Why we need to support small businesses in the creative industries

This year I've decided to start featuring articles and posts by guest authors on this blog. The article below was written by Tara Highet, COSBOA staffer and performer on piano and the slide trombone. She plays music in three languages: English, French and Spanish. She also has family members who run small businesses in the arts.

Why small businesses in the creative industries need more support (even before COVID-19)

If you’re self-isolating because of COVID-19, you’re probably turning to some sort of art to get you through it, whether it’s listening to music, watching TV shows, reading books, or even watching videos on the internet.

Remember that there is usually a small business or a sole trader behind the art you’re consuming, and that they’re taking a financial risk to create something you love. Before we start the article, here are some things you can do right now:

  • If you have tickets for a concert or other cancelled event, don’t ask for a refund (if you can afford it of course);

  • If you have already hired a photographer, videographer, a band or another type of artist for a private function that has since been cancelled, don’t ask for a refund (once again, if you can afford it)

  • Buy paintings, drawings and photographs online, don’t just right-click “save as”

  • Pay more than just your Spotify subscription for recorded music (try buying music directly from artists from their own websites or platforms like BandCamp, for example)

  • Support artists by donating to them on platforms like Patreon

  • Consider forgoing different nonessential items (a 15th pair of shoes, for example) so that you have more money left over to pay for the art that you consume

  • Commission an artist to do work for you or your business, e.g to paint or draw something, produce a video or compose some music.

As we practice social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19, people who work in the creative industries are being hit especially hard. With the ban on gatherings of more than 2 people, concerts and other events are being cancelled or postponed left and right. Film and TV productions as well as rehearsals for various performing arts are also being cancelled. This affects more than performers; it also affects videographers, photographers, makeup and hair artists, producers, managers, technicians, and many more.

The full impact is unknown, and industry associations are calling for businesses to report their losses. A site named “I lost my gig” is tracking income lost to the creative industries in Australia and New Zealand – as of 27 March it was around $316 million. Screen Producers Australia is also running a survey.

The creative industries are dominated by small business operators, particularly sole traders and contractors. They face many of the same challenges and are bound by the same obligations as other small business people. Yet, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, they seemed to struggle more than other industries and be in need of extra support. The “poor artist” is a stereotype we are all familiar with.

Struggling artists from around the world often point to France’s much-envied government welfare system for performing artists, whereby people with intermittent work in the industry must log a minimum number of hours worked per year to receive welfare payments to compensate for the days they don’t work.

This may seem extreme to some of us in Australia, and it does have its downsides. The reason I bring it up, however, is that implicit in such a system is the idea that artists are unable to successfully earn a living from the free market. While it is perhaps overly cynical to suggest that it is impossible, there are genuine reasons why making money from the market is much harder to do for people in creative professions. I’ve outlined what I see as the most fundamental barriers below.

While I know I’m unlikely to convince anyone that we should adopt a French-style welfare program, I hope to at least start a conversation in the business community and to convince you, as an individual, to pay more for the art that you consume and the artists you hire.

1. It takes time to master the skill

With few exceptions, to be a professional artist – whether that is a musician, dancer, painter or something else –you have to invest thousands of hours into practicing your skill and often thousands of dollars into lessons as well before you are ready to start your business. Most professional artists have been building up their skill level since they were children. And people creating original art, such as writers and composers, could be working for decades before they are “discovered” and finally start to earn money.

2. Technology makes it easy to copy and consume for free

Imagine how you would fare if your product could be cloned indefinitely for no cost. This is the case for recorded music, film, TV and photography, among others. I’m sure you remember when online piracy was rampant in the early 2000s. To counteract that, streaming platforms like Spotify and Netflix had to offer large libraries of music and film for very low prices that don’t reflect the time, effort and skill put in to creating each individual song, film or TV show. This accessibility causes people to continue to undervalue art and take it for granted, often developing the mentality that they have a right to be able to consume what they want when they want. The lack of a technological barrier means that, for the most part, they can and do.

3. Professionals have to compete with hobbyists

Sometimes it’s not just the consumers who undervalue the art – it’s the artists themselves.

There are people who simply want to create art and share it with the world as a hobby. As they already have a fulltime job doing something else, they don’t care if they make a profit, offering their art for free or for a very low price that would not be enough to sustain a livable income. This is very common in the arts compared to other industries – you don’t tend to find people who love accounting so much that they’ll do it for free.

Some of these hobbyists end up in competition with the professionals, undercutting the market and unknowingly putting pressure on them to lower their prices. A person who loves photography and owns a low-end DSLR camera, for example, may offer to photograph a friend’s weddings for a small fee - a job that could have otherwise been taken by a professional photographer. There are also plenty of amateur musicians and community bands who are willing to either play for free or take gigs for low prices that no professional would ever accept. Though the hobbyists are rarely as good as people who have dedicated their lives to perfecting their skills and who owns top quality professional equipment or instruments, they are still “good enough” to untrained eyes and ears.

But we can’t very well tell someone that they’re not allowed to perform to the public or to take photos unless they’re a professional. To be able to participate in art is one of life’s greatest joys and a way to express emotions. We can’t take that away from people - it almost feels like a human right.

4.Making good art and making money are not always compatible

This one is may engender accusations of snobbery or elitism but is still a point worth considering. There are a few reasons people commonly cite for this incompatibility. Firstly, there is the issue of taste. Relying on the market means relying on the taste of the masses and the masses tend not to appreciate art that is too complicated (i.e classical music). Second is the issue of time. If you rely on the market you have to come out with new things for people to consume to stay relevant and don’t have time to create sit back and create “good art.” And third is the issue of stifled creativity. It is a financial risk to be creative and try new things, so people play it safe and stick to formulas that are sure to please

5. People don’t need art but they really, really want it (and so do you)

People forgo a lot of nonessential items when they don’t have much money, but they don’t tend to forgo creative products like music, books and TV shows. The very idea sounds like torture. Their love and want for art drives them to find ways to consume it for free while they continue to pay for essentials like rent, utilities, food and medicine. They may also want a surfboard, new shoes, or some other item, but these can wait until they have enough money – music and TV can’t. After all, what would life be if you couldn’t enjoy art?

So when you see the creative industries asking for extra support, whether that be from the government or the private sector, try to understand where they’re coming from and get behind them. And next time you want to consume some type of art for free, try to remember that there is a small business or a sole trader behind it and that they’re taking a financial risk to create the art that you love.