After The Crunch: Revisited

First published on April 2013.

'After the Crunch' - a collection of short essays by artists, entrepreneurs, analysts, policy-makers, academics and financiers from across the creative and cultural sector - was published by the British Council and Creative & Cultural Skills in 2009. Over forty commentators were asked to present their thoughts on the future of the creative economy.

Four years on, Creative & Cultural Skills have invited those working within the creative and cultural sector to reflect on the myriad ways in which creative businesses, organisations and practitioners have flourished or floundered in a changed economic landscape. Articles reflect on data published by Creative & Cultural Skills in 2012, which suggests considerable resilience in the sector. 

After The Crunch was published in April 2009, in the early stages of what we now know to be an ongoing recession in the UK, and a global economic slowdown. Since then we have drifted so far into what the IMF called ‘uncharted waters’ that we may as well be trying to find our way in a canoe without a paddle.

One message emerging from Creative & Cultural Skills’ research and from our ongoing interaction with creative businesses is that the creative economy remains a dynamic part of our wider economy and society. Another message is that whilst the creative economy looks on the surface not unlike other sectors, on closer observation it behaves quite differently. Furthermore, whilst of course most creative businesses respond in some way to a commercial imperative, the pervasive model of endless expansion and growth as the sole benchmark of economic health could be a red herring when it comes to looking at what constitutes success in the creative economy. We return to these themes in what follows.

After The Crunch: Where are we now?

In the final section of the original book we identified twelve big issues that needed to be addressed to help develop both the creativity and the prosperity of the creative economy. We’ve gone some way to resolving some, but not all of those issues – and in some cases, we’ve moved backwards rather than forwards and the problems are intensifying.

Attempts to drag traditional copyright and Intellectual Property (IP) regimes into the digital world are as fraught as ever. As global commercial players enclose more and more of the world’s intellectual commons, we are in ever more urgent need of a genuinely radical re-definition of intellectual property rights; one that acknowledges the right of access to information and networks as being on a par with the rights of those who own and control data and the networks that carry it. The speed of change in technologies, in consumer behaviours and, most of all, in corporate power, makes it all the more important that governments and public agencies have the agility and understanding to be fully part of the digital world, rather than chugging along at leisurely analogue speeds.

A more positive development has been the way in which new business models and new finance models - exemplified by the bewildering variety of crowd-funding ideas - are simply by-passing the apparent paralysis and self-absorption of the big banks and beginning to create what is almost a parallel economy, albeit one that is still miniature in scale. Importantly, many of these models are not dependent on growth in consumption as the basis for economic sustainability; they look to generate (and value) social rather than financial growth as their key measure of success.

As new research around the world begins to analyse the dynamics of the creative economy in more sophisticated ways, there is considerable scope for these insights to be integrated into wider public policy-making. A true optimist might believe that this trend, coupled with the growing engagement of government policy-makers across the globe with cultural and creative issues, could hold the key to ensuring a bright future for the creative sector as part of the global economy.

Creativity: The Oil of the 21st Century

Sadly, when it comes to a better understanding of how the arts and culture interact with the wider economy and with the economic and social policy functions of government, we are still as far away from anything approaching ‘joined up government’ as we were when After The Crunch was first published. A new jumble of policies has replaced the old ones and we remain stuck in the land of ‘wishful thinking’: children outside the private education sector will not be ready to take up jobs in the creative sector if they have been reared on a diet of sums and spelling. Nor will private philanthropy compensate for losses in public funding for culture, as government increasingly ignores a 60-year tradition of support for the arts.

Meanwhile, international evidence, from the UK and elsewhere, shows that the most dynamic area of growth for the creative industries is in the ‘B2B’ (Business to business) rather than ‘B2C’ (Business to consumer) worlds. In other words the creativity, skills, insights and technologies of the creative sector are being integrated into a much wider set of economic activities and are becoming less and less a discrete sector of the economy providing goods and services direct to consumers. The only possible conclusion is that creativity really is infiltrating itself as the essential feedstock of successful economies – the oil of the 21st century.

Collaboration and Partnership

A number of the original contributors to After The Crunch talked about the necessity of collaboration and partnership as a driver for change in the economy. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in new forms of open innovation in digital content, where collaborative working has been second nature for some time. Here, innovation thrives on the availability of good data and many governments (including, to its credit, that of the UK), together with cultural and commercial institutions, have improved their understanding of how the creative sector works. Consequently, much progress has been made in new platforms, knowledge transfer, open APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) and the like. Of course, some blockages remain: a lot of metadata is in a real mess; monetisation is often a problem; arcane rights agreements remain; and worryingly, new global commercial gatekeepers have emerged to replace the old ones.

Elsewhere collaboration and partnership in the creative economy is on the increase, driven by efficiency or expediency (pooled funding, mergers, back office consolidation etc), the need to address wider social and community concerns, or the creative process itself. Collaboration is almost always a good thing but the plethora of public sector + public sector partnerships does beg the question: are there are easier and quicker ways of getting things done? Whilst eventually coming up with the goods, an ongoing collaboration between two of the UK’s leading cultural institutions – the BBC and the Arts Council - was recently described in a Twitter conversation as “like two whales mating”.

The creative industries are mainly populated by small and medium sized businesses and, just as in other areas of the economy, SMEs suffer from a lack of availability of investment, credit, and tax incentives. Sadly banks in the UK have largely failed to respond to many CI sectors, preferring instead to support what they see as ‘safe bets’, lending against tangible assets rather than cashflow and ideas. Creative businesses themselves are increasingly turning to and often finding new ways of funding their work through angel investors, innovative collaborations, shared resources, crowdfunding, loans from mum and dad, or just plain getting by. Whilst we still await any major breakthrough in public procurement policies, some new government and institutional support in the UK for the creative economy has been forthcoming in, for example, tax breaks for TV production, animation and video games, and CI-friendly initiatives from the Technology Strategy Board. Arts Council England has recently dipped its toe in the water with a Creative Industries Finance pilot scheme.

A Myth of Exceptionality?

Like many who work in the creative economy, our passion for what we do and the way we work can sometimes lead us to believe that we are exceptional and different to everyone else. It is therefore chastening to discover that recent research on the size and shape of the creative economy carried out by Creative & Cultural Skills show that in terms of GVA, productivity and employment, the creative industries are neither exceptional nor in fact all that different to the rest of the economy.

At first sight, this seems to run counter to how it feels to work in and around the creative industries in the UK. Surely it’s all going just great? In fact, if you work within a mile of the Old Street roundabout in East London, we are more than doing just great – we are taking over the universe. Promotion and advocacy is so much a part of our world, it is hard to resist; but it does have its dangers. Dig slightly deeper and different stories emerge of: sudden drops in overseas orders; a decline in net margins and profitability; skills gaps; a growing dependence on public sector or publicly funded contracts; bad debts; disappearing credit lines; and prohibitive public procurement policies. Much of this is of course no more or less than the stuff of business, and successful enterprises will be smart enough to ride this out and the unsuccessful will not. In this volatile environment, shown clearly in the rate of business failure evident in Creative & Cultural Skills’ research, the provision of good information – technical, practical, anecdotal – is more important than ever.

There are some signs in the UK that we are overcoming our allergic reaction to information. Government departments, publicly funded agencies, research organisations and commercial publishers are to be congratulated for the step change in high quality (and mostly free) information provision - The Guardian’s Culture Professionals Network, the Technology Strategy Board, the Creative Industries Knowledge Transfer Network, Mission Models Money, to name a few alongside a myriad of company and individual contributions. There is no uber-editor for all of this material (nor can there be), and blockages, if they remain, are perhaps more in the heads of the readers than with publishers. If we are all to get better at what we do, however, we need to find new models of peer learning, and mutual problem-solving in order to radically reconfigure organisational and business development support within the sector.

A Creative Industries 'Elite'?

In After The Crunch we talked about the danger of creating an international 'Creative Industries' elite. That danger remains, and nowhere more so than within the UK itself. Hard times tend to benefit the haves rather than the have-nots, and the creative and cultural sector in the UK already has a poor reputation and record when it comes to social mobility. As the hard times continue we will need to ensure that a combination of an arts-free EBacc, low paid or unpaid internships, and a lack of information, inspiration and aspiration does not further shut out talented young people born in the wrong postcode. Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony brought together powerful images and sounds from a post war cultural consensus – full of creativity, inclusion and diversity. The process should not and cannot end there. A creative economy in 2020 that still feels like it is dominated by Oxbridge graduates, culturally savvy baby boomers (or their sons and daughters) will surely lack the dynamism we will need for the sector and our culture to continue to change and to thrive.

The Creative Economy: A Model for Adaption, Experimentation and Sustainability?

After The Crunch was about more than just the performance of the creative industries. We were also looking at the creative sector with its characteristic experimentation and adaptability for pointers as to how the wider economy could be different. Our concerns that the economic crisis would see a continuation of ‘business as usual’ have so far been confirmed. A different UK government has continued with what seems to be interdepartmental incoherence, undermining potential development areas such as life sciences, digital technology and the creative industries with an education policy that seems to push creativity and innovation to the sidelines.

Unsurprisingly, the economic crisis has driven the need for growth into the foreground. Government and commentators have become fixated on the growth agenda and labour productivity. But some of our old assumptions about economic growth and productivity can blind us to the potential of what the economist Tim Jackson calls the ‘Cinderella Economy’ of craft, culture and care. Much of the creative and cultural sector is service-based and tends to slow down growth over time because services require irreducible inputs of people’s time. We’ve tended to see these low productivity-growth enterprises as marginal and, consequently, they are largely neglected. But people involved in these enterprises, either as producers or consumers, often gain a greater sense of fulfilment than they would from the relentless pursuit of profit above all else. After the crunch, the creative and cultural sector will have something to offer that will help achieve a sustainable economy and restore values: it will show us ways to make a living that don’t cost the earth.

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Illustrations by Paul Davis -