The Creative Precariat

[UNLOCKED] bonus 010, 25th June, 2019

CJW: We’re a few days late with the bonus. Blame me - I got on a plane to the USA on Saturday morning with the newsletter login details tucked into my back pocket.

Anyway, here’s an article from Marlee Jane Ward on the Creative Precariat. We hope you enjoy it.

I’m looking for another job again. I’ve already got two – I’m a part-time receptionist and a part-time writer – but for the moment they’re not covering the bills. That’s the issue: my income is utterly variable. Sometimes I’m flush, with my small but guaranteed income, invoices getting paid on time, and royalty statements fluttering from the sky. And those flush times are always paying back for the other times – the times when no one’s keen on my pitches, my stories just aren’t the right fit, my books haven’t earned out their advances, and those long, long months between PLR and ELR payments [Ed: Public and Educational Lending Rights paid to Australian authors for books borrowed from Public and School libraries].

It looks a lot like I’ve got it pretty good. I’ve got a trilogy of books and have short fiction and non-fiction published occasionally. I have a nice rented house with only one flatmate. I’ve got food in my fridge and the power’s still on and sometimes I get to go to the café and have an overpriced breakfast. But with one misstep, one illness, one layoff, all this could come crashing down. I’m a member of the precariat – an emerging class, growing in number at an alarming rate.

The old proletariat seems like a boomer thing. The welfare state was constructed by and for them. They’ve got possessions of value, perhaps property, some of them have pensions coming to them. The precariat is a purely 21st century emergence. It is seeded and spurred on by the gig economy, the growing proliferation of part-time and casual work, not to mention zero-hour contracts and crowd labour. The proletariat got, ‘eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will’. The precariat is constantly tied to their precarious work through email, phone and internet. There is little rest. What is ‘what you will’? Is it the Netflix binges that we collapse on the couch for because we’re too tired to do anything else?

Guy Standing, in his article ‘The Precariat and Class Struggle’, says that they ‘experience in their irregular labour and in the lack of opportunity to construct a narrative for their lives a sense of relative deprivation and status frustration, because they have no sense of future.’ I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t think I can keep this precarious roundabout going on into the future – the uncertainty and stress is going to bloody kill me. I can’t see a future in this industry because we can’t make a living in it now, and I can’t see things getting any better.

Think about this: I’m writing this article hoping that someone might buy it. I spend a couple of hours researching. A few hours asking my fellow creatives questions (and expecting them to do free labour by answering them.) A few more pitching it via email. A couple hours actually writing it. Then I edit and rewrite because everyone knows first drafts are trash. If I’m super lucky, someone will buy it and I’ll earn (going by past paycheques) anywhere from $60-$200. That’s $6-$20 bucks an hour. The latter is an okay wage, a little above the minimum. The former is a joke. Writer Adam Ford told me: ‘I’ve been pitching hard at a couple of magazines and all I’ve managed is a lukewarm “yes… wait hang on, no” and another lukewarm “maybe”, both of which have required a not-insignificant number of hours of research and preparation just to get to the point where an idea is liked enough to be eventually rejected.’

Oh, and that shitty wage I stated above? That’s far better than what a lot of creatives are offered for their work. There are few other industries besides the creative where work for no pay at all is common: the all-too familiar ‘exposure’. Sure, I’ve worked for free in the past. We all are guilty of it. But, last I checked, I couldn’t fill my car with exposure and expect it to run. The supermarket doesn’t take it. My landlord prefers cash. I made a promise to myself a couple of years ago: I’m not going to work for free any more. I can’t afford it: neither financially, physically nor mentally.

Maria Lewis, journalist and author of five books including the Aurealis Award-winning The Witch Who Courted Death, told me, ‘I got offered an on-air job by [redacted] last month that was described as “a great opportunity” and when I inquired further, I learned the position was unpaid. They wanted me to do this role exclusively, which would have meant giving up pre-existing contracts I have with other broadcasters that actually pay me, and when I questioned why I would do a role that was unpaid, I was told it would be great exposure. My 15 years’ experience as a journalist and pop culture commentator specifically was cited as an asset, along with my online profile, but when I questioned why that experience wasn’t considered valuable enough to receive financial reimbursement, I was told the budget for the show was "extremely tight". Naturally, I turned down the ‘position’ as it would have cost me time away from paying projects, let alone cost me money to physically get there, as well as the fact that I would be the only person showing up who wasn’t getting paid on the production. The presenter is paid, the line producer is paid, the editor is paid, the cameraperson is paid, the social media editor is paid, the producer who tried to recruit me is paid, even the cleaner looking after the studio is paid: I would be the only person dumb enough to show up without being paid for a skillset it has taken over a decade for me to hone.’

Benjamin Maio Mackay, a creative who wears many different hats (his email signature has him listed as an Artistic Director, Producer, Director, Actor, MC, Podcaster, Comedian and Musician) says, ‘what hurts most is that the people asking you to do free work are typically those would could afford to pay you. I was once told I’d have to pay to enter the festival [to perform]. There’s also a huge number of jobs I’m offered that expect you to pay a fee, be it company membership, costume fee, etc. In any given week I turn down, or just ignore, 15 unpaid job offers.’

Sure, there are lots of ways one can find a buck here and there to fund their work. ‘Apply for grants,’ people tell me. I do! Along with the hundreds of other creatives applying for them! We’re all desperately scrambling at the trough of government and private grants, with only so many to go around. Everyone’s applying for everything, and this is a form of unpaid labour in itself. Prepping these applications, hunting down letters of recommendation, excerpting WIPs. These unpaid hours add up and only pay off if the grant application is accepted. ‘Maybe you’ll win another prize!’ they say, referring to my VPLA win in 2016. Sure, maybe! If I’m super, exceptionally, majorly lucky! Luck really does play a huge role, not just in prizes and grants, but every aspect of the creative industry. Maio Mackay says, ‘Creatives are unique because there’s no way for us to gear up to be what someone wants ... Talent obviously plays a part, but the industry is so reliant on luck. If you do get lucky, and I mean really lucky, then you get the stability.’

An Australian Bureau of Statistics ‘Labour Force’ report in 2015 found that there are over 200,000 people employed in the arts and recreation, with the field experiencing the highest level of employment growth in the period between 2013-2015 of any industry in Australia. Author Alan Baxter (Hidden City, Crow Shine, Devouring Dark) told me he thinks, ‘The arts should be treated like sport, with equivalent levels of support and scholarship,’ – and I think he’s right. The arts certainly employ more people.

What the statistics likely don’t take into account is the precarity of work in the arts field – with large quantities of work being freelance, sessional, casual, etc. Many of the creatives I interviewed didn’t make their whole income from the arts, and those who did had their fingers in a lot of pies to make that happen. Multiple pie fingers? That shit’s exhausting. Let’s not even go into the burnout that threatens the creative precariat at all times - I’m saving that for another article so I can make hundred or so more bucks. Maria Lewis says, ‘I’m an author of five novels and several anthologies, and to be able to continue working in my chosen creative field I also freelance as a journalist, work as a host and emcee, proofread and edit for clients, write advertorials, work in television writers rooms, produce documentary shorts, and honestly whatever else is on offer. And I’m still close to the edge. Most authors in Australia who are perceived as successful struggle at the very least, at the very most work multiple jobs just to be okay.’

Why not pick a job that pays more, has guaranteed hours? I dunno about anyone else, but for me: this is the thing I’m good at. I wish I had a flair for accountancy, the ability to code without getting a bloody headache, or an engineer’s mind. I just don’t. Writing is what drives me, what gets me up in the morning and keeps me awake at night. None of the creative precariat can help that the thing they’re best at is completely under-valued in our society.

With precarity becoming the new normal in the arts (and in many other fields), I see a bleak future. Art takes time and needs support. Imagine what we could create if we weren’t on the constant hustle or worrying about how we’re going to pay the power bill. Artists don’t fulfil their potential on diets of ramen. The starving artist trope is a trope for a reason, but suffering does not beget art. It makes it so much harder.