“Better to do something secure,” my father said, as we sat at the dining table and I talked of my dreams of becoming a drummer. “Be a doctor, a teacher, or get a job in the public sector. Then you’ll never be out of work.” He looked at me expectantly. I was in my last year of school and about to sit the Abitur, the German university entrance examinations. The question of what to do afterwards was more pressing than ever. If I wasn’t going to be a professional drummer, I at least wanted to do something cultural, musical or media-related – to pursue one of the many new and very modern-sounding skilled occupations that had popped up in these fields in recent years.
Studying and working in the music and cultural sector
Digital media designer, digital media manager, sound designer and more: Over recent decades, new technologies and requirements in the working world have resulted in the birth of a number of new professions and training avenues. Digitalisation has completely changed the way music is produced, marketed and sold. Those on the commercial side of the music industry must not only possess the necessary business knowledge, but be familiar with the relevant legal landscape, too.
Those whose talents lie in the organisational realm may seek a career in culture and arts administration, for which internships and training posts can be found in a variety of locations and institutions. How do cultural institutions work? How do I plan projects and events? With public funding often scarce, questions of this nature have long been considered secondary to financial ones. Knowledge of business administration and marketing is more important than ever before, and it is now almost impossible to consider the funding of culture in isolation from fundraising and sponsoring.
It’s a phenomenon that has not gone unnoticed. Some years ago, Prof. Hermann Voesgen, long-time former director of the ‘Kulturarbeit’ [‘Cultural Work’] programme at the Potsdam University of Applied Sciences, wrote:
“The establishment of culture and arts administration as a field of training and a recognised profession was accompanied by a comprehensive, still-ongoing process of social deregulation with an increasingly liberal economic orientation.”
Education and training opportunities in the cultural sector: a lack of standards?
In Germany, at least, this appears to be an unfortunate truth. From my own experience and from that of friends and colleagues, it seems that education and training opportunities in the cultural sector are often rather lacking in comparison to those other industries. Reasons for this might be that they are oversubscribed and that the standards of the positions are not regulated sufficiently, or indeed at all. Some time ago, in a telephone conversation with a national representative of independent business operators, I was asked whether I would consider opening up my recording studio to apprentices. When I replied that I had not been certified as a trainer and could not provide any other evidence of my entitlement to work as one, I was informed that this would be no problem at all. On the contrary: I was left in no doubt as to the high demand for training places in this area and the fact that, as a small business, I could undercut the regular Ausbildungstarif [the wage paid to apprentices in Germany] by as much as 10 to 15%.
Once I had recovered from the surprise, I politely refused. My rule is always that if I’m going to do something, I’ve got to do it right. Nevertheless, I thought about it for a long time afterwards. Was this really the best we could hope for – to create as many exciting-sounding training places as possible with no regard for the quality of the businesses providing them – just so that young people could have a training place at all?
A lack of practical orientation in education and training
Unfortunately, my experience is backed up by the stories of numerous colleagues: those who took up the new, in-demand programmes in culture and arts administration or studied sound or media technology at one of Germany’s private universities. Such programmes are often far removed from real-life practice. As such, it is little wonder that few graduates can concisely explain the purpose of the Künstlersozialkasse [Artists’ Social Security Fund] or, for example, the differences between GVL [the German copyright collection society] and GEMA [the German performing rights society]. It’s like a medical programme turning out doctors without the first clue about anatomy.
What makes things worse is that in many cases, these cultural graduates are on a one-way path to unemployment. There are not nearly as many jobs in the cultural sector as there are graduates to fill them, and the imbalance becomes worse year on year. I have written previously about the struggles of life as a professional musician – and for many other professionals in the arts, cultural and creative industries, it’s no different.
No money for culture?
Just as most famous painters and musicians used to depend on noble benefactors to survive, only a very small percentage of today’s musicians are successful enough to thrive financially. But must their less commercially successful counterparts really be satisfied to work for a pittance? Should musicians content themselves with the chance to dedicate part of their lives to their passion, even if the work they do is usually out of proportion to their earnings? In many regards, I find that our society lacks a fitting appreciation for art and culture. It is an oft-repeated trope that for a musician, the creative value of their work is more important to them than financial success and the potential for profit. But even if this true, it doesn’t negate the problem of how they’re actually supposed to survive.
One thing that’s for certain is that they won’t survive from selling music alone. As Sir Mick Jagger once told the BBC: “People only made money out of records for a very, very small time… there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone.”
Selling records, but not making money
I know this can happen, because I’ve experienced it. Many years ago, I played in a relatively successful metal band. Naturally, we were keen to start shifting records as quickly as possible, so we looked at signing a Bandübernahmevertrag – a contract governing the assignment of copyright to a recording label – with an established South German label. On the surface, the deal would have seen us receive around 20% of the ‘published price to dealer’ (PPD), the wholesale unit price charged by recorded companies to retailers. The PPD at that time was between 9.50 and 11.50 euros, meaning 1.90 to 2.30 euros for the band per CD sold. Okay so far.
Under closer inspection, however, these already-low revenues would be offset by production costs of several thousand euros that we, as the band, would be required to pre-finance. In addition, we would be required to purchase all of the CDs from the label at the abovementioned PPD in order to conduct direct sales. Even without a degree in business, it was obvious that this wasn’t going to be very profitable for us.
When all was said and done, we as a band would have made a total of 1,900 to 2,300 euros per 1,000 CDs sold. I know now that at least 85% of bands at the time did not even manage to cross this threshold. Moreover, if a band did manage to bring in 2,000 euros, it would still need to be divided up appropriately. A manager – if there was one – would receive 15-20%, with the remaining amount being shared among the members (for a four-piece line-up, 450 to 550 euros per musician). Today, such ‘generous’ takings would be absolutely inconceivable.
Musicians as low-income professionals
These figures are sobering, but they are no exaggeration. Statistics from Germany’s Künstlersozialkasse [Artists’ Social Security Fund] paint a similar picture – not only in the field of music, but for those working in visual arts, performing arts and the written word. The average self-reported annual income of musicians under the age of thirty is around 13,000 euros. This means that many professionals in the arts and media fall firmly into the low-income bracket (though many still feign being somewhere in the middle, like musicians of their parents’ generation).
The loss of earnings caused by the Covid-19 crisis has also been dramatic. According to a survey conducted by Encore Musicians, an online booking platform for British musicians, two thirds of those surveyed (musicians earning 80-100% of their income from music) told Encore that they were considering giving up working as artists: overall, they had suffered a more than 80% reduction in live performances since the spring.
Better ways to support arts and culture
Whether they’re planning tours, performing on stage, organising concerts, producing films and radio or working in events companies and cultural offices: just like doctors and teachers, musicians and other cultural workers are following a vocation. What’s more, they are doing so despite the often uncertain financial prospects. The romantic image of a musician spending the whole day in search of inspiration, without any of the routine and discipline of an office worker, bears little relation to reality. In fact, the ability to make a living from delivering relaxation, joy and escapism to audiences requires organisational talent, flexibility and perseverance. Now, in times of Covid, it is clearer than ever how much poorer we would be in a world completely devoid of culture.
It is high time that cultural, music and media professionals ask themselves how they want to live and work. Ultimately, it is unacceptable for graduates to stumble from one unpaid internship to the next or to remain precariously employed for years. Every internship and training position must comply with legal standards, be paid appropriately and be subject to social security contributions. This is one side of the coin. The other side is that – finally – artists organise themselves and lobby to assert their legitimate demands. Nobody wants to work for free or for a fee that is (often) not enough to live on. In this regard, minimum fees for performances and public engagements could be a step in the right direction for the future.
Now – you’re up! What do you think is driving so many young people to want to work in the music and culture? What’s the incentive, and what price would you personally be willing to pay? Let me know in the comments!