Festival Blog contributor Ellia Bisker is a writer and performer who fronts NYC-based indie rock band Sweet Soubrette.
A musician friend once told me, after booking some gigs in Europe for the first time, “The difference between playing in the U.S. and playing in Europe is that in the U.S. the venue asks, ‘What’s your draw?’ and in Europe they ask, ‘What’s your fee?’ You know, because you’re an artist, so you deserve to get paid.”
From the vantage point of an emerging independent musician in the U.S., where a typical booking inquiry involves trying to convince a bar to let your band play there for free, Europe seems like an artist’s utopia—a magical land where artists can actually live, just like people with regular jobs, and some are even paid by the government to create work. Of course the reality is slightly more complicated.
I played some concerts in France recently and discovered that many aspects of playing music there are hilariously similar to gigging here. (A few things to expect: The sound guy will be beleaguered. He will be the only one working that night, and he will also have to run the bar, and no one will have told him about the lineup. The opening act will be snippy when you signal with the international tapping-of-nonexistent-wristwatch gesture that it’s time to end their set. Your drink ticket will not buy you a cocktail.)
But other things are very different. For example: in France, there is a system of unemployment insurance created specifically for people working in the performing arts, a government subsidy for entertainers and creative technicians. It was originally created in the 1930s to supplement the income of film industry techs like set designers, who worked intermittently under short-term contracts, so that they could remain available for future projects. It now extends to performing artists of all stripes; the “Intermittents du Spectacle” statute that lays out the rules of this system names musicians, actors, dancers, circus artists, and puppeteers, among others. If you can document a certain number of hours worked as a professional performing artist over a specific period of time (507 hours over 10 months, which averages out to something like 12 hours a week) you can qualify for monthly payments. It sounds like a dream.
There are some unintended consequences, however. For one thing, it’s led to a sort of gray-market subeconomy among performing artists in which, for instance, a producer might offer a musician proof of a working session instead of a cash payment, for the musician to use as documentation toward collection of the benefit. Of course this documentation is worthless scrip if the musician isn’t actually collecting the benefit, and either way this system passes the buck to the government when it comes to compensation (rather than an actual economy of people paying each other for stuff). Plus, word has it there’s a lot of fraud on both sides—by employers who hire the same workers over and over as contractors instead of bringing them on as salaried employees, and by artists who barter for or even buy pay slips in order to qualify for the benefit payments. Did I mention the system’s billion-euro deficit? Not relevant to the daily life of the recipients (yet), but it suggests things can’t go on like this forever.
This isn’t just sour grapes. As an American performing artist it seems strange to me that this system basically amounts to artist’s welfare. Not temporary relief in the event of a job loss, and not a grant you might win based on your genius or excellence, but an ongoing government subsidy. Such a system implies a purposeful cultural policy on the part of the French government—it says France values creative culture and intends to support its existence, market conditions be damned. But the implication is also that most performing artists can’t possibly make a living at what they do without assistance.
The question of how performing artists can make a living at what they do is close to my heart, as it is to the hearts of most artists I know. Most of us work day jobs of one kind or another, doing something else to pay the bills because the real work doesn’t earn enough, and because so much of what money does come in typically goes right back out—toward costumes, rehearsal studios, photography, printing, personnel. This is true even for people who are recognized in their disciplines! Some of us are freelancers or teachers in related fields. Some of us work for arts organizations. Some of us work in offices, or in restaurants, or in bars. But we’re all trying to balance making work and making a living.
The unemployment system described above more or less aligns with the “you’re an artist and you deserve to get paid” attitude my friend described after booking her European tour. It’s hard to imagine an equivalent system in the U.S., and not only because big-government social welfare programs are practically impossible to pass these days. It’s also a question of values when it comes to work and money. In broad strokes, two major differences between American and French culture are that in the U.S., success basically means financial success, and what you do for a living is what defines you. Whereas in France, success tends to be defined more in terms of quality of life, and what you do for a living is incidental—it’s what you do in your discretionary time that defines you. Admittedly, these are stereotypes, but they are resonant.
So in the U.S., how do you define success if you don’t get a lot of financial success from your art, and you do something else for a living? How do you identify yourself as an artist? An office colleague remarked to me recently when I mentioned some of the costs involved with recording a new album, “That’s an expensive hobby.” The word “hobby” kind of made me want to punch him. But it also made me ask myself: at what point does this get to be obviously not a hobby to people like my colleague? When it starts to earn me a living? What if it never does? So it’s refreshing to see another system that doesn’t rely on that measure of success, that rejects the market altogether as the final arbiter of who gets to self-define as an artist. The measure is how much you work at it: you earn the title of artist through what you do, not what it earns.
On the other hand, I also wonder if socialist programs like France’s “Intermittents du Spectacle” system dampen artists’ ambition. When financial success isn’t as critical to whether you continue making work, does that lead to a moribund creative culture, or do other priorities (aesthetic quality, artistic integrity) step in to fill the void? Does relieving the pressure of commercial success lead to more artistic risk-taking, or less? Can security breed daring? Or does it make people complacent to be on the dole, when in less safety-netted circumstances they might hustle harder? (Though then again, why should being a good hustler be considered the same thing as being a good artist?)
I fear that my doubt about the value of letting artists off the hook when it comes to making a living at what they do (not to mention my description of such a circumstance as “letting artists off the hook”) says that I’ve been drinking the American Kool-Aid: I’m buying into the definition of success as financial success. It’s the old American bootstraps work ethic myth, the dream of a meritocracy, when we all know how often merit plays second fiddle to some combination of luck and who you know.
It is possible to imagine a middle path, neither the Darwinist model of hustle or fail, nor the perpetual safety net. The problem for most of us is that it’s expensive to live where it makes sense to be working, a trend that seems to be growing increasingly pervasive across the country. In the cities where the benefits of being there are highest for artists—density of other artists in one’s own and other disciplines, strong creative industries, opportunities for collaboration/networking/serendipitous encounters, production resources and infrastructure, etc.—the cost of living tends to also be high. This means a lot of time is spent trying to make rent instead of trying to make work, especially in the critical beginning stages of one’s career, which is a real catch-22: you can’t afford to invest the time in your work that would further your career but you can’t have a career if you don’t invest the time in your work. So, what if emerging artists who showed promise could qualify for limited-term grants to supplement their income—renewable for three years, say—to allow them to focus on building the foundations of their creative careers? Would three years of not having to work more than part-time at a day job make building a sustainable career as an artist more feasible?
Perhaps it is too simplistic to lump together all artists, or even all performing artists, in this discussion—though the French statute does not differentiate among them—because some disciplines are more likely than others to reward time and work with financial success. But it seems worth investigating the question of what conditions make it possible for artists to succeed, by which I mean make a living (even if a modest living) at their work. Easing the pressures of day-to-day survival seems likely to have significant benefits. At the same time, there is something galvanizing about the dream of making it big, or at least big enough to quit your day job. Until there’s an alternative, I’ll hustle like a good American and chase the brass ring.