Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Work: more for less, or for nothing at all


This post, uniquely, will be pictureless. 

One thing I know for sure: that freelancers like myself are being asked to do ever more for less, or for no pay at all - and no money we will sometimes take only if it doesn't set a bad example (intolerable, for example, the Independent online not paying its writers for some time, and some of them setting a terrible precedent for exploitation by accepting that).

This is a time of rapid change for the ever-pressed middle-classes and their once-dependable professions, paid writing of either a journalistic or a more in-depth sort especially, and areas of my work are drying up*. Others, well, it seems that either what a colleague helpfully (no, really) called my reactive nature has pissed people off - beware of tone in emails - or that some of those people I've been working for are not as nice as I thought they were. Who knows what reasons may proliferate of which one knows nothing when it comes to reaching the end of one working line - where it's not you but the situation (this radio programme needs younger voices, more women - well, that last was certainly overdue). I don't think I should get into that here - no-one wants these things of limited interest aired in public.

January is certainly the first month in over 30 years of freelance life where I've looked ahead and seen nothing in the short term other than my weekly classes and work for a certain website I love and respect which doesn't like it known that we're not paid - but we have to think of ourselves and the fact that people might think we're gainfully employed. Time to think of changing tack?

Finishing Prokofiev Volume Two - that needs to be done; in many ways it justifies my working existence more than anything as far as the future, posterity, call it what you will, is concerned, but it won't bring in any money. And it's always the way that when you have the time to do the most important things, the mind is obfuscated by worries so that best work isn't possible.

The path ahead, it seems, is more entrepreneurialism: it's time to stop depending on those once reliable sources. I never thought I could organise my way out of a paper bag, but thanks to mass e-mailing and xls sheets, plus a venue with which I instantly fell in love (the Frontline Club), I got the Opera in Depth course up and running within a month or so of giving up at the City Lit. More of the same may be the future.

These are early morning thoughts after waking up panicked for the second time this month. Filing them now and obviously decided to post if you're reading them. Just a realistic intermezzo. It would be good for others to share experience in the comments - I realise I may be calling into the void, but it's always good to know I am not alone (and I know I am not  there are others in a far worse situation. I have a home and the best, most supportive partner in the world).

Normal service, with photographs, will be resumed as soon as possible.

*Addendum (7 February): e-chatting with a programme editor who wanted a reprint about the shortage of new notes, she pointed out that if only old ones were being used, that made her post, especially as commissioner, redundant as well. 

30 comments:

Susan said...

While my work situation was very different, there is one similarity: my most financially rewarding years were the last 15 those in which I worked for myself rather than as anyone’s employee. I had by then built up a network of contacts from which I could draw for initial clients, and of course that was important to being able to make a go of it. You, too, have a vast web of contacts, and that, together with your Opera in Depth experience, suggest that the entrepreneurial route is a sound choice.

Simon said...

I can't usefully add anything to this excellent piece on freelancing and the expectation of free. You have said it.

I know that you have been struggling with this for a while.

Just wanted you to know that someone is reading it!

David said...

Thanks both. Susan, very helpful. Simon, I know that you went through it for over a year. On the one hand no-one wants to be on the scrap heap in his or her fifties - that slightly unfounded fear in my case stems from what happened to my father with his untimely redundancy, which almost certainly led to his even more untimely death. On the other, it is so much harder for the twentysomethings of my godchildren's generation - having to pay off student debts, having to fork out disproportionate amounts for accommodation and with little chance of having a mortgage on a property in London. We had it good for such a long time.

Anonymous said...

Hallo, David!

I am really sorry to read that... Changes are happening in the Radio here, as well... (and I feel they want to get rid of their old listeners, like me).

I was just thinking what else you could do... You are so well traveled and so knowledgeable .... maybe you could open a little travel agency ... (and knowledge IS EVERYTHING) and make your name in cultural tourism. Who knows...

Whatever it is going to be, I believe you will be good at it!

All fingers crossed!

David said...

Thanks for the kind and positive thoughts. I think companies like Martin Randall have the cultural tourism stitched up. I have a related thought, though, which I won't share on here in case someone pinches the idea (not that it's hugely original).

John G said...

Words are easy, David, but just to say that you have my sympathy. I've the good fortune of a regular job in a non-private sector, but even then I quite often wake in the night with Kafkaesque dreams about having too many things to do and too little time in which to do it - all the while it being a measure potentially to be held against me. That's not a million miles away from being asked to do more, for less. That's neo-Thatcherism for you - the stranglehold on modern Britain I most want gone in my lifetime...

All strength to your hand David. We would be immeasurably poorer without your critical and human voice. I'm eagerly awaiting Prokofiev, volume 2.

David said...

How very kind of you to take the time to say so, John. I don't know that I was consciously crying out for sympathy, but I've certainly got it in spades. I know producers at the BBC who are being asked to do five times the amount they used to, so it affects everyone. And wages generally have gone down in real terms.

Anonymous said...

Again from the relative security of a permanent full-time job in the non-private sector (euphemism!), complaints about the job may seem selfish to freelancers like you. My best wishes to you and hope that 'something turns up'. The 'related thought' sound intriguing.

David said...

Sincere thanks, Anon. I know I wouldn't last a week in any full-time employment with toxic people or intractable issues around. As there seem to be everywhere. At least when someone's not good for my health I can just back off that particular area.

Quite a few related thoughts in the past two days - reviewing the situation can sometimes be a good thing. And I've never been one for change, so maybe I need to be pushed to it.

Geo. said...

David Patrick Stearns, recently let go from the Philadelphia Inquirer, commented at this blog post in much the same spirit recently, in terms of having to be more of an entrepreneur:

http://www.artsjournal.com/condemned/2017/11/another-classical-music-critic-is-sent-into-the-night-and-this-time-its-me/

DPS is still doing reviews for the Inquirer as a freelancer, happily. Here, the local critic was put on part-time status not that long ago, so not all the good local classical offerings are getting reviewed (plus she has personal issues that I can't talk about here, which take up her bandwidth as well). I know that some high-profile concerts here next weekend won't be reviewed, for example (e.g. the Labeque sisters in duo piano recital).

It seems to be the same situation with arts and music writers here generally. Didn't Christopher Morley offer to write for the B'ham Post gratis recently? I read that on Jessica Duchen's blog. This all puts me in mind of something that I read from Sir George Martin in an FT article a few years ago, about music recordings, but which can apply to newspapers and the media as well:

"Technology, which was always our great friend, has suddenly turned into an enemy. It's made a world of people who firmly believe that all music should be free."

Or all web content, for that matter. People don't realize that it's not free to maintain the internet (and I don't automatically exclude myself there, even if I do pay for e-access to the NYT and to The Guardian).

David said...

Shall read DPS's comments anon. In the meantime, out of the night good (IMO) came in the form of The Arts Desk, which before I contributed was set up by a raft of Telegraph critics and writers who had been 'let go'. They maintain it, thanks to the modest subscription income, but the time when it will pay its writers still seems far off. There is still a spirit of idealism, though, in that it has become indispensible to 'the industry' and respected, and nowhere else can we write like that. Still, there will be an evolution, though whether for better or worse is still hard to say.

Do you donate to The Guardian online, since it's still free?

David Damant said...

David, I know exactly what you feel, since I was in a parallel though different universe for some years. My view - I hope completely objective - is that your knowledge of your subject ( music especially opera) is extraordinarily deep and intense, and that is in part because that subject is an area of our life that you have learned lovingly - intensely as well,of course, but especially lovingly. You are not a round or a square peg, but one of a shape that may be unique, and if not it is unusual, and somewhere there is a similarly shaped hole for you to fit into

David said...

What can I reply to that? Whatever the truth of the matter, you've phrased it beautifully - thank you.

Maria S said...

One thing that concerns me considerably nowadays is that we, as individuals, are loosing depth at an ever increasing pace. And poor individuals make poor societies and weak citizens. As DPS’s says in his article ‘Amid shrinking resources, the newspaper industry is moving towards being the kind of information hub that can be can be accessed by smartphone”. We live in a time of headline news, and headline knowledge, which of course is far from knowledge.

Superficiality has never given anyone long lasting pleasure or any kind of fulfilment. And superficial art….well, isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

Unfortunately and worryingly, among all the top level noise, it is very easy to get lost and loose discernment, never finding these voices who help us discover new colours, new sounds, new aspects, in short, new depths in what is around us.

David, you are one of these voices. Don’t lose heart, you are needed. I enjoy enormously the Opera in Depth lectures and I am learning and enjoying opera like I haven’t in years. Paid or not paid, you are very valuable and I hope that the entrepreneur in you will find a way to take your knowledge, experience and passion for music where they deserve to be.

David said...

Maria, I am so touched - it's always a thrill to find the students/people who really give back, and I don't just say that because I'm flattered. Isn't the point that it doesn't matter how many people you reach, how many 'hits' you get online etc, but how you resonate with the few, how much you touch people's lives (most authors will never know the difference they've made - that miraculous connection)? And if that sounds elitist - and there are some with a knack of reaching wide as well as deep - so be it.

I see positive signs towards the bottom of the curve - the 'long reads', the faith (if not the cash) in a site like The Arts Desk, the news that young people are suddenly buying the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement in what looks like a cult (and I'm not joking). Nothing ever really dies, fortunately.

David Damant said...

I share Maria's view on the dangerous spread of superficiality. But I do see individual pools of deeper thought. Do not switch off if I mention sport - it is one of the areas where the media talks at a deep level and it can do so because so many of the listeners know all the details and are really involved. Perhaps also I can mention the professional world of music, though even there the slippery slope may have occurred. Some days I think I must have switched on Classic FM only to find that it is Radio 3. But there are still thousands of musical people who are completely dedicated to as much perfection as can be achieved. And elitism is a good thing if it means striving for the best and supporting those who achieve it.

David said...

You're quite right: when Radio 3 was going through a phase of discouraging us from using words like 'rubato' and even 'legato', I pointed out that the phraseology of sports commentators is often very specialised, and there's no way round it. I listen in awe at the radio commenters bringing a football or tennis match to life. Of course millions more know the rules of those games than they do the glossary of musical terms, but even so, we should never condescend to our core audience. And Radio 3 will never lure away Classic FM listeners; that's a fact proven by the time when it tried, and only started losing its own regulars.

William Mansfield said...

David . Keep going on.
The national gallery of Ireland did want me to volunteer at information desk any more as they did not want people like me with art history knowledge!,

The lbrown shirts are taking over.

David said...

Thanks, Liam. Sometimes the marketing departments and middle management do feel to me a bit like Brownshirts, but I rationalise that when a newbie comes in, he or she feels obliged to change everything. If it ain't broke, you should tweak it, but no more.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you could consider starting another class or two in the evenings? I’ve looked with envy at flyer upon flyer over the years knowing that I won’t ever be able to make it to a daytime class. I’m sure I’m not the only one..? It would be so amazing! Your “inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra” class was held in the evenings and was well attended...

David said...

Grateful for the suggestion. I did run a Nielsen symphonies course in the evenings, but at the local church, and I suspect that for many folk there was an invisible barrier which stopped them making their way to West Kensington. Courses on orchestral music don't in any case attract as many people as opera. I'd need at least 20 students to cover the room hire of the Frontline Club and make enough myself. But I could look at other venues. A big screen, after all, isn't so essential for orchestral music, though good sound absolutely is (and preferably a piano).

By the way, the BBCSO association only stopped because the BBC has a rule about not co-operating with private courses. When it was at the City Lit, that was fine. To be fair, they did also back me up by not supporting an ongoing course there once I'd taken the decision to leave after a clash with a (non-music-department) line manager.

Anonymous said...

Ha! I did always wonder what happened to that city lit course. I took it years ago when still young and new to the orchestral/concert going experience. I’ve enjoyed It immensely and learned so much, but when a little later on I tried looking it up again - it was gone.

I can see how finding 20 people for the Frontiline might be tricky, but I wouldn’t t say impossible with some more robust marketing.
In any way, if you could consider smaller venues and timings more suitable for people with full time jobs, that might prove an avenue worth exploring? Maybe also adding theatre? Or is that pushing it to far?

Anonymous said...

I wish I’d known about the Nielsen course! I have only moved out of W11 last month...

David said...

You need to be on my list of students. If you leave a message here with your email I won't publish it, but I'll add the name to the list (wondering who you are/were anyway...)

I would indeed consider one evening class a week, or more with less regularity - I've done one-offs but they tend to suit the students that come on Mondays, who mostly prefer afternoon classes (it was vital when I moved from the City Lit that I kept the same day and time so that the majority could come with me).

I'll put my thinking cap on. There are several options of cheaper venues which I hadn't pursued because I love the Frontline so much. But to make a smaller class viable, I'd have to chase the alternative. Watch this space.

Anonymous said...

Oh, you wouldn’t remember me. It was a long time ago. I was so busy taking everything in I don’t think I ever even opened my mouth, I’m ashamed to say... I’m trying to think when that was - 2013 maybe? You took some time off and someone else taught the class for a bit, then you came back. Oh, and we did a lot of Sibelius - which was pretty much a discovery for me at the time! I haven’t looked back and I’m forever grateful.

I actually am on your mailing list. Hence, each term I wistfully read about the opera in depth classes... I must have somehow missed the evening classes being advertised. I will definetely pay more attention to it now!

P.S. I also very much appreciate all your political/Brexit writing on the mail list and beyond. I think it’s extremely important to keep fighting this. It’s not a done deal yet.

David said...

Oh,you'd be surprised - in a class that size I would remember everyone. I'm not ashamed to say I was battling one of several severe bouts of depression I had around that time - never before, and touch wood not in the seven years since. I'm happy to say that Janet Obi-Keller, then head of music, was most supportive, like everyone else in the profession, and we found substitutes during the spells I couldn't manage. But anyway, it is the most wonderful thing to learn how people have been affected by the lectures - I tend to know more from students than from whomever reads the stuff one sends out into the world printwise. I'm glad you're on the list.

Too right about the anti-Brexit fight; the reason I 'do' LinkedIn is because what we argue out might just affect waverers in the opposition. Otherwise it's an echo-chamber, but we all need to know we're together in this.

Geo. said...

I do donate to the Grauniad, even with their lack of a paywall to allow the world to mooch off their coverage. I lean much more their way, intellectually, than to the other direction (e.g. the Torygraph, whose connection to TAD I didn't realize in terms of people formerly on staff there), so I took the NPR attitude that I should send some $ over to The Guardian to help out, even if it is just a drop in the bucket.

In fact, I immediately grasped the subtext behind your mention of TAD. Even if some of the writers have connections to more pro-Brexit/right-wing rags like The Spectator and the Telegraph, the reviews at TAD are pretty good. It would be very 'Bernie or bust' of me to use that as an excuse not to check them out, and I rank Bernie-or-busters alongside the worst Republicans. Will have to think about it.

It turns out that I happily misspoke about the SLSO concert not getting reviewed this weekend, as indeed it did, the concert where Julian Rachlin made his SLSO debut with the Mendelssohn op. 64. Peter Ruzicka and John Adams were also on the program, with Robertson conducting, of course. The bad news is that the Labeques' concert got cancelled this weekend, because Katia caught a bug and is unable to travel.

David said...

Interestingly (or not) the former classical/opera hub - I won't grace him with a name, though I always admired his style and he seemed friendly enough whenever we met, less so online - is extremely right-wing, though I'm not sure how much is for effect - and drifted away to become arts editor of The Spectator. Which is why some of my colleagues write opera reviews for him. I reproach them for writing for such a rag, but they say work's short etc... Well, I've always said, even before now, that I wouldn't write for the Murdoch press and I certainly wouldn't write for The Spectator. Not that I've been tested.

Maybe I should donate to The Grauniad, but I feel I did my galley years for them being exploited to the princely tune of £42 a review (I don't think it went up hugely).

I wouldn't be too upset about the Labeques. They can be fun to watch, but I know better piano duos. Maybe I've just seen them too often. Anyway, they did much good for a neglected rep.

Josie Holford said...

This so-called "gig economy" is a great scheme for getting everyone running faster chasing fewer rabbits round the track. Or that's the way it seems at times. And the trend seems to be accelerating rapidly. From an education perspective it seems to me that it should be something schools need to be talking about urgently. From a more personal point of view - yours for example - I can only imagine the anxiety You, of course, have enormous talents and a deep and ranging knowledge-base. So that's something.

David said...

Thank you for those thoughtful words, Josie - you know whereof you speak in education (on which note I saw a chap on LinkedIn doing one of those horrid vlog speeches, all fired up because a so-called arts student in America asked if reading books was any longer necessary for a college course). At least I've had the best of it, though I'm far from retirement and it all requires creative thinking to forge new paths.