Monthly Archives: January 2016

Basic Income and the Arts

A couple of interesting articles have surfaced recently, highlighting the difficulties facing artists in the modern economy and the potential benefits of providing creative people with a guaranteed universal basic income (UBI).

Firstly, blogger Paris Marx has published a brilliant post on Medium titled “If we value art, we must support a basic income”, in which he describes the precarious nature of life an artist:

It’s not just artists who are struggling, but as work becomes more precarious and atomized for the mass of workers, artists will undoubtedly feel its effects, possibly even worse than most people. The reason for this is that to pursue a creative path almost guarantees uncertainty in the most stable of economies and job markets. Income is rarely stable for artists, and they’re prepared for this, but as the whole economy becomes more unstable, the situation gets far worse for the average artist, the one who may have a little success here and there, but overall finds it hard to depend on their craft to survive.

As Paris Marx points out, the dream of a career as an artist is not made possible for everybody:

As social supports have been cut and made more difficult to access, it’s become harder for the talented among us, particularly those in the lower classes, to live up to their full potential.”

Furthermore, using the following quote from David Graeber, he raises an important point about how, in the past, artists received support in the form of government-provided welfare, giving them a boost on the way to success:

Back in the 20th century, every decade or so, England would create an incredible musical movement that would take over the world. Why is it not happening anymore? Well, all these bands were living on welfare! Take a bunch of working class kids, give them enough money for them to hang around and play together, and you get the Beatles. Where is the next John Lennon? Probably packing boxes in a supermarket somewhere.”

An example that I have previously given is that of author J.K. Rowling. As she discussed with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, Rowling wrote Harry Potter as a single mum receiving benefits from the British government in the 90s. If she had been trying to work on her novel under the current regime of benefits sanctions imposed by David Cameron’s government, it’s highly likely that she would never have managed to write it.

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The importance of artists was highlighted by figures published on 26th January, which show that the Creative Industries are worth £84.1 billion a year to the UK economy. A government press release included some startling statistics, such as the following:

  • UK’s Creative Industries grew by 8.9 per cent in 2014 – almost double UK economy as a whole
  • UK’s Creative Industries generate nearly £9.6million per hour

However, even with the creative industries enjoying a boom period, the artists themselves aren’t always properly compensated for their work. In his article “Capitalism won’t save musicians; a basic income might”, Will Meyer argues that the “economy is de-professionalizing its work force” and that business models like Spotify’s are forcing even successful musicians into a precarious existence:

“In a time when the streets are paved with McDonald’s ad placements and free Converse recording studio time, successful musicians are still struggling. Cat Power was hospitalized in 2012 without health insurance and had to cancel a significant European tour. The so-called “indie rock royalty” don’t have it easy either. Streaming “doesn’t pay off… unless you’re Taylor Swift.””

Meyer believes that the idea of a basic income is a potential solution, enabling musicians to work independently of the major record labels and streaming services:

A UBI has the potential to subdue the tension between art and commerce. Right now we are leaving music to the corporate labels and advertisers, when it should be a social good. We like to pay lip service to the arts holding deep value while creating conditions where artists have to sell out or work themselves to death in order to survive. Many social policies would help musicians and the arts… but a UBI would go the furthest to truly compensating artists for their important labor.”

If provided with a basic income, greater numbers of people would be able to pursue a career in the creative industries, writing novels, starting bands, making films or creating video games. Creative people would be able to embark on a new project without risking losing all their income and without having Ian Duncan Smith breathing down their necks.

With the creative industries playing such an important role in our lives and the economy, isn’t it time we encourage as many people as possible to fulfil their creative potential and set our artists free with a universal basic income?

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