The different types of economic activity required to create cultural goods and services reveal a great deal about what culture means to London.
By Tom Campbell
How to describe the cultural life of London? As with so many things, it is often accounted for by economics. With a national government determined to prevail in a global race, London has become a ‘cultural powerhouse’ and the ‘world’s leading city for creative commerce’. Such statements are accompanied by a barrage of figures and the key metrics that 21st-century World Cities are judged by: the value of contemporary art sales, the number of ‘filming days’ and the amount of media coverage generated by Fashion Week.
In response, some have attempted to shift from the economic discourse of the creative industries to the more environmental one of creative ecology. As the commentator John Holden 1 argues: ‘Ecological metaphors, such as emergence, growth, evolution, complex interdependencies, systemic fragility, life cycles and webs can be applied to the world of culture and illuminate the way that culture functions.’ But while such metaphors may help us to appreciate the complexity of systems, they can be frustratingly abstract and lack the traction needed when thinking practically about cities. The language is too often imprecise, the policy implications unclear.
Instead, for all its faults, it might be more helpful to stick with the economics: not the boosterism, but rather the approaches that economic analysis suggests, such as looking at the value chain – the various activities that go into making up a final product or service. This may not be a perfect tool for analysis, but when it comes to culture in London, it has evident uses: it offers a way into assessing what is changing, the strengths of our cultural output and what we should be worrying about.
Creative origination: authoring, visioning, designing, composing
Creativity must start somewhere and today it is invariably on a screen. Long before digital technologies transformed the way in which creative products were consumed, they were changing how they originated. The key authoring software programs – word processors, graphics packages, music composition programs – have been so widely available for so long that many creative professionals today have never used the tools they replaced. This has meant a dramatic fall in start-up costs and the materials and resources that London’s creative professionals need to get started.
But, of course, they still need somewhere to live and work – as well as the time to do it. The loss of artists’ studio space over the last decade has become a growing concern, and such is the scale of the problem that the Mayor has convened a Task Force to address the issue.
The rise in property prices has been relentless, with an 800% increase in Hackney 2 over the last thirty years, which has been compounded by national planning policy. As the Deputy Mayor for Culture has warned: ‘Government’s recent decision to make it easier to turn business units into residential homes has led to commercial developers tearing through creative quarters such as Hackney. We could lose a third of all artists’ studios in the city in the next five years.’ 3
Visual artists have particular needs in terms of space and light but the difficulties they face are by no means unique, and much the same applies to music rehearsal rooms and crafts workshops. More generally, there is a desperate shortage of cheap workspace – the term ‘affordable workspace’, based, as it is, on market rates rather than earnings, now only has meaning in the Orwellian sense that it is unaffordable. The image of hipsters sitting in East London coffee bars writing screenplays has become a contemporary cliché, but also points to a genuine problem – artists have nowhere else to work.
Creative production: commissioning, making, filming, recording, editing, producing
It is only when creative ideas get turned into products and services that they start to have real economic traction, which essentially means that they can be measured. According to the latest figures from GLA Economics, 4 London’s status as the leading European city for cultural production remains unrivalled, with a workforce of 575,000 and a turnover of £325bn.
London’s film and television industries would seem to be in particularly rude health, with 96,000 employees responsible for two-thirds of national output. Government policy over the last decade has helped to maintain this level of activity. Although several BBC departments have relocated from London to Salford, commissioning from the BBC and other broadcasters has ensured that television and audio-visual content continues to be produced at great scale. While the coalition government reorganised England’s regional screen agencies into a single entity, Film London has remained an autonomous body and continues to promote London as a centre for filmmaking, helped in part by tax relief for audio-visual production. The studios on the borders of London have been kept busy with the likes of Harry Potter, James Bond and now the new series of Star Wars films.
But every form of industrial production generates employment, and the fact that so many people in London have jobs in the creative industries is only a good thing if the jobs themselves are any good. In this respect content production, and the creative industries as a whole, perform poorly. The proportion of freelancers working in London’s creative economy is at 28%, almost double the average for the economy as a whole, 4 while a culture of unpaid internships, contract work and poor wages stifles access. Nationally, the sector as a whole is a relatively poor investor in skills development and apprenticeship training. 6 Nor is it a workforce that can claim to represent the city’s population. According to the most recent census by Creative Skillset, the Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) proportion of workforce in London’s audio-visual sector was at 8.9% in 2012 compared to 28.8% in London’s overall economy. 7
Creative distribution: financing, publishing, broadcasting
London has always been the pre-eminent centre for international trade and finance, and this is certainly true of cultural products. Boris Johnson was typically provocative but not altogether incorrect when he claimed that The Beatles were ‘made in London’ 8 – for it was only by coming to the capital that the band were able to reach audiences and markets throughout the world.
In the 50 years since The Beatles signed with EMI, London’s capacity to be deal-maker and broker for the global cultural economy seems as strong as ever. This activity is far from invisible: it can be measured in record export earnings for film and television 9 and can be seen not only in Soho’s members’ clubs, but also at London’s highly successful industry trade shows. The London Book Fair is now considered second only to Frankfurt’s, while the Production Finance Market has become, in ten years, an integral element of London Film Festival. In particular, London Fashion Week, for so long the poor cousin of Paris and Milan, has benefited hugely from mayoral support and grown markedly in terms of its scale and industry significance. In September 2015, more than £100m of sales were ordered at LFW, with business visitors from over 70 countries. 10
Whether for novels, fashion ranges or television series, the key decisions around commissioning, selling, financing and investing in culture continue to be made in London – and that is as true of publicly-funded activity as of private. Despite the BBC’s relocation and Arts Council England’s reorganisation of its Grant for the Arts programme, London remains the strategic centre – arguably more so than ever, given the dismantling of the regional agencies. When it comes to BFI spending on film production or the Heritage Lottery Fund, the suspicion that London does disproportionately well (an issue addressed recently by a Parliamentary Select Committee) is unlikely to go away any time soon.
Creative consumption: buying, experiencing, viewing, participating
It is when London’s culture is being enjoyed and experienced that it is most obviously on show. Again, the headline figures are impressive. The West End is rivalled only by Broadway for hosting the world’s greatest cluster of commercial theatres, and collectively attracted a record 14.7 million attendees in 2014, with corresponding box office sales of £624 million. 11 At the same time, the National Theatre is enjoying a period of sustained success, with critically acclaimed productions that often go on to tour the world. When it comes to live music, London can boast Europe’s most popular venue, the O2 Arena, generating revenues in excess of £60m a year. 12
Once again, however, headline figures can give a misleading impression of London’s vitality. More money is made from live music than ever before; but London is losing its smaller music venues at an alarming rate, with the Mayor’s Office calculating the number of venues programming for new music artists falling from 136 in 2007 to just 88 in 2015. 13 Iconic venues associated with central London’s music scene have disappeared, including the Marquee, Astoria, 12 Bar Club and Madame Jojo’s, and the cultural vitality of Soho, Camden and other areas has been obliterated by commercial development. And while West End theatre breaks box office records, the number of original dramas on stage is increasingly outnumbered by musical adaptations based upon Hollywood films and pop music back catalogues.
Much the same could be said about London’s local cultural services. When the Chancellor pledged to maintain Arts Council funding at current levels in his 2015 autumn budget, he was roundly applauded, but the biggest public funder of culture in London is not the national funding bodies but local boroughs, currently subject to the most drastic cuts in living memory. Public libraries, with their statutory requirement, have so far been better protected than other services but branches have closed even so; cultural facilities, community arts projects, local museums and festivals are all being lost. Since 2010, London borough spending on cultural services has fallen from £600m to £400m,19 with even greater reductions expected over the next five years.When it comes to retail, the situation is particularly stark. The retail sector is the UK’s largest employer and the rise of e-commerce hasn’t prevented the development of major shopping centres and flagship stores: Westfield Stratford City is already one of the largest in Europe and, after just four years, is planning to expand. But cultural retail has always been much more than turnover and units. As with small music venues and theatres, retailers have been a means of discovery thanks to their promotion of diverse genres and building communities. On this measure, London’s recent record is dismal, as record shops, fashion boutiques and independent galleries succumb to rising rents, development and chain stores. On a visit to New York in 2009, Boris Johnson enjoyed telling audiences that London had ‘twice as many bookshops as New York’. Any Mayor of London should be mindful of making such a boast now: since then, the number of bookshops has halved. 14
Much the same could be said about London’s local cultural services. When the Chancellor pledged to maintain Arts Council funding at current levels in his 2015 autumn budget, he was roundly applauded, but the biggest public funder of culture in London is not the national funding bodies but local boroughs, currently subject to the most drastic cuts in living memory. Public libraries, with their statutory requirement, have so far been better protected than other services but branches have closed even so; cultural facilities, community arts projects, local museums and festivals are all being lost. Since 2010, London borough spending on cultural services has fallen from £600m to £400m, 15 with even greater reductions expected over the next five years.
What we should value more
Any cursory survey of London’s cultural offer – be it based on geography, sub-sectors, international rankings, turnover, or, in this case, value-chain analysis – can only confirm what anyone living in London already knows: that the sheer size and spectacle of London’s creative and cultural industries is dazzling. Whether we are looking at feature film productions, visitor numbers at Tate Modern or purchases at Frieze Art Fair, London’s cultural riches are justifiably renowned.
It has been easy, all too easy, to declare London to be the creative capital of the world; to pick out figures to underline the claim and leave it at that. But leadership requires far more than mere celebration, and evidence needs to be far more than marketing. It is perfectly possible to acknowledge London’s success while at the same time striving to better understand and address its failures.
These failures are of a particular kind – distinct, without close parallels in other UK cities, but by no means unique among world cities. Eight years after the global financial crash, the problems London’s cultural sector faces again appear to be those of abundance rather than scarcity. There would seem to be no shortage of commercial activity: of tourists wanting to visit London’s cultural attractions, businesses wanting to locate, producers wanting to film and young people wanting to come and study art and design. Rather, the challenges relate to access and fairness, to supporting new talent, encouraging diversity, improving working conditions, maintaining local facilities and restraining a commercial property market that threatens workspace, infrastructure and identity.
The disparities are everywhere: London Fashion Week might generate millions, but some of the models participating in it are paid a pittance. 16
The number of people flocking to London to study art and design increases year-on-year – but it costs more and more to do so. London’s cultural sector is deeply impressive, but more striking still is its contingency: how precarious it is, how fragile and unsustainable. If culture and the creative industries really are as world-beating, unique and essential to living in London as we keep saying, then maybe we should start behaving accordingly.