Sunday, 24 January 2016

To pay, or not to pay...

January 2016 is the tenth anniversary of The Speakers’ Corner, the poetry and spoken word open mic which I have MCed for seven of those years. Over that time we have committed ourselves to providing a platform for up-and-coming local writers, giving them a chance to perform their work on an equal status with the often award winning poets who appear monthly as our guest features. We pride ourselves on being an accessible, non elitist event – both in the types of spoken word that get shared in the open mic (ranging from the unashamedly populist to the at times breathtakingly complex) and in our policy of keeping entry fees as low as possible so that nobody is priced out of coming along.

It was with rather a heavy heart that I began 2016 with an announcement that I was doubling the entry fee for our monthly event.

Yes, that’s right. The price of admission to Speakers’ Corner has shot up to a staggering £2 per person.

This wasn’t a decision I took lightly. Speakers’ Corner has always been, and will always be (under my tenure, anyway) a grassroots arts event. Since time immemorial the door money has been fixed at a mere £1. There were good reasons for asking for that £1. Even when an event runs on goodwill, there are expenses that have to be met – the cost of publicity flyers, for instance. We have also been committed to making a payment towards our guests’ travel expenses (and to covering them in full, wherever we can).

This is really important: because Speakers’ Corner has never been able to pay its guest features a fee for coming to perform for us. So the least I can do is ensure that if guests want to share their creative work with us, they are guaranteed not to be out of pocket for doing so.

It is the increasing burden of travel expenses which has forced the 2016 price rise. That, and the habit of a small minority of participants to not pay their statutory £1. Most years, the event breaks even. In 2015, it ran at a loss – it was only the generous decision of a couple of our guests to waive their travel expenses which stopped me from having to shell out my own money to keep the event viable.

I had to take the view that this couldn’t continue. A £2 entry fee will mean we can be a little more generous in our travel expense allowances, and possibly build up reserves to invite guests from slightly further afield. Any surplus will be donated to the charities supported by York’s Arts Against Homelessness initiative – so we remain firmly not for profit, and now have a chance to give something modest back to the community too.

Nonetheless, I am distinctly uncomfortable that we are in this position in the first place. I don’t like being an event that can’t afford to pay its guest features. But such is the reality of trying to support grassroots art. We have never had Arts Council funding, or the backing of an established arts outlet – and we certainly don’t have wealthy patrons! In such circumstances we can only pay out what we take in. Long-time Soapbox followers will know how vehemently opposed I am to the idea that access to the arts should be controlled by people’s ability to pay. My principle has always been to keep Speakers’ Corner running at the lowest possible cost to its loyal punters.

There was a certain irony in reading that a literary event much bigger than mine has just got itself into hot water over the selfsame issue. Philip Pullman’s resignation as patron of Oxford Literary Festival has set tongues wagging, and rightly so. The worker deserves his wages, and creative people deserve a fair wage for the results of their creativity. But I have a certain sympathy for the Festival, which suffered a barrage of negative publicity over its failure to pay its guest authors. Like us, Oxford Literary Festival has no grant funding and no wealthy patron. It has to be self-sustaining, or it won’t function. And somewhere along the line, the Festival organisers made the decision that it was better to keep a literary event alive by presuming on the goodwill of its headliners, rather than bankrupt itself by undertaking to pay out more in fees than it was going to recoup in takings at the door.

There is, of course, a huge difference between Speakers’ Corner on the one hand, and Oxford Literary Festival on the other. We are a regional event in the back room of a pub, twelve times a year. They have been going 20 years and have over 500 events on their programme.

All of which suggests to me that Oxford Literary Festival’s fatal mistake is one of failing to cut its cloth appropriately. You simply can’t grow to a 500-plus-event festival without a stable financial base. It seems ludicrous to me that they have done so. If the only way they can afford 500-plus events is by not paying the people who are the reason for the Festival even existing, then why aren’t they doing 100 events instead, or 50? All festivals go through lean times. Even the most successful can miss out on Arts Council funding, or lose key sponsors. The correct thing to do is to retrench and plan for something bigger and better when resources allow.

There’s a certain arrogance in Oxford Literary Festival’s assumption that it can carry on as usual simply by presuming on the goodwill (or the vanity) of its authors. I hope this is a mistake we won’t make at Speakers’ Corner. I am thrilled that there are fantastic writers in the region who want to come to York to share their creative work with us, and don’t mind doing it for nothing more than a beer and the chance to sell a few books. But I know that what we do at Speakers’ Corner is only one part of what goes to make a vibrant and varied arts scene. We need the big events, the Arts Council funded ventures, the festivals that do commit themselves to paying a fair rate to those who make things happen. And they need us, too – to generate audience, enthusiasm, to showcase the stars of next year, and to keep the spoken word where it truly belongs. Among the people, from the people, and for the people.

There’s a separate debate raging off the back of the Philip Pullman issue: and it’s the one that mistakenly equates professional (in the sense of those who can command payment) with good, and amateur (in the sense of those who will work for beer) by some sort of spurious logic as rubbish. I’ve had words to say about this in previous Soapbox posts. I’m sure I will have more before the dust settles.