Recently I was invited to speak at a unique launch event for Imogen’s Mycelia Creative Passport which aims to become a digital identity standard for music makers and a connective hub for music related services. The mood was one of solidarity, optimism and curiosity amongst all kinds of creatives, tech entrepreneurs and music industry leaders who were taking time out of their usual routines to share ideas and imagine the conditions needed for artists to have a better and more sustainable digital future.

My role was to talk about the broader context in which I believe Imogen’s Mycelia initiative sits; as part of a political and economic climate which makes the basic principle of supporting artists and music makers more crucial than ever before. I began with a reminder of all those things that are obvious to the average music lover and to those of us who work in music. Composers, songwriters, writer-producers and writer-performers – the people I support in my professional role at PRS Foundation – bring awe inspiring original content in to our lives. They create the soundtrack of our time. They make us reflect on who we are and what we feel. They can make us feel better. They bring us into contact with other fans and audiences across the world. They tell us stories and they offer different perspectives on what’s happening around us.  In Liverpool and Hull where I spent some of last week and in Coventry that’s just become the next UK City of Culture, you can see that music makers give people a sense of pride and attachment to the place in which they live. This social and cultural contribution – the power to transform lives – is one reason why music makers deserve our support.

But why, as I’m sometimes asked, can’t music makers take care of themselves if they’re part of what many may perceive to be a fairly lucrative business? The answer to this is simple. At the very start of the music value chain, artists are often the first to take any risk. Their risk is creative and financial and in the early stage of their careers, they often have multiple jobs, don’t earn much money and many of them don’t even think about whether the time they take to create original IP could be worthy of investment. Changes to the music industry’s business models have created exciting opportunities for artists to go direct to fans and to develop DIY careers but digital disruption has also made it harder than ever before to earn a living from music at those crucial early stages in a music creator’s career.

We know this because the last evaluation of our Momentum fund that we run with Arts Council England and PPL demonstrated how important this fund is amongst independent musicians – over 3500 artists have applied over the past 5 years. Applicants’ average earnings from music in 2016 was just over £11k; 70% had full or part-time jobs in other sectors. This is in spite of that fact that the acts selected by industry panels for this programme are music creators with real promise, already signed to an independent label and at a tipping point in their career. This gap in support is a challenge for music makers and an opportunity that many investors are missing. Every £1 we’ve invested in our Momentum and International showcase funds has generated at least an 8:1 ROI; so with the right talent progression routes and the right ecology for independent musicians, creative risk deserves support and generates return.

The case for helping and supporting music makers becomes even more crystal clear when we look at the diverse talent the UK is home to and the real and perceived lack of opportunities available to those who are under-represented in music and the arts. Couldn’t our industry be even more successful if it better reflected our society and tapped into the talent that remains on the margins of a predominantly white, male, middle class workforce? Many of our schemes at PRS Foundation have demonstrated the change that targeted support and positive action can bring, unlocking large numbers of new applicants who previously felt they wouldn’t have stood a chance when applying to our competitive programmes. The full potential of a 21st Century music industry is still far from being realised. The democracy of open digital platforms like Imogen’s Creative Passports will help with this but direct support and encouragement is still needed for creators who feel left out.

Finally, on the subject of passports, I believe that supporting artists and musicians is crucial to our current position in the world. Matt Hancock, the UK’s Minister for Digital, wrote an article for the Times a couple of days ago reminding us that as a nation, UK music is one of our strongest calling cards. Despite being only 1% of the world’s population, UK artists accounted for one in every eight album sales around the world in 2016. This is, of course, extremely good news and explains why PRS Foundation and BPI are both working with government to support music export. Of equal importance though, in the context of an uncertain Brexit transition, is supporting UK artists to collaborate and spend time with their peers across Europe and further afield; artists can reflect our ambition as a small nation to look outwards, to collaborate and to seek partners even though we can’t yet be sure how free or affordable musicians’ movement across borders will be in a new political context.

At PRS Foundation, we’ve secured EU funding for Keychange to work with a growing number of festivals in Europe and further afield to empower a network of female creators and innovators who, like Imogen Heap, will contribute to future developments across the industry. Through this programme we’re changing perceptions, sharing our values and using a more nuanced and networked approach to supporting music makers from different countries. With the British Council we’ve also supported music makers to spend time in China, UAE and now Brazil – an opportunity that gives artists permission to take time out from their day to day routine to explore new ideas, engage new audiences and develop longer term connections in new territories.

Most of us who work for trade bodies/cultural institutions will have an international budget to build partnerships and generate business. Most music creators don’t have this luxury because they’re too busy on the road/in the studio/finding ways to make a living; That’s why investing in their time and their power as international ambassadors and pioneers is money very well spent both in the current political climate and for the development of music itself.

Imogen’s outline of Mycelia and the Creative Passport refers to the ever-expanding music ecosystem it’s part of. At the very heart of this ecosystem and any discussion about the digital infrastructure for music that we’re all keen to improve will always be the music makers themselves. That’s the one truth we need to remember. It’s by giving them the investment and the conditions they need to flourish that this ecosystem will continue to evolve.

Follow Vanessa on Twitter | With thanks to Keychange Ambassador Imogen Heap