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  • Jamie McCarthy

Working as an Artist for High-Profile Arts Organisations Whilst Living on or Near the Breadline.

30th August 2015.


A while back I was asked to write some music for a co-produced dance piece in which a large, well-known dance theatre was one of the partners. At first I was offered a ridiculously small amount of money for quite a large amount of recorded music. I said that if the fee were doubled that might approach something-like a fee that fit the job, but even then it would be pretty small. Two hours later I was offered double the fee … it made me wonder why, when it was so easy and quick to DOUBLE the amount of money on offer they had been offering such a rubbish fee in the first place. I was, as usual, fairly skint, so I took the job …

The fee was to be paid in two installments: 50% at the start of the job and 50% up completion. I’m pretty efficient with invoices and stuff, so when three weeks had gone by after the agreed payment date I phoned the woman who I’d been communicating with by email.

I asked about the payment of my fee – a languid, very posh voice, fair chuckled as she said: “Oh gosh. I’m sorry – it’s been on my desk for the last three weeks, but I just forgot to process it. Sorry about that.” Another week went by and I finally got paid.

At the end of the job, the same thing happened – three weeks went by – I phoned to ask about my money – the same languid voice said with an even more amused tone: “Gosh, you know I’ve done it again!” I had the feeling that she was sure that I would share her amusement. I didn’t.

Now I could be judging out of turn and it could be that this woman came from a very un-privileged background, but her mum insisted she have elocution lessons so she could ‘get ahead in life’, but … I didn’t get that feeling – that voice sounded to me like the vocalisation of generations of entitlement – I could be wrong. At the very least, what this woman’s attitude and tone of voice conveyed to me was that she was not familiar with the feeling of absolutely NEEDING to be paid the money I’d earned because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent or buy food and all the other pesky little things you have to do to stay alive.

Partly this lack of empathy about my financial situation as a freelance musician may well come from the divide between people who have a job as an employee, where they have a regular salary paid into their account and such benefits as sick leave and paid holidays. I understand, that unless you’ve experienced the precarity of being a freelancer, it might not come naturally to understand how it is to be penniless and waiting to be paid. On the other hand, if you work a lot employing freelancer artists I would have thought this understanding should be something you need to develop and I know a lot of great people who, despite never having worked as a freelancer, are incredibly considerate and fair in the way they pay their freelance employees – unfortunately, it often seems to me, the higher up the arts hierarchy the institution is, the crapper they are at doing this.


I think this is partly as a result of a convenient fiction: that the higher up the arts hierarchy an organisation is, the more likely they are to be employing people who have a regular and decent income from their arts work. On the ground we all know that this isn’t always (in fact often isn’t the case). How many of us have worked as artists for high-profile arts organisations and been living on or near the breadline while we do so?

I remember having a recorded piece in an art exhibition, again, at an internationally well-known gallery. There was a launch party. I was invited. I had to borrow the money for my bus fare from a friend. There was a dinner after the launch: I ate before I went in case the food was just nibbles and I would be hungry for the rest of the evening. I worried about drinking anything other than water in case the other drinks were charged for. I know I’m not the only person who has experienced situations like this.

A more sinister side of this assumption that people can somehow manage without being paid on time (or in many cases, paid at all) for their work is that you don’t really need the money. Why? Because you have some sort of private financial support that allows you to carry on working in the arts: family, a partner, an inheritance etc. The money you earn from your arts work is incidental to you. I hear more and more from people who say that if it weren’t for the support they get from elsewhere they wouldn’t be able survive. In the past, someone from a working-class background might be able to spend periods on the dole when they didn’t have work – more and more that bit of financial support is an impossibility these days.

One of the many dangers of this state of affairs is that certain parts of the arts world become class monocultures: only the well-off can afford to be artists and so the world of the arts becomes more and more impoverished. Impoverished? Absolutely! When a culture becomes so insular that there are no voices from outside itself it withers and dies.

I went to college and spent time learning about the ‘Western European Art Music’ Tradition. When I was younger I had some violin lessons with the school violin teacher. At the same time I was always in bands and playing Irish music. The ‘classical’ music world was always incredibly baffling to me – it has always been incredibly middle / upper class. I have never quite understood its rules and unspoken etiquettes – having played the violin for over forty years, I still find it very intimidating to go into the snobbish, elitist atmosphere of a violin shop. It has always been hard for me to exist in that kind of arts space and similar spaces in the other arts - it’s like a weird world full of unspoken rules that I was never told. And to be honest, I just really don’t like it despite loving some of the art / music.

One of the benefits of having someone like me in those worlds, is that I don’t take a lot those ways of operating for-granted. I’ve always either naturally done things in a different (often more human) way or found myself overtly questioning how things are done. I know it can be uncomfortable for everyone concerned to have someone like that around, but having someone around who doesn’t know the rules, means that new ways of looking at and doing things come into being.

‘Western European Art’ culture has always enriched itself by borrowing from other cultures (either class, racial or both). Usually it’s been done in a way that could be described as ‘cultural imperialism’: think of how folk music, jazz, African music etc. have been consumed and repackaged by this tradition. In Medieval times, instruments as diverse as the triangle and the lute (from the Arabic Oud) were brought into Western culture, even at a time when the ‘crusaders;’ were off butchering Muslim people. Debussy brought about a revolution in music through hearing Indonesian Gamelan ensembles. John Cage was inspired by the Indian approach to music and aesthetics as well as Zen from Japan. Steve Reich’s music would never have existed without his time in Ghana studying the music of the Ewe tribe and nowadays, how many ‘contemporary classical’ composers (a contradiction in terms if ever there was one) attempt to revive a moribund tradition by injecting the influences of black and other popular music?

But back to my original point: if you make an arts world where only the financially privileged can survive, you create the effect of a gated community. Inside those gates you may have all sorts of lovely art works from around the world on your walls, your privileged children may listen to black street music and feel like they’re being very cool, you may have servants from the working classes, from Latin America, the Philippines or from an African country – you may even occasionally have people from such backgrounds at your dinner table and it will make you feel terribly inclusive. But unless you provide the conditions and financial support for people who don’t come from a background as privileged as the one you inhabit to make art, your own world will become arid and barren - passionless – it will shove its head, deep inside its own self-referential arse, stop breathing and die.

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