Are Artists Essential Workers?

A few of my friends have shared this image below and they expressed their disappointment with it, as both of them are creative types and like to make music, which is considered an art:

Top 5 essential and non-essential jobs

For accessibility purposes, I’ll describe the image. There is an article from Mothership that has a better photo of the image and has some commentary about what kind of message it sends. A newspaper in Singapore conducted a survey that asked readers about their perceptions of various jobs in a pandemic. As you can expect, the top 5 essential jobs were things like medical staff, cleaners, bin collectors, and delivery drivers. All very important jobs that help keep society running. On the non-essential side though, you see HR managers, business consultants, social media managers/PR, telemarketers, and artists as the least essential jobs, with artists taking the top spot as least essential job in this economy – 71% of those surveyed said it was the least important job. Less important than telemarketers, who are really just a nuisance and ruin dinner? Really? Ironically, some graphic designer must have put this infographic together and here they are working in a pandemic. Isn’t that essential then?

One of my friends wanted me to talk about this and get on my soapbox and say why this image is wrong, and so I will express my thoughts… and I have a lot of things to say and think about. Like any of these posts I do where I talk about a current event or respond to something, I’ll put a few questions under headings and answer them to the best of my ability and back up why I think the way I do.

Why are people upset?

The arts and creative fields have been dismissed for a long time and in so many different ways and on so many levels from your parents thinking that you playing guitar or painting is pointless and you’ll never get anywhere with it, people calling art hobbies a waste of time, to the worst one: people straight up undervaluing artistic/creative jobs and not willing to pay those doing creative work their time. People love art, but they don’t want to have to pay for it. This has always been a problem. Lots of gigs and jobs, but for exposure. What good is exposure? All you’re doing is undervaluing yourself and creating a race to the bottom. Why should anyone pay for anything if someone’s always willing to do it for free? I think this is why the arts went from being something that can move someone from working class to rich to something only within reach for the rich because who can afford to do so much work for free?

People are happy to pay for lots of things, just not art, especially if it’s a small independent artist/musician making it. How do you get famous though as an artist or musician, you have to make those first commissions and do those first jobs. You don’t get to your 100th song or painting until you do your first and so on. Every artist and musician starts off small.

There are a lot of expenses that go into being an artist or musician: you’re not just paying for a drawing, a quick snap, or some music to be played. Of course, you’re paying for their time, but that’s not all. Artists have their expenses: equipment and supplies aren’t cheap, transport costs money, sometimes a musician needs to stay overnight because they’re travelling far, maybe they have a studio space and that costs money. That money you’re paying the artist isn’t all being pocketed and all profit, it’s paying for all these expenses along with the expenses of just existing. As well, what these artists do is a craft and it takes time to get better at it and become a professional: you’re paying for that training (art school isn’t cheap) and all the time it took for them to practise and become masters at what they do. All that work is unpaid.

Simply put, don’t work for free, unless it’s for a charity you believe in and don’t mind donating your skills to, it’s for your parents, or for a very close friend. If creatives all said no to doing free work for “startups”, then either they’re going to have to do it themselves and do it poorly (best case scenario it will look or sound basic) or bite the bullet and pay someone who knows how to make art/music. Artists and musicians, know your worth!

Artists are constantly screwed over and not just by these people who want them to work for exposure and undervaluing them, but also by people ripping them off. Think of all those stories of independent clothing designers whose designs get ripped off by high street shops that make millions or even billions – no royalties or credit. Since high street is more accessible and gets more traffic and there’s economies of scale, people will buy the copy from the high street rather than the original from an independent designer. In the music world, think of all the black blues musicians like Howlin Wolf and Willie Dixon, whose songs have been ripped off by white rock bands… I’m looking at you Led Zeppelin. 😒

What is considered art?

Art isn’t just drawings and paintings and there are a lot of jobs visual artists can do that aren’t just art teacher and painter. A lot of artists work in graphic design, clothing design, art therapy, photography, video editing, animator, technical illustration, makeup artistry, or as museum curators. Musicians don’t just make music, some work as producers, band managers, sound/recording engineers, composers, DJs, A&R coordinator, owners of record labels, or making and repairing instruments. Writers don’t just write books, they can work as journalists, editors, proofreaders, PR associates, and ghostwriters.

When you think about it, there are a lot of jobs that artists can do and you don’t think about it. These jobs are important. Not all jobs are going to be glamorous and getting all the credit and I think it’s important to give credit to the people who do the behind the scenes work. It’s thankless work.

I’ve worked on plays in school and at summer camp and I’d say the crew are as important as the actors. The actors entertain you and tell the story, but the crew keep the show moving. Everyone wants to be the star of the show, but what is a play without stagehands, lighting operators, sound operators, dressers, and people in charge of props?

Ever look at the credits of a movie? The director and the starring actors seem to get all the credit, but there are so many other people who made the movie possible and do important work, even if it sounds silly. Movies are big productions and it takes a big team to make it possible. Even TV shows and TV specials take a team of people to make it happen.

This really gives me an appreciation for those creatives who do everything themselves. It isn’t easy and I’d know from experience. Running this blog, I wear multiple hats: writer, researcher, editor, PR/marketing, design, interviewer, moderator. I don’t have an assistant. It’s not just me, lots of YouTubers start off doing everything themselves: starring in their videos, researching topics, editing their videos, marketing their videos on social media, responding to comments, everything. Once the channel becomes profitable, they start hiring on people so they have more free time to work on what they do best.

At some point, your publication or YouTube channel outgrows being a solo effort and you need other people to do other jobs to free time for yourself to work on other things, and that’s what makes a publication work efficiently and be better.

Let’s hear it for all the artists, bloggers, and musicians who do pretty much everything themselves.

What difference does art make in people’s lives?

Think about it. Imagine a world with no music, no TV shows or movies, no YouTube, no photography, no paintings or drawings. You know how dull that would be? All your life would be is work and sleep. Think about the current situation. How long have you been in lockdown? How many of those hours have you spent enjoying some sort of content that someone else made be it a radio show, podcast, music, book, magazine, newspaper articles, blogs, manga, comic books, TV shows, YouTube videos, movies, documentaries? A lot probably. Art helps people get through things and it inspires people and helps them express themselves.

In conclusion, creatives deserve so much more appreciation and we take them for granted. As I’ve said before, I know how much of a struggle it is with money and it’s even harder now in a depression, but there are so many ways to help support creatives you love without money coming out of pocket. If you want to buy something as a gift, maybe instead of running off to the shop and buying something from a big corporation, maybe shop small and get something custom from an artist could be a portrait, jewellery, home decorations, or custom made clothing – it’s an even more special gift and it puts money in the pockets of people who will spend it in the economy.

Shoutout to my friend Patrick for supporting the blog!

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