“They are awful liars here: as soon as they don’t want anything they clear off to the country. One of my lady pupils has already left for the country, leaving nine lessons unpaid.”
Frédéric Chopin was writing to a friend about his troubles settling in London in 1848, his landlord having doubled their agreed rent on arrival. The British attitude to a career in music as being a rich kid’s hobby, with remuneration an optional and occasional extra, goes back a long way.
The UK Government’s impending cut to Universal Credit and rise in National Insurance are both causes for understandable worry for anyone who cares about a just and fair tax and welfare system. But what’s the direct impact on the more specific concerns of those who care about justice and fairness in the performing arts?
Last week also saw the Creative Industries Policy Evidence Centre publish their report on Social Mobility in the Creative Economy. It’s worth taking the time to work through the whole thing, which is available online here. You might want to pour yourself a stiff drink first: much of it makes uncomfortable (although frequently unsurprising) reading, shining a light on many areas of deeply entrenched privilege.
Some of those elements are so hard-wired into the psyche of the performing arts, so frequently shrugged off as just part and precarious parcel of the business, that it’s often hard to notice them at all on a day-to-day basis. Financial support received from family and friends during or after training; having access to urban centres, favours of free travel and accommodation in London and elsewhere; the advantages afforded by contacts and networking, when it comes to unearthing opportunities and providing references; the need for those without financial back-up to work second and third jobs, draining their energy and focus: all long-standing givens in the industry. And all bricks in the wall which stands between the industry and the communities it supposedly exists to reflect and serve.
The PEC report also hits hard on how socio-economic barriers to careers in the arts overlap with other areas of systemic exclusion: ethnicity, gender, disability. In my own corner of the industry, addicted as we are to carbon-intensive responses to any challenge, we frequently take the shortcut of flying in what we hope will read as diversity from elsewhere in the world, patting ourselves on the back for having demonstrated our enlightened attitude, before moving on to tomorrow’s headline issues. At the same time we regularly ignore the more laborious, longer-term investment work of engaging with the diverse resource of talent on our own doorstep. Sometimes you have to wonder what we’re afraid of: what’s the worst that could happen if we meaningfully opened the doors of our concert halls and opera houses to all those who live just outside?
The appetite which existed in post-war Britain for a genuinely egalitarian approach to the arts is in danger of fading as the generation who drove it, who demanded it and refused to take no for an answer, leaves us. Just as we saw with Brexit, the performative jingoistic populism of those who “remember” a simulacrum of World War II is in stark contrast to the attitude of those who were actually there, and genuinely recall first-hand what they – and I mean they, not we – fought, suffered and sacrificed for.
The barrier facing those from less-privileged backgrounds who might seek a career in the creative industries is real. Each brick in it might not amount to an insurmountable obstacle in itself, but put together they add up to a formidable wall.
The Government talks a good game on “levelling-up”, yet in practice its every new move siphons money and opportunity from those who can least afford it, while also underfunding and undermining the provision of music and the performing arts in state schools. At the same time, our industry claims to be desperate to embrace diversity, yet slashes freelancers’ wages on the pretext of hard times – as if it’s not those same freelancers who have already borne the greatest financial brunt of the pandemic.
What small steps can we as individuals take to open a door, or even just a small window, to those who face this wall?
Deep down, is 21st-Century Britain actually fairly comfortable with the idea that the performing arts should be just a rich kid’s hobby? On pessimistic days, I have a horrible feeling I know what the answer is. Perhaps we’re often too scared even to ask the question.
But let’s not pretend that there isn’t another choice available, for a short while longer at least. The wall between the industry and its grassroots gets bigger every day. But we could choose to smash those bricks. We could choose to tear down that wall.
This article is adapted from one which first appeared as a weekly newsletter for Freelancers Make Theatre Work – for more details on their vital work, and how you can support it, please visit their website at: freelancersmaketheatrework.com
Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback, Kindle and audiobook editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy
“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine
“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine