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23 July 2014

Tax Avoidance: Why it stings more when it’s musicians

We expect corporations to dodge their civic responsibilities, but musicians are meant to speak for everyman. They leave Main St when they try to avoid tax on their millions.

By Luke Nightingale

Revelations of tax avoidance aren’t new. Another is predictably unearthed before the last tips off the conveyor belt. However, there’s been a distinct ripple in the works following allegations that a series of high-profile British musicians, including Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys, have been using a scheme called Liberty, storing money offshore in Jersey. Had these been global corporations with byzantine tax arrangements, like Starbucks or Topshop, we might condemn them, but would we feel let down? Probably not. And the belt would keep on trudging along.

Musicians are meant to be different. Throughout history, political unrest or upheaval has been articulated and characterised by movements such as punk, and musicians like The Clash. Music is the product of counterculture and the working class, and those who voice our lives purport to do so with empathy. Or so we thought.

George Michael, who once penned a song about life on benefits, now believes it’s perfectly acceptable to let his wealth accumulate in Jersey. “I would feel enormously unhappy about paying 50 per cent tax to another Tory government,” says George, like a true Thatcherite individualist, as if we all have a choice. 

Hypocrisy is what stings us hardest. When it is those who celebrate the beneficiaries of taxation who suddenly flaunt how little they pay, it punches like betrayal. Some will label that reactionary, but there’s no doubting musicians’ foibles evoke a greater sense of disappointment than Starbucks and Topshop. Those brands have never pretended to understand us; they exist in a profit-fuelled world of fierce competition. 

It is true that some of the artists using the Liberty scheme may not have much of an opinion on isolated political policies, but neither do much of the public. Instead, it’s their general attitude that cements the unique bond between us and musicians: the rebellious, anti-establishment feeling; the alienation and oppression; the humanity and emotion. Such traits are what we identify with.

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Their tales are of the streets we walked; streets that were built by public investment. They were born in NHS hospitals, attended state-funded schools. The Arctic Monkeys flourished as a result of incisive and witty lyrics of social realism that chimed with the everyman. And yet, any reference to civic pride from now on will be warped with bitter irony. It’s therefore no surprise that these revelations have disappointed us more than usual, and it just goes to show, their pockets may be a little denser, but the charge of hypocrisy is a much greater burden than a few less zeros on your bank statement.

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