The creative class is struggling, too. Do you care?

De artist
De artist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not just lawyers who are hurting  — 7,500 of them surplus in 2009 in New York alone.

Or older men.

Or those who used to work in manufacturing.

The “creative class” is as well.

Those working in photography, architecture and graphic design have seen a 20 to 30 percent drop in employment, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Since August 2002, those working in the music field have seen their work opportunities plummet by a staggering 45.3%.

“The story has really not been told,” Scott Timberg, an arts and culture writer in Los Angeles said to host Kurt Andersen on the weekly public radio show Studio 360, which examines all forms of culture. “They don’t always have a tattoo or beret.  They’re like Canadians, among us secretly, silently and invisibly.”

“A life in the arts…means giving up riches, making a trade-off to do something they’re passionate about,” Timberg said. “It’s become forbidding for a much wider group of people…I see some of the best getting knocked out.”

Timberg also wrote about this recently on Salon:

Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen write anthems about the travails of the working man; we line up for the revival of “Death of a Salesman.” John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson hold festivals and fundraisers when farmers suffer. Taxpayers bail out the auto industry and Wall Street and the banks. There’s a sense that manufacturing, or the agrarian economy, is what this country is really about. But culture was, for a while, what America did best: We produce and export creativity around the world. So why aren’t we lamenting the plight of its practitioners? Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that creative industries have been some of the hardest hit during the Bush years and the Great Recession. But  when someone employed in the world of culture loses a job, he or she feels easier to sneer at than a steel worker or auto worker.

As both a Canadianan, living in New York since 1989, and a member of the creative class, I’ve absolutely felt the sting of this terrible recession. My last staff job, as a reporter for the New York Daily News, the nation’s sixth-largest paper, ended in 2006.

My income the next year fell by 75 percent. Fun! It’s now barely back to 50 percent of that figure. In 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs.

It’s an interesting dilemma because being a creative professional — like those who choose law, medicine, dentistry — demands years of attention to one discipline. You start out with talent. You may invest tens of thousands of dollars in higher education, workshops, coaches and ongoing training. It’s crazily competitive and the criteria of success often utterly quixotic and subjective. A lawyer wins or loses a case. A dentist fills a cavity.

But a creative person, in any field, can languish in poverty/obscurity for years, if not decades, if their work or style isn’t fashionable or they just doesn’t know enough of the right people. To really make it financially, you often need to layer the daily hustle of a used car salesman onto the independence of spirit of the artist.

Many of us just can’t squeeze both personalities into one brain.

Yet we all hope to enjoy the basics of middle-class life: a home, a family, a vehicle, a vacation once in a while.

It’s a dirty secret but those of us who work creatively, whether we paint, sculpt, take photos, design buildings or play in a quartet also want the things that cube-dwellers do. Our groceries cost the same, our gas just as overpriced.

But, unlike many corporate cube-dwellers, we may have to purchase our health insurance in the open (i.e. costly) market; in 2003 (when I went onto my husband’s plan through his staff job) I was paying $700 a month. It’s now normal to pay $1,000+…adding an overhead of $12,000 pre-tax dollars just to avoid a medical bankruptcy.

Especially in the United States where corporate billionaires are lionized, creative folk — typically self-employed and working out of public and the media’s view — are seen as slackers, stoners, half-assed. (Author John Grisham earned $18 million last year — hardly typical.)

Very few creative professionals in any genre or medium will ever earn that in their lifetime — no matter their objective excellence, awards or peer respect.

Yet other nations actually pay their artists to help them quality work; the Canada Council hands out $20,000 grants every year to fortunate writers who have produced two books deemed worthy.

Are you a member of the creative class?

How’s it going for you these days?

25 thoughts on “The creative class is struggling, too. Do you care?

    1. Hell, yeah! But that’s exactly my point. Because we all work individually — and I’m on the board of a 1200 member writers’ group — this goes unremarked. We also seem to have zero political clout.

  1. I would like to think of myself as a member of this class. I write for magazines, for myself, and for whoever else is willing to print/read me.One of these days I hope to get paid for the pleasure. I love writing, but I’m fortunate enough to have a good job that pays me well enough and allows me the time to write without being too exhausted after the end of the day. For this I’m grateful. I have other reasons to complain about my job but I’ll save you the earache. I would love to make a living writing, but I know how much hard work it is. It’s people like you who are big motivation to me. The daunting reality pales in comparison to the allure of a slim chance of success! Please keep your posts coming.

  2. Thanks! Writing for a living is very much not the the faint of heart — or lavish spenders. There are some FT freelance writers who pull in $100K a year but many more of us are making $20-40-60K, which is still pennies in a place like NY.

  3. I think that society as a whole does not understand and appreciate the work that goes into developing one’s craft. Art is seen as “play” rather than “work,” even though quality creative people work very, very hard.

    Even some of my own family members don’t understand the many drafts it takes me to write a book. They think that writing is an easy process for writers — not so!

    Ironic that the quote mentions people flocking to revivals of Death of a Salesman. A lot of theatres play it safe by offering plays that everyone knows and loves — but produce new work? It seldom happens.

    I’m fortunate that I don’t have to make a living with my writing. Otherwise I would starve to death!

  4. Very true that our “work” is considered play…with all due respect to blogging, I see many many bloggers talk about how great it is to be a “writer” and how much fun it is. It’s a lot more fun when your mortgage payment and grocery bill do not rely on it!

    I chose this life. But it is galling to see how much $$$ some writers pull in for writing appalling shite and how many others struggle…let alone in any other creative field.

    I am in awe of musicians. I think they have it much rougher. At least I didn’t spend years and $$$ at Juilliard…

  5. As a professional musician, I can vouch for this post. The symphony orchestra profession in the US has hit on hard times – with the Detroit Symphony being asked for a 50% cut in pay, to the Philly Orchestra declaring bankruptcy (so they could get out from under the PENSION PLAN, for G_d’s sake!), many many orchestras are teetering on the brink.

    And yes, our work is considered play – heck, we ‘play’ our instruments! At least in Spanish it’s ‘tocar’ (to touch). :\

  6. So good to hear your perspective on this as a musician. The word “play” is indeed problematic.

    How DARE we actually enjoy our work? I think deep envy and resentment of our pleasure in our skills is also very much at the root of this.

    1. I think the problem is that ‘the arts’ are not considered necessary in our western societies (though I’d love to know the GDP that arts practitioners contribute from tourism to manufacturing, art/s and arty types are a necessary component of success!). But I digress. I wanted to tell you that in Australia a while back (you know, Oz isn’t known as an arty place) there was an earthquake in Newcastle – a steel town. The Mayor called for artists to come to help in the recovery. And they went. Singers, dancers, painters, photographers, writers, street performers, actors … I was amazed. This cry for help still gives me hope.

      1. Thanks for sharing this — that’s an amazing story!

        It’s sadly true that the arts are deeply devalued. I wonder if every museum, theater, gallery and concert hall were torn down if anyone, then, would notice?

      2. @TheWanderlustGene Brilliant of the Mayor to think of calling for artists!! We have so many useful skills, being able to assess situations, define our own questions, take action toward solving problems, in some cases (musicians and theatre people esp.) work collaboratively…, also many artists have general working class hands-on skills and experience in continuing to move forward despite discouraging external conditions! Might be just the people you’d appreciate help from in an emergency! 😉

  7. I’m doing quite well right now as a self-employed artist/craftsman. Part of that is my longevity- 37 years in this area of SoCal. Adding components to your skill level is always important. I make art glass that is integrated into the architecture of people’s environments. Art is always an expression of someone’s taste – especially visual art on display. My work could be considered “non-essential” in a down economy. I think a lot of people don’t think I
    really “work.”

  8. All true…I do think a long and excellent reputation is important. If you stay in the game long enough, and do it well, I think you can make a living. But it’s a hustle all the way.

  9. You’ve nailed it on the head here Caitlin! As a musician and booking agent, I can also vouch for the reality of what you are saying. By and large, the easy gigs are gone. Almost everything we play for now is custom entertainment, carefully tailored for each particular event, often involving music we’ll never play again, often taking much more prep time than playing five nights a week in a club used to take, often paying less well than our standard gigs used to pay.

    The general public doesn’t understand music as well now as people did in the past (musical literacy was so much higher 100 years ago than it is today – which might seem surprising, but is true, because so many more people read music and played instruments at that time). You can even hear a difference in how well children can sing! Many more middle school kids can’t carry a tune now because their involvement with music has been mostly passive (llstening to ipods or TV) and music programs in schools have been cut despite evidence about how important early participation in music really is to brain development!

    As you say, a long and excellent reputation is very important, but even with that, we creative workers have to hustle all the time. The Canadian model is a significant alternative model of how creative work and creative workers can be supported,

    There are some deep questions coming up in this economy about how our culture is going to view human labor. And “playing” music is a joy and a labor of love, but it is also always labor. I’d like to post your piece on my blog even though it’s not totally within my subject area, just because I feel so strongly about this issue – will have to look up how to do this properly so you get the credit (which is another huge issue – credit for intellectual work in an age of digital reproduction…!).

  10. I really appreciate learning your side of the story, as I only know one professional musician who plays 20s music in her own NYC band. I am very aware how hard she works, let alone the natural talent this demands in the first place.

    The larger issue of musical (and cultural illiteracy) is deeply disturbing, although you’d never know it if you read the popular press which fawns over celebrities and now makes stars from shows like American Idol or The Voice where it’s all seen as some big crapshoot. I was lucky enough to attend a private school for Grades 4-9. I learned who Smetana was (and still love The Moldau); sang in a choir and learned the difference between 1st and 2nd soprano and alto…I attended a summer camp where we sang after every meal, instilling a lifelong love of singing and listening to music.

    American culture’s Puritan strain never gets any smaller — work needs to be NOT fun. Those who make $$$$$ are the de facto winners, no matter how lousy their health or poisonous their products and services or how poorly they treat workers and consumers. It’s often ugly indeed.

  11. I have not thought much about how those that create have been “tossed under the bus” over the years. We have forgotten that the arts are essential to our culture …example : we have lost many good actors who made a living on “soap operas” and performed on Broadway whenever they could. Their shows have been replaced with the talk show or reality show…cheaper…no talent required.
    I have not really given much thought to the economic plight of the creative among us but I thank you for writing about this. Our culture and our arts depend on these talented gifted folks who are not appreciated nearly as much as they should be.

    1. One reason it’s easy to overlook what’s happening to creative people is that we remain invisible to the mass media. I’m sure you’ve read and heard hundreds of stories now about people losing their jobs in an office or company — but not those of us who work on a freelance or contract basis, which is now one-third of all Americans That’s a major oversight on the part of the media. I’m not on staff anymore but I can report it here to bring attention to it even if only to a smaller audience.

  12. The New Zealand situation is dismal just now. My regular media gigs died one by one as editors budgets were curbed. It is virtually impossible to place freelance articles; the media – a duopoly – are relying on staff writers these days. Some are cub reporters who can barely string sentences together.

    Books are in equally dire straits. One of the big chains – representing nearly a third of all the retail outlets in the country – stopped buying about 18 months ago and was put up for sale. For a while it looked like they might be shut down. The main publishing houses were spooked; books of late have been low-risk pop titles or commissioned from known market-winning authors – not high-risk wild cards. They’re starting to come out of it now, I think, as the main chain re-establishes itself under new owners.

    Problems of a small country, I suspect, coupled with the inevitable legacy of the financial crisis a few years back. It took a while to filter into the publishing industry. But at a time when most people are on fixed incomes and prices are volatile, spending on marginal luxuries like books goes out the window. We’ll get through it, and I think there are some sunny uplands ahead; there’s certainly plenty of talent in the place (Emily Perkins, one our novelists, us up for the Man Booker prize this year). I also think adaptation is the key to survival, and that’s probably true worldwide for writers.

    1. Bad news! One of the reasons I left Canada in 1988 was knowing even then, at the age of 30, it was a very small market and therefore limited in opportunity — this was long before the Internet and its additional jobs. I would return to Toronto every year and see the same people clinging to the best jobs for decades, literally, which meant no upward movement for ambitious writers like me. Even in NY, even in a recession, I have been able to find steady freelance work, even if my income is down as rates were cut from a top fee of $3/wd to $2/wd or even worse…and stories, paid by the word, very rarely go beyond 1,500 to 2,000 words anymore.

      I had a long chat yesterday with a career writer like myself and her three income streams now are editing an alumni magazine, teaching at a university and consulting…none of which we planned or foresaw for ourselves. I have no advanced degree so teaching is not an option for me, which is bitterly ironic as I have so much to offer after 30 years in this industry.

      Much more of my work now is web writing; the last five assignments have been for the web. I already have plenty of credentials so I don’t care as long as the pay arrives promptly. As long as there is work, do it!

  13. I’m both a cube dweller AND a member of the creative class. As a marketing and advertising director, I’m fortunate to have a state job that provides both insurance benefits and an opportunity to be creative on a frequent basis. But I’ve also spent 22 years in the radio business (full-time for many years, now just part-time) and it saddens me that unless you’re in a major market, you can’t even make enough as an announcer to afford a mortgage payment (which is the reason I ended up where I am – we wanted to buy a house). There are so many talented young people who would make great broadcasters if they could afford to stay with it through those first 5, 10 years when you don’t make shite for pay.

    1. Then you know this issue well…

      The challenge of much-to-most creative work is that it is poorly paid with no guarantee of later success/higher income for staying with it. Then why bother? Tough to argue for many people.

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