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5 May 2021

Calum Baird is an independent Scottish musician, singer-songwriter and activist as well as a student in contemporary art theory at the Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh.

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The place of art in the left’s post-Covid strategy

Calum Baird offers a musician’s view of initiatives that would help the art world recover from the shock of coronavirus

FOR ME as a musician and art student, living and working through a global pandemic has fully exposed the extent to which the music scene I inhabited pre-pandemic does not support my practice or that of the vast majority of musicians.

Being a musician, or any type of artist in a moment where the gig economy is expanding, is tough. You depend heavily on loss-leading, work from contract to contract, are expected to perform for free or even on a “pay to play” basis and receive low returns from royalties. You make little or no money from music releases as streaming sites are not run in a fair or democratic way, and you have to keep working if you are to catch the eye of gatekeepers: critics, venue owners/bookers, radio presenters and producers, press and so on. You also face growing competition as bands and solo artists alike are forced to apply for places to perform at festivals, with decisions either being arbitrary or based on stats like plays on Spotify, followers here or there, or likes on Facebook.

The global pandemic has intensified all these pressures, showing how vulnerable artists, writers, creatives and freelancers are in an economy with no social security safety-net worth the name. These practices are increasing throughout society, egged on by the post-Fordist economy and its ideologues. In fact, some would argue that work practices which began in the arts have been picked up and applied to other parts of the economy, but that is an issue for another time and place.

I am arguing, then, that the Covid-19 crisis has exposed the total lack of infrastructure and support networks that are in place for artists, leaving them at the mercy of raw market forces or forcing artists to find other ways to survive outside of the norm. This could prove to have profound changes for the way the artworld operates but at the moment uncertainty is the main order of the day. Yes, some bodies like Creative Scotland, charities and other third sector bodies have given vital support, but this is not nearly enough and it has come as a shock to the system for these bodies too who operate on the assumption of a functioning, live economy; nor has it stopped vast numbers of artists and art workers turning away from careers in the arts. In a survey, the Musicians’ Union found that some 34% of 2000 members are considering abandoning the industry altogether. Similarly, a UK Music report found that, on average, musicians in the UK will have lost two-thirds of their income in 2020 owing to the current crisis.

The artworld, it seems, cannot adequately accommodate the large pool of artists, creatives and freelancers who were drawn into it before the pandemic began. To understand what has happened, we need to look at the way the arts operated before the crisis took hold. Of course, going back to the way things were before March 2020 would be infinitely better than where we are today. We would, however, only be rebuilding for the next crisis to wash it all away again if we did not address the issues which are at the heart of this crisis: historic precarity in the arts, inequalities in terms of access into the arts, disappearing spaces for performance and exhibition and the concentration of the arts in urban centres. To do this, we need to eradicate market forces and their influence from society and reform the way the economy as a whole is organised. Neoliberalism, in short, has to go.

It is not lost on me, though, that this is something which is self-evidently easier said than done. If the key to rebuilding is to go beyond what we had before by making improvements and changes to work routines and practices, and abandoning the economic and social model – some might call it an experiment rather than a model – which has underpinned those routines and practices, how would this actually work for artists? What can be done to provide clear solutions rather than short-term fixes or short-term crisis-management?

First and foremost, I think it is clear across the economy and society that we need to keep as much as we feasibly can of the pivot to online working and working from home. This does not mean an end to socialising, but it does mean changing an unhealthy work/life balance which has left Scotland and the rest of the UK trailing behind many countries in Europe. Maintaining the pivot to online performance and viewing, or at least to some aspects of it, would have benefits for artists too. For instance, the switch by Hawick Alchemy Arts to online events has been a boon to artists and exhibitors who, in pre-lockdown times, would consider running at a loss a positive outcome.

We as artists should also be supporting demands and campaigns for a shorter working week. If working from home spreads across the economy, something which many artists will be used to, we should demand a shorter working week of four days, without loss of earnings. The shortening of the working week is crucial to the dismantling of the gig economy and its unfair work practices and routines. Artists should consider what a shorter working week would mean for them personally and what place they would occupy in campaigns for a shorter working week. Given that the artist knows all too well the pressures contemporary capitalism places on their historic precarity and demands to be constantly productive – pressures which are encroaching more and more on the work/life balance of today – the artist can be an important ally to gig economy workers and increasing numbers of workers throughout society just now where the chance to wipe the slate clean and bring about a culture change in our work routines and behaviours is before us for the first time in a generation.

As for musicians like me, could and should there be a new platform to host live performances that is not Facebook, but would enable artists to perform and their supporters to watch? More and more artists are using apps such as TikTok or Twitch, but could such a platform be co-operatively owned and managed? Furthermore and, owing to Brexit, what does performing in Europe mean for independent artists who do not have bags of cash or an army of bureaucrats to help them navigate the new regulations? Audacious, blue-sky thinking will be required for artists to carry on working and touring in the absence of government officials who will take their interests into account.

On the home front, we need an expansion of arts spaces outside urban centres. Naturally, most arts professionals want to see more arts spaces. The important question is where these spaces are and who they are for. New spaces can be provided in rural areas and small towns on the same principle as the rolling out of broadband internet – something else which can be improved on post-pandemic: for one thing, it should be free – namely, accessible and levelling-up. What I have in mind is the idea of a House of Culture in every town in Scotland with a population of more than, say, 20,000 inhabitants. This would support artists and their work, whilst also giving greater access to arts and aspects of culture that non-urban communities currently lack. It could also serve an educational purpose, allowing new generations of artists to learn through and with different arts groups and workshops. The emphasis here, though, is on opening up and foregrounding spaces for artists to create, share, perform and learn together, regardless of where they are situated geographically or economically. Lastly, expanding art infrastructure into non-urban areas would have a benefit for audiences and lovers of art in these communities too.

The creation and expansion of new, artist-led co-ops post-pandemic would play a vital role in regenerating and democratising crisis-stricken arts scenes. Organisations like Ampled, an online artist and worker-led co-op (of which I am a member), already offer artists a way to raise funds through supporters along the lines of the Patreon model but do so in a way that is more egalitarian for everyone concerned. Additionally, the spread of co-ops like Saltspace in Glasgow which has a diverse range of community, academic and artistic engagement and is geared towards social learning, should be explored and encouraged by all arts professionals, with demands made to central government, local authorities and funding bodies for support in setting them up.

Such initiatives would help to return art to the local level and encourage its spread. This is something which is sorely needed in arts education too. Art schools need to be set up locally and independently of the compromised university in contemporary capitalist society which is geared to the production of information, culture and knowledge as commodities. These institutions dominate the field of education and this dominance must be challenged – starting with tuition fees being made free, across the board, and student debt cancelled. Art schools must be brought into the local and could either sit alongside or within the House of Culture as part of an art scene which is based in local communities, with potential for each scene to have its own distinctive style.

Finally, whatever the future is for the arts, it is essential that artists, their unions and other organisations are at the heart of planning that future and that it is not left to market forces – the same ones that have left the arts exposed to crises – or to those seeking to make a quick buck from the arts before moving on to decide what art should be like, who is able to practise art and who is able to enjoy it.