Arts Critics and Exploitation – Part 2 – ‘Free Tickets’

Welcome to Part 2 in the ‘Arts Critics and Exploitation’ series. In this article, I examine the supposed rewards of being a hobby reviewer. After all, whilst some volunteers are undoubtedly being exploited in the arts economy, from the volunteers keeping soup kitchens alive, to pro-bono lawyers in innocence projects, a person isn’t necessarily being exploited when they work for free. So how does volunteer arts journalism measure up?

Reviewing a piece of work is not – or should not be – an inconsiderable task. A well written, quality piece of arts criticism, or journalism more generally, is a product of thought, research, craft, and talent. So what’s the reward for the volunteer critic? Obviously not wages, hobbies aren’t paid by definition. Instead, the usual ‘perks’ come in variations on Broadway World’s offer below:

Thats right, the rewards are ‘free tickets’ plus everyone in the creative arts’ favourite currency, ‘EXPOSURE.’ The latter we can dispense with immediately. The last time I checked landlords don’t accept exposure in lieu of rent, and supermarkets have yet to launch their ‘exposure’ payment scheme.

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What about those ‘free tickets’, though? Well you see, there’s nothing whatsoever ‘free’ about those tickets. It is, instead, an necessity to perpetuate the existence of theatre/performance criticism as we know it. A busy independent critic might see over 150 shows a year, a combined ticket cost of well over £2000 at a very conservative estimate. Should venues stop supplying complementary tickets, the main part of the arts criticism sector would vanish overnight. Even the legacy press critics might finally vanish, should their employers choose not to foot the bill.

What about enjoying the work? Isn’t that enough?

I feel a great disturbance in the Critic-sphere, as if millions (hundreds?) of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. Excuse the levity, but doubtless this criticism of the tickets-for-reviews scheme will raise eyebrows amongst the ranks of volunteer reviewers. After all they enjoy going to the theatre, they enjoy writing, and they enjoy not having to pay for their theatre tickets. Good, me too.

However, the idea that enjoyment should be payment enough for work is a pernicious one we should reject utterly. The world is full of people with jobs they love, and for which they are paid. Simply because volunteers would enjoy free admission to Edinburgh’s increasingly expensive Hogmanay celebrations, there were still loud accusations of exploitation in Holyrood in 2017. You see, there really is only one question to answer to discover whether hobby arts journalists are being taken advantage of, or not.

Is their voluntary work generating economic benefits for other parties?

Hobby arts journalism has broad economic value

Well, at least in the opinion of the Edinburgh Festivals, critics remains indispensable to a functioning arts industry. So much so that a scheme to recruit and mentor new critics has been instituted this year to, ‘promote arts journalism as an attractive and viable career choice for emerging talent.’ Except it’s not a viable career when the majority of that industry is made up of volunteer hobbyists.

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If Arts Journalism held no economic or critical cultural value, it’s hard to imagine international agencies stumping up the resources for schemes such as this.

If that’s too parochial for you, then why not consult with the federal government of the USA? The National Endowment for the Arts and social investors, The Knight Foundation, are unequivocal. Arts journalism is essential they say, “if we are going to build a creative, resilient economy.

Indeed, dear reader, you’d be hard pressed to find an arts stakeholder to deny the importance of arts journalism in helping to keep their office lights on. Which is to say the work of arts journalists (volunteer or paid) is of significant benefit to their ability to generate revenue.

Hobby arts journalism generates money directly as well

So, the hard to quantify economic benefit to the broader arts industry is a little nebulous. If you’re not concerned with the obliteration of arts journalism as a viable career, you might not think it worth more than a raised eyebrow. However, in the next episode, theQR will look at the the tremendous imbalances which exist between volunteer arts journalists and the websites that don’t employ them. All that unpaid labour generates multi-millions of website clicks every year, and clicks = money.