Why "branding" won't save the creative class

Freelance work -- and a strong "brand" -- will never beat a job. Free agency's nice -- but so is health insurance

Published October 13, 2011 9:05PM (EDT)

      (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-427951p1.html'>sheff</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/iStockphoto)
(sheff via Shutterstock/iStockphoto)

Listen to the optimists and the great recession sounds like a great opportunity. This is the time for the creative class to brand itself! A day job, they say, is so 20th century – as quaint and outdated as tail fins and manual sewing machines.

Thanks to laptops, cheap Internet connections and structural changes in the world economy, we’re living in a world of “free agents” – “soloists” who are “self-branding” and empowered to live flexible and self-determining lives full of meaning. We are all citizens of Freelance Nation -- heirs not to the old-school stodgy, gray-flannel-suit Organization Man but to the coonskin-capped pioneers and rugged, self-made types who built this country.

But for those who must actually scrape together work in this new "gig economy" – architects, filmmakers, writers, musicians, bookstore managers, graphic designers and other downsized members of the creative class, folks made obsolete by the Internet and the current predatory style of corporations – Freelance Nation is a place where they fight to keep a home or medical insurance.

Some are losing their houses. Others are watching marriages go up in smoke or falling into heavy drinking. Still others are couch-jumping for months or years at a time. Or they’re veering close to bankruptcy because of the risk of living without medical insurance. Call it the new creative destruction.

Daniel Pink, a former Clinton White House hand, wrote the witty and engaging Bible of the freelance life, "Free Agent Nation." “Today,” he wrote in 2002, in a book still cited approvingly by followers, “in good times and bad, at the peak of the boom or the trough of the bust – the dice are loaded in favor of the individual. That’s why I feel good about the future – a future in which more people can assert their independence and guide their economic and personal destiny.”

It might be rough at times, Pink concedes. But a wide range of people “will be able to throw off conformity, escape subservience, and live out their true potential.” (Much of the rhetoric of this movement resembles the books from the ’70s that told Americans that marriage or monogamy was for squares and that they should enter the free-spirited world of swinging.)

But life on the ground shows that the free agent life isn’t always so exhilarating – especially as incomes have fallen by roughly 10 percent since the recession began.

"Everyone I know who's a graphic designer has had to take a pay cut of at least 40 percent over the last 10 years," says Suzanne Rush, a former print designer for Warner Bros. who now freelances for movie studios and magazines around Los Angeles. "That's true across the board -- motion graphics people as well as print people," staffers as well as freelancers.

In fact, many free agents see themselves not as freewheeling soloists but as permatemps and content serfs.

The free-agent reality

Matthew Wake had paid his dues. Post-college, he’d worked as short-order cook, waited tables, worked construction and clerked in record stores. While he was living in New Orleans, playing guitar in bands, a girlfriend suggested he might try something less financially risky than piling into a van to play small clubs across the South: music journalism.

Wake didn’t walk right into a staff job – he wrote copy for a bank, freelanced for papers for free, sold ads and sat through three-hour town-planning meetings, all ways to break in. But after a few years he became a writer, and later editor, at several Southern papers. For his latest job, he was a staff writer at a weekly in Greenville, S.C.  The paper was owned by Gannett – a famously profit-driven company. “Every quarter was like a 'Friday the 13th' horror film,” he recalls. “’Am I gonna be the guy that Freddie gets?’”

One day in June, he and his colleagues were called into a room and told the paper was eliminating its arts and entertainment staff: The weekly would recycle copy from other papers in the chain. It was one of about 20,000 layoffs at Gannett under former CEO Craig Dubow, who retired last month due to medical issues and left the company with a $37.1 million golden parachute.

“First,” Wake says of his life post-job, "I went through my savings the way Jane’s Addiction goes through bass players. I hit up tons and tons of publications – local, regional, national. What I’ve observed is that as times get tough, freelance is the first thing they cut.” And publications are shrinking. “Spin just went bimonthly. The Rolling Stone I get in the mail is about as thin as a brochure. There will be more rats fighting for that same piece of cheese.”

Unpleasant as working for Gannett could be, Wake lived in a three-bedroom house, buying CDs or heading to bars when he wanted to. Now, he’s moved back to his hometown – Huntsville, Ala. -- and has taken a room in the house he grew up in, now owned by his attorney brother. He writes for pay when he can, and lives off what he makes taking care of his 91-year-old grandmother. “It gives me something to do so I don’t have to go back to waiting tables,” he says. “I just turned 40.”

It's hard not to feel like he’s going backward. When Wake had a job, he was able to make some forays into collecting art. “Now I have the same Stones poster I had in college... Do I go into PR? Marketing? I go from interviewing Slash to writing copy for a Denny’s menu? It’s gonna be a weird world for a while.”

"The collapse of culture"

Typically, the Internet-cheerleader books – as well as the websites of motivational branding coaches who urge creative types to stop working for the Man and seize their destiny – turn on rousing tales of the new economy. Pink’s "Free Agent Nation," for instance, opened and closed with a inspiring sketch of Betty Fox, who ran a site called GrandmaBetty.com and ends up with the kind of big-money deal that most bloggers – the vast majority of whom are unpaid – dream of.

Internet skeptic Jaron Lanier, author of the razor-sharp book "You Are Not a Gadget," sees the reporting on the new economy as driven by unlikely Horatio Alger stories. “There are a few success stories,” he says, “that create a false sense of hope.”  Because Radiohead can offer its record for free, he points out, doesn’t mean that bands below the superstar level can. (Similarly, the death of Apple visionary Steve Jobs uncorked various rants about the value of mavericks and how you can get it if you try hard enough. Which makes everyone who struggles in a post-boom, post-bubble economy a loser. Or, as Herman Cain says, people who aren’t trying hard enough.)

Today’s gig economy is tough even for people accustomed to success. Dana Gioia is one of the leading – and for a while, most controversial – critics of American literature. He served as a vice president at General Foods, and later as director of the National Endowment for the Arts.

But between those two stints, he worked for more than a decade as a freelance writer, poet and critic. “When I quit my job in 1991, I had some tough years,” he says. “I reviewed books, I did gigs for the BBC, I gave lectures. When a big piece appeared, people would to invite me to give a speech. If you were willing to take a risk and float between gigs, you could make a living.”

Like Gioia or not -- his criticism has made him enemies in academia and elsewhere -- no one can say he’s lacking in drive or entrepreneurial energy. But in between the ’90s and now, a lot has changed. “Electronic entertainment has taken over people’s lives,” he says. “You see it with lower rates of reading, with people not going to performances -- it’s all down. People not going means it’s harder for the artists to make a living; it’s very difficult for a jazz musician, for instance, to become well-known enough to get gigs. And political support for the arts is down.”

For Gioia himself, it’s made being a freelance man of letters – like his heroes from mid-century – much tougher. “I don’t think that’s possible anymore,” he says, as writing becomes unpaid volunteer work. “There are fewer gigs.” The number of papers with real book or ideas sections is down substantially; serious magazines are half the size they used to be. "If I'd quit my job this year, I don't think I could have made it as a literary freelancer. The problem isn't the decline of the economy, though that doesn't help. The problem is the collapse of culture."

Can the middle-class create?

Human beings, of course, have been making art at least since a Paleolithic man sketched a horse on the Lascaux caves 17,000 years ago. Stone sculpture of busty women and music, made originally on animal bones, are likely even older; the late scholar Denis Dutton argued in his book "The Art Instinct" that creativity was hard-wired into the human race during the process of evolution.

So, some of us will always do this. Modern life has allowed specialization that Stone Age man did not enjoy, but it’s never been easy to survive as an artist. Still, for generations to come, young people with trust funds will head to urban centers to make it as writers, visual artists, musicians and filmmakers. A few – especially those with copious subsidies from parents – will strike gold and inspire the next generation to take a chance.

What’s changing is the ability for people to make a middle-class living in creative fields. Many are forced to go freelance because they are losing their jobs: A new report shows that even well after the official end of the recession, slashed state budgets are making things tougher in the performing arts, with a 16 percent drop in performing-arts jobs since last year.

“For the performing arts,” writes economist and Progressive Policy Institute senior fellow Mike Mandel, “this is the moment where recession turns into depression.” For authors, book advances are reported to be about half of what they were before the crash. That’s easily the difference between a viable project and something you just can’t afford to do without an inheritance.

And as the New York Times recently observed, the freelance musician has gone the way of the Southern Democrat.

"It was a good living. But the New York freelance musician — a bright thread in the fabric of the city — is dying out," wrote Daniel J. Wakin. "In an age of sampling, digitization and outsourcing, New York’s soundtrack and advertising-jingle recording industry has essentially collapsed. Broadway jobs are in decline. Dance companies rely increasingly on recorded music. And many freelance orchestras, among the last steady deals, are cutting back on their seasons, sometimes to nothingness."

This is all coming very soon after a surging discussion about how casual, “no collar” creative class, laptop-toting “knowledge workers,” self-determining “free agents,” and so on, would be redefining and reviving American life. Richard Florida's vaunted creative class was supposed to be pumping its mojo into American cities.

To Chris Ketcham, a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, it all comes down to living space. “Rent,” he says, “is the basis of everything. For any artist or creator who wants to live with that dynamism of dense urban spaces, he can be saddled with rents so high that they take up 50 percent or more of his income. It’s impossible to do things outside the marketplace because you’re constantly working to pay rent.”

Ketcham has recently penned a long, impassioned article for Orion magazine, “The Reign of the One Percenters: Income Inequality and the Death of Culture In New York City,” which coincides with some of the concerns of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“It goes back to the rise of the financial class, that top 1.” says Ketcham. “That takeover of New York by the very rich, which drives up the cost of land, of rents.” His artist and filmmaker friends mostly have corporate jobs these days, he says. “They become servants to the corporate class.”

We are, admittedly, a long way from Lascaux here.

No benefit

Freelancers plying their trade in the gig economy range widely -- from artists sleeping in their cars and tapping electricity from streetlights to, say, Gore Vidal, living in luxury in the Hollywood hills, and everything in between. One thing most freelancers -- thriving or struggling -- have in common is a complete lack of benefits. And that’s especially true in the case of medical coverage.

A longtime, hard-working freelance writer, Steve Mirkin has penned music and style stories for Rolling Stone and the New York Times. He’s a sharp-witted Queens native, with a fighter’s temperament. “Ten years ago, I was making a good living as a freelancer – I was writing a story a day.” With that work drying up, these days he’s mostly a freelance researcher and writer for reality TV and game shows, which are now slowing as well. Another thing these varied kinds of work have in common is the lack of health insurance.

Mirkin doesn’t like the risk of living without coverage. But money is tough as rates at both publications and in Hollywood fall – even the talent at “The Simpsons,” the longest-running show in television history, are seeing their pay being cut significantly -- and he’s spent the last year borrowing guest rooms and couches from friends across Los Angeles. “You worry every time you cough,” he says, “that it could be very costly."

A few years ago, those costs suddenly got real tangible. A sunny spring afternoon was interrupted by a kidney stone, and after a trip to the emergency room, he was hit with a bill for $30,000. “If you’re not insured and you don’t have the money,” he says, “they charge you more.” In Mirkin’s case, a strong-willed relative intervened and got the cost reduced, he’s still fighting to survive. “I worked very hard,” he says, “to avoid having to declare bankruptcy.”

His story is hardly unique. (Pink, to his credit, argues in "Free Agent Nation" that employer-based medical insurance makes no sense in a world increasingly populated by the self-employed.)

Radio producer Frances Anderton, an Englishwoman who moved to the States 20 years ago, sometimes wonders if she lives in the land of the free. “The myth of America is about being mobile – and being entrepreneurial: This was a country where people moved around, renewing their lives. But the so-called countries of Old Europe end up being far more conducive to mobility and risk-taking because of their safety nets."

This bind inhibits creative types, says Anderton, who produces the public radio show DnA: Design and Architecture. “Architects might have an idea to start a firm, or to buy a piece of land to develop a project, but they feel compelled to find a job with healthcare. People stay in jobs they don’t like because they’re terrified to leave. I know from my own experience of being a freelancer, medical coverage is staggeringly expensive. Throw in a partner and a child, and it becomes extremely daunting. What should be an exciting way to pursue one’s career becomes fraught with peril.”

The last boat

For some people, the ever-changing alliances and environments of the gig economy add up to a better way to live and work.

“I’ve been a freelancer because that’s what I fell into, “says John Steinmetz, a composer, bassoon player and educator who combines stints – teaching at UCLA, playing with the Los Angeles Master Chorale – even as he’s watched music gigs dry up or move overseas. “I don’t envy being married to the same group of people all the time. I like the variety; I still do."

But things have changed since he started out freelancing in the mid-'70s, and earlier this year, he and his violist wife saw unpleasant trends – falling pensions, rising medical costs, a tougher freelance market – and decided to downsize and sell their house. When he left his position with the Los Angeles Opera, and his income dropped, they were glad they had. Some musician friends lost their homes.

“I used to have a confidence that there was a path available for people who were willing to work at it,” he says. “But I’m not so sure about that any more. If everybody’s trying to crowd a deck of the last boat still afloat, there’s not much room there.”

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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