I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether or not I truly am an artist. Since writing this blog, I have been bandying the word about and letting it jostle alongside ‘creativity’ and ‘skill’ and, after many years I think I’ve even finally managed to eschew the cheeky little ‘e’ on the end of it, which made clear I wasn’t a painter and hinted that I might also be a little pretentious. Quel dommage!
However, now I am beginning to wonder if I might be a bit of a fraud. You see, to me a ‘real’ artist, eats, sleeps and breathes their art – and I don’t. Or at least I don’t feel as though I do. Take Kate Bush, for instance. She is a good example of a person who makes things whom I know very little about and have researched even less, yet I assume that she bounces out of her hand-carved oak bed each dew-dappled morning and immediately rushes to a grand piano or a guitar Joni Mitchell once gave her backstage and slaves away there, searching for two more chord and the truth whilst the washing piles up, the garden over-grows and all forms of communication are ignored. This, to me, is a real artist. Isn’t it? Shouldn’t the process be painful? And require some form of hermit-ry? And be utterly relentless at the expense of all else.
Or take the musical comedian Bo Burnham, who’s stellar new Netflix special ‘Inside’ – written, performed and filmed entirely alone during lockdown and isolated in his home over a period of more than a year – is the absolute antithesis of what I did during lockdown; start one project and then drop it, start another then drop it. A sporadic viewer of my Daily Vlog project on YouTube during the early months of the pandemic would be forgiven for thinking I’d enrolled in a Duke of Edinburgh (RIP) Awards Scheme on how many side-hustles one person can fuck up in a year. Judging by his finished product, Bo and I did at least seem to share a similar despair during this time but whereas I was surrounded by the detritus of half-baked ideas and hair-brained schemes since better thought of, Burnham has managed to create one piece of finished art which is, quite simply, game-changing. The Bastard.
During a recent Whatsapp conversation with my fellow creative Jamie Anderson, the vocal coach and all-round cabaret diva recently shared the – as yet un-cited – quote that ‘the worst thing to ever happen to art was to start calling it content’, and I’m not going to argue with that. I’m pretty sure that one thing neither Bush or Burnham are doing is feeling the need to update their followers on Instagram about their daily doings. My own relationship with the platform is certainly not so cut and dry and you can add Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Patreon to that list too. And part of the problem here surely is that we as freelance creatives feel obliged to multi-task to a degree which borders on the inhumane, especially once you take into account the amount of content which is expected to be created for no immediate monetary reward. Once you’ve uploaded your latest YouTube videos (still nowhere near monetised in spite of having 1,203 followers, and a handful of videos with over 20,000 views each) and published the latest edition of your podcast (Up Yer Arts is a 12 episode series of conversations on creativity with some fascinating and top-notch fellow makers which has so far gone overlooked by all but a handful of loyal followers, and certainly hasn’t made a red cent for either my co-host, technician or myself) one then turns ones hand to the exclusive content for your Patrons on the Patreon platform.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I love my patrons and am truly grateful for their continued support, but I’m one of many on the platform for are on the wrong side of the tipping point where how many patrons you have outweighs the benefits you generate for them and threatens regularly to take your focus away from the very thing that your Patrons want to support; namely, what you actually do for a living. I think Patreon is a good platform and a great idea, and I’m committed to giving it my best, but as with many of these things, one does tend to spend half one’s life explaining to potential patrons what Patreon even is before you can start specifically pitching what you’re on it for. And so, you end up working for Mr. Patreon (Jack Conte & Sam Yam, as you asked) as much as you do Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr Pichai (Youtube & Google) et al. Ho-hum.
For a long time during my twenties, I strove towards the seemingly mythical goal of not having to have a ‘day job’ (see my blog post from March for more on this) only to find years later that the space which was cleared when I did pack in said day job has been filled by social media tasks, admin, washing machine cycles and accounting software.
If you, like me, are a freelance creative who is privileged enough to practise their art (ugh, that word again) as their main job then please take a moment and consider, in pie chart form (naturally) your weekly tasks and how much of the pie they take up. Perhaps you run a household and are the main cook and bottle-washer? Do you delve into the QuickBooks app daily, or sling receipts into shoe-box hibernation until that fateful January weekend of hair-tearing? And then there’s all the time spent on ones latest side-hustle, which in my case is hand-crafted potpourri, which also serves as my first piece of ‘merch’ – or merchandise for those of you whose brains haven’t been entirely addled by RuPaul’s Drag Race – and the contender for the Most Off-Brand Bit Of Marketing 2021.
Perhaps like me you have been working as a teacher and mentor alongside making your own work? It was within the last seven days during dinner with friends, when I heard one of them declare with much glee that ‘Those who can’t, teach.’ Oh, good. Are we still accepting that old chestnut? How lovely to be back socialising with other humans again. Not. Perhaps there’s a conversation there for another day but facilitating/teaching/mentoring can often be part of our pie.
Emails; phone calls; voice notes; WhatsApp’s; invoices; chasing overdue invoices; networking; fielding enquiries; regularly educating sentient adults on how ‘exposure’ is what people die from, not live off; hand-washing costumes, ordering train tickets…Any of this sounding familiar? And all in the name of one’s art, but not actually the making of said piece of art. And whilst we’re (almost) on the subject of hand-washed costumes, I want to give a HUGE shout-out to Macy’s for stocking the blingiest and best showbiz jackets I’ve found worldwide. Check out their awesome ranges.
But I digress…
An old friend recently got a book deal and has been receiving rave reviews, decent sales and really making a name for themselves within their genre. I took them out to lunch to celebrate their success and cheekily enquired how much of the £7.99 price tag for their paperback actually went to them. They replied, ‘Before I pay my agent their cut, I think I get 55p’’. I’ll just let that sink in. 55p. BEFORE the agent takes their cut. And to top it all off, in spite of my friend being supported by a reputable publishing team who has their best interests at heart, and with their own PR & Marketing department, it was made clear from the outset of their relationship that the writer would be expected to run their own social media accounts and provide regular, original content. The phrase ‘you don’t have a dog and bark yourself’ comes to mind. Woof.
As a freelancer who chooses to represent themselves (see my April blog for more on that!), I’m also dealing with all clients (both realised and potential), venue owners, bookers and promoters all through a self-imposed and very necessary filter which protects them from the creative side of me that would gladly tell them all to F off if I am asked once more to find some ‘wiggle room’ in my fee, or consider that the event ‘is for a good cause’. I’m a good cause. Pay me. My writer friends story gives me confidence that this is the right situation for me, at least for now, but still that piece of the pie that is actually ‘making the thing’ flavoured is beginning to look more like a sliver than a slice.
So, hopefully you’ve considered your freelance pie. Now consider a close friend of around the same age. Perhaps a sibling even. But make it someone with a salaried job. Dollars to doughnuts that they are surrounded by at the very least a finance department, a maintenance team, a cleaning crew and an Manager to support them. An HR Department to protect them from a whole spectrum of potential clashes and concerns. Perhaps they have an assistant. Perhaps they have two. And guess what; every single one of them will be paid their salary regardless of whether they make a new thing or not. They certainly won’t be expected to work for free. And if they do make a new thing they’ll likely get a bonus. Or a promotion. Or become partner. And whether they make a new thing or not they’ll get two weeks paid holiday to do with whatever they please. Every year they get that. Amazing, innit?
When a musician makes a new thing the most powerful platform they can share it on these days is Spotify, where CEO Daniel Ek will give them USD.0033 per stream. When Ek was challenged about this his response was to suggest musicians should work harder. Woof, indeed.
So, am I an artist?
Can we afford to be one, our privileges notwithstanding?
I’d love to explore this further but I have a load of washing to hang out and a Bolognese to make.