Musicians battle to hang on to their benefit

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The Independent Online
BUDDING musicians' right to draw benefit while living in bedsits and playing hopeless gigs in half-empty pubs was at the centre of a political row last night.

Andrew Smith, the employment minister, was rebuffed after inviting the director of Creation Records to discuss the finer points of musical development and the drop-out culture over a coffee. Alan McGee, who had been complaining that Welfare to Work would stifle creativity, replied that he would not be prepared to take part in such a "sop to the media" unless his demands for leniency towards the nation's youth were met.

Mr McGee, who is a member of the Government's Creative Industries Task Force, was not impressed by Mr Smith's approach.

"I am, not to put too fine a point on it, pissed off with what I consider to be this ill-judged, unfair and draconian Workfare initiative. I urge the Government to take a long, hard look at the issue again and to find... fairly paid jobs without penalising the lifeblood of our cultural future," he said in a statement. Furthermore, he would only meet Mr Smith if he was prepared to tell him "exactly how musicians are not going to be forced into jobs that they don't want to do".

Both Mr McGee and Wayne Hemmingway, founder of the Red or Dead fashion company, have recently criticised the Blair administration's lack of support for youth culture. Earlier this week, Mr Hemmingway backed Mr McGee, saying in a radio interview that budding young musicians should be allowed to continue the tradition of developing their creativity while claiming benefit, because the nation would eventually be rewarded with export earnings when they became successful.

Mr Smith claimed he had the answers, though. Future Sid Viciouses and Billy Idols would do just as well on a Government training programme, he suggested.

In fact, the New Deal had already helped one young man to find an agent and a singer to front his band. It had also sent him to the Business Education Centre "for further advice and assistance on self-employment."

Mr Smith said modern youngsters welcomed the help. The music industry was increasingly high-tech and there was far more to it than sitting around strumming a guitar. A group of young people who met the Prime Minister in Sheffield earlier this month were now on courses at the Darnall Music Centre, where they were learning about programming and sampling.