One of the particularly interesting parts of Singing from the Floor, a fascinating new history of British folk clubs by J.P. Bean, is a chapter that contains interviews with the children of the singers, musicians, audiences and organisers who generated the heyday of the clubs in the 1960s and 70s.
Their children, people such as Eliza Carthy, Nancy Kerr and Seth, Sean and Sam Lakeman, remember sitting at folk clubs when they were children, usually with a lemonade and crisps, and describe their learning process as ‘organic’ and ‘by osmosis’. As soon as they were old enough, they were involved in performance themselves.
What jumps out, however, is not just how culturally rich their childhood was, but how their parents also created a creative economy for those children. Their parents’ musical activism created an audience and touring circuit that those children could then benefit from as adult performers. They not only educated them culturally, they created jobs and careers for them too. As Eliza Carthy says, ‘We’ve had it easy, to put it bluntly. We’ve been very lucky because our parents established those stages for us. We saw an existing network and went straight into… careers…’.
To give you an idea of the older generation’s achievement, Bean writes: ‘In July 1965, the Guardian reported “the biggest folk festival ever held in Britain”, attended by 500 people at Keele University. Later the same month, 1,400 tickets at £1 each were sold for the first Cambridge Folk Festival…. At Cambridge 2013, 10,000 tickets were sold at £126 each within hours of going on sale….’ In 2003, there were an estimated 350 folk festivals in the UK with a total of 350,000 attendances.
The folk-music community of the mid-twentieth century was ahead of its time. There is growing discussion in business and technology today about the ‘creative economy’, how to build ‘start-up communities’ and, interestingly from a musical perspective, how people need to be more creative and think ‘like artists’ in the way they approach work and business. But more consideration needs to be given to what is happening in artistic and creative communities if this idea is to have substance.
The creative economy
The ‘creative economy’ is still an idea that is difficult to pin down, mainly because different thinkers have various interpretations. As I understand it – and I would draw readers’ attention to a recent interview with John Howkins, author of The Creative Economy, on Peter Day’s World of Business on BBC Radio 4 – it relates to the fact that humans are naturally creative, and with more personal freedom (due to economic development, better health, education and mobility), this means we all express our personal creativity more. Combined with increasing access to new and disruptive digital technologies, it means our economy is transforming into a network of billions of empowered, creative individuals, something quite different to the centralized, urban, labour-based economies of the twentieth century.
There are many political and economic aspects of this idea that could be teased out more, but I want to focus on what it means for musicians and the artistic community. What is it about the way that musicians and artists work that has caught the wider business community’s attention?
The fact that creative work doesn’t have boundaries seems to be key: music and artistic work traverses everything from solitary artistic reflection, new work development and performance to creating commercial products for sale; from sales, marketing, publicity and accounting to community work and organisation; group work with other artists to public contributions in the media; business planning, advocation and application writing to technology learning; almost every artist will at some time be engaged in educational activity, with every age group from toddlers to senior citizens; and all the time they are independent, self-employed and self-motivated.
It’s an incredible mix and emphasises flexibility and creativity, but still most artists struggle to make an average living from all this activity. The reason is that this work – this approach – is still undervalued. It is considered chaotic and unfocussed. The arts executives who sign the cheques for artists are paid much more than the artists themselves. But listen to any discussion on the future economy and business start-up communities, and it is this flexibility and creativity that artists have that the business community is striving for.
The question is, will the creative economy change the attitude towards the creative individual?
‘In real terms’
Our society still struggles to value creative activity. It question how much – ‘in real terms’ – the arts contribute to the economy, rather than seeing creative individuals such as musicians, writers, actors, as essential nodes in our socio-economic development, like teachers, firemen, bus drivers. We can’t – and we don’t try to – measure what the latter contribute to the economy. We understand that they make an important contribution to the network of economic, social and cultural activity that is all around us.
This debate goes to the heart and soul of our future world. Until a parent can say that the creative life is worth choosing for their child, that there is adequate security, we will never truly have a creative economy.
The folk-music community of the 1960s and 70s, I am sure, didn’t set out to create an economic eco-system for their children, but they certainly gave them every chance of achieving it, and they persevered in the hope that society, too, might grow to value what they loved.