Martin Smith, ICCE Visiting Fellow
In his highly entertaining book The Great British Dream Factory, Dominic Sandbrook relates that at a reception for show business folk given in 2014 in 10 Downing Street, the then Prime Minister David Cameron boasted to his guests that “We don’t have the natural resources to rival other nations but we’ve got the cultural resources….So tonight let’s resolve to keep on leading the world with our culture.”
Six years later, amidst a looming funding crisis of unprecedented proportions, the Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, speaking to The Guardian, picked up the theme, though with a very different twist: “We can genuinely claim to be world class. We contribute to GDP and the reputation of the country. That needs to be remembered as this wears on. The damage that will be done if we are not supported in this time is impossible to make up.”
If there was any doubt as to how low support for the arts and cultural sector sits in the pecking order of the government’s priorities, this has been dispelled by the experience, to date (27th April), of the pandemic. In striking contrast to government responses in Germany and France, where money has already been paid directly to artists and producers to help keep them afloat, in the UK neither the performing and visual arts sector nor the wider ‘creative industries’, of which it forms the core in most accounts, have received a penny of bespoke state help. The arms-length funding bodies, Arts Council England (ACE) and the British Film Institute (BFI), operating in emergency mode, are digging deep into their reserves to help as many organisations as possible, through open competition, but demand will hugely outstrip the supply of funds (£160m in the case of ACE).
Longstanding industry charities like the Film and TV Charity, faced with appeals from thousands of out of work freelancers, are being overwhelmed. Yes, there is support available to any business big enough to be eligible for generic Covid-19 related government relief, for example through the furloughing of staff and VAT rebates. This will be vital to the survival of many large national and regional organisations (including the National Theatre, the Sage Gateshead and the big museums and orchestras).
However 95% of creative enterprises employ fewer than ten people, a large majority employ three people or less and a third of those working in the creative industries across the piece are self-employed. Given current eligibility criteria, especially those provisions applicable to the self-employed, it is easy to see why so few artists, creative entrepreneurs, micro-company directors and other practitioners are benefiting from government support. Catastrophe looms unless the Treasury responds to the intense lobbying of the sector’s trade bodies. (See for example the following open letter: https://www.creativeindustriesfederation.com/news/press-release-over-400-leading-creative-figures-warn-uk-becoming-cultural-wasteland-unless).
There are many inferences that can be drawn from this alarming state of affairs. The most obvious concerns the Treasury’s striking disregard, as things stand, for the well-being of a sector which ministers frequently describe as world-leading and is branded by the government-funded Creative Industries Council as GREAT under the rubric of its long-running international marketing campaign. As Rufus Norris noted in his Guardian interview “…..two months ago we had a £110bn creative industries sector, including TV, film, dance and theatre, and it was the fastest-growing sector in the UK.”
Pressed on in the Commons Select Committee on Culture, DCMS Secretary of State Oliver Dowden could only say (on 17th April) that his department was building “an evidence base” for sector specific Treasury financial support. This is extraordinary given the abundant evidence supplied by the main trade bodies (music, film and TV especially) of extreme hardship amongst their members, many of whose incomes have fallen to zero.
For much of the arts and culture sector, the picture is almost irredeemably bleak and will remain so for as long as people are prevented from assembling for live entertainment. For the wider creative industries however, as classified by the DCMS since 1998 (revised in 2007), the situation is more complex: some born-digital industries, like games and esports, are positively booming during the lockdown. So are parts of the advertising and marketing industry and computer software consultants.
Within the music business there are winners and losers. Universal Music Group, home to Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Drake and Lady Gaga, saw its quarterly revenue climb 17.8 percent, or 12.7 percent assuming constant currencies, to $1.92 billion (1.77 billion euros) during the first quarter of 2020. Subscription and streaming revenues continued to grow, outweighing declines in downloads and physical sales. Only a derisory proportion of these digital revenues reaches artists however, unless you are Lada Gaga or Taylor Swift. Newer artists and lesser known bands can no longer tour or plan any kind of future schedule.
This uneven and highly differentiated experience of Covid-19 across the wider arts and entertainment landscape is doubtless part of the reason for the lack of a dedicated government response. Devising a mechanism for helping those worst affected is certainly not a straightforward task, but this should not excuse the continuing failure after seven weeks to come up with any kind of formula to help artists, producers and others in the cultural industries.
Working in the arts and entertainment business has always been precarious for the great majority of practitioners. Cultural economy markets are taste-driven and unpredictable, subject historically to the dislocation of war, religious conflict and new technology, as well as sudden shifts in patronage and fashion. To this list of painful and repeated disruptions we must now add the appalling hazard presented by modern pandemics.
The world will return to some kind of recognisable pattern of cultural production and consumption later this year or next, and the public will return to the live experience, possibly with renewed appetite. Sadly some performance venues and other cultural estate will not survive the crisis: others will open to take their places. Similarly some arts charities, including publicly-funded organisations, will fail, but others will be born. What the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction” will take on a whole new meaning.
Once the world finally opens up again, probably in phases, the skills required to prosper in this post-pandemic cultural environment – including cultural management and creative entrepreneurship skills – will be in demand more than ever. But for now, some bespoke help from government would be very welcome, and more in keeping with the narrative of creative industry importance and success than the tin ear currently being exhibited in Whitehall.