Excerpts from my essay on “the precarity of the new creative economy”

One of the main sources of existential anxiety amongst today’s creative and cultural practitioners is the precariousness of their work life. A casual job here, a casual job there; employment that – in the words of Angela McRobbie – is “permanently transitional” [1]. No pension, no benefits, no sick pay, gaps in the CV and periods of low income due to the irregularity of freelance and project-based work schedules, that’s what characterises the careers of the majority of today’s creative workforce.

To the outside however, and under the premise of freedom and happiness at work, the creative sector is a very attractive one and is therewith one of the fastest growing in the UK [2].


Many young people enter the sector with the hope of reaching a point where they can make a living doing what they love. However, in order to get there they endure long periods of intense (and often unpaid) labour, particularly in the form of what Lazaratto defines as ‘immaterial labour’ [3]. Often they try to “work their way up” with unpaid internships and work experience in their particular sector of the industry hoping that hard work will pay off and that through networking and continuous showcasing of their skills they will eventually be discovered. McRobbie notes that it is a sector in which everyone is looking for the single big hit’ that can transform the artist from an underpaid overworked multi-tasker into a well-paid professional overnight [4]. With this come options of financing and funding for the next project, a stable income through the collection of royalties due to intellectual property and more. However, there is no guarantee for this situation. One shall not dismiss the fact that for every artist who reaches a certain status and wealth, there are many others who spend their lives chasing after the same goals without success. Yet all artists – both the young workers at grassroots level and the more experienced artists who have found a way to sustain themselves – are invaluable contributors to the cultural and social life and the economy of the cities and countries they reside in. They are often enterprising entrepreneurs, start small businesses and therewith create job opportunities. Yet still, what they get back in return for their hard work – and their often self-financed projects – is usually much less than they had imagined upon entering the industry. Particularly as long as the “single big hit” is missing, their art is taken for granted as an act of nobleness that does not require financial reimbursement. All this occurs in a day and age where the arts play an integral part in almost all facets of society and the benefits of a creative sector are largely recognised in social and economic theory.

Many theorists have pointed out the importance of artists and creativity in regards to innovation and economic development. The urban theorist Richard Florida, for example, traces a clear correlation between a city’s active cultural sector and a city’s high levels of innovation, economic growth and high tech industry – proposing in his book The Rise of the Creative Class that for cities to grow economically, their priority should be to attract artists [5]. Similarly, the importance of a creative sector in regards to urban regeneration has been mentioned several times, for instance by Charles Landry and Franco Bianchini. In The Creative City they point out that an influx of artists into underdeveloped urban areas is a key requirement for the regeneration of these areas with the following words:

“The presence of artists and other cultural producers in declining urban areas helps restore vitality, develop a positive image, create additional employment and break cycles of decline. However, the risk is that in the medium term areas that artists have made fashionable may increase in value so much that they themselves are pushed out” [6]

The existence of a lively creative sector in a region is also recognised as an important prerequisite for social wellbeing. Charles Leadbeater describes the importance of ‘the independents’ (a group of artists turned cultural entrepreneurs) in regards to what he calls ‘social cohesion’ [7]. As one can deduce from these examples, the importance of the creative industries is widely appreciated in both academic and political spheres. Furthermore, on top of its social and economic benefits, it is also a very prosperous sector in itself. According to the Department for Culture Media & Sport, the creative industries are generating annual revenues of approximately £112.5 billion in the UK while accounting for over 5% of the GDP [8]. Nevertheless, at the base of the sector – among the artists and core creatives that make this industry thrive – a difficulty to make ends meet and an absence of any type of social security or protection in the workplace is still characteristic. The irony of the artist being one of the main contributors to economic growth whilst at the same time being a struggling figure of poverty, which – as Landry and Bianchini state – could be pushed out of an area because of gentrification [9], can again be traced back to the precarious history of the arts. Artists have to settle for low-income neighbourhoods where rents are cheap as their monthly income is in constant fluctuation. This situation poses the question: If the creative industry is so prosperous and beneficial to social and economic wellbeing, why are its workers not better rewarded? Why is it that most practitioners in the creative industries are bound to live so precariously nonetheless?

Initially this marriage between the artists and precarious lifestyles came about as a result of a voluntary rejection of capital, ownership and money in the realm of the arts, a rejection of capitalism on behalf of the artists themselves. Hans Abbing calls this “a denial of the economy”. He reiterates the point that the arts world is characterised by a nature of gift exchange rather than commercial exchange [10]. The idolised image of the artist is that of a creator devoid of any economic interests, pushed to create and produce art solely by muse and inspiration and a drive for self-fulfilment and self-realisation. An artist is considered to be more authentic when he or she is unobstructed by economic concerns, the more willing he or she is to sacrifice him or herself for the sake of art. To many it even is the lack of economic prosperity that signalises artistic integrity. If an artist does not adhere to this unwritten rule, he or she faces the danger that the rest of the arts world will see him or her as a ‘sell-out’. This hostile relationship between capitalism and the cultural sector developed initially from the intention to defend the arts and culture from the negative effects of capitalism. Art was seen as opposed to production line work. Artistic muse was regarded as unpredictable and so art was not compatible with a nine-to-five work schedule. Art valued experimentation and failure, things that were not well received in a capitalist economy at all. Additionally, this mentality was reinforced by the ‘revolt against work’ movement of the 1970s, which – in an effort to humanise and bring more personal fulfilment to the workplace – subordinated the importance of security, stability and a provision of guarantees in the workplace to concepts such as autonomy and flexibility.

While precariousness was in its beginnings an unavoidable result of this ideology, it is however also exactly the kind of artist that resulted from this ideology that is most attractive to employers nowadays as willing victim to be economically exploited. After all, little is more attractive in a business context than someone who works hard and attracts the crowds but requires only minimal financial compensation for it – sometimes none. Therefore, this willingness to accept precarious work among creative people in exchange for autonomy and creative freedom was quickly adapted by businesses for their own benefits. Precarisation turned from the artist’s voluntary reaction to capitalism and the type of production work that characterised Fordism into a general trait of the creative economy during post-Fordism. It is no longer a rejection of the economy on part of the artists but a way of integrating – without the deserved compensation – the artist in a neoliberal economy.


What results is a new relationship between artist and capitalism, a new role for the cultural producer in the neoliberal economy. He or she becomes the equivalent of a business that needs to deliver products for mass consumption. Time and people management, business acumen and networking skills have risen in importance in the creative world as the quality of the art itself has become secondary. The precarious artist is forced to adhere to the rules of the economy, leaving therewith little time for reflection on the art produced. Evidently, this also means that the artist is left with little time to reflect on what ‘culture’ he or she is helping to shape. Franco Berardi Bifo describes this new relationship with the following words:

“In the sphere of semiocapitalism artists are directly involved in the process of semioproduction. They are the producers of symbolic prototypes that semiocapitalism transforms into mass-production objects, they are exploited by the industry of info-production and subjected to precarious conditions of work and salary.”[11]

On top of this and as another consequence of this expected disposition to precariousness, a lot of creative talent is forced to withdraw from the creative industries. Not everyone can afford to take the risks involved in working in such an unstable environment in the long term and not every artist or creative has the required business acumen on top of his or her artistic and creative skills. Many a young worker can see no other way but to surrender to the economic pressure upon realising the precariousness of the creative sector and take on a different career or a day job in other industries that, unlike the creative industries, can ensure the safety of a regular economic compensation for their hard work. “Art for art’s sake”, the English rendering of the French nineteenth century slogan “l’art pour l’art” is in this day and age surely something that is facilitated only to a wealthy minority with time on their hands. For the rest, art remains a hobby or a part-time commitment. As McRobbie states, those who can’t handle a precarious lifestyle – whether out of the psychological need for financial stability or purely due to the unattainability of flexible working hours or the required degree of mobility due to factors such as age – are not able to withstand the pressures of the cultural industries in the long term [12].


Since artists do not go to work from nine to five their “business” has to be “open” all day. They are permanently on the look out for new potential employers, customers and opportunities. They read their e-mails and network twenty-four hours, seven days a week. As McRobbie states, a fusion between work and everyday life takes place under these new circumstances [13]. Furthermore, just as the relationship between different businesses is one of competition, so is the relationship between artists in this new setting. Berardo Bifo critiques and describes the results of this new increased competitiveness in the arts world with the following words:

“Competition and precariousness are provoking a wave of suffering and psychopathology, jeopardizing the very premises of social solidarity. The acceleration of the rhythms of the mind and attention stress are eroding the thin film of sensibility and empathy.” [14]

Other observations of this erosion of the line of distinction between work and social life and its effect on solidarity in the creative sector have been made by media theorist Andreas Wittel. Wittel noticed a transition from the sense of belonging, responsibility and trust found in past work relations to increasingly transient and temporary relations. He describes this as a commodification of social relations, the transition from the German term ‘Gemeinschaft’, the ‘community’, to what he calls a ‘network sociality’. As a consequence, a common history between the individuals involved in a project lose importance and people are measured by their amount of industry contacts and the required technical skills as long as they can prove useful for the limited time period during which they are needed [15]. Considering these observations by many scholars focusing on the changes that occurred in the past two decades in regards to the economic and social structure of the creative world, it is fair to say that precariousness and the work that results from it in form of freelance work and autonomous entrepreneurialism have greatly changed – not only the way in which art is produced – but also the lifestyle of artists. If an artist’s life is generally risky, induces insecurity and stress, is characterised by the convergence of social life and work life and is not lucrative enough in most cases to make a living solely with said art, then one question springs to mind: Do precariousness and happiness at work – which has been stated as a major reason to enter the creative sector in the first place – turn out to be incompatible contradictions in the new creative economy?

[1] McRobbie, A. (2011) ‘Key Concepts for Urban Creative Industry in the UK.’ In: Ingrid Elam, ed. New Creative Economy. Malmo, Sweden : Swedish Arts Council, pp. 22-42.

[2] Reid, B.; Albert, A.; Hopkins, L. [2010] ’A Creative Block? The Future of the UK Creative Industries: A Knowledge Economy & Creative Industries report’, London, UK: The Work Foundation, p.6.

[3] Lazzarato, M. (1996) ’Immaterial Labour’ In: P.Virno, M.Hardt (eds), (1996). Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

[4] McRobbie, A. (2007) ‘The Los Angelisation of London: Three short waves of young people’s micro-economies of culture and creativity in the UK’, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0207/mcrobbie/en

[5] Florida, R. (2002) ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ In: New York, NY: Basic Books.

[6] Landry, C.; Bianchini, F. (1995) ‘The Creative City’ In: London, UK: Demos. p.47

[7] Leadbeater, C.;Oakley, K. (1999) ‘The Independents’ In: London, UK: Demos. pp.17-18

[8] DCMS (2001) Creative Industries Mapping Document 2001 (2 ed.), London, UK: Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

[9] Landry, C.; Bianchini, F. The Creative City. p.47

[10] Abbing, H. (2007) ‘Why Are Artists Poor?: The Exceptional Economy of the Arts’ In: Amsterdam, Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press.

[11] Berardi Bifo, F. (2013) ‘Why Artists?’ The New Mechanics Library. Available online at: http://www.grizedale.org/download/…/Why_Artists_-_Franco_Beradi_Bifo.pdf‎

[12] McRobbie, A. (2002) ‘From Holloway to Hollywood: Happiness at work in the new cultural economy’, In: P. du Gay & M. Pryke (eds), Cultural economy.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Berardi Bifo, F. (2013) ‘Why Artists?’ The New Mechanics Library. Available online at: http://www.grizedale.org/download/…/Why_Artists_-_Franco_Beradi_Bifo.pdf‎

[15] Wittel, A. (2001), “Towards a Network Sociality“ in Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 18, no. 6 pp., 51-77.

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