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Arts Mythbusting #1: The Happy Freelancer

Once upon a time there were some knights who lived in a regular sort of kingdom, with a castle and a moat and a few anarchist peasants. The knights all swore fealty to their king, coining the useful synecdoche of pledging their “lance” to describe a contract in which they would go out and do various knightly errands (dragon-slaying, windmill-tilting, moving in an L-shape in chess situations) for their king and their king alone, for approximately 37.5 hours a week excluding statutory Holy Days and Pilgrimage Leave.

But one of these knights was an enterprising lad. He figured he could do a lot better for himself if he went out in the world and sold his errand skills to any old king that was about the place. This meant that, even though he would lose the feudal protection of his original king, he stood to gain great treasure, great glory, and above all, the precious gift of personal freedom as the reward for this risk. And so he set off, knapsack dangling off the back of his lance, a lance that was now free.

I’m a bigger fan of fairytales than most, but as true as this story may be for some fields of work, I’m deeply skeptical about what it means for the people in mine. ConDem figures regarding rises in employment have been attacked by commentators for including precarious casual and self-employed labour. And there is almost nowhere that has seen a greater rise in self-employment than the arts.

Today I came across Susan Jones’ Guardian article trying to offer a balanced view of freelancing in the art world. The standout sentence for me is clear:

in my field, the publicly-funded visual arts – in which self-employment stands at around 50% – it’s more worrying to find that the salaries of arts employees increased during the recession, while freelance fee rates went down.

That can’t be right, can it? In the subsidized sector we’re all big friendly lefty hippies, chowing down over flatbreads together to plan our next collaborative project, right? There wouldn’t be a structural inequity between  artists and institutions would there?

This may be stating the blindingly obvious, but as someone who has worked a fair bit as both, I can say with some authority that there is one, and it is massive. Speaking only of the performing arts that I specialise in, since the slow death of repertory theatre, the work of artists has increasingly become outsourced to freelancers. According to the fairytale, this should deliver a lot of freedom and opportunity to these artists in exchange for a the loss of a little security. In reality the loss is massive and the gains tiny. Theatre makers exist on the ultimate zero-hour contracts, often being asked to work for no guaranteed payment, as Bryony Kimming’s famously lambasts in her rant-blog, or in the case of the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe festivals amongst others, being charged to perform. As a rule, in neither of these deals are the venue managers or programmers staking their own salary in the way they are asking artists to do. The ethics of this are so poor even senior figures are in doubt about them. I’ve spoken to multiple programmers who were moved by Bryony’s blog, but haven’t changed their financial deals to artists. Which is only to be expected, to an extent – organisations are always going to prioritise their own bottom line and core staff both in times of fat and lean if there’s no pressure to do otherwise. As Lyn Gardner writes, the funding bodies tend to be pretty toothless when this happens, which is extra galling when big theatre buildings are given the kind of bailouts a human being never would.

This debate is complex and nuanced. There are laws of supply and demand in play, and the work of an artist will never mirror a regular desk job, nor should it. In essence, though, it seems that the mass casualisation of labour in the arts has shifted power away from frontline workers (artists) and towards management (administrators), and where power is unbalanced it is inevitably abused, even by the most well-meaning and compassionate people. Thus even moderately successful freelancers go without pensions, maternity and paternity pay, unemployment benefits and even on occasion the minimum wage, as the gaping legal loopholes around freelancing are exploited by organisations fraught with funding cuts and declining audiences. Not only is this unethical in a way that would provoke mass outrage if it happened in a different sector, but  economically those same laws of supply and demand mean that a unpaid, unprotected workforce will ultimately drive out the skilled, the smart and the unprivileged, lowering the quality of the art made and sending demand spiraling down through the law of diminishing returns. A system that creates these conditions cannot possibly make an ingenuous case for public support.

There are no real villains in this story, no dragons we can slay to save the kingdom. There is only a broken system, that to fix will require collective bravery, radical thought and a completely new way of working. Furthermore, I think we need to shake off the fairytale of the happy knight, and acknowledge that without freedom from destitution, no-one’s lance is really free.

On Robots and Revolutions, Part 1

Machines. We make them, we use them, we occasionally Rage Against them. They can help the sick and elderly  or drop a bomb in your chimney. All in all, they’re a mixed bunch.

My producer has told me to do a blog about the new show I’m making. Part of this process involves me coming up with an “elevator pitch”. This means the thing that you would say about your new project to some dreadfully important person who could change your career forever if you had them cornered in an elevator for thirty seconds. I’m guessing said important people take the stairs now. This is also thing I have to whip out when people ask me “what’s the show about?”.

I always struggle with these, because I tend to let a whole seraphic host of ideas bounce around in my head before throwing a trawler net over them and dragging them flapping and hosannah-ing into a few pages of writing. But here’s my shortlist.

  1. It’s about a man struggling to be a good father to a bright but quarrelsome girl.
  1. It’s about said girl struggling to understand a world of rules, restrictions and lost possibilities.
  1. It’s an epic steampunk fairtytale for grownups that will totally rock your socks off until the auditorium is just one big sock receptacle and the theatre staff look at me like “really, Jack, THIS AGAIN?”.
  1. It’s about machines. The little ones, like radios and bicycle wheels, the big ones, like battleships and factories, and the social and economic machine, the one we have created to bring us freedom and prosperity, but, like Frankenstein’s Monster, has turned on its makers to destroy their habitats and their happiness. I would call this machine Capitalism, as uncomfortable as that makes people at dinner parties who were just trying to ask what I’ve been up to.
  1. It’s about me. Isn’t everything writers write? It’s about my struggle to grow up and fit in with contemporary British society, and my obsession with fantasising about different worlds, molded by a bombardment of video games and sci-fi movies in my youth and hardened in the fires of global change.
  1. It’s Disney Pixar’s Up, but with robots and swearing.
  1. It’s about England. A country that for many is a proxy for far-right views, for others a source of post-imperial guilt and shame. For me, it is a story that we tell ourselves, one with elements of no small subtlety and frail beauty buried within it, a story we can use, if we choose, to arm ourselves against oppression and division rather than to perpetuate it.

One of those? Maybe? Or a mix of some or all of them? Basically, you should go see it.  There. Marketing absolutely NAILED. I’m off to the pub.

Grandad And The Machine is in development over April and May, before launching at venues across the UK. You can see performance dates here.

We Need To Turn Left On Copyright

[Pictured, Petey the Don’t Sue People Panda from  the TV show South Park]

Copyright has a strange and twisted history. In Britain it has its roots in the 1710 Statute of Queen Anne, set up to bust the monopoly of the Stationers’ Company, which had almost exclusive control of who got to publish what, like if Penguin Books was actually run by the Penguin from Batman. The law handed some publishing rights and legal protections back to individual authors, with the goal to encourage “learned men to compose and write useful books“.

So, three centuries passed, during which I am told some shit went down, and now a dead man has sued a washed-up R&B star over some drum sounds.

Wherever you stand on the controversy about Blurred Lines’ lyrics and video, in my opinion it is a great discredit to Pharrell, the composer who had nothing to do with either, a man who survived cancer while crafting some of the defining songs of our era and wearing some of its dopest hats,  to accuse him of “ripping off” Gaye with the beat.

As a huge fan of Marvin, and of the alleged subject of ripoffery Got To Give It Up in particular, I would hate to see someone trading on his musical legacy without proper acknowledgement. But this isn’t the case here, as, as the article linked above states “they’re pretty openly spoken about being inspired by Gaye on that track.”

An important distinction should be made between sampling the actual Gaye record, which they didn’t do, and creating something taking inspiration from it, which they did. This is where the bizarre legal process of copyright law (the American strand in particular) kicks in. Surely they used some kind of mechanical or objective measure to measure the sameyness of the two songs right? Nope: the verdict was decided entirely by the opinions of a panel of “musicologists”.

Any other trial where no hard evidence could be brought against a suspect would be thrown out of court, but in Copyrightland you can win a whole case without it. The point isn’t that their opinions aren’t informed, which I am in no place to dispute. The point is that they’re just opinions. And I don’t know if you’ve met people in the 21st century at all, but their opinions on music aren’t aways unanimous. Applied to the world of law, this leads to bizarre inconsistencies. For example, had they openly made a parody song in the “Wierd” Al Yankovic vein, there’s a good chance they would’ve been protected under fair use. More shockingly, when struggling (and alive) songwriter Rebecca Francescatti sued Lady Gaga for apparently quite blatant use of her music without permission, a similar group of opining experts ruled in favour of meat-dress-lady, who is now launching a counterattack to reclaim 1.4 million dollars in legal costs. When copyright goes unenforced, such as with the legendary drum break in “Amen Brother” by the Winstons that forms the backbone of Jungle music, opportunistically litigious music makers can leap in and try to copyright it for themselves in a tedious version of Finders Keepers.

Can we see a pattern here of who might be winning in all these situations? Yep, lawyers. I don’t blame them: they’re no more going to fail to exploit shaky, byzantine and morally dubious laws than my dog is going to cruise past a 16oz ribeye on the kitchen floor.

To find a solution to this, we need to ask big and difficult questions about intellectual property, and indeed private property in general. From a left-wing perspective, does an artist’s family have the exclusive right to earnings from their work? Gaye was no Russian Oligarch, but doesn’t this lead to the further cementing of privelege much like the inheritance of any substantial unit of wealth? And surely even from a capitalist perspective, doesn’t this hoarding of Intellectual Property constitute a tax on innovation and creativity that is the lifeblood of free trade?  Furthermore, where do we draw the line? Should we dig up the skeletons of Bach and Vivaldi and make them duke it out over the former’s borrowing of melodies from the latter in his Concerto for Four Keyboards?

Queen Anne could not have envisioned a world so overwhelmingly saturated with cultural content, from Catcher In The Rye to Gay Knights and Horny Heroes. Samples, remixes and covers shift about at a mesmerising rate. I once met a girl who thought Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” was written by Michael Buble. It was harrowing, but not suprising in the modern age.

If we are to build a society based on sharing instead of greed, then I would hope the world of art, which brings great joy and unity and mostly now costs nothing to reproduce, should be the place we can start. Lots of people are already operating in this way, such as those using Lawrence Lessig’s brilliant Creative Commons scheme. I’m not qualified to speculate too much on the values of a dead soul legend, but I don’t believe that, if he came back to life and re-recorded What’s Going On, he would follow the lyric “only love can conquer hate” with “except for that hat guy who made that Happy song, fuck him”.

Music is the universal language, and the answer to who really owns an artistic idea is off dancing somewhere with some angels on the head of a pin. I’m very conscious of how many musicians from Gaye’s era were exploited, but from an artist’s point of view, if not an estate or a record label’s, the short-term gain of a cash injection from a pop star is not worth it for a world where ideas can’t be freely exchanged. A world where “learned men” can “compose useful books” without litigation skulking over their shoulder. A world where, as Kyle from South Park says in the “Free Hat” episode:

“When an artist creates, whatever they create belongs to society.”

For a whole raft of uncleared samples and degenerate musical theft, check out my bandcamp.

Undead Party: The First 100 Days – Review

[In response to last night’s UKIP: The First 100 Days ]

In a time of great political change, it is important to make sure that people are kept aware of potential terrible events, no matter how unlikely or absurd they are. It is with this bold mission that writer-director Chris Atkins (the man behind Cyberbully, in which Arya Stark is pitted against a digital warlord from House Chatroom) sets off on this grippingly realistic account of a plausible future in which Citizens for Undead Rights and Equality (CURE), a radical party directing anti-establishment feeling towards an imaginary problem, win a surprise landslide victory in the May 2015 elections.

Atkins splices real footage (mostly from various George A Romero films and the Resident Evil game series) with a human story following Bohdan Wojciech, CURE’s newly elected MP for Barking & Dagenham, of which there are plenty of moody beige establishing shots to prevent viewers forgetting where things are happening. Wojciech makes a swift ascent through the the ranks as the party’s only mortal member, guided by their shady senior spin doctor Count Von Bloodbat, but struggles to defend their controversial policies, including secession from the Land of The Living and measures to limit baptisms and crucifix and shotgun imports. Atkins shows great perspicacity in predicting how unpopular the policies of a party that no-one has ever voted for would be with large swathes of the public if somehow put into place.

As riots break out following state seizure of blood banks and cemeteries, Wojciech struggles to bridge the gap with his sister, a Vampire Hunter and Warrior Priestess, who ends up arrested for militant action against Home Secretary Cthulhu. Ultimately, Wojciech makes the tough moral decision to turn down promotion in favour of stopping a Hellmouth opening over his local Tesco.

This show follows in the line of other fact-based triumphs by Channel 4 such as Benefits Street and The Paedophile Hunter in reminding us of the importance of colossal and sustained media attention on marginal threats to liberal democratic society. Sure, CURE only fielded four candidates in the 2010 election, have a fraction of the support of other non-mainstream parties  and are largely based on a joke, but does that mean regular people shouldn’t be made to feel terrified that they will stage a coup and build giant milking parlours with which to suck out our brains?

[If you like Zombie Apocalypses, Immigration Swamping or other modern myths, you may like my show Threnody For The Sky Children, which is on at Sunny Bank Mills in Leeds on the 28th of February.Tickets are currently sold out, but they’re free and you can get on a waiting list for them,  and there’ll probably be a few no-shows on the night, so, yeah, do that.]

Dear Bear Grylls

I usually have loads of time for anyone with an animal in their name: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Big Bird, Rhino from Gladiators. And when you did a cracking episode of Man vs Wild where you explored the arctic with Will Ferrell, it seemed my nomenclatural theory was confirmed.  So when my main news provider (Facebook), told me you’d put up a Manifesto for the children of today, I thought “hey, this guy’s probably smart, all that outdoors time punching salmon out of waterfalls must give him a clear and active mind, let’s see what he’s got to say”.

What followed started off so strong, then let me down big time. Here’s a play by play of your Six Commandments to our Troubled Yoof.

“1) Get fit”

Brilliant. A little under-interpolated, perhaps, but this is pointing in the right direction. Get out there, you cheeky chubby sprogs! Go do some zumba, or lacrosse, or a goddamn cheese race if it makes you happy. Just don’t eat the cheese / lacrosse sticks / other dancers afterwards.

“2) Outdoor classes for all”

Ok, keeping it concise, but I see where you’re going. This could mean “let’s offer outdoor classes for all” ie somewhere between a cajolement to schools and leisure centers to step up their provision and a Leninist “Peace, Land and Bread” promise to the masses, with an added fourth clause of “and also Mountain Biking and Stuff”, and anything on that scale is fab. On the other hand, it could be “let’s force outdoor classes upon them all”, but that’s probably knee-jerk lefty paranoia brought on from reading something in the Telegraph, so I’ll pull a Nicholas Parsons and give you the benefit of the doubt.

3)Ban computer games”

REALLY BEAR?

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I don’t even really know where to begin with this. It astonishes me the level of vitriol some of your generation like to bring to bear (lolz!) on video games, given your general lack of experience of actually playing them. I’m going to double Nicholas Parsons you and not lump you in with the Fox News Cohort that ramble incoherently about games breeding a generation of zombie mass murderers while ripping off their designs, and assume you’re attacking games based on their alleged contribution to a sedentary lifestyle. In which case, isn’t it a bit convenient that you’ve omitted TV? What does this edict boil down to, “Avoid couch potatoing, except on Friday nights at 9pm, where you can watch me set an impeccable example of healthy living by drinking pee?”.

I could tell you about lives transformed by video games (that’s what we’ve called them since 1998, when “computer games” went the way of conical 16-bit tits on Lara Croft”) , I could tell you about games that deliver stunning visual art that you can live inside, games that ask difficult questions about violence and ethics and the freakin’ nature of Time and Space. I could even point to games that get people being active and delivering a bespoke weight loss plan. But that probably wouldn’t sway you from the emblazoned image in your head of the fat crusty teen male coated in Cheesy Wotsit dust and shame, hammering away at some repetitive gorefest as an outlet for his anger at rejection by human society. Which is fine, honestly, have all the ill-informed opinions you like.

But here’s the thing, Bear. No matter what you think of something, it doesn’t give you the authority to go around asking people to “Ban” it. That’s not how a free society works. I have lots of aspects of leisure activities I’m a bit on the fence about, such as the concussions induced during rugby games, or the number of abandoned dogs left behind by the greyhound racing industry, but I’d look like a pseudo-totalitarian dork if I went around demanding their legal prohibition, especially since I’ve not got any hands-on experience of either sport. Is that really the sort of world you want anyway, Bear? Recidivist partygoers sneaking out in the night to get a gram of coke and a bashed-up copy of Asassin’s Creed 3 cut with some dodgy Candy Crush Saga? Boardwalk Empire-style feuds over turf, leading to warehouses full of FIFA 2016 getting shot up by the Rosettis in broad daylight? Central American regimes getting toppled to try and stem the flow of Pokemon White across the border?

“4) Climb mountains”

But not on Skyrim, cos then SWAT TEAMS WILL DROP THROUGH YOUR ROOF AND TAZE YOUR SEDITIOUS BALLS.

5) Take risks”

BUT NOT TOO MENY. LIEK, IF UR MAKIN A SHOW WER UR ABANDONED IN THE WILD, MAKE SURE UV GOT A FULLY STOCKED BASE CAMP LODGE  2 GO BAK 2 EACH NITE.

“6)Community Service

Oh wow. My lefty paranoia, was, if anything, underdoing it. That’s what those pesky whippersnappers need isn’t it Bear Führer? Not a job with a fair living wage, not the right to an affordable higher education, not one or any of the things that might remove them from the trap of poverty that has been linked to obesity. LORD no. A dash of conscription, that’ll get the podgy little liberals sorted right out.

I hope a bag of bees gets dumped on you, you smug dogmatising bumblefuck.

Yours Sincerely

Jackal Dean.

Rejected Show Ideas

Theatres seem to have a pervasive neophilia these days. You can’t walk two yards for someone wanting to help you develop Innovative And Daring New Work That Interrogates The Performative Act.  I have no problem playing along with this, but sometimes the cycle of pitching and rejections makes me a bit worn out. Or maybe that’s playing Red Alert 3 past midnight. Either way, in a bid to make light out of darkness like a blogging Prometheus, and cut this process down a bit, here is a roundup of the growing menu of Performance Projects  with  plenty of risk and possibly little to no merit that I have thought up in my head. If you’re a commissioning body / wacky philanthropist with a sack of money, just pick one off the list and I’ll bash it out for you.

34: A rural tour in which I poach, steal and forage all my food, then hold any audience members hostage to raise money for my next tour.

35: I take you through a version of Crystal Maze, but each room is just a reenactment of your greatest personal disappointments. The money shower at the end is just receipts you haven’t filed.

36: TED Baker talks.

37: an epic 6-month installation where I sit in your house, eat your food and watch Adventure Time reruns.

38 War Pig. I work with @handspringcc to tell the true story of flaming pigs Rome used in battle  http://bit.ly/J8p04m 

39: Fifty Shades of Cent

40. I crowdfund to make a show about crowd funding. Sponsored by BP.

42. I get a spot at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park and just agree with people.

42. A walking performance in which you walk my dog for me and reevaluate modern society’s relationship with waste while picking up her poop.

Dear James Blunt,

Even though I’m kind of a big deal (2 second cameo on Songs of Praise, literally tens of Youtube views, and not one, not two, but three BBC Radio Bristol interviews), you probably don’t know who I am. We actually have quite a lot in common. I too, have a monosyllabic name and blue eyes. I went to a private school, and also got baffling looks from careers advisors when I expressed interest in something other than keeping track of people’s money, suing people for their money, shooting brown people for oil money or teaching kids how to do the above.  We both make art for a living, although in reality our lines of work couldn’t be much more different, not least because I am clearly the fellow who is a big deal and selling 20 million records is just for total lameoids who’ve lost focus on the key cultural mission of doing gigs down the road for 20 quid and some chips.

My first interaction with your music resulted in the thought process of “I don’t like this music, I will not listen to this music”. Later, a snobbish comment about you that I made to a woman fan of yours probably cost me some sex, which taught me a lesson on the subject of being judgy about people’s musical tastes. Then, a few months ago, I discovered your phenomenal responses to abuse on Twitter, and figured someone who could experience such outlandish success and still engage with their detractors using such wit and self-awareness could not be so bad, whether or not his love is brilliant and / or pure.

So when you came out with this rant on the Guardian site defending your achievements, I was taken aback. I didn’t think you’d stoop to giving a serious reply to Chris Bryant’s dig, given your propensity to not take such “Haters” seriously.  Granted, its rich for New Labourites like him to chuck around claims about the state of “the arts” while simultaneously bragging about how they’ll do nothing about it. It’s also uncalled for for him to, as we say in the hip hop community “put you on blast” and name drop you in an unrelated argument as some kind of villain responsible for inequity in the art world, especially as selling off stuff for millions without any integrity is kind of New Labour’s top hobby of recent decades.

A few things though:

“Every step of the way, my background has been AGAINST me succeeding in the music business. And when I have managed to break through, I was STILL scoffed at for being too posh for the industry.”

Really James? That industry run in part by private – schooled SImon Cowell? That industry that expects people to work for years on low or no pay (as you no doubt did) to secure a living? I work mainly in indie theatre, which I suppose is pop music’s Waitrosey Cousin, but I think if I walked into a meeting of either of our industries and said that my poshness held me back I would justifiably get smacked with a Vermicelli nest.

We didn’t choose our backgrounds. We don’t have to let them constantly define us. But it would be folly to pretend they don’t confer advantages on us. You go on to say:

“the only head-start my school gave me in the music business, where the VAST majority of people are NOT from boarding school, is to tell me that I should aim high”

Really James? Oh, and also violin and piano lessons, which the majority of state schools struggle or fail to provide. And security from violence and drugs. And good food. And good enough grades to get a free degree paid for by the military. Even if said aim-high talk were the only head-start you were given, you may be startled by how little that encouragement alone is given in outside the higher echelons of our education system, which often writes off whole swathes of students deemed not worth the effort. James, whether you or I like to admit it or not, privilege exists. It colours every sector of our society, and sets the rules of the game before you even play it. It doesn’t disqualify your hard work and achievements, but it presents innumerable obstacles to those who work just as hard but do not share in its advantages. We are not the cause of privilege, but we are symptoms of the pernicious malaise it casts on the civilized world.

“I got signed in America, where they don’t give a stuff about, or even understand what you mean by me and “my ilk”, you prejudiced wazzock, and I worked my arse off. What you teach is the politics of jealousy. Rather than celebrating success and figuring out how we can all exploit it further as the Americans do, you instead talk about how we can hobble that success and “level the playing field””

REALLY JAMES? The land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, that’s your model for excellence? Do they REALLY celebrate and exploit the successes of Lockheed Martin, Shell and, yes, even Warner Bros, the conglomerate who own your record label, or do they allow them to hoard wealth towards a tiny section of society while the rest slump back into pre-war poverty and mass alienation? If this “politics of jealousy” were really in control of our stuffy little Stars And Stripes-less isle, would the 5 richest families have as much wealth as the poorest 15 million people? Is seeking a system where the less well off can get employed really going to “hobble” your success, or is that the daft and paranoid accusation of a man terrified that the American Dream may dissolve upon waking in Britain, and in fact, in America? Your “shit songs” and “plummy accent” were never a problem, but using the millions of fans you have as a platform to speak to to peddle the Reaganite guff that inequality of opportunity doesn’t exist, totally is.

Go bum a Bald Eagle, you right-wing twonk.

Yours sincerely,

Jake fucking Spleen