It's A Marathon, Not A Sprint.

Advice for students staring out in the creative industries.

This is a longer version of my August 2019 article for The Moment Magazine.

Over the past few weeks photos of excited, begowned graduates standing with proud parents has interspersed holiday snaps and First Day of School photos.  I can remember the excitement, and the big hair and shocking-pink trouser suit, of my own graduation.  I also remember a feeling of “What now?” - an unnerving mix of excitement and bewilderment.  How do you get started in the creative industries, degree or no-degree?

Teachers, medics and lawyers have rigid career paths.  There are graduate programmes for accountants and civil servants.  Arts students do not have such clarity - their futures are open and flexible, a blank canvas of making your own career choices from Day One to the end of time.  This is a pretty terrifying prospect for a lot of people, especially when you are just starting out.

What to do?  

Don’t panic!  In all likelihood we are going to be working until our 70’s, so taking a bit of time to develop a game plan, and to try again and re-plan, is allowed. It’s also very practical as the creative industries is fast moving and innovative.  It is also substantial, £101.5 billion of the economy according to 2017 government figures, employing over 3 million people – one of those can be you, and there are lots of careers to choose from, and to change between.

It’s not easy hearing stories of So-And-So who is on a graduate training scheme, with a car, pension and relocation expenses – but there is a reason that those incentives exist to buy graduates’ souls. Your passions lay elsewhere. 

The trials and tribulations of a creative career won’t go away once you’ve nailed your first job or commission – you just learn to get the challenges into proportion.  There will always be someone in your social circle, or worse still, amongst the offspring of your parent’s friends, who is earning more than you and getting more accolades.  Always.  Hopefully you will discover that your love of what you are doing more than compensates for extravagant city-breaks and the latest phone upgrade.  

Feed that passion by taking some positive steps into the unknown.

Tap into networks.  This may mean following industry leaders on social media, though please note, you are probably only seeing the glossy photos of success.  More satisfying and useful is to go to live events.  Sign up for the mailing list of every arts organisation you can.  In Peterborough start with The Key Theatre, the Art Gallery at Peterborough Museum, Peterborough Presents and Metal, and follow We Love Peterborough online and via social media.  

Local events are a good foundation but also cast your gaze wider to industry specific networks such as Artist Information Network (visual artists) or the Independent Theatre Council and Devoted & Disgruntled (theatre) or Apples and Snakes (spoken word), Lane’s List (for writers) for instance.

Networks will also list jobs and training opportunities, the principal ones being Arts Council England’s Arts News and Arts Jobs, but also consider NESTA and Arts Professional. 

The job centre will probably not be listing the sort of role you are looking for, a lot of creative work is never advertised –it’s often too short-term, or last minute.  The solution is to get yourself out there, show off the mix of skills and enthusiasm you have to offer.

Go to events.  You are signed up, so now, turn up.  Get your face known, ask questions, listen, smile and be positive. You have a lot to offer and also much to learn.  Being around other people’s work will develop your understanding of how arts businesses work. And people will get to know you.  

Creative projects rely on relationships and trust.  Good reputations foster collaboration and mutual support, poor reputations, such as being difficult or unreliable, are hard to shake-off, so tread carefully, you want to be talked about positively (and we do talk.)

You also need to consume as much art as possible.  Reading reviews is helpful but also see other people’s work – you have invested hours during your education reading and writing about other people’s creativity, and now you need to see it for real, to develop your own tastes and opinions.

Some events will be free, look up Digital People in Peterborough or Battle Lines or the Metal Quiz Night, for great local networking events.  Or if they are ticketed and you are penniless ask if they have any support for those on low-incomes, they might even pay expenses if you offer to volunteer on front-of-house for instance.  My Platform8 theatre festivals operated a time-banking scheme, where volunteers earned tickets to events.

Develop all your skills.  Despite a set of certificates and a bulging portfolio it will be a while before anyone gives you hard cash to make your own work.  What skills do you have which arts organisations could make use off?  Great at social media?  You are probably better than some arts organisations - keep your profiles up-to-date (and professional – less pouts and poses, and more insights into what inspires you.)  Got access to a computer?  Make sure your skills on Word, Excel, etc are up-to-date.  Know someone who runs a small business? – offer to process some invoices or proof-read their website.

Your portfolio of skills is now ahead of the pack and you have evidence of some of the hard skills that entry level jobs require.  With all the events you have been going to you now have some unique content to put into those job applications. 

Training opportunities don’t have to be expensive, long term commitments.   Due to the competitive nature of the arts sector it is the most over qualified industry there is but there is a growing understanding the affordability of training is excluding talented artists from less affluent backgrounds, so don’t let a lack of endless degrees and expensive placements put you off, there are alternative routes in. 

Vivacity’s Peterborough Presents’ programme run Emerge, a programme of support for young producers, and they also subsidise masterclasses at Metal – try it all, even if it’s not in the comfort zone of your current artform.  The creative industries are multi-disciplinary, so a VR workshop might become very relevant to an actor asked to audition for an AR voiceover.

Look out for host scratch events, where artists share works-in-progress, giving an insight into how others have got to where they are today.  Or it might also be an opportunity for you to try out some ideas of your own.  Vivacity also hosts the bi-annual Young Gifted and Talented exhibition at the City Arts Gallery, with cash prizes!

And here’s your next challenge, you need to keep making work.

Be an artist.  You have rent to pay, debts to service and a lifestyle to maintain and it’s more than likely you are working a zero-hours, minimum wage contract (only those born with a silver-spoon in their mouths and a trust fund can skip that bit) but yes, you need to make creative work if you want to call yourself a professional artist.  

This means reserving time every day to write, to sketch, to code or to keep fit (including your voice for actors and singers).  Any reasonable parent or friend will understand that a role in the next Sunday night drama, an exhibition at the Tate or a Spotify hit is not going to fall in your lap – so demonstrate your commitment by putting some effort in.  And then maybe when you continue to live at home, or can’t afford fancy nights out, your family and friends give you moral support because they can see the effort you are putting in.  

Unstinting support from others, unless you are an egomaniac, is vital.

Find Your Tribe.  Until you have secured your first long-term touring gig, a paid artists’ residency, or a gold-plated record deal, it can be a lonely business. Supportive friends and family are great but you also need to have strong relationships with people who are on the same path.

Maybe you are still in close contact with the people you studied with, but a wider network is going to be useful.  Or maybe you have taken the pragmatic decision to move back home, to Peterborough, where you can live cheaply but are away from the cosy network that college life gave you.  But you are not alone.

Others are having the same experience.  Look out for them at events and on social media –an enterprising local graduate has set up @inlimbophase website and on Instagram, to share inspiration and encouragement.  Metal recently hosted an event specifically to kickstart a supportive network of arts students who are returning to Peterborough – get in touch with Metal to get involved.

In building your tribe you will find people to collaborate and commiserate with and if you give and take in these relationships they are the ones when, in twenty-years time you are going through a rough patch, will be there to keep you going.

Yes, sorry to break the harsh news to you but this feeling of “What now?” is a fairly standard and ongoing emotion to have throughout your creative career – especially if you are making interesting work, taking risks and stretching yourself.  And you will often find yourself working for very little financial reward, or maybe even be earning nothing at all at times.   Understanding when and why you would do this is a useful early lesson. 

Value Yourself.  “It’ll be good exposure for you”. “It’s a fundraiser, can you do it for free?”  “We want to build a relationship with you.”  None of these are acceptable reasons for working for nothing.  Exposure won’t pay the rent, I am sure the caterer at the charity ball is being paid for their costs, and a relationship based on exploitation is not one worth pursuing.

However, if you will develop some skills, or grow a piece of work that you want to develop, or it’s a subject or a context which you are passionate about, or it’s about working with peers whose company you enjoy and who might repay you the favour in some way, maybe it is worth doing, especially if the no/low-pay is the same for everyone.  Exposure, feeling good about yourself or getting some useful contacts may also result, but make sure there is as much in it for you as those asking for something for free.  

Or why not just make some work yourself, perhaps with your new found tribe – there is free space to present work, such as the Undercroft in Hampton or Vivacity’s shop unit at Queensgate, and Metal is experimenting with supporting student placements, which is leading to paid opportunities.  Eastern Angles also runs a supportive writer’s programme which can result in small scale professional performances.

To do all these sensible things you will probably have to take some work which is not at the heart of your passion.  When I graduated, I had a job with the local education authority vetting peripatetic music teachers, plus I worked in a pub and led a youth theatre.  This meant I could save money to put on my own productions in London.  After a number of years, and reviews that ranged from 1 star to 5 stars, I came to the attention of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which led to travel and some great name-dropping opportunities.  Taking detours is ok, as long it’s feeding that passion you started with.

Working in the creative industries may not be the easiest of careers, but, if, despite it all, you still want to do it, you having nothing left loose and your determination will go a long way.  

And that child of your parent’s best friend who is currently on a fancy graduate-degree scheme, they will either be quitting it all to find their creative-self in twenty years time, or they will be dining out on the fact that they knew you when were just starting out… and they will be sending their off-spring to talk to you about how to get started in the creative industries.

(Photo in thumbnail. Courtesy of Metal, of George Lacey, recently on a graduate residency at Metal, where I saw the first 15 minutes of his witty and unique musical Guy Mart - great things ahead for him)