Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Who pays for art?


As I walked to Rich Mix today from Old Street tube, I came upon a man, obviously homeless, who was sitting on the pavement with his boxer dog (wrapped in a blanket) and a portfolio of art work, mostly line drawings. All the pictures were of his dog, probably the very centre of his world, and the buildings in and around Shoreditch.

I emptied my wallet into the pot in front of the dog and asked if the drawings were his. He explained that he was trying to get his life back together by selling art, and that he put the pot out in case he didn't sell anything. He was hopeful that someone was going to make a website for him. He was hopeful that his art would be picked up for an exhibition. He was hopeful that the people passing in “the art capital of the world” would buy his work. I liked the fact that he wasn't giving up, but couldn’t help but feel bitterly sad. The guy had obviously not always been homeless. The case that he was carrying his art around in looked respectable enough. It suddenly struck me that I was witnessing the human cost of the recession and that it was happening to one of my own.

Yes, the “good” news, we’re told, is that we’re heading out of recession. We may well be. But I’m not altogether sure that this will have an immediate impact on creative industries, which are already going through a period of unprecedented flux, with new media entirely reshaping the way we operate and creative people increasingly being forced to become entrepreneurs.

The sad fact is that people don’t want to pay for art any more. It’s a luxury at the best of times but people have started taking great delight in being clever enough to beat the system and get something for nothing. Everyone wants to download a track for free, use photographs for nothing that they've found on the Internet and film live gigs on mobile phones. Young people these days will put up with the most astonishingly awful quality, just to brag that they saw it first, or got something exclusive, or more frighteningly for free. But who pays for the original art? Record companies are going under. Production companies are going under. The Arts Council is being starved of funds. Actors, musicians and artists are being forced to perform or create for nothing simply so they can say they’ve done it. People bulk at the idea of paying £40 to see a piece of live theatre, even though they’ll happily pay the same price for a couple of bottles of wine in a restaurant.

To make matters worse, the system used for the collection of PRS royalties for composers is based entirely on download charts. In other words, the system makes rich composers richer and the poor poorer. If my songs are performed in cabarets at The Pheasantry, which they often are, I don't end up seeing a penny of the money that the venue pays each year for the right to perform live music. It's the same in pubs and clubs across the country. Even if your pub has a very specific vibe and plays very specific music, and the manager offers to provide PRS with a very specific play list, it will be refused. The money instead is split between the writers of the most popular songs in a given year. The money I should earn goes to Adele or the writers of bubble gum pop.

I did a bit of banking today and realised with horror that, if I'm going to pay my tax at the end of January, I can't be without work for more than about a month after finishing the 100 Faces project. It's a terrifying thought, which makes me realise how fragile my position actually is. A bad year in this climate is genuinely all that separates me from the homeless artist I met this afternoon. A very chilling thought.

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