Artists are crucial to the futures we’re imagining beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
The vitality of the societies we wish to return to are vibrant in large part because they sound and look vibrant, because they are full of artists thriving and sharing music in a variety of settings.
Who hasn’t missed the sound of people out and about, revelling in society, culture and the arts — whether we are talking about the sound of a band spilling out onto a nighttime street, or the sound of friends meeting before a concert? Our society is vibrant in large part because it is infused with the work of artists and musicians.
As musicologist Julian Johnson writes in his book Who Needs Classical Music? music facilitates “a relation to an order of things larger than ourselves.” Through music, the self, he writes, “comes to understand itself more fully as a larger, trans-subjective identity.”
These words, evoking togetherness, community and shared experience, have become even more powerful in this strange time of self-isolation and solitude. In its ability to draw us together to listen and experience together, live music performance is a crucial marker and facilitator of community.
$24,300 annual income
If we look at one particular arts field, that of classical artists (such as classical musicians, conductors or opera singers), we know that even before the age of COVID-19, these artists were struggling to sustain themselves financially.
Despite the fact that culture contributed over $53 billion to Canada’s economy in 2017, the median individual income for Canada’s artists was $24,300: 44 per cent less than the median for all Canadian workers ($43,500).
Only those artists with economic privilege can afford the precarity of the gig economy, and income data suggests that white and male privilege also mitigates its harshness. According to Canadian census 2016 data, artists who are women, Indigenous or from racialized communities report even lower median incomes.
This year, many artists won’t even earn this much: between February and May, for example, nearly 200,000 workers in information, culture and recreation industries lost their jobs.
The federal government recently extended the term of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) until the end of August. But many are concerned that even with these extended benefits, a return to performing might be months, if not years, away.
A Globe and Mail feature from the height of COVID-19’s first wave tells the heartbreaking stories of performers in various fields whose work has been put on hold as the result of the virus, also highlighting the terrifying scarcity of work and pay for musicians during this period.
The fragile, endangered ecosystem of music and musicians has been threatened by COVID-19, reported the New York Times.
Reticent audiences, even after the pandemic ends, will likely play a role in this: a survey conducted by the National Arts Centre and Nanos Research found that 34 per cent of Canadians are unsure when they will attend an indoor arts or cultural performance, even after venues have been reopened and are adhering to public health guidelines. This percentage is similar across age groups.
Many of these artists work in the gig economy and, as a result, have seen revenues evaporate — precious income they can ill afford to lose. Although many musicians are frustrated at the crisis created by COVID-19, those working in the arts were already in crisis. Quickly and starkly, the age of COVID-19 has not created, but rather has magnified, the precarious nature of creative work in our country.
Relief funding, both governmental and organizational, has been key, as are initiatives like the SaskMusic COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, the Canada Performs relief fund initiative and even sector-specific artist support like the Opera Artist Emergency Relief Fund. The arts should figure prominently in the federal government’s infrastructure stimulus package.
But as we anticipate moving into phases of less physical distancing and aim to resume some social and economic activities (with larger gatherings on the far horizon), we must continue to think about the systems we build with an eye towards increasing stability for performing artists. The COVID-19 crisis should serve as a wake-up call. Our long-standing characterization of the struggling, starving artist must change.
This ideal response to this artistic crisis is one that includes responses from a variety of sectors: in post-secondary education and training, in arts policies and structures, and in the financial support we offer our artists.
To begin with, the present crisis has once again illuminated the need for contemporary classical artists to be multi-skilled. Many recent studies reveal that Canadian artists trained in post-secondary music programs must build what are known as “portfolio” careers, which effectively encompass work from a variety of fields or areas.
Since such portfolio careers are often created and arrived upon by happenstance, it is high time to ask how they might be more systematically embedded into educational and cultural policies and programs. Artists must be taught to think creatively and passionately, as well as pragmatically and strategically.
But the current crisis is also a policy crisis. It illuminates the need to support artists more fulsomely and creatively throughout the various stages of their careers. Central to this is imagining ways to limit the precarity of the gig economy which, perhaps surprisingly, characterizes the careers of even the highest echelon of performers, classical or otherwise.
There are proven ways to do this. Throughout Europe, for example, many opera singers sing in what are known as Fest contracts, which guarantee work at that opera house in a variety of roles over the course of a given season. This is accompanied by a monthly salary, with paid benefits and health insurance included.
While this may not be feasible in the Canadian context, examples like this might spur us to think creatively about how we might organize contracts, leverage networks and reimagine supports to create more long-term opportunities for cultural workers. We might also rethink the extent to which the public may be underpaying for arts and entertainment.
As we dream about reconnecting in person, we should take advantage of this opportunity for a collective reconsideration of arts policy. COVID-19 has brought us a unique opportunity to rebuild and reimagine a vibrant cultural sector. We need to collectively support artists if we believe in supporting the arts.