Getting creative: a look at how some parts of the creative sector have been bearing up
The creative sector has been among the worst hit by COVID-19, with theatres, music venues, comedy clubs and many cinemas still closed and sales of books, arts and crafts affected by shop and venue closures, event cancellations and reduced tourism.
Moreover employment in the sector is more precarious than most, with the majority of creatives working freelance.
Looking at publishing and theatre as just two examples from a very wide and diverse sector, they share significant similarities: the effect of the loss of direct contact with audiences, the effect on the longer term pipeline for future work and the impact on freelancers, but both have found that the pandemic has led to innovation too, particularly in digital.
“In March and April, we had a bit of a double whammy, because not only did the bookshops shut, but the festivals and heritage events and sites closed as well,” Marion Sinclair from Publishing Scotland tells Holyrood.
“And that’s traditionally been a really strong market for our publishers, who publish a lot particularly on the heritage side, and who have traditionally sold books through Historic Environment Scotland sites and VisitScotland as well as up and down the country.
“So that was really difficult. And then also the book festivals as well, which has been such a growth area in the past 10 years, suddenly, they were all cancelled.
Publishing Scotland did a survey in May and June which found that at least three-quarters of its members had lost between 70 and 90 per cent of their sales, and while there’s been some recovery since bookshops re-opened, this doesn’t make up for cancelled events.
“I guess that we have seen a bit of a comeback,” says Sinclair. “But it just kind of reminds you that certainly in the past 20 years, the real growth of the face-to-face, the author event, the launches, the festivals, these have been the major stimuli of sales. And obviously, we’ve lost all of those.”
However, with online sales still a possibility, a lot of the publishers have rapidly added some e-commerce functionality to their sites, something that some of them might not have had before.
“They have tried, I think, really, really hard to turn themselves into more digitally facing businesses, so facing out towards the customer, as opposed to relying on the traditional intermediaries like the libraries and the bookshops,” says Sinclair.
This has included online events and author videos, but, says Sinclair, “that more direct to customer focus is not always easy when you’re a small company, when there’s only two of you and you’re very focused on acquiring books, author care, marketing, design, all of that sort of thing.
“Suddenly, you’ve got to turn yourself into a kind of digital expert. And that’s the kinds of things that they’ve certainly been asking us, and in turn, we’ve been asking government for a help on, or some support with.”
The virus will cause problems not just for this year but for 2021 as well, as the long lead time on books means new titles not lined up for next year.
Sinclair explains: “Even back in March and April and May, we did kind of model scenarios that looked at 2021 being really, really difficult as well …
“The commissioning for next year is being done this year, but if there’s a cash flow problem, you’re not going to want to be giving advances and taking on new books at the moment, which are going to be helping you through the recovery [next year].”
Scenario planning has also been a major part of this year’s work for David Greig, playwright and artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre.
Greig has been frustrated by mixed messages coming from government that left him having to “plan for five different scenarios”.
Initially optimistic about getting back up and running, they were told they couldn’t expect to re-open and so made staff redundant, then were “scolded” by the Scottish Government and told to get creative and find ways to re-open, but were not allowed to re-open after all.
“The effect on us was really demoralising,” says Greig. “The mood music was so clear round about August that everyone must open up,” he says. “Now the mood music is do nothing until March.”
And with current funding running out in March, they have to do further scenario planning, not knowing whether more funding will be available then or whether they will fall off a cliff edge.
“I mean, you just have to do backstop after backstop, you know, you have to say, well, in an ideal world, we’ll still be supported by the government and by Creative Scotland and we’ll be able to open for audiences of 150 socially distant, let’s say, okay, and that’s my plan, that’s what I really hope happens.
“There could be a world in which a vaccine’s suddenly been found. And so I’m planning for full houses suddenly, say 500 people, I don’t know. I think that’s unlikely, but what would we do if that happened? I have to have that in my mind.
“And then you have to go the other thing, but what if the government don’t support us?
“What if actually, suddenly, the sheer cost of this over this time is too much and they slightly reduce our funding or they decide that, as it would be not unreasonable to say, if really what we’re doing is supporting individual human beings, maybe it’s best not to do that by keeping a theatre that can’t operate open, but to give people money directly?
“Like that could happen, so what do we do then? Can we make enough money from digital in order to keep some sort of theatre going?”
The feeling in theatre just now, he says, is a mixture of optimism, because the Performing Arts Venue Relief Fund is allowing them to put on work, at least digitally, a new development since COVID that is likely to continue, but also feeling ground down by the situation and the redundancies.
The treatment of freelancers in terms of UK Government funding has also created an imbalance in what was previously a well-functioning ecosystem.
“I worry that the theatre sector is fracturing, not because there is a real fracture in the theatre sector between freelance and institutionally employed people, but because the way the government in the UK has chosen to categorise people has caused a fracture,” Greig says.
And like publishing, the long pipeline for theatre productions, as well as the lost revenue from this year, means the disruption will impact on performances for at least the next two years.
But Greig is keen to move away from the rhetoric of ‘saving’ theatre exactly as it was and recognise that what comes back after the pandemic will not be the same.
He says: “I do worry a bit that we’re still stuck in this rhetoric of save. And that’s very much in this idea there’s a kind of ghost world, that if only we keep throwing money at it, then the real world will sort of catch up enough and then we can just mesh the two together again and everything will be normal.
“And I increasingly feel like that’s just a dream. I don’t know why we’re doing it.
“And it feels like it’s a bit of a waste, both of resources, but more crucially to me of everyone’s emotional energy, because we can find a new normal, but we can’t find it if we’re desperately fighting to preserve what happened to exist on March the 16th.”
CASE STUDY: freelance photographer Ciara Menzies
“An absolute shitshow!” is how freelance photographer Ciara Menzies describes her year
“For me, my quiet season is January, February, March. So I usually always have millions of jobs to be doing in the background, but I don’t normally get paid work then.
“And then March to June, I make two to three times the amount I would for the rest of the year, a little bit quieter in August, then fairly steady from then till December, and it tails off in December and then quiet January, February, March. So I had obviously just come out of my quiet season.
“I also have a chronic illness. I had been really ill, so I wasn’t able to work as much as I usually would before my winter, then winter came and I basically had everything lined up ready to go for it and I lost everything in the space of three days.
“And I’ve had no government support whatsoever. So I haven’t been able to access Universal Credit. I haven’t been able to access self-employed [support], even though I have been working for over three years self-employed.
“And basically, I think, in Edinburgh, people have this assumption that you’re from a middle-class background, especially if you work in the arts, so, you know, you can get help from your family, but I can’t, I can’t rely on them financially, and they can’t pay for me financially, so I’ve literally been having to go to foodbanks, and it’s been really rough, really struggling to make ends meet and because I was already starting off from a place of deficit.
“And I just feel completely abandoned, like no one cares, no one wants to know.”