Just improvise!

As much as possible, I try to maintain a positive outlook on life in general, and the various facets that make up what I do every day. I'm grateful to be surrounded by supportive colleagues and family, to have stable employment (which I recognize is a privilege at this time), and to be doing work which I continue to find challenging and stimulating. But I'm going to be honest - these past six months have been difficult. From work to home and everything in between, nothing feels normal, and in many ways I've been feeling "one step forward, two steps back."

As media outlets have covered the impact of the pandemic on various sectors, I've done my best to pay attention to conversations surrounding the arts. And I'm finding myself bristle at one message in particular. Essentially: "Artists are creative people so I'm sure they'll find a creative solution to this current situation!"

Fundamentally, this is true. Artists are creative people. The history of art is rife with examples of how artists have had to adapt their practice, adjusting to changes in public tastes, or economic realities, or consumption models, or technological advances, or a myriad other factors.

But what we're facing at the moment goes beyond needing to change from CD to mp3 to streaming, or going from five-night club plays to one-off dates. We're facing the complete decimation of a long-standing presentation model - its on-stage, off-stage and behind-the-scenes components - through no fault of our own, and far beyond our control.

Over the past twenty years - especially since the rise of digital music and the internet - we've tasked artists with not only producing outstanding art, but also becoming savvy in business, marketing, financial planning, social media, digital distribution and more - each of which can be a full-time job on its own. How then, on top of all that, can we ask artists and arts organizations to also completely re-define how art is presented and consumed, then wonder why some choose simply to close up shop?

I heard a story on the radio the other morning about teaching music at high school in the current reality. On the surface, it was a great example of creatively finding a solution to the problem of not being allowed to teach woodwinds, brass and choir - oh the fun they had talking about Boomwhackers! But these are teachers who have trained and gained years of experience teaching exactly those now-banned instruments - not only have they been tasked with completely re-inventing themselves as teachers and their curriculum, but we haven't even begun to understand the consequences of a province-wide cohort of students not being able to learn certain instruments, or sing in a choir. What does that mean for the future of music performance?

Last week I went to see live music in a club for the time since March. I was so glad to be back, to see musicians on stage, to experience the interaction between the musicians and the audience. The club was as full as it could be under current restrictions; the audience was happy to follow the various health regulations in place and was so appreciative of the musicians. But limited capacity means substantially reduced revenue from food and drink sales, and a substantially reduced payout to the performers at the end of the night. It's the best everyone can do at the moment, but how will we foster live talent and sustain music venues if the ability to generate revenue is capped? No amount of creativity will reduce an artist's living expenses, or a venue's rent.

And it must be said - so many artists and arts organizations have been creative during this time. The range of adaptations - from live streamed "at home" concerts to drive-in concerts to curbside concerts and more - has been inspiring at a time when the news has been so bleak. And from the outside looking in, there have been some successes. In Toronto, drive-in concerts have been sellouts. Certain online streaming platforms are producing impressive results, both in terms of views and revenues. Melissa Etheridge is reported to be generating $50,000 in revenue monthly from her online subscription base.

But except for those top earners (Melissa Etheridge, for example), these "successes" are not enough to sustain artists and presenters long term. Unless a livestream concert is geoblocked (i.e. made available only to people living in a certain city/country etc.), how many livestreamed concerts can an artist realistically perform in a month, and still expect to generate real revenue? How can a drive-in concert with 300 cars possibly generate the same revenue as a concert with 1500 tickets sold? One presenter in Toronto pivoted online and generated $20,000 over five online concerts - that seems like a healthy number, but actually represents only a fraction of what they would usually make on a single live event. How can they expect to fairly pay the artists, their staff, and everyone involved in creating a high-quality production, if they can't generate enough revenue?

So what am I saying? A few things. I think we need to change the conversation about the arts. This is not a "kumbaya, let's all just come together moment." We will not simply create our way out of this. We need to recognize the dire situation so many in the industry are facing - musicians, venues, presenters, and everyone that works behind-the-scenes to bring the arts to life. In the UK, a study was recently released which suggested that 64% of musicians in that country are considering leaving the industry. We need to do everything possible to support the arts.

We are lucky in Canada to have governments at the federal, provincial and municipal levels who recognize the value of the arts and have put real money into the cultural sector over the years. At Toronto Downtown Jazz, we are lucky to have outstanding sponsors like TD who have stood by us during these challenges, allowing us space and time to explore new presentation models. However it's up to society at large to contribute. I'm not talking about handouts - artists and promoters have demonstrated, time and time again, that they will do the work required to create and present outstanding work. But as consumers we typically pay only a fraction of the real cost of producing the art - if we value art, in all its forms, we need to be ready to pay for it.

I realize that this all may seem like "small potatoes" given the very real challenges so many are facing at the moment. But I hope that the importance of art and culture to our society is not up for discussion - whether we know it or not, we consume or interact with some sort of art daily. And art makes a very real contribution: in 2017, Statistics Canada estimated that the direct economic impact of culture products was $53.1 billion in Canada.

I'm not looking to be a downer on a Friday afternoon - where did my positive outlook go?! But I want to make sure we aren't sugar-coating discussions about the arts. The passion and creativity of artists, presenters, and the arts industry at large will persevere. But passion and creativity alone will not sustain the long-term survival of the arts. Let's all do what we can to ensure the art that we love today will be here tomorrow, next month, next year and on.


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