Many of you have probably seen the recent government ‘retraining’ ad that has been circulating through social media and various news tabloids recently. I think It would be a fair assumption to say at this point it has become infamous, with Downing Street itself, labelling it as ‘crass’. Many of those in the arts industry in particular – myself included, have been deeply offended on a personal level by the sentiment it echoes. The ad came not long after the foreshadowing statement by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, seeming to hint that those in the arts should perhaps look for other opportunities in light of covid-19. This too was conveniently retracted after it received a less then favourable response – instead implying that Mr Sunak was referring to people of ‘all walks of life’. I for one am not convinced and see these recent unfortunate mishaps as a way of discreetly determining public reception of these quite radical ideas. That may sound like quite a clandestine motive, but we live in a zeitgeist of government mistrust. With all the lies, scandals and hypocrisy that we have been witness to over the past few years, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched to me. I do of course understand that covid-19 has been an enormous challenge for Governments all over the world and certain sacrifices are inevitable.
However, it is no secret to many that the arts have been undervalued long before any pandemic. By undervalue I do not mean to suggest that society does not appreciate the arts. It is not a denial of quality, talent, innovation, or genius, but a way to contextualize them in a way that propagates them as novelty, trivial, luxury, and in light of current circumstances, perhaps even expendable. Intentionally or not, the arts industry is exploited to its own detriment by the very thing that endows it with beauty – the fact that it is born out of the pure desire to create. In some circles There is a presumption that musicians for example, will perform for little to no money because they simply love to do it and spend large portions of their private time doing it as a leisure activity or hobby. To some extent I would agree with the latter part of that statement and assume that many, if not all artists would have to admit that there is some element of leisure or recreational enjoyment in the service they provide, I can certainly attest to this. However, what I do not agree with is that this somehow warrants a devaluation of the financial worth of the service provided. Nevertheless, it is in my opinion that it is in this insidious manipulation of the blurred line between recreation and ‘job’ that allows professional artists – particularly grassroots level artists, to be exploited on a daily basis. I believe this because I have lived it.
I am a professional musician having fairly recently graduated with my undergraduate degree in popular music. During and since my time at university I have gigged extensively around south Wales and the surrounding areas. As I am sure many other grassroot musicians can relate to, I have heard phrases like “it’s good exposure” and “we’ll give you 2 free drink tokens” all too many times. I have played 45 minute sets at busy venues and bars for little to no money, and I have played those gigs because of my love for music, knowing fine well that the sound engineer and cleaner will be being paid far more then I could expect at such a venue. Not all of my experiences have been like this of course, I have had many positive ones also. Certainly there is a desire to facilitate artists, but the industry at a systemic level is simply too underfunded to facilitate the change it needs, and the pendulum of change is not swinging in the right direction, with regular local government spending on the arts falling by £56.6 million to £454 million – a reduction of 11% in only five years (2009 – 2011)
Contrary to what the government appears to be attempting to coerce us into believing – careers in the arts are not trivial pursuits that can be changed on a whim, they are lifelong dedications often taking thousands of hours of intense and focused hard work to craft. Like many, I have spent a huge portion of my life studying and working towards a career in music, it is all I have ever wanted. I realise that we live in unprecedented times and I know the arts industry is not all that is at stake right now, but along with all the venue closures, struggling freelance musicians and artists, and ominous government official rhetoric regarding future prospects in this sector – never has the arts been in so much trouble. It is becoming increasingly clear that the future of the arts may not be safe in the government’s hands alone. My hope is that this issue has reached a tipping point, that it will become recognised nationwide as a major societal fallacy that must be remedied and that the public will fight for all the struggling artists out there that bring so much joy and ecstasy into our daily lives – because artists need to pay bills too, and if we are forced to go and get a job in ‘cyber’ then maybe when this is all over we won’t all come rushing back. With the pre covid UK arts industry bringing in up to £100 bn annually according to figures published by the Department of Culture, one can only imagine how damaging a decline in this income would have on a post covid economy.
For those who have researched the origin of the ‘retraining’ ad they will know that it actually dates back to 2019, nevertheless, I feel the fact that the advert pre-dates covid-19 makes it even more relevant – and only serves to strengthen the argument and highlight the fact that this has been a long held attitude towards the arts by the government that we are now seeing magnified tenfold. It certainly fits the current mood, which is most likely why it has resurfaced – but the ethos never went away. So now in its most dire straits, it is time to stand up in support for the preservation of the arts in our schools, in our streets, and in our lives, and for the government to give the industry the respect it so desperately deserves before it’s too late. #Savethearts