I like to say that I have never had a job. I also like to say that I have never been out of work. The answer to this paradox is that I have always been a freelance. It has not made me rich, but it has made me happy. Which is why I feel so miserable about the prospects nowadays for anyone trying to live the freelance life.
We all know how much the arts have suffered during the present pandemic, with theatres and concert halls shut, museums and galleries closed or half-empty. All the normal ways in which we can meet and exchange ideas, the informal marketplace in which the arts can flourish, have been stifled. We have been confined to virtual reality, but the actual reality is that we face a profound crisis of creativity.
According to the Office for National Statistics at least 55,000 jobs in the performing arts, music and the visual arts have been lost since the first lockdown. And now we are on our third. Last October a report commissioned by the Arts Council from the Centre for Economic and Business Research forecast that a third of all arts businesses will not survive. Another third would need the help now being provided by the Cultural Recovery Fund. I am sure the numbers are going to get even worse.
Some of those who have lost, or are about to lose, their jobs, will have been salaried, and possibly furloughed for a time, but the majority will be freelances, operating either as self-employed, company directors, or managing a portfolio of freelance and PAYE jobs. They have already suffered, not just by having no work, but being unable to benefit from the government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, which in any case pays only 40% of profits and is due to stop in April.
Artists have been working in the gig economy since long before there was a gig economy, but the casualisation of the arts, which transfers risk from the employer to the (self)employee has been on the increase. The entire cultural economy depends on self-employment; it is not the Arts Council that subsidises the arts, it is the artists.
So why do we do it? In the past, it was a choice. Now it is the only way to get started, often not just freelance but working for free. Even when we start to get paid, few of us really make a living from what we live to do. In theory, we enjoy the existential freedom of self-realisation, but we then have to find some way of earning a living that will support whatever form of craft or creativity that we have committed ourselves to: the actor who is a cleaner, the singer who is a waitress, the painter who is an art-handler. I am a writer, and I have been fortunate to find work as a journalist and as a part-time academic. I have made very little money from my books, although, ironically, if I hadn’t written them, I wouldn’t have found work in the press or academe.
So I have survived, but the present crisis makes me see how privileged I have been. Not just by being white, and middle-class, but because I am from a generation that had a free university education, I launched my career on a rising tide of cultural consumption, and even managed to be on the right side of the steep rise in house prices.
None of these advantages apply to someone starting out today. A university degree comes saddled with debt, and it appears that a post-graduate qualification is almost obligatory. We face a period of economic recession, where as many as a third of cultural organizations may have folded. There will be a shortage of disposable income to spend on the arts – and let’s not talk about house prices.
So what is to be done? It would be good to return to the conditions that I was lucky enough to enjoy, where acquiring cultural capital did not put you in debt, and the cultural sector was expanding. We seem to have forgotten the damage done by ten years of arts austerity, which created a business model whose deficiencies have been cruelly exposed by the coronavirus. The Arts Councils are having to concentrate on keeping the organisational infrastructure of official culture going; local authorities are almost out of the game.
It is not enough to return to a situation where only the children of the one per cent have the family funds to set them up – and keep them there. Access to the arts should not be a class privilege. It may sound naïve, too obvious, but how about paying freelance artists more, and adopting a social security system, as in France, where it is possible for creatives to survive between jobs. In the 1990s, before New Labour’s “new deal”, it was possible to live on the dole and put a band together that could be appropriated for Cool Britannia. It was hardly the universal basic income that visionaries argue will bring social justice for all, but the investment paid off.
With imagination, there could be a real engagement with arts education. Artists, writers, actors, musicians are all communicators who could bring light and colour into the leaden curriculum that is currently being imposed. It would support the artists, and it would create the virtuous circle by which experience of the arts creates an appetite for the arts.
There are other ways to redress the balance between artists and corporate financial power. It is clear that the alternative, electronic access to performances that has been developed during lockdown will stay in play, but streaming services for music pay a pittance, repeat fees seem to have disappeared from most contracts. In Britain, for the majority of writers, Public Lending Right yields a pathetic sum, but the collecting agencies, the Authors Lending and Copyright Society, the Design and Artists Copyright Society and the Performing Rights Society could have more muscle and a larger slice of the cake.
This assumes that you are lucky enough to have some form of intellectual property to licence. Apart from privileged exceptions, the next generation will not get that far unless there are deep structural changes that will support those who will have suffered most from the present crisis, who have no reserves, little security and certainly no pensions. The fantasy of the creative industries that are supposed to save the economy portrays creative people at the centre of the system, welling up with ideas that are then monetised by grateful industrialists. The truth is that creatives are marginalised, insecure and self-exploited. They are the portfolio precariat.
Yet we need freelances. We need risk, we need imagination, we need commitment to new ideas, and new ways of seeing the world. We will only get that if the pool of freelancers is constantly refreshed by young people who do not come from the usual places by the usual paths. In time, many of these will move into cultural organisations. Some, like me, will prefer to stay outside. But if culture is to recover, it really needs to think about cultivating its roots.