Invest in your creativity – get a job!

First published on November 2011.

‘Plays bass alone!’ This three- word description of a young person’s creative endeavours was once sent to me in my capacity as manager of the New Deal for Musicians (NDfM) programme. At first, I was miffed, to say the least, at the brevity of the statement; yet when taken in context, this succinct résumé was both insightful and overwhelmingly poignant. The person the statement related to (let’s call him John) was a newly-inducted participant on the scheme. We catered for unemployed musicians and related practitioners who were referred to the course by their Jobcentre Plus office. Our aim was to move our customers towards their music goals whilst helping them to find work, be that within the creative industries or a mainstream role. John would have been described as being NEET, having completed a music production course at college and subsequently finding himself out of work for the next 12 months. He attended a meeting with his music industry adviser and the result of their discussion on recent musical activity was captured on the paperwork as simply, ‘Plays bass alone!’

Regardless of the scant information available, I was able to deduce the following:

  • John had no job and lived on benefits.
  • He was not a member of a band, nor did he interact with other people in any music-related activity.
  • His lack of money meant that he was unable to travel, attend gigs or other events, pay for equipment, rehearse, own a decent PC with an internet connection or top up his mobile.
  • He couldn’t afford to venture out regularly to meet people he could have worked with.

In this situation, it would be impossible for John to progress his musical aspirations, in spite of the fact that he had studied in his chosen field for two years. The advice for John was clear and relevant to many creatives: ‘Get a job to invest in your career.’ The real value of work here is obvious; it enabled John to pay for what he needed in order to move on, but also to begin networking, build self-confidence and learn transferable skills. For example, working in a call centre will make you confident on the phone and introduce you to lots of people; what freelancer doesn’t need that!

The ultimate aim would be to become a self-employed musician. However, besides finances, two crucial elements held John back: ‘employability’ was a skill neither school nor college had adequately provided, and even if he did find work and develop with his music, he was also given little understanding of what it really meant to be self-employed.

NDfM offered the support needed by thousands of individuals like John, delivering knowledge of the machinations of the music industry alongside practical advice and guidance on how to find sustainable work. Its Open Learning model gave access to an experienced adviser for face-to-face meetings, freephone and email information, advice and guidance on both music industry topics and employability. There was provision of workbooks and a large number of valueadded initiatives, described as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. Armstrong Learning operated the course nationally in this format for six years. Although on programme a mere 13 weeks, success rates for the 18-24 age group in finding work regularly exceeded 50%.

With the introduction of Flexible New Deal and The Work Programme, NDfM has ceased to be, with the last cohort finishing the course in August 2011. So what now for aspiring creatives who find themselves unemployed? The Work Programme delivery is described as ‘black box’, meaning the large companies that hold the contracts can engage with a range of small providers to bring individualised support, tailored to clients’ needs. However, in most instances, the results-based payment model drives large-volume, one-size-fits-all delivery, with precious little scope for the out of the ordinary. This forces many creatives to relinquish any ambitions they hold dear and be told to ‘get a proper job’, without any consideration of their long-term goals. This will include the many graduates who currently find themselves unable to secure a job, alongside thousands who are gifted without the benefit of education. We risk having the talents and dreams of a generation quashed.

So, if provision for unemployed creatives on the Work Programme is patchy at best, and we know there is little in the way of funding for fledgling enterprises, individuals must therefore finance business startups with their own money; which means having a job. If the UK is to maintain a creative industries sector that continues to buck the trend of the stagnant economy, our teaching establishments delivering creative industries education must have a stronger emphasis on employability, entrepreneurship and self-employment. This will allow its students to prosper without requiring the safety net of Welfare to Work.

Creative Commons LicenceCreativity Money Love: Learning for the 21st Century by Creative & Cultural Skills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Illustrations by Paul Davis -