Most of my friends and peers are self-employed individuals working within the creative realm, hence infinite discussions regarding the future of our work (it's basically our main topic of conversation.) A couple weeks ago my husband, the illustrator Raymond Biesinger, addressed this very subject at a talk he gave at the University of Alberta. Joyfully titled "Doom: the Future of Commercial Art", it addressed a lot of the problems we creative contributors face as valid creative work becomes hobbyized, homogenized, over-saturated and as individuals are consistently willing to accept less for their work than its true worth. I'm not sure these problems have a happy ending, but I think a good beginning is talking amongst ourselves, standing up for our work and getting to know the 'business' side of our business - something about which I still have lots to learn.

Raymond just turned his entire 6000 word talk into a paper pamphlet which is now available on Etsy for $2. It addresses a lot of issues, a few solutions, and (personally) I think it's a pretty good read. Here's the introduction in it's entirety:

"The title of this talk is 'Doom.' Its goal is to start off with my very pessimistic assessment of where the commercial arts are heading (basically, towards the hobby-ization of design, illustration, art, music, theatre, photography, fashion, film, etc.). From there, we'll pull out of that depressing death spiral until we're talking about how to maybe commercially thrive in such a difficult atmosphere. In that part I'll talk about what we, as creative types, can do to help prevent this pessimistic scenario from developing further. My fear is that I'll lose track of time on the 'doom' portion of the night, talk about only doom for 59 minutes, and then be left with a few seconds to say, 'Things can be OK. Honest. Trust me.' So, if I'm still spreading grey clouds at 30 minutes, maybe give me a little elbow to the ribs and I'll cheer things up. Otherwise, you instructors in the room might have a group of sad students to deal with tomorrow morning.

So, 'doom.'

I've been a full-time illustrator for eight years now, but I've been playing music in a few different bands since the mid-1990s, and I've also done an extensive study of Edmonton's music scene going back to the 1940s. And music, well, it is one of the commercial arts. Music can indeed be a 'fine art,' yes, but the moment a musician takes to the stage and accepts money from an audience, a musician has entered the world of commerce. In that way, they're like illustrators, designers, photographers, industrial designers, clothing designers, or journalists, in that they might make beautiful, engaging, or informative things that appeal to the senses and mind, but they adjust their creative output into a certain form in the expectation of financial payment.

If we look at Edmonton's music scene in the 1960s and early 1970s, we can see a very different set of labour conditions than we see now. Back then, a dozen or so Edmonton bands could actually make a living touring around and in the city, hitting venues in Pigeon Lake, Sylvain Lake, Alberta Beach, Whyte Ave., Jasper Ave., Camrose, and elsewhere, collecting enough money in performance fees to earn a living wage, put out records, and otherwise refine their craft. Bands like the King Beez pretended to be from London, England, and somehow kept the successful ruse up for years. There were advantages, in those days, to having a band member with a Scottish accent. A band named Troyka played and toured with enormous American bands like Canned Heat, the Byrds, and Blue Cheer. Another, called the A&W Lords, was taken very seriously regionally and played weekly on the roof of the A&W on Whyte Avenue. And yes, they were named after the restaurant - corporate sponsorship isn't a new thing.

At the time, qualified local rock musicians were a scarce thing and a large audience sought what they could deliver. That scarcity meant that they were paid. It was a simple equation.

Forty five years later, a tremendous shift has happened. Everyone is a musician now, making wonderful music thanks to accessible technology. Gas prices are ridiculously high (as they should be). And thanks to the internet, very few people buy records any more. Demand for live music on the regional and local scale has declined, and despite everyone saying 'the money's in live performance,' audiences certainly aren't showing up in droves for many regional or local acts. The internet's great at letting people know about what Aerosmith or Rihanna is up to, or what Led Zeppelin did, but very few people use the thing to see what's going on in the here and now.

This scenario is excellent for music-lovers. But for musicians? Every single musician I personally know (myself included) has spent more money on gear, gas, vans, and jam space rent than they'll ever earn from performing or selling records. They have ceased being producers, and have become consumers. Hobbyists.

And this, I fear, could be the fate of all of the commercial arts. Music was the first to run through this gauntlet. Everything else, I think, is heading straight for it, though there are some variations.

Think about how much you've spent on tuition, computers, art supplies, etc. Don't forget studio rent, too, or the income you're missing out on by being here or instead of in Fort MacMurray. Obviously, none of us want to be hobbyists. We need to be producers of commercial art, rather than consumers. The more money we have, the more time we can spend experimenting, honing our abilities and making amazing things that beautify the world, endorse good ideas, and maybe even change minds. But before we find out how to fight this 'hobbyization,' we need to take it seriously and understand what it is, exactly."

If you're interested in more, drop him a line, or head over to his shop and pick up a copy for yourself.


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