When debt first entered the conversation, I’d forgotten how bad my own had been. It’s more than five years since I paid off my crippling credit card bills and now the only debt I’m in is the socially-acceptable form, a mortgage. I think I’d also forgotten it because I’d buried it. It’s so obviously stupid to get into thousands of pounds of credit card debt that I'd seen it as a product of my own idiocy, rather than of an endemic structural problem that ends up biting most people who do what I do, and biting many of us hard.
The conversation was with an artist a few years younger than me. But regardless of age, in this whole series of conversations I’ve so far come across only one exception to the general rule: it is simply impossible to build a career in this industry without saddling yourself with a frightening level of debt. The kind of debt that keeps you awake at night, that ever paying back seems unimaginable, that makes very real the threat of bailiffs.
In this blogpost I want to talk about debt.
As a culture we are deeply wedded to the idea of financial self-sufficiency. People who can’t pay their own way are persona non grata. You don’t get sent to debtor’s prison any more but we still see bankruptcy as a personal failing, a moral one too. And to go into a career in the arts is to court a life of precarity over security, to strike fear into the hearts of your parents and to know that for many onlookers, proving the worth of your art is indistinguishable from proving your ability to make a living from it.
I’d better track back a bit. If you’re interested in the context, read this section. If you just want the juice about debt, skip to the picture of a bag of coal.
The context: I’ve been having a series of conversations with fellow artists about money. These conversations are part of a project that would be designated “organisational development”, if I were an organisation. The wider project is not just about money. There’s an audience development strand, a business plan strand, a strand interrogating the way the work is made and the rhythms dictating when; and so on.
This particular strand involves me talking to a series of artists broadly comparable to me in terms of where they sit in the industry, and asking invasive questions about money. In terms of its relation to the broader project, the hope with these conversations is that from each of these artists I’ll get one nugget, one small tip or hack that makes survival that little bit more straightforward. These nuggets will add up to a strategy for sustainability, enabling me to be that much more robust, that much less precarious.
This isn’t how it’s panning out. I can’t point to a single thing one person is doing that, were I to have thought of it, would have materially improved my condition in recent years. Nevertheless these conversations have been incredibly valuable.
In public, the money conversation comes up every so often, usually when one artist or another is tested to boiling point and bubbles over loudly enough to turn it into a blogpost. Sometimes this leads to a series of productive conversations. Often it leads to a series of people sharing the experiences that led to a similar boiling point for them. This brings a problem out into the open and arguably that’s productive in itself, but it’s relatively rare that it leads to any change. I don't know that this project will either.
This series of conversations is my attempt to get a snapshot of where my peers are at, while operating at a slightly cooler temperature. (Or at least, what feels like a slightly cooler temperature. I realise we’re all frogs boiling in the same pot.) I’m talking in total to around a dozen people, all of whom: have a few shows under their belt; could be considered “established”; are aged 8-10 years either side of me; are earning all or close to all of their income from their artistic practice. This is not a data-gathering exercise and the findings with be qualitative. It is not a large enough sample size to be broadly representative or generalizable. The primary aim of the exercise is that it should be useful to me. I now think that it is also of interest to others, whether or not their position in the industry is comparable, and that's why I'm publishing some thoughts. But that isn't the primary aim.
In the interests of full disclosure I should add that the group of people to whom I’m talking is a close-to-even gender balance, contains a mix of people who live in different parts of the country, is about 80% white, about 70% straight and generally representative of diverse social groups in many of the ways you’d want it to be. I should also be honest and say that this is not because I have put any effort into being representative. That I put no effort into being representative and yet ended up with a relatively diverse group is perhaps in a small way a good news story. Until you consider that it’s still more white, more able-bodied, etc, than the population as a whole.
These conversations are ongoing and I’ll write a series of blogposts each focusing on a slightly different issue.
Finally, I should say that the conversations are conducted under Chatham House Rules: I can report what’s been said, but I can’t report who said it. I won’t name or otherwise identify any of those with whom I’ve had these conversations, although some of them may subsequently be happy to identify themselves. I leave that to them, though, and until then I will occasionally change some of the identifying details in order to protect peoples’ anonymity, the condition which enables total honesty in these conversations. If I misreport or misrepresent what they've said, or take it inappropriately out of context, then that responsibility lies with me, too. What I say in this blog is of course my perspective on the facts. I don't plan on distorting any facts in order to maintain my perspective.
Unlike at the beginning of one of my shows when I pretend all this is real and it turns out it isn't, I want you to know that this is all too real.
Anyway, debt. Here are the headlines. The person with whom I had that first conversation is in four figures of debt to payday loan companies. Another person is out of sight into her overdraft. Another borrowed thousands from his parents, which he recognises he’s privileged to be able to do but was still winded by the shame and embarrassment of suddenly having to do this several years into a very successful career. Yet another has a mixed portfolio of all these debt types. My own credit card debt peaked somewhere just south of seven thousand pounds and there came a point where I was unable even to pay off the interest.
All of us are ostensibly successful artists making our living from doing this. We all tour nationally and internationally. We almost all earn around the UK median income - most of the time. We have a good recent track record of Grants for the Arts applications and people commission us to make work.
But that's now. How did we get here? It wasn't frictionless. What follows is my story, but it's eerily similar to those of others.
I fell short of box office targets two or three times. These weren’t self-imposed targets, by the way, created in order to make budgets balance for Arts Council purposes. They were from venues (London and Edinburgh) just reputable enough not to charge an upfront hire fee, but instead, to make it payable in arrears if box office didn't cover it. This at least meant the shows could go on – if I'd really thought about the financial risk I don’t think I’d have countenanced paying this sort of money in advance. But a month or two after the run, just when I began to think they'd forgotten, a bill would come in. I could see no available option other than to put it on a credit card.
And then, in your early twenties and trying to make theatre, some months you just don’t make any money because instead of doing whatever you do to pay the bills, you were making theatre. So that month maybe the rent goes on the credit card bill. In my case on one occasion I went five or six months without paying the rent at all. Just when I began to think the landlord had forgotten, he phoned to say he hadn't. So that went on the credit card too.
How else do you get started in independent theatre? You have to put on shows. Putting on shows costs money. Someone has to meet those costs.
To an extent it paid off. By the time I was in my late twenties I was doing ok, earning my living from a mix of theatre work and HE teaching. Although the monthly credit card payments were hefty, they were just about manageable. I spent hours scouring websites for good deals on credit card balance transfers at 0% interest for 6 or even 12 months, so that I could pay off some of the principal rather than just servicing the interest. I had a good couple of years work-wise and gradually got it down to three or four thousand.
Then a regular gig I’d had for over a year came to an abrupt end when the company ran out of money. Looming ahead was a gap in the directing work that tended to come in and make up the rest of my income. I was suddenly going to be without any real income for months.
So I was unable to make the payments. I was barely able to make rent. For six months Sarah and I lived a nomadic lifestyle, living wherever we (mostly she) were working. This made practical sense for some of this period, but it was also driven by financial necessity. For a year after that we rented rooms in house shares. We sold a lot of stuff. Sarah helped me out a lot in this period, including helping me to pay off some of the debt.
By some semi-deliberate omission, I let her believe I was entirely out of credit card debt. Of course I should have told her I wasn't. But I was embarrassed. I felt that the scale of this debt represented the scale of my stupidity. It didn’t represent the extent to which there’s an endemic structural problem in our industry. Or the extent to which it seems stupid even to contemplate entering this industry if you come from a working class background with no support to fall back on. Me and my friend with the payday loan problem and my friend with the overdraft and the rest, the shame crippled us and we felt stupid for being so presumptious as to ask to sit at this table.
I entered a process of arbitration with the credit card company, just as my friend did with the payday loan company. They levied no further interest and reduced the payment to a smaller and more manageable sum for a period of several years. I paid off the last of this debt more than ten years after it started piling up. My friend is on a similar timeline, albeit still paying. It was two more years before I also crawled out of my overdraft.
I mentioned one notable exception to the general story, which is that everyone I spoke to has or has had significant debt. Apart from him and me, everyone else is still in some of that debt and still struggling with it.
He was in his early twenties and making a show with a mate. A couple of weeks before showtime his mate came round to his bedsit in Bristol, in a terrible state, and said, I can’t do the show any more. The bailiffs have just been round. I’ve got nothing. My friend cut up his credit cards then and there and has never had one since. He did the show, or a rather different one, on his own, and now makes very successful solo work.
I’d like this story to suggest, as does everything else in the culture, that if you’re just iron-willed enough it’s possible to get on in this industry, even when you’re not from a privileged background and have no parental backing, without accruing a huge debt problem.
I’d like this blogpost to operate on readers like that experience did on my friend. Just cut up your credit cards! Simple!
But while that experience obviously had a huge impact and was a huge factor in keeping my friend back from that brink, there’s a bit more to the story.
Although he’s not from a privileged background, it turned out his partner is. Unexpectedly one day they inherited a substantial amount of money from her family. With it they bought a house. I've been round and let me tell you it's a lovely house.
Two bits of advice emerge from this narrative:
- have an important early salutary experience that leads through example to a visceral aversion to the idea of debt.
But broadly speaking, it's get in debt or fuck off.
I’m now in more debt than ever. It’s into six figures. But it’s the socially-acceptable sort. We’ve got a mortgage. Even getting the mortgage seems like a miracle in the wake of the past fifteen years of highlights from a financial disaster movie. And it’s going ok.
But it can all come tumbling down so quickly. The person in debt to their parents was on a great run. Then one G4A application went the other way and within no time they were in danger of being unable to pay the rent. Another was ticking along fine until a relationship broke down and although they weren’t financially dependent on their partner, life gets more expensive and more complicated and you haven’t planned for that. A third has just never earned enough for long enough, in the more than ten years since graduation during which time they have had numerous substantial artistic successes, to get out of their (interest-payable) overdraft.
This conversational project was an attempt to explore some more reliable routes to financial sustainability as an artist.
There aren't any.
Granted, two or three people seem to get to a point where you can’t imagine them not surviving in the industry for ten or twenty years, for their whole lives even. That’s not true for most of us. Writers can have one or two major successes that lead to their work getting international productions. Those of us whose writing and performing has become almost indistinguishable have little legitimate aspiration to such windfalls and the security blanket they bring.
And let’s be quite clear about the fact that there are plenty of people whose lives are so much harder than struggling artists. For a start, as I made clear earlier, the sample group for these conversations is explicitly people who are doing ok for ourselves. But for how long? And at what cost?
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will