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'There isn't a bleak enough word to say how bleak it is now': Artists grapple with impact of coronavirus crisis

People working in the arts say the current situation has placed huge financial pressure on them.

Image: Shutterstock/njaj

THERE ARE MANY jobs that can be done from home, but if you’re working in the arts industry in Ireland it might be impossible for you to do your job.

Events, gigs and gallery shows have been cancelled until a date in the future – a date we don’t know yet. Tours and festivals won’t happen or, if they are scheduled for later in the year, could be under threat. When things do reopen, the question of social distancing and continuing to curb the spread of Covid-19 could mean that events are among the last things to open and venues are among the last businesses to allow punters in.

A lot is unknown at this time, and that lack of knowledge has left people in very precarious situations. 

So far, some help has been rolled out – for example, the Arts Council allowed organisations to access 90% of the year’s funding, to help with cash flow. And last week, the government rolled out a series of initiatives to help artists.

These include a number of grants out of a €1 million fund. 

However, a cohort of artists was not happy with the latter news – particularly given how over in Scotland, there were funds made available by Creative Scotland that total the equivalent of €12.5million.

A new group called Arts Blackout has been formed to campaign against the government’s Covid-19 art schemes. It said: “Every artist and art worker in Ireland has lost income due to the crisis and we need a response that will provide adequate support for everyone.”

To get a sense of how the coronavirus crisis is affecting people involved in the arts in Ireland, we spoke to three people working in the music, art and entertainment PR sectors.

The music industry: ‘People’s livelihood evaporated’

Angela Dorgan is the CEO of First Music Contact, which works with up and coming Irish artists. She’s also the chair of the National Campaign for the Arts.

“People’s livelihood for the year has evaporated,” said Dorgan of the coronavirus crisis. ”One or two emerging artists on the way up would have made enough from international and national touring to fund the next album. That’s gone.”

She said that: “Anybody in that situation now is in this invisible limbo – it’s almost like in the Matrix, you put your foot out and you’re not sure there’s ground anymore. The ‘wait and see’ I think is causing great fear, anxiety, frustration – and none of which are fertile ground for making new art, either.”

There isn’t a bleak enough word to say how bleak it is now. I think that’s important for people to know that’s the context. I don’t think anyone can make art in the middle of that fear.

Dorgan said while the immediate loss is financial, the secondary loss is professional and creative development. She has gone from speaking to seven bands a week about their career to advising 18 bands a week. One artist, for example, was anticipating a big fee for a live gig that would have gone towards funding their next record. With gigs cancelled, that money is now gone, jeopardising their plans.

When the government announced its campaign to support artists, the NCFA said it was “dismayed by the lack of vision” the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht showed.

Since then it has held a video call with almost 400 people from the arts in attendance, and sent a letter to the Department looking for a number of new initiatives to support those working in the arts in Ireland. 

They include the government establishing a stabilisation fund for arts and cultural organisations; investing an additional €20 million in the Arts Council for 2020; and guaranteeing that at least the same level of increased investment in the Arts Council and Culture Ireland be committed for 2021.

Dorgan said that creators frequently top up their Arts Council funding with self-generated income. “The avenues of self-generated income have evaporated,” she said of how things stand now.

She said that the funding the NCFA is calling for is necessary to help people to plan for 2021. “People can’t have those conversations now if they don’t know will they be funded next year,” she said.

“We would like to see a fund offered to artists to sustain them until it’s all over.”

“Although we were the first to be shut down, we will be the last to be back to work post restrictions being lifted.”

“It can’t be over-emphasised how devastated the arts sector will be by this, uniquely,” said Dorgan. “If we are taking a crisis to reimagine what kind of country can emerge out of this, we should be a country whose mind has been refocused on the important of the arts.

“Rebuilding the arts will help us rebuild the nation. We’ve seen first-hand how important the arts are in helping everybody to deal with all of this. Certainly it’s helping me.”

The art gallery: ‘Artists are so vulnerable’ 

Fiona Kearney is founding director of the Glucksman, a contemporary art museum in Cork city. It’s based in the grounds of University College Cork.

Coronavirus has meant the closure of the gallery and the postponing or cancellation of upcoming events.

For the Glucksman, it has also meant an impact on the community work it does with people including those in the Traveller community and refugee community.

Kearney noted that ironically the next show due to take place at the Glucksman was called ‘Home’. All of the artists who made work for the show have been paid.

Tweet by @The Glucksman Source: The Glucksman/Twitter

She told TheJournal.ie that artists are frustrated in the current situation, often because they can’t get to their studios to create work. “Many are in shared house situations,” she said. “There are a lot of challenges for the community.”

“They are very vulnerable is what I feel,” she said of artists. “As opposed to so many of my colleagues in universities – they can take the time to think. Artists should be able to do this. They don’t have this investment in them. It’s frustrating for us as a sector. It’s devastating now.”

Kearney said that the restrictions aren’t just “a pause on content”. “How long will it take for artists to get back in the studio, or for bodies to connect? The idea of the arist isolated in their attic is such a romantic 19th century conception,” she said.

The Glucksman has “tried to be resilient” and use its resources to provide education online, but Kearney said that internet-based projects involve the presumption that people have online capacity and time. “A lot of the communities we work with are young refugees and the Traveller community, who will have no online access or if they do they won’t be able to access [our site].”

Right now, the Glucksman is planning for what it will do when things start to reopen, and how it can practice safe access. “We are lucky in that we’re a big gallery, so for example we are talking about things like timed access. Even then it’s hard to know, so we’ve put everything off until the autum and maybe beyond.”

Kearney said there has been a “collapse in our cafe, retail, education and gallery” and the Glucksman expects to be affected to the tune of €100k. It is cutting back on the production aspects of the budget to save money, and focusing on protecting staff, many of whom have been redeployed into the online work the Glucksman is doing.

However its yearly fundraiser, due to be held in November, is under threat. This usually contributes a huge amount to the Glucksman. The gallery has been able to access the funding released by the Arts Council, which has helped with cashflow. 

Kearney said that arts spaces are impacted by the current restrictions as “we all worked on such tiny budgets”. “[The Glucksman], we haven’t even got back to the pre-2008 situation so we weren’t even at that tipping point of recovery,” she pointed out.

Kearney said that with regards to investing in Irish arts creators, she would love to see a research and development fund so that work can be done for the future. “We should be talking about investing in artists, giving them space to relax and create, so they can research and develop ideas so they are ready to hit the ground running,” she said. “We do that for science and take huge risks. We could have some brilliant amazing urgent ideas that we need as a society. I am really worried for our sector. It’s a really anxious time, so people can’t create in that environment.”

“Unless we protect the making of that content, what happens in a year’s time?” 

Still, Kearney said that she remains hopeful, and that she hopes the situation prompts people to think about what it means to be an artist in this crisis. 

The music PR: ‘If it goes on for six months more, eventually my clients will run out of money’

Sheena Madden runs Amplify Agency, which offers services including music PR, strategic communications, and consultancy. Many of her clients are independent musicians whose plans for the next few months have been decimated by the restrictions.

“Amplify is an arts, culture and entertainment PR agency but I’d say 80% of our client base is independent musicians and independent record labels, so it’s had a huge impact on that client base because obviously there isn’t that live gig economy. There are no live gigs to keep that side of things propped up so that has an impact on all their release schedules from start to finish,” she said. 

She said that so far, the restrictions haven’t had a detrimental impact on her own business, but “it remains to be seen how long it will be the case”.

“At the moment people are still releasing music. From my clients’ point of view, people have had to really adapt their release strategies and I’ve been doing consultancy work with them on that.”

She explained that for example, a musician might have planned to release a single to promote an upcoming gig, but now they will “need to go back to the drawing board and test if it’s a good time to release that single”.

That said, she said that it can be a good time to release a single if your goals are primarily not to promote a live gig – and especially if your song is more radio-friendly.

In one band’s case, they held back a planned release until September – instead, they’re going to put out “a less raucous single” more likely to appeal to people in a home setting. 

Madden said for bands, there is “huge pressure to feel relevant – are people going to forget about them?”

She has been keeping an eye on how streaming and consumption of visual content has been going, which in turn helps guide her work. ”With knowledge like that we’re looking at things and saying how can we adapt this situation so that the online content and the visual content is as strong as it can possible be, whether that is releasing now or so that when gigs start happening again the clients can be in the strongest position,” she said.

She has lost some clients, such as venues, but said that in the medium term she has been doing crisis communications with clients. “This is a crisis – it’s figuring out what the communications strategy for a venue is,” she said. This includes finding out how to keep the venue’s presence online, even when it is not allowed to open. Then there’s planning the strategy for when the venue is allowed to reopen. 

Madden does have some fears for the future. “If things go on for six months more, eventually all the clients I work with are going to run out of money because their revenue stream is gone.”

Independent musicians can struggle anyway to have a consistent cashflow, and live gigs can be a very good way of earning money. “The days of getting signed to a big label and getting a big advance are now the preserve of commercial pop music,” said Sheena. “Independent musicians, most have a job or multiple other jobs to keep them going.” Some independents rely on their live shows for a big part of their income, or on partnerships with brands.

“The only real income steam they have now is from streaming which you don’t earn much from,” said Madden. 

“In terms of what people are going to have to do for themselves, it’s a case of having to adapt,” said Madden. “I find that even the musicians I work with who have had successful years over the decade are the people who can adapt to different situations.”

Aside from the financial pressures and worries for the future, Madden said that “there’s something comforting in being able to push the pause button and take stock and regroup and look at longterm strategies”.

However, this can be matched by a “huge pressure on people to create”, which Madden said has not been easy for people. “If people are inspired during this time, fair play to them. I don’t think there should be an onus on people to use this time to be productive.”

Madden said it’s hard to know when things will reopen again, but she has seen some gigs rescheduled for June and July. 

“The feeling on the ground is what might happen is smaller gatherings will be allowed in the first instance. But some reports have said there won’t be live gigs until 2021 – if that is the case it’s looking at something that is going to be very damaging to some people’s careers and revenue stream.”

If there is no travel abroad, Madden said it would be a chance for people to focus on and grow the Irish indigenous music industry more. 

“I think everyone is just looking at a bad situation and trying to find out how we can make it better and how we can adapt,” she said. “People are in an acceptance phase, and there is that comfort that we are all in the same boat.”

With regards to making money, Madden said a lot of her clients have been successful in getting the Covid emergency payment, while others have also been adapting to streaming platforms.

Madden said that streaming events online, from a PR and planning point of view, are fantastic things to do, but “it’s important to execute them well and plan them well, the same as you would any other endeavour – the same way you’d put effort into a gig”.

She believes things like Patreon (where fans can donate a certain amount of money to creators) will come to the fore in this new era. “I hope people realise in the independent music industry there aren’t a lot of strong revenue streams for artists and it’s important to support artists, whether by buying merch or Patreon signing up, or going to Bandcamp and buying the album if you like it”.

We have to help support our small businesses – musicians are small businesses and it’s important for our society we support them.

She said that the current situation shows how we really need to improve supports for musicians. “It’s not sustainable to expect musicians to rely on gig income. Hopefully it will go some way to helping people realise that art has a value and music has a value and it shouldn’t just be free for everyone – you want it to be affordable and accessible.”

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy are hoping to explore the post-coronavirus landscape for artists, and the supports and innovations that might get them back on their feet. Go here to see more and help fund this project. 

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