Cave-aged cheddar or Dairylea? You get the music culture you pay for…

Sheila Chandra - Monday, July 03, 2017

In this internet era of ‘everything should be free’, it’s artists – particularly recording artists – who are paying the price. While some megastars are still making enough to survive, the chances of new artists breaking through and actually making a decent living have vastly diminished. For instance, while physical sales are quickly becoming a thing of the past, Pharrell Williams reported that he only made $2,700 from 43 million Spotify streams of ‘Happy’, and record companies are now demanding a cut from gig fees, where 20 years ago, they offered financial tour support.

The result is a high proportion of upper-middle class and financially privileged musicians – especially amongst those new to the profession. These are people who can afford to subsidise their artistic careers with training, expensive launches and set ups and free internships, especially at the beginning.


This is something that should trouble all of us

Apart from the obvious unfairness of only financially privileged people having access to a creative career, this should trouble us for other reasons. For a start, this state of affairs means we stand to lose out on the often grittier genius that nascent artists from less privileged backgrounds might have given us. But there’s another reason to be concerned.

In the last century, the popular arts such as TV, film and pop music, vibrantly reflected the concerns and dreams of ordinary working people. Their stories were writ large across the public consciousness and celebrated, because they were being told, over and over. This led to social and political movements to address the particular concerns of those people. I’m thinking of such things as the charity ‘Shelter’ being established within one week of the broadcast of ‘Cathy Come Home’ in 1966 − because of outrage among the 12 million people who watched it, on behalf of the homeless.


The ‘meritocracy’ myth

If, by contrast, the arts employ a proliferation of those who have no experience of such concerns, those concerns simply will not get represented. At worst, convenient myths about ‘meritocracy’ will be represented instead, while practical chances for ordinary people to shine in the arts decline.

What I mean by that last sentence is this. We all have cognitive bias based on our own life experiences, and it’s a fact that absolutely no one ‘walks’ into a creative career. It takes hard work and talent. The trouble is that these days it takes so much more, but this is something people from more privileged backgrounds forget to ‘see’. This means that those who have the connections and financial backing to launch themselves can be blind to the fact that increasingly, hard work and talent are not enough. They often mistakenly believe that ‘anyone can make it’ because they have, even when it’s simply not feasible for those on the lowest class rungs. Thus they perpetuate the myth that merit alone (or having the ‘right attitude’ – another great victim blaming device) is enough, because they can’t see outside their own context.


 Paying artists properly for their work means that ordinary people get to represent us

Making sure the stories of ordinary people are heard is a crucial reason why other ordinary working people should support the idea of artists being properly and fairly paid for their work. It’s the same principle as having a salary for MPs so that ordinary people can afford to stand for parliament. We may resent MP pay rises, but we know that abolishing their salaries altogether is a bad idea. If we did, only those with a private income would be able to represent us in our already ironically named ‘House of Commons’.


The public thinks an arts career is a ‘privilege’ artists shouldn’t be paid for

One of the hardest beliefs to shift in the mind of the public, is idea that being an artist is a privilege, and that consequently creative people don’t deserve to earn from it….as if it’s unreasonable to earn what’s needed in order to be able to continue training, maintain your equipment, re-invest in your work, gain some healthy industry independence, seek advice from industry professionals, and to create a sustainable lifestyle plus save a little for retirement. And this, despite the fact that it’s what any self-respecting, self-employed plumber or electrician would demand i.e. the chance of a decent life.


 Cave-aged cheddar or Dairylea?

The public seems blithely to accept the current state of affairs because if a particular artist burns out after a few years, there are always lots of other new and younger ones willing to take their place. And they assume that the industry had got the best they had to give out of them, whilst they were young, in any case. There is no other industry where you’d accept this as common sense other than, obviously, in situations in which only young people can physically do the job, such as with athletes, for example.

This doesn’t apply to musicians (as the Rolling Stones, or Prince and David Bowie, if they were still around, would testify) so this planned ‘obsolescence’ is based purely on the expectations in the industry. That, and the fact that audiences have changed philosophically as internet use and inequality has grown. It’s incredibly short sighted as it also costs the industry money, because building a new profile for an unknown artist is more expensive than maintaining the profile of an established one.


Where are the new ‘Bowie’s and ‘Bush’s?

Despite the convenience and dirt-cheapness of music these days, which people love, I think collectively, we the public know something is missing. The mourning when David Bowie and any number of legendary creators died in 2016 held a special, if largely unacknowledged quality. We weren’t just mourning Bowie himself. We were mourning all the artists like him. Because we all seemed dimly to realise that ‘they don’t make ‘em like that anymore’.

This was not just the bitter, maudlin cry of the middle aged. It was felt by young and old alike. And sadly, that’s because it’s true. As Laurie Penny pointed out, the social and financial conditions that nurtured a boy from Brixton to become ‘Bowie’ no longer exist. And they haven’t existed for quite some time…. In some sense, we know what we’ve lost. But we don’t yet realise that the power to restore them is largely in our hands, via our social attitudes and our wallets.


You get what you pay for

What the public don’t understand, is that their refusal to pay artists properly (such as when they try to get as much music as possible via illegal downloads and then drive standard industry prices down permanently) makes it impossible for artists to develop and re-invest in their work. What the music industry currently exploits is the ‘first flush’ of the creativity of young artists. With the exception of the few who make it to the highest levels for sustained periods of time and with a great deal of canny management, there is little opportunity to develop as a musician over a meaningful period of time without struggle.


 We’ve been eating Dairylea so long, we forgotten what cheddar tastes like

The pattern is so entrenched that we’ve forgotten that artists may get better and enrich our culture further, with age. This is much like never letting a good cheese mature or only using a supermarket plastic bag once. Part of the reason that this state of affairs continues is that the music industry now focuses on young consumers of eight years old and up, rather than older teenagers and young people at university as it did in the ‘60s. Kids may ‘love Dairylea’, but those of us who are older have more educated palates. And certainly pop culture these days resembles Dairylea far more often than it should.

These days the ‘X-Factor’ model of instant fame has been embraced by the music industry itself. It’s bought into its own fairytales, and developed economic models around them. And as a result it no longer provides ‘nursery’ conditions, where the artists of tomorrow can make a modest living and have time to mature. Instead, it makes fast money from fast-burn, pre-packaged singers who simply sing the ‘classics’, rather than writing new ones. Too often, the result is ‘fast-growing, factory farmed chickens’ rather than free range ones. No wonder we feel bereft.


The ‘artisan’ artist class has been stripped away

You may protest that these disadvantages only affect musicians who aren’t good enough to have made a lot of money. The Pharrell Williams example at the top of this blog gives the lie to that. But even allowing your objection to stand, it’s more accurate to say that it also affects musicians who aren’t commercial enough in their appeal to have made a lot of money; the ‘artisan’ class, the people who traded fame for freedom, and tended to take the most risks. And that has implications for our wider artistic culture.

If you only reward what is commercial and widely appealing, and you only make it possible for those highly commercially minded artists to survive, you narrow the cultural resources that we all feed off, including the next generation of artists. In short, you stop the processes that build ‘heart’ into the artistic soil of a musical culture, that ‘re-seed’ it. You destroy the ‘useless’ rainforest, so its myriad yet-to-be discovered medicinal plant uses are lost. And it’s not easy to get back. Meanwhile, in the long term, everyone loses out in ways they may never realise.


Inequality and resentment

The other reason Dairylea culture abounds – shored up by circuses like ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ – is that millennials have been sold out by the baby boomers. Millennials are finding things like steady well-paid employment and a mortgage impossible to secure until late in their 30s, when their parents typically had these things at 20, and without a student debt to carry. As inequality and insecurity have grown, resentment against those who seem to ‘make money without lifting a finger’ (which is what the public thinks artists do) has grown. And so it should. Except that no artist I’ve ever heard of, does so.


 ‘Capital’ vs labour

Let me explain more about why I think working people’s ire gets directed at artists. In 2017 half the world’s wealth was in the hands of just eight people, with this concentration of wealth only speeding up. This is largely because of the way the market rewards ‘capital’ rather than labour. The upshot is you can earn more by sitting still − if you have valuable investments such as stocks and shares, land or buildings − than if you toil at backbreaking or essential work (like teaching or nursing) for eight to twelve hours a day.

And the public resent this, as well they should, particularly when the working poor are so badly paid that they’re also on benefits, and lack the money for the basics. Or when they’re tortured in a myriad of everyday ways by being tied to jobs that have no meaning, for which they’re temperamentally unsuited, in unfriendly office environments under aegis of a bad boss.

Most of the world’s wealthy inherited their wealth. And we the public, hear very little about them. So while the Duke of Westminster may be far richer than most artists you can name, you don’t read his name in the paper every day. Not the way you do with some hapless musician who seems to be ‘making money from record sales in their sleep’. And whose job it is to paint life in an essentially ‘feel-good’ industry as ‘fun’ and ‘glamourous’ even though most of the time, it’s exhausting, gut-wrenching and precarious. So which of them is easier to direct envy and resentment at?


 Is copyrighted work ‘capital’?

The sad thing is that owning copyrights isn’t remotely like owning a huge estate or stock portfolio. It’s true that when the public pay a decent price for recordings, the artist ‘makes money in their sleep’. But in a way they’re only being paid back for the hours or years of work they’ve already put in, unpaid. In a way, artistic works are like batteries. The artist works long and hard, sometimes for years, to ‘charge them up’ before they get the benefit of them. Imagine the hard work of charging your ipod using a bicycle dynamo. It’s a lot like that. And those works will ‘run out of charge’ eventually because the term of copyright is limited − at which point you’ll no longer have to pay the artist for their use.

They’re not like land, which, pretty much, just keeps going up in value, forever. And you don’t simply inherit them for your lifetime and your children’s and grandchildren’s lifetime without having to do a stroke of work. Artistic and copyrighted works don’t concentrate wealth in the system the way land does, so they’re not ‘capital’ in the classic sense. But still, artists are ‘visible’ in a way that the richest people with inherited wealth at the top of society aren’t. So they get it in the neck.


 The collective funding of culture

It’s ironic that Crowdfunder campaigns are popular, because in general, the concept of collectively funded institutions has fallen out of favour, from the NHS downwards. But like it or not, we all fund – or de-fund – popular culture. And we get either cheddar or Dairylea according to how much we’re willing to value it. We collectively get what we deserve.

Artists will always want to create great art. Their dedication isn’t in question, because it’s almost a vocational ‘madness’. But we either give them the resources to invest in great projects and their own skills and development long-term, or we don’t. And by the way, it can’t happen via the Arts Council. Great art doesn’t get created within politically correct parameters, with checks on progress written in. That’s not how the kind of creativity that changes the world, works.


 I’m calling for a creative revolution

As I’ve said, I don’t think artists who get properly paid are like ‘fat cats’ living off inherited wealth they did nothing to deserve. So I don’t think it’s fair to punish them as the only illusionary and makeshift ‘representatives’ of those who do, that the public sees. And when we do try to punish artists, when we resent them and won’t pay them, we de-fund our entire musical culture. We exclude ordinary people that might change things for the better, and we shoot ourselves in the collective foot.

So I’m calling for a creative revolution − bit like the food revolution that has taken place in the UK in the past 20-30 years. These days we recognise cave-aged cheddar when we see it. And even if we can’t afford it very often, or at all, we’re glad someone is still making it. We don’t want our food landscape limited to cheap convenience foods.

Look, I’m a Somerset lass - where authentic Cheddar cheese actually comes from. Maybe not born and bred, but I’ve lived here for more than 25 years and this is my county now. And I want real cheddar, not some fake stuff that apes cheese. There will always be ‘Dairylea’ i.e. manufactured pop, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we need more. So I’m calling for ordinary working people to recognise the artist talent in their own ranks and financially reward it, proudly and joyfully. And to recognise that doing so is a way of ‘supporting our own’, and a political act that will fund the greater good. That way, we’ll get the kind of ‘soul’ food we deserve.

My new book ‘Organizing for Creative People’ is full of tips to help creative people set their professional careers up well. 


Lion Goodman commented on 07-Jul-2017 06:04 AM
Brilliant and cogent, Sheila. This needs to be said, and widely published. Please send it to Huffington Post and every Arts editor in every major newspaper and news outlet. All of the arts deserve our support, and all of them are lacking, except for the few at the top. We've corporatized the arts. This isn't unlike the Renaissance, when the rich invested in the arts to counter the decimation of the Black Death, but they were supporting an entire community, or culture, rather than just themselves. Your voice is important (this written one), and should be heard loudly, by everyone who cares about culture.
Jai Uttal commented on 08-Jul-2017 03:41 AM
Dear Sheila,
This is such a beautiful and sadly true essay. I've been saying the same things for years and it's so good to hear it in your words.
I had no idea about your struggles with your voice. My heart and prayers go out to you. Our bodies and lives are so fragile and so precious.
Sending all my love to you,

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