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Britain Gives Musicians a Break

October 17, 1999

LONDON (AP) _ Last year, the five members of the rock band Baxter drove all over southern England, enduring car crashes and bad directions to play their music. They were stereotypical starving artists _ living on welfare and just trying to ``get heard.″

``Things break, and if you haven’t got the money to get them fixed, then you’re in a pickle,″ says Henry Platt, the band’s keyboard player.

Under Britain’s welfare-to-work program, the members of Baxter were facing the choice of either getting jobs or losing the benefits that enabled them to concentrate on their music.

Enter the Programme, a government-financed pilot project that has enabled the band to spend the past six months comfortably rehearsing, recording and just learning about the music business.

Some people might not see the value in ``five guys in a room playing music,″ says Platt, 26. ``They probably think it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.″

But the Programme gives Platt hope that politicians understand what pop music means to Britain _ both as an export and as an integral part of the culture.

``Before this, there was a danger that young musicians could be pushed into unsuitable jobs,″ says the project’s director, Julia Craik. ``It gives people the chance to get a live act together, a demo tape together and a sense of the music business.″

The Programme is a community effort to ``stop musicians from having to stack shelves,″ she says.

Reed, a private employment agency that administers the welfare-to-work program in the east London borough of Hackney, oversees the project. But it is run by a charity affiliated with the borough’s Premises Studios.

The 10 young musicians selected through auditions for the Programme’s six-month training period, the first of which ended this summer, are allowed to keep unemployment benefits of about 60 pounds ($96) a week. Any money earned from gigs goes to the studio to be doled out for demo tapes and other professional expenses.

In return, the musicians get rehearsal space, studio time and seminars on the music industry and business techniques.

``It’s made us more businesslike. It’s pushed us in the right direction,″ says guitarist Becca Grover, 24, whose band Persecution Complex was among the Programme’s first graduates. ``We’re quite a self-sufficient band, really. It’s mainly that we need someone to take our package and sell it to the big companies.″

Britain’s Labor Party government plans to begin a similar program for musicians this fall, run from public job centers. It, however, will not require musicians to audition, but merely to meet specific criteria.

The Premises Studios are located behind a parking lot and next to a bingo hall in down-at-the-heels, working-class Hackney. Up the wooden ramp that leads to Premises’ front door and down a dark hallway is a maze of tunnels and stairways connecting to clean, well-equipped studios.

Musicians continually stroll through the reception area, most of them lugging instruments and equipment.

``It’s better to be in an environment where there are other people doing the same thing as you,″ says Baxter’s drummer, Tim Ponting, 25, contrasting the Premises with the lonely basements where the band often practiced before entering the Programme.

Norway native Kate Havnevik, another Programme alumna, came to London to make connections in the vibrant, but extremely competitive music scene.

``I know I want to do this, so it’s been sort of a good support and start,″ says Havnevik, a 23-year-old songwriter who appreciated the ample pianos available at the Premises. ``You can’t do everything yourself.″

Grover, of Persecution Complex, says her group entered the Programme after six years on welfare, playing in clubs where equipment would break and owners wouldn’t publicize the band’s appearance.

Before, she says, the challenge was not finding a place to play, but rather maintaining a high musical standard while keeping the unemployment agency at bay.

Now, band members say they’re getting nibbles from managers.

``We’re practicing so much we’ve really improved,″ says bassist Liz Thomas, 24. ``We used not to be able to practice as much because we couldn’t afford it.″

Whether or not the project’s participants become music successes, Dennis Birch, who oversees the Programme for the employment agency, says it offers valuable experience.

By building the musicians’ confidence in themselves, the Programme creates highly employable people who can give back to the community, he says.

``A lot of people, when they go for a job, they don’t have confidence,″ he says. ``They see themselves as losers.″

During a reception celebrating the completion of the Programme’s first six months, Birch and sponsors from the Premises charity seemed like proud parents.

The results of the musicians’ rehearsal and training _ combined with not a little talent _ were readily apparent during the brief performance sets.

``When you see them on stage,″ Birch says, ``the confidence they’ve got!″

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