A few weeks before we went into lockdown, I had a dream where a variety of famous and not so well known comedians were performing shows in the streets. Each audience was tiny, ten people at most and they were sitting on the pavement surrounding the performer eating picnics! I remember wondering how we could ever return to anything so small and primitive when comedians undertake extensive tours and fill arenas. How little did I know that this could turn into reality. Turns out that fact is stranger than fiction…
Last week I received a series of excited texts from brother, he had bought tickets to a show by his favourite comedian, Paul Foot. In normal circumstances, there would be nothing unusual about this, however, while we are in lockdown, no shows are taking place. Turns out that Paul was hosting a live show via Zoom and charging £5 for tickets; an exceptionally good price to see a well known comedian but is it profiteering in the current pandemic? Many well known music acts have been performing for free or offering some gratis entertainment via other platforms such as Facebook live and Instagram. So how come comedians can charge for online shows but musicians seem to avoid this?
Almost all of the arts sector has come to a halt; freelance performers are suddenly unemployed and the industry is in crisis. Granted, that this is same for most of the industries in the UK at the moment, but for the arts which chronically under funded and dare I say, under valued, this is potentially fatal. The Literary Festival, Ways With Words at Dartington cancelled its event and although many of the major music festivals hung on to see if it was possible to go ahead, they have all had to concede that cancelling is the safest option. However, some events chose innovation and moved their performances online. One arts supporter I spoke to mentioned that they had watched the Hay Festival online and that they were surprised that it was free as they would have happily paid to watch their favourite writers speak. Did the organisers miss the opportunity to charge people for the event and recoup their outlay?
In The Independent this week, Jenny Eclair decried the fact that the lack of football has been given precedence in the media, yet the arts are barely mentioned. I wonder if the arts were given the same amount of media coverage and funding where this would lead us as a nation? Currently arts and culture contribute £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy and we can also note that a large amount of tourism is driven by the arts sector’s good international reputation. A deeper investment would not only have a good return for the economy but for the lasting cultural, artistic and historical legacy of the nation. Not all investments are financial, and there needs to be more emphasis on what we leave behind for future generations. Very little is ploughed into the development, mentoring and establishment of artists and creative networks in the UK. Current television programmes have pushed the “get famous quick” route which has resulted artists who fall at the first hurdle as they aren’t prepared for the business. Equally, if there’s no immediate financial return, artists can be dropped by companies before they have a chance to establish themselves and also, their craft.
So back to Paul Foot and Zoom show… Hats off to Mr Foot for his entrepreneurial spirit during difficult times. While there is no doubt that the arts should be accessible for all, there are times when free shows provide a platform for wider exposure, however, the reality is that creative people need to earn a living too and also fund their projects. It seems more comedians have been charing for their work than musicians, I often feel that musicians have a poverty mindset when it comes to charging for their work. We don’t seem to be brave enough to ask for money for what we do. Many musicians use platforms such as ko-fi.com and buymeacoffee.com to raise funds but it feels a bit like beggars change rather than deserved wages for the work. Foot’s enterprise should encourage us to be more brave. My brother tells me that there were more than 200 attendees on the zoom call; that’s more than £1000 for two hours work. Paul’s idea shows a tenacity to keep going and not succumb to redundancy. It encourages all of us that there is always a way forward, you just need to keep innovating to keep your head above water through turbulent times.
While some musicians have provided free entertainment, such as Nerina Pallot, others have performed live Facebook shows and asked for donations for their work like Martyn Joseph. Art has great value whatever discipline it comes from, I believe that more artists should be charging for their work and not be timid about it. After all, if we value it, others will too. I’m not suggesting that those who have performed for free are wrong to do so, far from it; the graciousness of those who have done this have brought great comfort and joy to their communities, which is one of the main purposes for creative work. But we need a game plan in order to survive as artists and have something to build from when lockdown ends. Whichever option you go for, free or chargeable, building a supportive community around you as an artist is essential to longevity through the changing seasons. COVID-19 is causing a renaissance in the industry and now is the time for artists to take over and gain control of their work and business for their benefit.