The recent speech given by Iggy Pop for the John Peel lecture on BBC Radio 6, Free Music in a Capitalist Society (the transcript is available here) got me thinking of the parallels between popular music and the illustration business, especially the world of children’s books.
Think for a moment of an industry dominated by big companies, but with numerous smaller enterprises (usually with limited budgets), and lots of DIY producers of varying levels of ability and success. An industry full of great ideas and striving creative artists, but driven by easily marketable (and sometimes bland) popular titles and by a limited number of headline celebrities. Think of a business in which being young, fresh and fashionable is at least as important, if not more important as being technically skilled, dedicated and talented. I give you the British music industry! …. I also give you the UK children’s illustration market!
“We are now in the age of the schemer and the plan is always big, big, big, but it’s the nature of the technology created in the service of the various schemes that the pond, while wide, is very shallow.”
This is not a criticism, I’m just making observations here. Nomatter what our creative expression, music, writing or illustration, it’s the same basic business structure behind all. The fact is we all have to make a living in our chosen forms of expression, and, as Iggy points out, in order to make money we have to be commercially viable.
“when it comes to art, money is an unimportant detail. It just happens to be a huge one unimportant detail.”
I think there are a lot of parallels with publishing today and the music business at the end of the 1970’s. I’m a child of the ’70’s, my memories are laced with the sounds I grew up with – it was an era that saw a succession of revolutionary movements and major changes in the music business. In with the new, out with the old! Glam to prog rock to punk. Reggae to dancehall. Funk to hip hop. The ’70’s saw a major shake-up in the way music was made, produced, marketed and sold, from the explosion of indie labels to challenge the majors, the introduction of cassette tape recording allowing people to record music from the radio for free, and, in the first years of the ’80’s, the start of CD technology. There have been equally ground shifting changes in the publishing industry – ebooks, unregulated discounting…. none of them seem on the face of it good news for creatives. Publishing is booming, but less and less of the turnover seems to be going to the writers and illustrators, as reported by The Bookseller. Stylistically there have also been waves of fashion, “traditional” (ooh I hate that word) drawing to digital art, and back again, much like the waves of changing fashion in music.
I began as an illustrator inspired by the great early 20th Century Golden Age illustrators, I was entralled by the work of masters like Beardsley, Rackham, Heath-Robinson, Ardizzone and Dulac, I thought – “that’s what I want to do with my life”, such a simple decision to make! It was all about the art, not the money. But of course times have moved on from the belle époque, society has changed, the industry has reinvented itself a hundred times over. Somehow I had to learn how to match my skills, my creative integrity and ambition to the modern business of illustration, a business that evolves just as you think you know it. Keeping up with the changes is a process that never ends, it’s the kind of skill you rarely have chance to completely nail in art college, it’s the reality of working in the real world, being a freelance, self-employed artist that makes or breaks an illustrator. In an ever shifting world not everyone is able to maintain a long-term career, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the quality of your artwork.
“some guys are born and raised to be the captain of the football team and some guys are just gonna be James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and that’s the way it is. Not everybody is meant to be big. Not everybody big is any good.”
Adapting to the market, seeing the opportunities and being aware how you fit in is essential, but equally it’s a bad policy to simply follow what the market thinks it needs, we need to live, but we need to be true to our art as well. Publishing, like the music industry and all other creative livelihoods, is a hard, tough business, but it hinges on the precious and personal vision of it’s artists. The creators are always the innovators, not the marketing staff. Don’t ever lose track of that!
“I only ever wanted the money because it was symbolic of love and the best thing I ever did was to make a lifetime commitment to continue playing music no matter what, which is what I resolved to do at the age of 18. If who you are is who you are that is really hard to steal, and it can lead you in all sorts of useful directions when the road ahead of you is blocked and it will get blocked. Now I’m older and I need all the dough I can get. So I too am concerned about losing those lovely royalties, now that they’ve finally arrived, in the maze of the Internet. But I’m also diversifying my income, because a stream will dry up. I’m not here to complain about that, I’m here to survive it.”
I shouldn’t push the analogy too far, these are times of change, technology and the market for books is moving in ways we don’t yet fully understand. But we’ve seen with the music business how digitalisation led to overwhelming piracy, tumbling prices, revenue for musicians and so on. I worry that it’s happening too with e-books, I desperately hold onto the value of the printed page. I’m also concerned that creative editors no longer have enough say in what gets published, when the marketing team determines what will or will not be printed, innovation and quality go out of the window. I worry that children’s publishing in the UK today seems often to be more about Kajagoogoo than the Sex Pistols.
But maybe I’m concerned too much about the “industry” and forget sometimes that we creators are the ones on which the book trade depends. Whatever the media, our talents will eventually find an audience, and if that audience is limited, well so be it. If we have to do some unimaginative jobs to pay the bills then fine – as long as we also have an outlet for our honest creativity. I always have faith that somehow, if I just keep at it, keep drawing, keep painting, I’ll continue to find the funds to feed my daughter, keep a roof over our heads, and still have time to produce work that both satisfies and challenges me. And that’s all that’s important.
“It’s good to remember that this is a dream job, whether you’re performing or working in broadcasting, or writing or the biz. So dream. Dream. Be generous, don’t be stingy. Please. I can’t help but note that it always seems to be the pursuit of the money that coincides with the great art, but not its arrival. It’s just kind of a death agent. It kills everything that fails to reflect its own image, so your home turns into money, your friends turn into money, and your music turns into money. No fun, binary code – zero one, zero one – no risk, no nothing. What you gotta do you gotta do, life’s a hurly-burly, so I would say try hard to diversify your skills and interests.”
Diversify skills and interests! that’s a key point, whatever your creative expression. Thank you Iggy.
(All quotes are from Iggy Pop’s lecture, courtesy BBC)