A BARRHEAD politician is banging the drum for musicians after the coronavirus pandemic left many of them facing a financial crisis.

Tom Arthur, who represents the town, as well as Neilston and Uplawmoor, as Renfrewshire South MSP, earned a living as a keyboard player before seeking election at the ballot box.

As such, he is well aware of the problems faced by local musicians at a time when Covid has closed entertainment venues and cut off their source of income.

Tom, who is based in Johnstone, said: “I’m conscious not to use phrases like ‘I feel their pain’ because I can sympathise but not really empathise.

“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, 35, 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 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 a career which can constantly feel like it’s on a knife edge, no matter how successful you become.

The SNP man founded and is convener of the cross-party group on music at the Scottish Parliament and, throughout the pandemic, has been able to use his real-life experience to fight for support for performers.

Barrhead News: Tom has pledged to use his position to help the music industryTom has pledged to use his position to help the music industry

He has clear memories of relying on his students to turn up for their music lessons and on his clients making bookings to keep his band in demand, as well as the ongoing battle to remain popular and current in order to have 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 are coping during the pandemic.

It threw up stories of players who had exhausted savings, sometimes being forced to use cash they had earmarked 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 have perhaps fallen between the cracks in terms of the support available,” added Tom.

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

Tom has 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.

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

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

Barrhead News: Playing piano at home has been one way for the MSP to keep himself occupied during the Covid pandemicPlaying piano at home has been one way for the MSP to keep himself occupied during the Covid pandemic

Tom has pledged to continue to fight for the future of live music so that players and fans in East Renfrewshire aren’t merely left with memories of great gigs at their favourite venues.

For its part, the Scottish Government launched a £59million funding package in August to help protect jobs in the culture and arts sector.

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

Tom hopes more support will be available to ensure the show goes on for performers in East Renfrewshire.

“There has been a lot of discussion about how we can get round things in the future,” he said. “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.

“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 how the vaccine works.

“Parts of the country have been in level one 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 to get to any live gig you can and support musicians.

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

“More than anything, though, 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.”