There is a popular mind that says that it takes 10,000 hours to be a master at your skill, but in this ever diversifying world, where we all run our own businesses, which skills should we focus on? Which of our skills can we devote development time to and which will just chip along, growing through our doing?
As a freelance musician there are so many skills to master it’s difficult to know which to focus on. Projects can help structure this, for example, in September I will start a new work which has significantly more tech in it that I have been using this year, so I need to spend the next few months focusing on getting my mind back into tech mode. But while this is happening I still need to work hard on developing my flute tone and technique, developing my leadership skills (whatever that may mean) and general composing, including notation, scoring, and harmony. In addition to this I must keep on top of my financial accounting, project manage, figure out how to make the most of my social networking, undertake a bit of press release writing and of course there is always the fundraising to be done, building partnerships, designing projects, writing bids, drawing up budgets.
I suppose this is the same sort of skillset as other small business owners who must manage their time as well as sweeping up after themselves. But with music, the amount of time it takes to master something is immense, compared to learning to be a plumber, barista, even lawyer or doctor.
Interestingly, (and I feel a reflection on our culture,) there seem to be more opportunities to develop ‘leadership’ or ‘management’ skills than musical skills. Tell a funder that you want to sit on an island playing flute for a year and they may well ask what the benefit is, but tell them you intend to undertake an intensive project management course and you might find a more positive response. (I’m basing this on my experience of working in England, my relationship with Creative Scotland is not developed enough for comment thus far). All of which brings me back to our cultural assumptions about art and the artist.
Artists spend a considerable amount of time mastering their skill, it really is an incredible commitment to learn to draw beautifully, play the cello, perfect a pas de deux or nail a soliloquy. And yet, we rarely dwell on this fact, preferring to think that art is something which can be knocked up with a dream and a bit of luck. We also like to assume that because they enjoy their art, we don’t need to support them in this development, the practice, the hard work; or even pay them for the finished product. I know that his argument has been made before, but I’ll say it again just for clarity’s sake. Other people enjoy their jobs. Doctors, Journalists, Politicians, CEOs, Bankers, all get paid and I bet a fair number of them enjoy what they do.
Somehow in the arts, the hard work is forgotten, and only the business end of the work seems to garner real financial support. A colleague and I discussed this very point, and he said to me “but I run an organization, I have to do accounts, and make things happen, and manage people and do publicity, so of course, I should get paid for that, it’s not what I want to do, it’s a job”. Well, so do I. As mentioned above, I do my website, my social media, my accounting, funding bids, project management, networking, business planning, GANT charts. It’s not what I want to do necessarily, but it’s a part of the business I run, the business of trying to make a living as an artist.
And here we end up in a paradox, because I sometimes get paid for the musical bit (leading a workshop, teaching the flute, writing a commission) but not for any of the administrative leg work that goes into all making all that possible. And sometimes, I find funding bids where the project management is the only bit where there is any real money, with the artists expected to pull brilliance out of the bag for a respectively low fee.
In fact, we have hundreds of jobs in the arts, programme manager, development manager, curatorial assistant, theatre manager, arts administrator, orchestral booker, box office assistants… All of whom have their role to play in a wider organization and know with a fair amount of certainly where their next pay check is coming from. And yet… we don’t pay artists in the same way. The only people in the arts who are not regularly supported are the artists.
For example. I put a project together recently, and in the development phase, there were perhaps 8-10 of us around the table discussing partnerships, roles, models for the project, budgets, funding bid drafting etc. About 6 of those people were on a salary, and were being paid to be a part of the project thus far. The rest of us, were there for free. All the meetings, the e emails, the drafting of minutes, not a cent for the artists. When did we decide that this is OK? I know the argument, that self employed people charge a higher daily rate to cover these ‘unpaid’ activities, but I think we all know that this is a nonsense. At least a third of what I do is unpaid, in the hope of getting funded at some point later in the project.
In fact, there’s something strange about having to rejustify your right to do your job every time you apply for funding. And when the funding does come it, it feels lucky, like a blessing. It’s not that I’m not grateful for funding which I receive, I love getting that yes. But isn’t that a bit weird in a wider context? Isn’t it weird that we feel grateful that we are allowed to do our jobs? We could argue that it’s public money and so it needs to be accountable. I totally agree, I’m not in favour of a free for all, with artists entitled to public funds on the grounds that they are a bit ‘special’. But, other roles are funded publicly, on a regular and secure basis, they are reviewed annually, and that job exists to the public benefit (arguably). What is it about the arts that we are constantly questioning about its benefit, it’s demonstrable benefit, it’s outcome and objectives. We demand the facts and figures so that we can defend money spent on the arts, we can prove that it’s worth it, in economic terms (sadly). Everything must have a price tag.
This is something which came into focus recently in China. In the UK, everything is discussed, negotiated, pinned down, aims, objectives, partners, artistic goals, all carved into a funding bid at least 6 months in advance of anything happening. And although from a business point of view we might say this is necessary, from an artistic point of view, it makes little sense. The creative mind is a fickle thing, and it takes time, connections, inspiration, and connectivity to fire and start something beautiful. Responding to a spreadsheet very rarely swells my heart to bursting point and triggers a creative space where beauty can speak.
I arrived in China and with my UK head on, I asked “So, what are we doing? Who are we working with? What’s the venue? What sort of piece do we want to make?” and was met with baffled mumblings. Eventually, after several days of misunderstanding and frustration I am told. “Just be here, be you, and something will happen…. Give us whatever you carry inside you, when it feels right”.
And my thinking around my creativity collapsed into a beautifully sea-desecrated sand castle, all fortification, which I had assumed kept me safe, was destroyed and the gorgeous sparkle came flooding in.
That week I wrote three new pieces, all of which have more resonance than anything I’ve written under a structure recently.
So what can I learn from this? On a personal level I must remember to step outside of a structure of spreadsheets and go seek the beautiful, to give my heart something to respond to. And, when under pressure to create, ignore the pressure and escape, let go of expectation, of the structuralists who tell you that creativity must be planned.
On a wider level, there is something about the bureaucratic nature of funding which artists deal with in the UK. I have little doubt that the most exciting artists know what I have learnt… say the right things then just follow your heart, and then even up all the blurb at the end of the project. But is there a better way? A way which understands creativity, that encourages risk taking, that trusts artists? There is a schism between money people and makers, who cannot speak the same language. And, because the money people have the money, we, the maker people have been told we must learn to speak their language. But like all minority languages, when faced with operating in a more dominant culture, our own culture is under threat, misunderstood and devalued.
For now, I must learn to juggle the two spaces, the two languages, the heart language and the head language and resist the domination from the spreadsheets. But long term, can we think of a way to support our creative practice on it’s own terms?