Dan Koop is a Melbourne based independent artist. He is currently an Associate Producer for the 2015 Melbourne Fringe Festival.
I’ve decided to write a post for this series, hoping that there will be some strength in numbers. I read out some similar notes out as a way to begin a discussion about working conditions in this “industry” at the 2015 Australian Theatre Forum and I was comforted that I could see people in front of me as I read aloud the story of my 2014. But as I’m putting it all in black and white here I’m hoping that I’m able to maintain the same tone and intention I was able to monitor there – I don’t want this to come across as a whinge!
In many ways I feel fortunate and pleased about my 2014, but I also became aware of many sacrifices and limitations that were placed upon my career and personal life due to my career in this “industry”. Actually, it’s often more a case of seeing colleagues I work alongside struggle, than any cold hard realisations from my own personal experiences – I think I often find it easier to get angry and worried for others rather than risk whinging about my own woes or deeply analysing my own choices and predicaments. So, in the spirit of openness and with the hope that my story might also be useful for others to reflect upon, here goes…
I’m a 32-year-old male who works as an Artist and Producer, mostly for live works that happen in unusual and public spaces. I’ve often worked for or with festivals or mutli-artform venues and over the years I’ve lived in Melbourne, London, Brisbane and Sydney. Here’s an unemotional look at the practical, financial and ethical memories of what I did, and what I asked others to do, in order to have a career in the arts in Australia in 2014.
January – I get flown to Perth off the back of a residency I did in Tasmania in 2013. I get my flights and accommodation covered, but I don’t get a fee to work up a revised commission pitch. Nothing ever comes of it. I run a fundraising event for a project that’s going to Brisbane. Throughout the month (and for most of the year to come) I work three casual jobs in any given week.
February – My collaborators and I spend two weeks remounting and presenting our Greenroom Award winning work at APAM, which is the third time we’ve shown the work. Arts Vic have given us a touring fee which we’re incredibly grateful for, but we have a touring party of 6 so it doesn’t pay us award rates, cover our accommodation, per diems or production budget. The pressure is on to do the most professional job we’ve ever done, with the lowest budget we’ve accepted to present this work – just as in other seasons we scramble to pay ourselves a $500 per week fee, which is at least half of what we think we’re worth. But we think this could opportunity could be “great exposure” so we suck it up.
March – I forgo APAM follow-ups with interested producers and programmers we met (which apart from actually booking a gig, IS the payoff of the “exposure” we sought) as I simply don’t have the time because am the Program Producer for 7 commissions by Theatre Works that are premiering in 7 different spaces around St Kilda as part of the Festival of Live Art. In this role I strongly encourage one project to travel to Melbourne early to continue developing their work – I cannot give then extra budget despite them booking new flights and accommodation. I still believe it was a good call to encourage further development of that work.
April – I continue to work my three casual jobs – a furniture store, a pop up cinema and a casual job at Telstra. I’m in no way the right kind of person for the Telstra corporate structure and often reach the end of the day and am bewildered about how much admin work I have neglected.
May – I do a small job with Next Wave hosting their tour packages and they pay me well, including superannuation. I plan and facilitate the Victorian Touring Forum – after the event they tell me I did a great job and I should’ve charged them double. Rather than being annoyed by this, I’m pleased they let me prove myself in this kind of event and are honest with me – it’s great to get a market evaluation for my work.
June – Its 10 years since I started working in the industry so I take my long service leave, without pay (and not much superannuation saved and a HECS debt from two degrees to show for my 10 years service!). I travel to USA, Argentina and Brazil without any intention to participate in any art – it’s the first time since I took a childhood family holiday that I have travelled for a reason other than to work in the arts.
July – As I continue to holiday I receive some commission money for a project I’m developing, again with superannuation! On the one hand I’m really frustrated that my first ever holiday has been interrupted and on the other I’m super thankful that it is a very welcome cash contribution for my trip. That I largely set my own creative development hours and my considerate boss at the shop allows me to take time away from Melbourne.
August – I return to Melbourne and work my casual jobs and continue my commission which is for a premiere in November. While I was away my girlfriend traveled to USA to do two months of development and presentation.
September – I do a weeks work with two collaborators on my commission and another weeks work on different artists’ project – I later discover she pays me more than she pays herself in order to balance her budget. I work as a judge on Melbourne Fringe and receive some free tickets, seems like a fair deal.
October – I get two free tickets to the Melbourne Festival, that’s all I can afford to see. My girlfriend has returned home and continues to work insane hours in order to develop and present her work in the Festival – I see her for an hour a day, maximum. This will develop into a major irritant within our relationship.
November – I participate in a week long professional development event for which I don’t receive a fee. However, I do get paid a small fee to help facilitate a forum event that’s part of it. I present a version of the commission I’ve been working on since July. I was supposed to also present it simultaneously in the UK, but the dates change – my fee does not change despite having more than an extra week of work to do for the added presentation in 2015.
December – No more commissions, no more facilitation gigs and my casual work has dried up so I apply for the dole the week before Christmas.
Some Facts –
- The average Australian full-time wage is about $75,000.
- The Australian minimum wage is just over $33,000.
- In the 2014 calendar year I made $35,000 gross from all my jobs and finish with zero savings. (In fact a debt as I did take almost 2 months off work, for the first time in 10 years)
- From this $35,000 gross you can immediately deduct the following:
- $10,00 rent
- Public transport
- Tax (if I get around to lodging my tax return, oh and the poor people’s tax on most of my purchases)
- Tickets (last on my list)
- By any measure I’m fortunate to be well educated, holding a Bachelor of Performing Arts a Masters of Public Art. I’ve got a HECS debt from both these degrees, I guess I’ll pay it off sometime when I start earning the big bucks…
- Just as in the last five years, my girlfriend and I have spent at least 3-6 months of 2014 touring and apart from each other. It can make it tricky to maintain a lease when one of the rent and bill payers is out of town for these extended periods. Sometimes we sublet a room to other visiting artists and strangers – we’re lucky to have a bit of spare space at our rental that allows us to do this.
Some final thoughts –
Actually, that seems like an okay year, but it’s not one that will get me beyond a hand to mouth existence. It worries me that there are too many moments when I let myself down (working for free or for way less than I’m worth) and let the artists I work with down (asking them to work for free or produce more for less). That really bugs me – how does this “industry” make economical and social progress if we are the ones who put pressure upon each other to squeeze more for less? Shouldn’t we be working together to put the brakes on that kind of request? When can we just start to say NO? When can we stop being so grateful for the shitty offers we receive?
I know too many people working in this industry who are STRESSED OUT! I’ve been there before and nearly quit it all in anger, disgust, frustration and for my own safety. Fortunately, my next gig was a super supportive and positive one and I’m still here. But, I’m genuinely worried that some of the talented people I know will not only quit the industry, but will have some seriously unhealthy physical and mental health if they keep up their workloads and carrying such workplace pressure. Again, I want this community to band together to agree that this is not good enough and collectively agree that we won’t accept this anymore – it’s not worth it if it slowly kills us.
Our work has put a strain on the relationship with my partner of 6 years. Even though we moved in together we spent lots of time apart and didn’t save a penny – we seem destined to rent forever. As we’re both artists, it’s really hard to envision a way to raise a child without leaning massively on our parents, which would feel like we were still the children and not the hard working, dedicated, capable adults that we are. Furthermore, I’m just pissed that despite the fact my partner has worked consistently for many years, she doesn’t really have any access to maternity leave as she’s mostly been a project artist for all that time. I just feel that people with “real jobs” don’t have to put up with this bullshit.
So maybe I behave like I’m entitled to a standard of living that I’m not? Maybe I shouldn’t have taken a holiday? Maybe I should be okay with living an hour out of the city? Maybe I should work harder? Maybe I should expect to take a hit on my personal social, emotional and financial life in order to enjoy what I do?
Or maybe not?