Last week there was an online furore over an advert suggesting a ballet dancer should give up her career in dance and retrain to work in cyber security or some other such dreary, digital job. The world was outraged. Had the pandemic reduced us to such crass, cold hearted philistines? Who would dare crush dreams like this? The government of course, quelle surprise.
While it turned out that this campaign to encourage the young dancer to find another career path had been commissioned before the coronavirus pandemic had even begun, it felt particularly cruel since it was shared at a time when many in the arts feel they have been abandoned by the government.
Coronavirus has accelerated the issues of funding and sustainability already present in the art industries. The arts hasn’t been a viable career for most people for a long time, for many it never has been. The rise of the internet has hacked away many paying opportunities and the coronavirus has now come along to torch what remained.
Let me indulge myself by telling you my own story of a thwarted career in the arts. When I left university I had a dream of becoming a writer. After graduating I felt lucky to get a job writing for a magazine straight away. So far, so Press Gang. Okay it was a magazine for teen girls and I was doing the photocopying but it was a start. It didn’t take long for me to realise the stark truth: journalism could never be a life for someone like me. For a start I had to move back in with my family just to be able to afford to live on a job that paid me minimum wage.
My dream of moving to London and working for a music magazine seemed ludicrously far-fetched for someone born working class in rural Scotland, especially when I discovered that everyone working in such jobs had done years of unpaid work experience just to get their minimum wage positions. Those who worked as freelance writers seemed to be endlessly networking and hustling and pitching to scrape a living – things my sensitive, risk-averse, introverted spirit could never cope with. Deep down I knew I wasn’t rich enough or pushy enough or confident enough to succeed in such a world. My writing career was dead before it even began.
Ironically most of those magazines are now dead too, thanks to the digital era. Who knows if I even had the skills and talent to make it as a journalist back when such a career was possible? Probably not. Time will never tell. Like Fatima, I sadly unwrapped my ballet shoes and went back to the drawing board.
I didn’t give up my artistic career immediately. A true dreamer would never. I decided would become a novelist instead and live the life of luxury, writing in my dressing gown while my servants brought me cake. I found a University course promising to prepare me for this new creative writing life adventure. So I wrote a story, applied, got in and turned up on the first day ready to commence my training to become Scotland’s answer to Jane Austen.
Of course I was a naive idiot who found herself on a course surrounded by real writers, with real talent who were actually writing and not waiting on a teacher to show them how to do it. I tried my best to absorb the skills but my stories were simple and simply not very good. I had wasted a lot of money to find out that writing fiction was difficult even for those with much more natural talent than myself, professionalism came only with intense practice, publication was the holy grail and even then most writers would never even earn enough to sustain a living. Most would spend more on writing courses and competitions than they would ever earn in return.
But even these realisations didn’t comfort me since I would always compare myself with those few who did succeed in journalism and novel writing. I felt like a failure rather than what I actually was – an amateur with some potential.
You see what I needed to learn was that being an amateur was not something to be ashamed of, nor a reason to give up. With the right effort, training, support, mentorship and time some amateurs can become professional. A career in the arts shouldn’t have to be a pipe dream. And those who aren’t cut out for it should at least be given the opportunity to find this out for themselves.
I consider myself lucky in that sense because at least I have been privileged enough to have the chance to try out a career in the arts, even if in the end I didn’t have what it took to succeed. Who knows how many Joni Mitchells never picked up a guitar because starvation and homelessness didn’t seem like sensible life choices? The pandemic has only made life in the arts harder, the future bleaker, the returns reduced to almost nothing.
In such a world only the strongest, and richest, will thrive. I have no doubt that the true talent will rise to the surface no matter how hard the world tries to hold its head under. But there are so many more who are silently drowning their artistic dreams, never knowing what they might have achieved if only they had been given a chance to find their voice (or their feet).
People may complain that it is only rich people who have jobs in the arts, not realising that without rich people and we probably wouldn’t have much of the arts left. From Shakespeare right up to the present day most creative people have relied on funding to produce their art or have been independently wealthy themselves.
The rest of us have had to find other ways to earn money while attempting to keep our artistic dreams alive. It is comforting then, having ended up a teacher myself, to realise that most writers over time have had to teach to fund themselves, the one last remaining job connected to the arts that isn’t under threat thanks to the fact that childcare, sorry education, will always be seen as essential. Still you don’t have to read much further than the Bronte novels to understand how teaching other people’s children has been draining to the soul and spirit of creative people (women) for many a century.
What happens now is that writing and other art forms have become hobbies. That sounds fun in theory but it just means that women authors have to work full time, take on the burden of domestic duties, and also write novels in their spare time. If they are lucky enough to get them published they also are expected to run their own publicity campaigns and social media. And for what? To at best have a bunch of smug book club members give you two stars on goodreads or be completely ignored and sink without a trace? Who would wish such underpaid drudgery on even their worst enemy?
At least the dream of a full time career in music was still a recent possibility for some (even with the advent of Spotify) because of the potential money to be found in playing live. You could sell the song over and over again every night plus some other merchandise as well. Very few people would turn out to hear an author read from their books multiple times but they’d pay to be down the front of a gig on every tour of their favourite singer. That’s what made live music special and profitable.
Now the pandemic has killed that dream too. The only future I can see in live music is expensive social distanced shows, with masks and seats or pods for standing gigs. Few artists and venues will be able to exist in this model. We will need to recalibrate costs and the consumer will have to pay over the odds again meaning they will inevitably have to limit who they can support. Less and less people will therefore be able to make music a viable career.
Freed from the touring life maybe musicians will respond by connecting with themselves and not what they think an audience might want to hear. When R.E.M. voluntarily took time out of touring they wrote Automatic for the People but then again they were living off the profits of their hits, not having to work other jobs to make ends meet.
My story of a failed career in the arts doesn’t end with silence. That burning desire to write would not die, even if the dream of making it a career did. So like a middle aged man who once imagined being Pele and now kicks a ball into the net during a five aside match with his mates on a rainy Tuesday night, I am still writing. I have this blog now, which keeps my music writing alive. I write poetry which thankfully I won’t ever share with anyone. I hope maybe one day I will finally finish writing a novel through to the end. I have decided just to be a writer, not necessarily a good one, and vow to never burden my artistic endeavours with the requirement that they return any money or prestige to me.
When Gillian Welch sang I’ll do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay it wasn’t in celebration of this brave new modern world, it was an acceptance of defeat. A truly successful society would pay its citizens a universal basic income, providing food and shelter for all, allowing people to exert their energies in whatever way they wished, without anyone worrying about making ends meet or having a virus threaten your livelihood.
Or how about a world where no one was allowed to earn say more than £80,000 a year and any money they generated beyond that was automatically redistributed to those in the same industry who were younger and less fortunate than themselves? Maybe some celebrities should try this out now instead of buying more houses or creating vanity businesses that do nothing except inflate their own egos.
Alas, that utopia will never exist. Not in my lifetime anyway. So I deeply admire anyone who has the heart, the guts and the will to aim for a creative career in the 21st century. I want to tell Fatima to keep dancing no matter what.
Dream, dream, dream. It’s all we have left.