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March 23, 2020

The challenge facing our creative industries during the COVID–19 crisis

Empty Theatres

It is fair to say that the recent Government advice to delay the spread of Covid-19 has had a profound effect upon many sectors including the cultural and creative industries. There are many reasons why closures in the cultural sectors have hit people so hard and why we need to protect them going forwards.

1. The plight of freelancers

The cultural and creative industries have one of the highest rates of freelance workers of any sector in the UK. These freelancers work across a range of areas. For example, a theatre performer might also work on cruise ships, on television, in film, music or fashion all of which have been halted due to the pandemic. With no permanent contracts and minimal employment rights most of these workers have suddenly found themselves losing their jobs immediately whilst also having future work cancelled.

Being used to periods of unemployment freelancers are adept at using their skills to find alternative work but this is also on a freelance basis and often in hospitality, education or sport and leisure - all of which are similarly affected by the crises.

It is times like these when the precarious nature of freelance working is most starkly evident and harshly felt. Of course, freelance working is not limited to the creative industries. The ONS (office for National Statistics) estimates that around 15% of the total workforce are currently freelance or self-employed.

2. The invisible workers

When a theatre closes it is not just the performers that have lost their livelihood but the many, many jobs and businesses that are connected to the theatre. Within the theatre there are front of house staff, box office staff, cleaners, technicians, carpenters, electricians, wardrobe staff etc. Then there are the businesses surrounding the theatres, corner stores, shops, bars, restaurants, cafés, hotels, car parks. Finally, there are the related businesses providing marketing for theatrical productions, theatrical and musical agents and managers, production companies, promotors, physiotherapists and more. The next time you watch a film look at the credits, almost all the people on the seemingly endless list of jobs and names are freelance workers and with television and film production closing down all of those jobs and incomes have gone.

3. Financial cost

The financial loss to individual freelancers is catastrophic. The reliance upon numerous short-term contracts that are often poorly paid means that there is little chance of substantial savings. With no way to regain employment in the foreseeable future freelancers face the prospect of being unable to pay basic rent and bills. They also cannot afford to buy services of any kind so related businesses suffer. At the community level there is the loss of passing trade and tourism associated with cultural sites such as theatres and a loss of work for locals who work in those sites. The same of course is true for those working in sports venues.

At the National level the creative industries contributes around £101.5 billion to the UK economy and is one of the few sectors that grew during the last recession. The DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) reported that the sector provided 5.3 million jobs in 2018 and London’s West End theatre generated £133 million in VAT revenue. With almost all cultural and creative sector activities closed there will be a significant loss to the economy.

4. Do the arts matter?

The arts and creative industries provide opportunities to come together, create and learn. They provide vital health care and well-being both physically and mentally. Community arts projects provide classes and sessions for people with dementia and Parkinson’s Disease as well as babies, toddlers and those with differing learning and physical abilities. There are community arts projects that provide opportunities for people of all ages, encouraging and inspiring young talent and developing future artists of all kinds. The power of cultural and creative activities to bring people together has resulted in initiatives such as Cities of Culture of which Coventry will soon be host. It is how we understand and challenge the world around us, it is how we understand and challenge ourselves and others, it is our past, present and future. It is our culture.

As a final thought, I'd like to highlight some of the positive ways in which cultural and creative workers have responded to the crises in addition to the ways in which cultural activities have brought people together at this time.

In Italy we saw opera singers and DJs performing from their balconies, and support and solidarity was expressed through communities singing together from their homes.

Here in the UK freelance workers from the arts are providing online exercise classes that people can join for free, they are streaming live recitals to entertain those in isolation, they have created networks for passing on information as it appears and are providing online music lessons and crafting sessions in addition to taking active roles in the responses of local communities.

The economic contribution of the arts is clear not only from the DCMS figures but also the many, many jobs that surround and support the venues and workers, and the income generated from exports and tourism. They provide entertainment that reproduces but also challenges our perceptions, values and beliefs through games, films, television, theatre, music, dance, museums and galleries. A world without any of these is unimaginable.

September 11, 2012

This is my 4th favourite blog post

I’ve recently had a new book chapter published –‘ List-culture and literary taste in a time of endless choice’ in From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, edited by Anouk Lang of Strathclyde University. The book gathers contributions to a conference in 2008 – Beyond the Book – at which scholars from a range of disciplines, together with librarians and policy makers discussed the new reading practices that are emerging in the light of new technologies and changes to the broader literary landscape.

My chapter reflects on the ‘list’ – a perennial staple of cultural journalism as a mediating ‘technology’ in the judgment of authority and value – and not one that is just confined to the field of reading. A recent example of the kind of phenomenon I was considering is provided by the relegation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane from its position as ‘the greatest film ever made’, according to the BFI’s decennial surveyof critics and its replacement with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Vertigo was second in the list in 2002 but not even in the top 10 in the 1972 poll; Citizen Kane has been top since 1962 - but wasn’t even in the top 10 in 1952. Given that neither of these films have changed since their releases - 1941 for Kane and 1958 for Vertigo – how can one now be ‘better’ than the other, after being ‘worse’, sometimes significantly so, for so many years? The answer is of course that the films don’t change, but that cultural value is a dynamic thing. The criteria of judgment of, in this case, serious film critics aren't fixed. Lists of this kind act can, then, act as intriguing indicators of the shifting sands of cultural authority.

In the chapter I explore the relationships between different kinds of authority evident in the ‘great books’ lists of the turn of the twentieth century (produced by writers such as Arnold Bennett in 1909 and John Cowper Powys in 1916), the bestseller chart which rose to prominence with the consolidation of the cultural industries in the mid-twentieth century, the list as popular poll – exemplified by the BBC’s The Big Read initiative - and the most recent iteration of list-culture – the listmania feature of Amazon, through which readers post lists of their favourite books for the benefit of other browsers. These different types of lists share an overriding aim to navigate readers through the abundant choices that the ‘industrial’ production of literature provides them with. The early twentieth century lists were proposed as a kind of practical ‘canon’, guiding readers towards the kinds of books they ought to read and away from those which might be salacious or radical. By the late twentieth century this patrician element of list-culture was less evident, replaced with a more apparently democratic republic of taste in which the authority of ‘serious’ critics competed with the often subtle promotional tools of publishing industry (literary prizes, TV book clubs) in managing readers’ choices. And in the early twenty-first century, on-line lists, complemented by the algorithms of retailers like Amazon, mean that readers can find what they want through like-minded readers (‘customers who bought this also bought…’) without recourse to any obvious ‘authority’ at all.

There are some revealing tensions in this story. Critics of various kinds dismiss popular lists in particular as trivializing or commercializing culture – and there are elements of the list which can re-cast cultural judgment as a crude form of competition. What they also do, though, is open up the kinds of dialogue and debate which John Frow refers to as the ‘circulating energies of culture’ – the seemingly irrational pleasures of liking and disliking, and sharing your likes and dislikes with others, which are a fundamental part of the fun of cultural consumption. This is clearly a challenge to established forms of cultural authority – though one that is, in my view, broadly to be welcomed.

You can read a review of the book in the Columbia Journalism Review here, and follow my research on

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