has brought, and to understand more about what the future for self-employed live performers in the UK is likely to be.”


Analysis of the responses to the survey identified five key issues necessary to a sustainable future, post-COVID, for self-employed performers and for the live performance industry.

  1. In the immediate term, the extension of the SEISS and access to Universal Credit for self-employed performers.
  2. Travel/subsistence funding schemes in order to make travelling to a smaller number of live events financially viable once venues re-open.
  3. Grass-roots business support schemes to sustain the small/independent venues on which self-employed performers rely while audiences rebuild confidence.
  4. The introduction of a Universal Basic Income for creative workers to sustain post-COVID recovery.
  5. A systemic review of the funding of arts and creative work in the UK, including an evaluation of differential access to live streaming opportunities (e.g., reliable internet access), and a review of possible subsidies to support access, equipment and skills development, as well as practical support and legal protection against regressive working conditions.