Talking To The Excluded: Freelance Musician Jessica Sawers-Warren

Jessica Sawers-Warren.
– Jessica Sawers-Warren.
freelance musician, pianist and singer.

Pollstar speaks to some of the people forming the backbone of this business. Crew, suppliers, session and freelance musicians, in short: the people creating the music and infrastructure, so the stars on stage can shine.

It is them that have been affected the most by the ongoing crisis, seeing that they’ve been falling through the cracks of a lot of the support schemes governments have been introducing since March.

Pollstar wanted to know the reasons they didn’t receive attention when it would have been the most crucial, how they’re coping and what their outlook is.
Jessica Sawers-Warren is a freelance musician, pianist and singer who performs at some of London’s swankiest hotels, including the Savoy, Four Seasons, The Ned, Rubens at the Palace, and more, as well as weddings, functions and parties.
Sawers-Warren is also a session player and vocalist who is featured on Boy George’s latest releases and upcoming album. Faced with COVID restrictions since March, all of her regular income has dried up. She also worked part time as a freelance administrator and bookkeeper for live sound engineering company Anvil Audio, which lost 100% of work during lockdown, and lost 80% in-between lockdowns.
Jess considers herself “lucky to have a setup at home, so we’ve been able to do some recordings. I’m also very lucky to be living with one of my band mates, so we can continue to release new music.
“There have been a couple of things we could do, but not really anything that’s going to make us money at this stage. We’ve just started out with a new project, to keep creative during lockdown rather than as a source of income at this point,” she explained.
Jess dedicated the last three years of her life to building her own independent business. To support herself during those years, she took on a full-time job on the side.
In 2017 and 2018, she worked a regular 9-to-5 while playing shows and building a client base on most evenings and weekends. By January 2019, her self-employed income from music and live accounted for up to 80% of her earnings, and she cut down office hours to about 15 to 20 per week.
What is more, Jess and her partner, were saving up for a house throughout all those years, meaning they had accumulated a substantial amount of savings when COVID hit.
This led to two things: the government used averages from the past three tax years to calculate Jess’s eligibility for self-employment funding. During those years, however, her income form her self-employed work was significantly lower than in 2019, when her business had been built.
So, in the eyes of government, Jess didn’t qualify for a lot of self-employment grants. 
What is more, her and her partner’s frugality meant that they had too much savings for types of schemes that require applicants to basically prove they’re broke. So, the house savings have been basically diminishing in the form of rent payments since March.
“I’ve always been someone, who’s planning for the future, which is now the whole reason I got into this mess,” Jess sums it up.
It’s a future that has completely changed in Jess’s estimation, who’s kept herself busy and creative with freelance work wherever it presented itself as well as writing a children’s book over lockdown, which she started to sell, “so that’s good.”
She’s lost some faith in her government, especially after its “retrain” campaign, where politicians recommended that musicians should just retrain for another job. “That was such a kick in the teeth for so many people. It was so brutally offensive, it was awful,” Jess explained, adding, “I understand what they were trying to do, but you can’t just take back years of training, degrees and whatever else everybody’s done in their field, and try and start again.
In her element.
– In her element.
Jess is also a session player and vocalist, who, for instance, features on Boy George’s latest releases and upcoming album.

“You have to pay so much money to start again, course fees tripled. The UK student riots [against a rise in tuition fees amongst other things] just had their tenth anniversary. For the government to say, ‘retrain, and pay three times the amount to do it’, is criminal,” she said.

Jess thinks mass-testing, a vaccine and other solutions will help live music return, for sure, but it’s going to take at least three to four years until the damage to the economy heals. She explained, “It’s not necessarily about having a vaccine or not, it’s wanting to spend money, people’s ideology has changed, and their plans change according to their environment. I think it’s much more about people’s mindsets reverting to normal, which is going to take a lot longer than for the vaccine to come in.”
Being an “eternal optimist,” her spirit’s remain high: “I do believe live music is going to come back, and with a vengeance. It’s one of the most important things to so many people. There’s a silver lining in that I know the industry is very important to our economy, especially in London, it will always be part of the reason why people come here,” said Jess.
And she concluded, “I’ve heard the term toxic positivity thrown around a lot these days, and I think it’s part of that. You have to keep yourself going somehow, you have to remind yourself of the things that you’re grateful for, otherwise you’re just going to let the weight of it fall on top of you, and you need to carry on.
“It is partly a safety mechanism, but it’s working, I’m smiling, I’m happy, I’m here.”