Dear Sajid Javid,
Welcome to the Arts.
First off, take some time to find out what is there, and what is happening, which is a great deal. Secondly, look at the history behind it, without which it cannot really be understood. For instance, the fact that Great Britain has historically had the most extensive system of Art and Design education in the world, in spite of persistent attempts by the Education Ministry to restrict, reduce, and diminish it, is one of the fundamental reasons for the vitality of the Arts in these islands (not just the visual arts, but also music). Thirdly, in emulation of the Hippocratic oath, DO NO HARM. And finally, DO SOME GOOD.
Policy is the best honesty. Most of the time we (the Public) can’t see what general outcome the Government, or the Opposition, of whatever party, is aiming at. When it comes to direction, there is always widespread fog. So we ask, where are you going? what sort of society are you aiming at? And where do practitioners of the Arts fit into this vision of society?
A statement of fact to begin with: the Arts are a pyramid, or if you like, an iceberg. That is to say, the power of this structure depends on the solidity of its base; it may be, as in the case of the iceberg, that only the tip is glowingly visible above the waves to most people most of the time, but the tip is only there because of what sustains it beneath. In order to have the best television and plays (for instance) you have to have many theatres and production companies, many writers, actors, musicians, cameramen, technicians, designers and so on to choose from. You can’t decide just to support a few, or ‘the best’ – next month ‘the best’ may be another grouping. Unless you have a broad spectrum there is no choice, and without choice you will not get the best. Also, if you allow the base to shrink, then in the longer run (once again, this will not be apparent for some time), the quality at the top will deteriorate.
Now for a guiding principle: intellectual property must be safeguarded:
for the creators. So far from being ripped off, they should be the substantial beneficiaries of commercial transactions. We creators don’t begrudge the disseminators of our intellectual property, those who sell, distribute, broadcast or publish, or the end-users of our works, their proper due, but we do demand a fair return for those of us who create the material in the first place. For Government, however mean-minded this may sound, ensuring that creators get a fair return from the rest of the system is the cheapest way of maintaining standards, and therefore overall income.
We are not talking here about something marginal, the decoration on the cake. The Arts, or the Entertainment Industry, if you prefer to call it that, is a major contributor to this country’s economy, and come to that, to the economy of most advanced nations. The ‘Arts and Culture Industry’ (sic) contributed an estimated £5.9 billion to UK GDP in 2011, that figure not counting the spin-off effect on Tourism. The true figure is probably much greater.
Let us look at some sample issues, all of which bear on our guiding principle. A major issue is the use of music. Through the internet it is nowadays possible for everyone to listen to music, but the payment which originating musicians receive for this use by an audience enormously larger than anyone has ever had in history, is ludicrously, disgracefully low. For instance (a real musician’s example), for 1296 performances of a piece on U-tube Alliance, the royalty for one of the four writers was 0.0284 pence. A penny a play, which does not seem exorbitant, would have produced £12.96 . Two plays on Spotify produced 0.0004 pence. How many million plays would it take, at this rate, to produce a living wage of (say) £20,000 per annum? (I am not a mathematician, so someone else may like to try, but I estimate that if 80% of the Chinese population played the piece on Spotify once a year, that might about produce the required income).
Because the Internet is notionally ‘free,’ consumers expect to have music for free. But music can only be free if the musicians are long dead. Real musicians who are alive need money to live on, and the money necessary to support their production. At present living musicians are ripped off by the big organisations – and by the public: these circumstances will eventually lead to the demise of music – at any rate alive, innovative, relevant music. The problem of how artists of any sort are to be protected from the pirating and exploitation of what they produce is not a new one. In the 19th century authors – Wordsworth, Dickens and others – had to fight for copyright agreements so that they could benefit from the income generated by sales of their works abroad, particularly in the USA – one of the main pirates, interestingly enough, was Benjamin Franklin – (see the useful article at http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/pva75.html), but also from persistent pirating and copycatting at home.
This is not just a problem for musicians: with the Internet we now have a means, which did not exist before, of making visual artworks available to the world audience. But now we have a mass access to art, there must be a system of royalties for the digital use of our material. Like the musicians, we cannot live by bread alone – but we also cannot live without any bread at all. Ultimately negotiating and enforcing a system of payment for the use of intellectual property has to be done at Governmental level.
More crudely put, stop musicians and others being ripped off, on the one hand by internet moguls, and on the other by national pirates – even the piratical general public – as now happens. This could be ameliorated if there were much better Union organisation on the ground. But because access to recorded music has become nearly universal, there is no way individual musicians, or national Unions, can prevent their work being pirated. Once again, we should add, that as the sums are very considerable, the Government, by helping artists, would be helping itself.
Another issue, again focussed in the music area, is the difficulty of getting performers into this country. London has in the past been the vibrant centre of the World Music scene, but it isn’t any more. Our commanding position has been given away out of sheer carelessness. Why? because in the anxiety caused by xenophobic immigration panics, the Government has made it more and more difficult for performers to enter and work here. The number of embassies issuing visas has been reduced, so that many African musicians (for instance) have to apply to a neighbouring country: in some cases to go there in person. Whereas a Schengen passport gives access to most European countries, so that a sequence of concerts can be planned, we have a local system which puts obstacles in the way of a European tour which includes the UK. British visas are expensive, and require guarantors: but most of the small units of production which nurture World Music are not rich enough to be acceptable as guarantors. Through this sort of carelessness, or (or un-joined-up planning), a vital area of production is squeezed out.
One more example, this time in the visual arts. Dealers and galleries have developed the habit of requiring exhibitors whose work has been sold to pay the VAT liable on the commission they charge for sales, on top of the commission itself. This regularly brings the total to 50% or more (and clearly, the greater the commission, the greater the additional tax). The overwhelming majority of artists do not earn enough to register, and therefore to be able to claim back, the VAT already paid on their materials, so they pay tax on the materials to which they add value, but also on the value added at the next stage by the dealer- a perverse interpretation of the tax.
Here are a few issues. Clearly there are many others which can only be resolved at Government level, through the resources commanded by a Minister. You may have noticed that nothing here is demanding subsidy or special treatment, only a decent system, properly run. If you can set yourself to look into some of these issues, and resolve them, you will be doing the Arts and the nation a favour. You don’t have to be a fully paid up aesthetic intellectual to tell right from wrong, and to use your time to all of our benefits. We hope you will surprise us by your tenacity,