Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Politics and the Arts

Barbara here. In case you haven't noticed, we Canadians have been a little distracted of late. Moreover, that little alert on my Apple Calendar, which was supposed to warn me to write my Type M blog, didn't work, so once again my post is late. My apologies for that, and for this short, admittedly political post.

We've had a long national election campaign during which many issues were raised, some laudable and others vile, and many promises were made. For much of it, the three parties were running close to neck and neck, all of them firmly aiming their pitch and their promises to "hard-working middle class families". This despite the fact that seniors now outnumber kids, and more and more people live alone. The politicians argued a lot about the needs of small businesses and the manufacturing sector but one would be hard-pressed to find any mention of the arts, either in terms of the needs of artists to earn an income above the poverty line or the contribution of arts and culture to the financial health of the country (never mind its spiritual health). The general public's awareness of the needs of the arts community seems minimal. They likely see the mega-million dollars earned by the big Hollywood stars and don't realize that most actors, directors, and other performing artists struggle to pay the groceries, let alone the rent, without juggling half a dozen part-time jobs. People see the bookcases of Dan Brown and JK Rowling books stacked high in Chapters and don't realize that most authors are lucky to get four books buried in the back corners of Chapters and many get none at all. They don't realize authors don't get a penny from the purchase of a used book nor from a free (usually illegal) download site. As an aside, a "bestseller" in Canada means it sold 5000 books. Do the math. From a $20 book, at the standard 10% royalty rate, the author earns $2 a book. That bestseller, which very likely took more than a year to write, earns $10,000. The music industry has the same struggles. A few millionaires, and the rest barely fitting in to the lowest income bracket. The middle class is a distant dream for most of them without a second income source, an inheritance, or a well-earning spouse.

In Canada, there are a few government programs designed to bolster the income of artists, for which we are grateful. There is the Access Copyright fund, which repays artists for the use of their copyrighted material through photocopying and other free content sharing. This program pays a few hundred dollars, but even that is under threat by the latest government's legislation which allows free use of huge swaths of material without compensation to the writer. Secondly, there is the Public Lending Right fund, a wonderful program which samples libraries across the country and compensates authors for the presence of their books in libraries. This program has a cap, however, so that the income to any one author is less that $4000.

In addition, authors or hosting agencies such as libraries and festivals can apply for grants for readings, research, and travel, but competition is fierce for these, and only a lucky few receive anything. The reading fee is $250, and an author would be lucky to get more than a couple of these a year. All sources of government support are not likely to raise even the luckiest author's income much above $5000.

A lot was made in this past election of tax breaks and tax credits. Tax breaks for the middle class and small businesses, tax credits for children, for home renovations, for fitness classes and for special interest groups. The out-going government was so fond of tax breaks, credits, income splitting, and so on, that filing an income tax return at tax time almost required an advanced accountancy degree. None of them was of much use to self-employed artists and writers.

During this frenetic election campaign, the out-going government made few promises relating to culture, likely having correctly perceived that was not their base, and having given the impression over the years that artists and writers were part of the pampered cultural elite divorced from the "bread and butter" issues of the man on the street.  Ironic, since bread and butter issues loom very large in the lives of most artists. The other two main parties made varying commitments to provide tax incentives and breaks, increase grants, and so on.

One proposal, touted by arts organizations and resurrected once again by at least one of the parties, is the idea of income-averaging for self-employed artists, which exists in Quebec and in the UK (and probably elsewhere). This may be of use to artists and authors who do well one year (hit play or record, best-selling book, etc.) after toiling in poverty both before their lucky year and afterwards. This seems like a sensible way to try to even out the feast or famine nature of an artist's income, which will fluctuate far more than most other small businesses. It takes years to write a book, and much of the income from that book will occur during its first year in print. If one is lucky enough to win a prize for it, the income may spike further, only to plunge again the next year.

Income-averaging seems a simple way to try to address some of the struggles the arts community faces in trying to generate a consistent, livable income. Do any readers have experience with it? What do you think?


Patricia Filteau said...

Thank you for reminding us of these issues that directly affect our lives. Members of the working poor arts communities are often the first to step up for massive amounts of volunteerism - benefit concerts for this and that, literary events to get books out there and sold ... To mention but a few

Anonymous said...

Although I live in the UK, I haven't used income averaging as a writer - simply because I have never earned enough in one year and my income sources went beyond writing.

However, for a few years I worked in the video-TV-film industry and it proved a valuable means to balance the lean years with the very few when we generated a profit. Problem was that having got the benefits of spreading those gains, Inland Revenue's Customs & Excise department calculated that we should be paying more Value Added Tax on the sales that THEY thought we should be making.

If the small guy makes a profit, make sure to tax him by the back-door.