Impact of Covid-19 on the Entertainment Sector: Music Entertainment Association of Ireland

This meeting with representatives from the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland, MEAI, has been convened to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on the entertainment sector. I welcome Mr. Jackie Conboy, a co-founder of the MEAI, and his colleague, Mr. Matt McGranaghan. They will be joining us remotely via Microsoft Teams. The format of the meeting is that I will invite our witnesses to make their opening statements which will be followed by questions from members of the committee. As our guests are probably aware, the committee may publish their opening statements on its website following the meeting. I am afraid members will have to listen to some housekeeping rules again if that is all right. Our guests opening statements will be limited to three minutes.

I must advise our guests of the following with respect to parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks and I ask they comply. As our witnesses are attending remotely from outside of the Leinster House campus, they should note that there are limitations to parliamentary privilege and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present does.

I invite Mr. Conboy to make his opening statement on behalf of the MEAI.

Mr. Jackie Conboy

The MEAI would like to thank the Chairman, the joint committee and the clerk to the committee for their work and for the invitation to the MEAI to attend today to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on the music and entertainment sector. The MEAI would also like to thank most sincerely the members of this committee and Members of the Oireachtas in general who have raised issues relating to this sector and offered their voice and assistance to the association on numerous occasions.

On 12 March 2020, the music and entertainment industry ground to a sudden halt as a result of Covid-19. As the days passed beyond the initial lockdown, it became apparent that as long as social distancing was a requirement to slow the spread of Covid-19, the industry would be at its mercy. As of today, 23 June 2021, we are now on day 469 of lockdown or of severe restrictions which prevent those in our sector from working. On 27 April 2021, the MEAI made a written submission to this joint committee on the Impact of Covid-19 on the music and entertainment sector. In that submission, we highlighted a number of areas of concern for consideration including social protection, banking issues, business supports from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, sector-specific supports from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media and guidelines, consideration and provisions for reopening. Since then, the landscape has changed considerably and issues relating to certain topics in that submission require urgent and swift action. These issues are: the proposed cuts to the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, from September and the transitioning of recipients on the lowest rate to jobseeker’s allowance, thus classifying them as unemployed; the need for social protection measures and sector supports when the sector is in a state of phased reopening and for those supports to continue until the sector can function fully without restrictions or social distancing; the fact that the music and entertainment business assistance scheme, MEBAS, contains criteria to which other Government supports are not subject, namely, minimum business costs and publication of recipients; and the fact that Fáilte Ireland guidelines, which state that no live or loud music or performances are permitted, are preventing the sector from a phased reopening process - we would like to see test gigs conducted in licensed premises and social settings so that guidelines can be created for the safe and responsible return of live entertainment in those settings. We recommend that the VAT rate for our sector be aligned with that relating to the tourism and hospitality sector because this would provide a meaningful stimulus and support for the sector when reopening can take place.

There is a great lack of understanding of and various misconceptions about the nature of the music and entertainment sector and how it works. The Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas we have been fortunate enough to engage with over the past 16 months all have an understanding of the severity of the problems and have empathy and sympathy for the situation, but this compassion and comprehension is not necessarily reflected in the slow roll-out of the supports we have been promised up to now. I thank the committee.

I appreciate Mr. Conboy's very positive comments. Many members of the committee are directly or indirectly involved in the industry as well, or were in former lives. I believe Mr. McGranaghan is not going to give a presentation but he is there for answers as well, as we have a very short session. I advise members that rather than the speaking slot method we used last time, we are going to use indication. If members are interested in putting questions or comments to our guests, they can indicate via Teams. Deputy Munster has done so, so she may begin.

I thank the Chair. I raise the recently announced changes to the PUP and the effects it will have on the sector. It will reclassify people as unemployed, so what effect will this have on the ability of those the association represents to work or receive supports? Does it also mean people could lose funding under the live performance support scheme, LPSS, should they accept work?

Mr. Matt McGranaghan

Our concern is over the proposed cuts to the PUP for September. It would mean those people who are moved to the lowest rate would then be transitioning to jobseeker's allowance. We have raised the issue before of the protection the PUP offers people from the point of view of-----

(Interruptions).

Mr. Matt McGranaghan

------and the point of view of insurance as well. To classify a self-employed person as unemployed, our understanding is that person would need to wrap up their business as well.

On the PUP support and where it stands at the moment with the LPSS, we are concerned that because people cannot sign back on to the PUP, there may be this false economy which is being supported by the LPSS and the funding that is given through that. People may only be able to take a certain amount of unemployment out of that because of the limitation of €960 over an eight-week period for their earnings. We understand also, from speaking to the Department of Social Protection, that any expenses during that are only applied to the eight-week period as well. If earnings and expenses were taken over the course of the year, as in a normal business, that would be a more understandable way of looking at it. We are concerned at the moment people may be in a position where, if they get some employment in July or August, they will be forced to sign off the PUP and then they will have no support further on into winter. We would be going into a period of natural closing down of the industry anyway as it is seasonal.

I apologise to Deputy Munster but I must keep these slots short to get to everybody. I must move on.

I call Senator Carrigy. I ask him to be as brief as he can to give everybody a chance to get in. I remind members we only have 20 minutes for this session, so I ask them to keep it to one question, comment or statement so I can give everybody a shot.

I thank the Chair. I welcome our guests. I have one short point related to something brought up by the Minister, Deputy Martin, about the arts industry, that is, the whole thing of a living wage. I think in some other European countries a minimum wage is set for people in this industry. Do our guests feel this is something that should be done across their sector as well? Over the next 12-month period, probably, people are not going to be able to get full time work. This would mean that if there are changes to the PUP, there would be a minimum wage set and the support mechanism would be put in place and we would not have a situation where people would go on jobseeker's allowance.

Mr. Jackie Conboy

I thank the Senator. Again, we think it is step in the right direction. If it is across both sides, that is, the commercial and non-commercial sector, we would like to be engaging with that. The only problem is that it is further down the line. There are more immediate problems we have to deal with sooner because we cannot see that coming in before the middle of next year.

I thank Mr. Conboy and Mr. McGranaghan for their contributions and for being very effective representatives for the thousands of musicians and technicians who are a critically important part of our cultural output in Ireland. I have one quick observation to make and then a question to follow it. As we recover from the pandemic and begin slowly to reopen our economy, there are sections of the economy where it is exceptionally straightforward to determine they are open, functioning and providing full employment. For example, if hairdressers are open, they are open. Their employees come back and they provide that service. Due to the nature of the music industry, that coming back process is going to be very slow and transitionary in nature. As Mr. McGranaghan said earlier, it is also affected by the normal seasonal ebbs and flows of the industry in any event. What do our guests suggest is the best model for continuing to support artists and technicians in the music and entertainment industry, which would allow for the transitional phase to happen in a successful manner so nobody goes over the edge and ceases to be part of the industry and that they are supported and nurtured back to full health, if I can put it that way? I suspect that will not happen until sometime early next summer. That is my assessment of how long this is going to take. For our guests, as representatives of that industry, what is the best model to allow for that support to continue in a very effective way?

Mr. Matt McGranaghan

I thank the Deputy. One of the most effective supports we have is the PUP. When we see that being reduced come September, we are very concerned that is going to be a repeat of last year whereby, as other sectors slowly reopened, there were reductions and then, as the larger lockdown happened in October, the rate went back up again. The PUP is a critical life support but it should be enhanced with additional supports. The LPSS is a very good support. We could be critical of certain aspects of it, certainly, and it does not get out all the time to everyone who needs it, so we must look at other ways of ensuring subsidies can be given right across all the different sectors.

One of the greatest supports could be to make guidelines that will allow for work to happen in a safe and responsible manner and not just put this blanket ban on. That could then encourage a lot of workers back to licensed premises, hotels and weddings. That is probably one of the best real-life supports, along with maintaining the PUP.

I have two quick questions. The MEAI representatives said they asked the Minister in August 2020 for a review of the professional artists on jobseeker's allowance scheme. What was the response to this request? They also mentioned the failure to recognise musicians, sound engineers, road crews and so forth as sole traders. Do they see this as a major obstacle to their industry?

Mr. Matt McGranaghan

I thank the Deputy Mythen. The professional artists on jobseeker's allowance scheme was through the Department of Social Protection. We have asked if that could be reviewed. We have not received an update on that. As that stands currently, a person must be a member of a recognised body and the only recognised body in Ireland for a musician or an artist is-----

(Interruptions).

Mr. Matt McGranaghan

You have to be a member of the union before you can sign up for the professional artist jobseeker's payment. We would like the criteria for that payment widened. I am sorry; I have forgotten the Deputy's other point.

I asked about designation as a sole trader.

Mr. Matt McGranaghan

We find that the language being used can sometimes be misunderstood by many people in our sector. Without trying to be too negative, the language can sometimes be a little bureaucratic. We find that to be the case with MEBAS. Many musicians do not really classify themselves as sole traders, even though that is what they are. With regard to MEBAS, they do not seem themselves as businesses, even though that is what they are. The language used has deterred people from applying. We heard from the Minister last night that there have been just over 300 applications. We consider that an incredibly low number. In addition to the relatively high threshold of €20,000 in turnover and the issue of minimum business costs, the language used is a factor which deters people in the industry from applying for support.

I thank Mr. McGranaghan and Mr. Conboy not only for their engagement today but also for bringing together a very disparate sector. I have a question in that regard. As they know, part of the difficulty has been that the voice of the music and entertainment sector has not been at the table because it has not really had a representative body. What structure should be in place to ensure engagement with the sector in future? I am also conscious of the question of universal basic income, a matter Senator Carrigy raised. I know this is not happening until next year but the planning will begin next month. That is why it is important the sector is involved, which requires a representative structure to be in place.

My second question has regard to the venues. We are going to hear about venues being reopened from 5 July. What message would the witnesses like to hear with regard to venues being able to safely reopen? Should we look at antigen testing? What about those who are not vaccinated or who refuse to receive a vaccine? Should venues be allowed to prevent such people entering the premises?

Mr. Jackie Conboy

I thank the Senator. I will take the second question if Mr. McGranaghan would like to take the first one. With regard to antigen testing, there seems to be opposition among many organisations, venues and festivals because it would add to the cost of tickets. There is also the matter of setting up areas for people to get tested and holding areas for them to wait for their results. If that is the only way forward and if venues can only open up with antigen testing, that is okay. It is quite interesting. Over the long weekend two weeks ago, many people were out drinking, eating and socialising in the streets. It will be interesting to see the results of that. It is almost like an unofficial test because there were so many people out on the streets enjoying the good weather and having food and a bit to drink. It will be interesting to see whether that will result in a spike in cases.

Mr. Matt McGranaghan

I will take the first part of the question but I will also add to what Mr. Conboy has said about antigen testing. Venues such as theatres and large concert halls have made their views known. It is really important that guidelines be developed for licensed premises, weddings and pubs that do not require antigen testing and which allow for music and entertainment in a safe and responsible way.

With regard to the representative body, the Senator is quite correct. Those in our industry have paddled their own canoes for a long time. We have been very fragmented. We have never had a unified voice. The Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland is in the process of being officially incorporated. We hope that this will be a positive step forward. There are many different voices in this industry and each one plays a very important role and needs to be heard.

I thank Mr. McGranaghan and call Deputy Mattie McGrath. If members wish to ask questions, I invite them to indicate. We are coming very close to the end of the session.

Like the witnesses, I have many friends in the world of music and entertainment and I am constantly being contacted by people wishing to voice their concerns about problems including the lack of support for the sector. I am deeply worried about all of the musicians, sound and lighting people, drivers and so on who work very hard. I have two quick questions. I compliment our guests because, as someone said, they have brought a disparate group together. I see that they faced some opposition. Some did not like having them on their turf. They have done a great job representing people in the industry. I also compliment Senator Murphy for chairing our group. We meet occasionally to try to tease out issues.

I will move on to my dhá questions. Starting with ceist a haon, can the witnesses explain what it is like for the ordinary man or woman facing the loss of his or her pub and the effects this has on him or her? With regard to uimhir a dó, why is it taking so long to get supports out to these people? Our committee takes some responsibility. We were refusing to meet these good people. They are powerful groups that are good at lobbying. I thank our guests. They have started a lobbying organisation to work for their people. They are the ordinary plain people of Ireland who love to entertain and give solace to people.

Mr. Jackie Conboy

I thank the Deputy. With regard to what it is like on the ground, there are a lot of very worried people out there. Over the last while, they have had to sell equipment to pay bills because the moratoriums are gone. They have to deal with the banks in respect of mortgages and loans and so are now selling equipment. The fact that there is so much stuff on sale means that even the equipment they are selling is not worth as much as it should be. That is creating its own problems. From July, the rate paid to people who earned less than €200 a week before the pandemic will drop to the level of the jobseeker's payments. There is no protection for them whereas there are certain protections for those on the pandemic unemployment payment. The mental stress out there is unbelievable. The number of phone calls we are dealing with every day is hard to believe. Before Christmas, we were dealing with Lions Clubs and organisations like it to get vouchers out to people so that they could have a Christmas dinner or buy kids presents. That is the reality. Perhaps Mr. McGranaghan would like to take the second question.

Mr. Matt McGranaghan

The Deputy asked why it has taken so long for supports to roll out. That is a great question. I hope this committee can help us find the answer to it because a €50 million package was promised in October of last year as part of the budget. It is now 23 June and, so far, €1 million of that €50 million has been spent. We are anxiously waiting. Even though MEBAS and the LPSS are there, that money has not yet reached people.

I have given everyone an opportunity to speak. There will not be time for a second round but people had at least one opportunity to speak.

I thank the witnesses for being here. I also thank Senator Eugene Murphy, who has been a champion for their organisation. He has done Trojan work in the background with the MEAI in the context of its convening its committee and making the presentation to us today.

I am alarmed by the final comment from Mr. McGranaghan concerning the Government's announcement of €50 million in supports and the fact that only €1 million of that funding has reached the artists, musicians and crews involved. Will Mr. McGranaghan expand on that?

Mr. Matt McGranaghan

The €1 million was given to the St. Patrick's Festival in March. I do not know the breakdown of that funding, where it has got to or if it has reached the artists and the crews, the people most in need of it, as the Chair said. Regarding MEBAS, we must, in fairness, give credit to the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. She has done great work in advocating for the industry. Could more be done? Yes, it probably could. However, MEBAS is the only non-competitive support afforded to the industry and the Minister fought hard to make that happen. Every other support given to this industry so far is competitive. Looking at business supports such as the CRSS and the small business assistance scheme for Covid, SBASC, those are not competitive schemes. Support is provided once the eligibility criteria are met. Unfortunately, there are criteria involved even in MEBAS which are not present in other Government support schemes such as the SBASC. We have a minimum business cost to produce. Strand 2 of MEBAS, for example, offers grant support of €4,000 on turnover of more than €50,000 and up to €100,000. It is necessary to supply minimum business costs of €5,000 or €6,000 when applying for that strand of MEBAS, but it is not necessary to do that for applications submitted for support from the SBASC.

It is fair to say that this committee could do some work on that aspect and extrapolate on the basis of the information. As Mr. McGranaghan said, it must be acknowledged that the Minister has done Trojan work to champion the industry. I am sure, however, that she would welcome the opportunity to provide the relevant information to the committee and, ultimately, to the MEAI concerning the plans for the €50 million in non-competitive funding which must be made available to the artists and crews. Mr. McGranaghan was right when he mentioned the timeframe and it having been seven or eight months since that announcement. A great deal of money is still to be disbursed to artists. An announcement was made last week concerning live performance venues that had been successful in their applications to the LPSS, and that was welcome. In my constituency, however, only one venue was successful in that regard. Such a successful application can be a lifeline for the bands, musicians and crews involved, and it is important. That may be another strand of work for this committee to undertake.

With the blessing of the members, I suggest that we write to the Minister regarding Mr. McGranaghan's final point concerning the €50 million in funding which was announced and how it is intended or expected that the remainder of that funding will be disbursed to those most in need of such support. It is really a survival mechanism. As Mr. Conboy stated, bands and musicians are selling equipment, and for far less than it is worth, because there is no timeline in sight yet for the type of reopening which will allow those in the sector to use such equipment to perform again. It is awful to hear those stories, but they are a reality and it is important that we hear them. Is it agreed that the committee will write to the Minister regarding this issue? Agreed. I thank everyone. Once we get that feedback, we will communicate it to the MEAI for some feedback.

The meeting may have felt short, but it was very informative. I thank the witnesses and the members of the committee. Our next session on 30 June will have representatives before the committee from the Arts Council, Theatre Forum Ireland, the Drama League of Ireland, the Amateur Drama Council of Ireland and the Association of Irish Musical Societies to discuss the challenges facing arts venues and theatres as a result of the impact of Covid-19. That will be a very nice follow-up in the context of what we have heard about today. Following that session, we will have a shorter one with restaurateur, Mr. Paul Treyvaud, to discuss the challenges facing the restaurant sector due to the impact of Covid-19.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.35 p.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 30 June 2021.