If Creative Industries Have Such Great Economic Impact, Why Ain’t I Paid More?

On Monday I wrote a post in which I mentioned an observation a person made about how having their state arts council organized under their state’s business development division made it difficult to disentangle the economic impact numbers of creative activities in advocacy efforts.

Artsjournal.com featured an article from Prospect Magazine (UK) that runs along similar lines, positing that an emphasis on the economic benefit of creative industries runs counter to artist’s best interests by valuing marketability over creative risk taking.

Whereas before artists and cultural practitioners could engage in art for art’s sake, now they are judged, ranked and scored on how much private investment they can secure. So film students are taught how to budget at the expense of how to create a mise-en-scène. Sculptors learn about the cost efficiency of materials rather than the work of da Vinci. Children do art classes because they are seen as investments in their future career rather than simply nurturing their well-being.

The article’s author, Oli Mould, also mentions the re-classification of creative industries to encompass a greater scope of activities in order to bolster economic output numbers.

For example, the “software” subsector—which consisted mainly of accountancy and administration staff—was augmented in 2005 which added £4.7bn to the creative industries’ overall contribution overnight.

Mould points out that despite all this economic impact artists and cultural practitioners apparently bring to the table, it hasn’t improved the collective bargaining power of these people. They are still being paid low wages or being asked to donate their goods and services for exposure.

(Slight aside: It will probably come as no surprise to many that a couple weeks ago someone at a meeting I attended mentioned a company which had recently completed a multi-million dollar wing to their corporate HQ was asking artists to donate art for their walls. )

A few weeks ago I listened to an interview Erik Gensler at Capacity Interactive conducted with Diane Ragsdale. Gensler made repeated reference to the negative impacts of neo-liberalism and capitalism on the arts. At the time,  I thought he was strangely fixated on neo-liberalism.

It took me a couple of weeks to recognize bringing up the term wasn’t that strange at all.  I often take issue in my posts with the utilitarian view of arts and culture as a solution to problems. That utilitarian view is a by-product of neo-liberalism.  Mould links to an article on neo-liberalism and the arts as applied to the UK in the Prospect piece.

ROI of Classical Music Training

Over on The Baffler, Kate Wagner, takes a look at the tenuous state in which classically trained musicians operate in the face of income threatening conditions like the lock-out/strike currently occurring at Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

I came across the link on Arts and Letter Daily which introduced it with, “Classical music is a high-water mark for culture. Being a classical musician, however, is a job — a crappy job.”

Reading Wagner’s account, I would have to agree. In addition to the cost of formal training with private instructors, universities and conservatories, she also lists the myriad other costs involved including summer intensives, festivals, competitions, internships, memberships, certifications and the choice of buying or renting instruments.

Last week Drew McManus pointed out the rising cost of strings his wife buys and analyzed the lifetime cost of maintaining a string instrument. His broader analysis of instrument costs, with nifty infographics, is worth a look. It is something to whip out when people say musicians shouldn’t be paid to do something they love.

Wagner had initially trained to be a violinist and she expresses some bitterness upon realizing that the ability to access the brand name training experiences that will provide access to the next tier of prestigious training was out reach of her family’s finances. She expresses anger at being encouraged onward and further into debt by teachers who knew that the path to an orchestra didn’t lay through the training she received.

One composer who currently works as an adjunct professor at a small Midwestern college decried classical music’s entrenched reputational economy. “I feel like we’re witnessing the development . . . of a two-tiered system,” he said, “with musicians who went to non-famous and poorly endowed schools on the bottom, with musicians who went to the Ivy Leagues of music on top…. What’s more, he argued, this uneven system of class and reputational privilege leads to more and more exploitation:

There’s a very strong sense of identity shame for a lot of musicians who went to non-famous schools, who got perfectly wonderful educations, but who didn’t have the grace of some famous asshole to notarize their work. Basically, it creates opportunities for exploitation. Students are told to go to these famous places to get a good degree. They live beyond their means . . . they open themselves up to labor, sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, depending on which monster they’re assigned to work with.

She mentions another colleague teaching middle school in Texas who has felt her opportunities have been limited because she doesn’t have the resources to gain the imprimatur accorded by participation in Drum Corps International competitions and workshops.

She notes that in this environment, it is pretty difficult to bring greater diversity to the industry, even with scholarships facilitating the process, due to the high debt one will accrue and low wages pretty much everyone will receive upon securing a performance position.

She ends the piece with a bit of solidarity for the striking musicians.

Sure, I may have been a failure in classical music, but as my colleagues and comrades schlep their instruments around in substitute gigs from orchestra to orchestra, unable to get a full-time job, teaching their students, paying off their debts with poverty wages from performing or adjuncting, and walking the picket line, the least I can do is write about it.

Revisiting Deliberate Practice

Last Tuesday I wrote a post on some recent research about the value of deliberate practice. Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to read a little more on the recent study. Come to find out, this recent bit of research (Macnamara & Maitra) was an attempt to replicate the a study about deliberate practice conducted in Germany in 1993 (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer). I mention this because some of the posts I made about deliberate practice in the past was based on Ericsson, et. al research.

Macnamara & Maitra were unable to replicate all the results of Ericsson study, finding that deliberate practice only accounted for a 26% variance in the difference in ability between violinists versus the 48% difference reported in 1993. They say:

26% of performance variance is not an inconsequential amount. However, this amount does not support the claim that performance levels can ‘largely be accounted for by differential amounts of past and current levels of practice’

The most recent research attributes this to bias built into the design of the 1993 research as well as inconsistent definitions of deliberate practice. As a result, in their conclusion they say deliberate practice alone can’t account for the differences of expertise between elite performers .

However, they do suggest that the training regimen of violinists today might also be a factor in the smaller variance. In the 1993 group, many had never entered a competition. The best violinists had entered about 3 competitions; good ones about 1; and less accomplished around 0.

Compare to those in the most recent study where the best entered about 13; good around 8-9; and least accomplished about 3.  The worst in the most current study might be evaluated higher than some of those in the 1993 study.

As I was looking through my blog feed over the weekend, it just so happened that Marginal Revolution linked to a post on Cal Newport’s blog where he reprints a letter from a pianist responding to an earlier post Newport made about deliberate practice.

One of the things the pianist discusses is the value of variety in pursuit of mastery:

Strategy #2: To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.
“Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”

In the post the pianist was responding to, Newport wrote:

To summarize these results:

  • The average players are working just as many hours as the elite players (around 50 hours a week spent on music),
  • but they’re not dedicating these hours to the right type of work (spending almost 3 times less hours than the elites on crucial deliberate practice),
  • and furthermore, they spread this work haphazardly throughout the day. So even though they’re not doing more work than the elite players, they end up sleeping less and feeling more stressed. Not to mention that they remain worse at the violin.

Both these posts were made in 2011 and Newport was citing the 1993 Ericsson, et. al study. However, the most recent study by Macnamara & Maitra found something very similar.

…we found no statistically significant differences in accumulated practice alone to age 18 between the best and good violinists. In fact, the majority of the best violinists had accumulated less practice alone than the average amount of the good violinists.

I should note that the research tracks practice from age 4 to 20 so the subjects are all students whose level of proficiency is determined around 18-20 years old. My read of Macnamara & Maitra is that they see this as evidence of inherent talent making up for less practice rather than the quality of that lesser amount of practice was much higher.

If you are thinking that perhaps those evaluated as having more skill had better teachers, the most recent research found:

Simply put, there is no evidence to suggest that teacher-designed practice activities are more relevant to improving performance than practice activities designed by the performer.

Granted, this doesn’t diminish the value of a better teacher. Presumably any self-designed routine of an 18 year old is going to be heavily informed by their teacher even if they are aren’t strictly following a dictated practice regimen. You may chalk it up to talent, either on the part of the performer or teacher, being able to identify and implement what is needed to obtain greater proficiency makes the difference between quantity and quality.

Is Artistic Authority Being Eroded?

I was glancing at an interview with Arti Prashar on Arts Professional UK site as she departs her position at Spare Tyre Theatre Company. I had come for the title of the article, “Exit interview: ‘We’re asked to follow a business model that just doesn’t work'” but it was something else that really caught my attention.

She says,

“…I began to observe, slowly but surely, that the authority of artists was being eroded. I wasn’t having that, so I negotiated becoming the Artistic Director and CEO.”

It struck me that she felt she needed to become CEO in order to retain authority. (Her first 8 years at Spare Tyre was as Artistic Director.) It made me wonder if this was the case globally outside of the UK. I suspect it is.

I have discussed the problems with the sentiment that “arts should be run more like a business,” in a number of blog posts over the years. I wonder now if that concept, combined with the sense that artists should be more business minded might be contributing to the erosion of artists’ authority.

Artists should definitely be knowledgeable enough to monitor the health of their own careers so that their work is not exploited by others. But if an artist is not perceived as possessing authority in their own realm independent of their business acumen, that is troubling.

Prashar doesn’t give specific examples of how she felt artists’ authority was being eroded. As I thought about how this problem might manifest, I began to wonder if this was actually related to the question of why we value art.

If an artist doesn’t feel they have the authority to say a work has value on its own, but needs to cite relevance in connection with social and political movements to convince others it has value, that may be just as problematic as economic impact and ability to raise test scores being the only rationale for granting funding.

You may be thinking that these elements are all important for getting people to participate in an event or other opportunity. People need to either perceive something is relevant to them or is worth their time and money as part of their decision to be present.

But can an artist walk into a room and say this thing is important and worth doing and be believed simply based on their authority as an artist? If not, why?

Is it because we have come to doubt or suspect their authority to make that statement despite 15 years of practice?

If I walk in and say the same thing is important and worth doing because 1000 people will pay $50, do you doubt my authority to make that statement? Do you think to inquire how much experience I have in making these predictions if I am waving a spreadsheet around instead of a violin bow?

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