Poets and Spoken Word Artists Network Survey interim report

Poetry and Spoken Word Artists Network Fees and Needs Survey March 2015 Short Report

We opened the survey on 4th March 2015. As at 14th March 2015 there have been 229 responses (Now 245 at 26/3 after this report compiled). Kate Fox and Tamar Yoseloff began sharing the survey via their Facebook pages and the poetsnetwork@gmail.com set up a week earlier and containing 100 contacts at that point (Now 149). We asked respondents to share with other poets and spoken word artists who do (or want to do) paid work and it has snowballed through networks. The intention of the survey was to get an initial snapshot of poets greatest concerns re fees and also to see what, if any, role they might want a poets network to play in their professional lives.

SUMMARY

“Poetry is a job, like any other writing job. We have worth, like any other writer. We need paying. We do not live on fresh air. The words don’t write themselves.”

“The culture of not paying excludes artists from less privileged backgrounds from being heard.”

“I’ve been performing my poetry seriously since 2007 but have been running workshops since 2003. As a single mother with little support and money, doing gigs was virtually impossible. Fair payment would dissolve some of these barriers and make performance poetry a profession rather than a hobby for more people.”

The survey shows widespread confusion around fees and widespread support for a group taking measures to reduce this confusion in the form of suggested pay scales. There is acknowledgment and caution that this would need to be handled carefully as open mike events are an important part of the ecology of the scene for poets/spoken word artists. However, professionalisation means that the scene is able to be more diverse and not restricted to only people who can afford it. There is a great call for poets to be more valued by funders, promoters, the media and society. For there to be greater awareness of what poets and spoken word artists can offer. It could be suggested that at the same time as putting forth the ask- of clearer, fairer fees, then an offer is put forward too. Whilst acknowledging that a strength of that offer lies in the diverse, creative experience of poets, writers and performers and it cannot be summed up in tick boxes or universal qualifications. There is a general good will for working poets and spoken word artists to be able to connect with each other and share information. Therefore it is proposed that A volunteer working group put together a draft code of practice and pay guidelines to be voted on by members of the collective (members are currently those who have joined the poetrynetwork@gmail.com list). That some names be proposed for the network/collective and voted on. How important is the “working”, “paid” or “professional” element in changing perceptions of poetry as a hobby? That a website with a forum be developed as a public way of displaying and disseminating the pay scales/code of practice and allowing members to share best practice. (How will this be funded?). That relevant funders and bodies, particularly ACE, NAWE, Poetry Society, Society of Authors and unions Writers Guild and Equity be kept informed of the network and the code of practice/pay scales. That further discussions be had about the constitution of the network. Informal collective? Led network? Independence and transparency seem key. Is there a way for it to be member-run without an unpaid burden falling too heavily on members? Should there be a monthly newsletter? Who would have authority to issue press releases? Should there be face to face meetings organised? How could online forums and voting tools make this a possibility? That membership remain open to poets and spoken word artists who are, or want to be, working writer/performers. That membership is regularly surveyed or polled on matters of relevance including the running of the collective. That volunteer members offer to share advice and support based on the code of practice/pay guidelines to members who feel they’re being treated unfairly by employers/potential employers.

Geography of respondents

There is a wide geographical spread of respondents. The greatest number (44) in Yorkshire. 20 in London, 22 in the North East, 20 in the North West, 28 in the South West, 14 in the South East, 7 in the South, 18 in the Midlands, 10 in the East region. 10 in Scotland and 5 in Wales. Although this spread could be even more diverse (and no Irish respondents currently), it does illustrate how online means of communication and voting could be particularly valuable. Apples and Snakes and The Poetry Society have their bases in London and, arguably, this impacts on their ability to be perceived as representing poets nationally. We have not, at this stage, asked for gender, age or ethnicity data from our respondents.

Poets/Spoken word artist spread:

22% describe themselves as professional poets. 8% as professional spoken word artists or performance poets. 12% as semi professional poets, 17% as semi professional spoken word artists/performance poets. 18% as emerging writers or artists. Of the 19% who ticked “Other”- half of these responses included the word “Poet” among usually two or three related titles such as academic, writer, promoter etc. Poet or performance poet can be loaded terms. Many of those ticking poet will have performance as a significant part of their activity- many of those ticking performance poet will also publish. Arguably this is a time when the traditional boundaries are becoming blurred as live literature becomes an increasingly important part of the poetry world. Another way of asking this question may have been to ask how great a proportion of their income is poetry-related. It looks like about a third of our respondents are full time and supporting themselves solely via poetry-related activity. Five per cent have been doing this less than a year, 33% for between 1-5 years, 26% for between 5-10 years, 10% for between 10-15 years and 24% for more than 15 years. There is a wealth of experience here. Though for over a third it is still a “new” path. This survey has currently not asked what may be a key question around what poets annual incomes actually are- and whether they are rising or falling.

Type of Work:

The main types of work cited were readings/performances (readings implies from a book and performances implies memorised work but many performance poets have books and many published poets perform). Also teaching and “workshops” either of adults or in schools. Naming their primary paid work, 36 said teaching, 29 said workshops whilst 46 said performances and 38 said readings. 16 mentioned commissions and residencies. Naming secondary paid work 25 respondents specifically cited “Festivals” (some music, some literary, most did not specify). There were 49 more mentions of workshops, 21 of commissions and residencies, 16 more of teaching, 12 of readings and 21 of performances. For most poets/spoken word artists their work consists of an ecology of readings/performances and education work of some kind. It’s no surprise that actual money from publication was rarely mentioned. Around twenty people mentioned project management and poetry promoting as part of their paid work. It is the distinct reading/performance/education mixture that means existing writer-focused organisations don’t always reflect the mixture of work that poets and spoken word artists do and the way that their work might depend on some degree of validation from publication (or from promoters) but the publication does not in itself generate significant income.

Do you have a set range of fees?

Strikingly of the 190 people who answered this question, nearly half of them (79) said no. Many added that they took whatever was offered or whatever they could get. 11 more said it was arbitrary or varied considerably. Many said how hard it was to set or negotiate fees. 22 said confidently that they did and named them. 7 more people cited Arts Council recommended fees (which have not existed for over a decade). 10 said they took their fee guidelines from their peers. 14 more cited other guidelines including Society of Authors, Writers Guild and Scottish Book Trust. Fees for readings were more liable to vary than those for education work. Around school workshops or education days a figure which came up a number of times (22) was £250, named as a day rate. Several respondents mentioned the falling fees in recent years and over 36% had never raised their fees: “£200 per day min, but I have to accept less on many occasions. Works out around 150, which is what I was earning about 15 years ago” Many respondents talked about the extreme variability of fees they set and were offered: “My earnings from artistic activities go up and down as erratically as the value of the Euro” “I have found this really hard. Workshops is better and easier to quote a set fee but gigs / commissions vary massively and I’ve never really known what to ask for. Have been ‘told off’ by people ie Southbank for quoting too low for work Workshops – £250 half day, £400 full day (after doing it at about £150) for a good few years Gigs – ranges from nothing, just travel (always expenses) to £500. I hate quoting a fee but if I do (and know the festival etc is funded and not charity / struggling etc) then I quote £300. Manager quotes more. Commissions I tend to just take what is offered as I don’t know how to work it out and write quickly. This has ranged from nothing to £8000.”

Working for free?

Many respondents said they worked for free, most often to benefit causes they believed in but which didn’t have money or to help a night start up or a poetry friend (55), for charity (37), for profile or experience (28), to promote themselves/books (8) and for local events (18). There is a lot of pragmatism around this: “Yes – it’s a form of gift to the/a community which I’m happy to offer. But if it’s in a context where other poets have been or would be paid then I expect to be paid too; the actual fee obviously depends on the kind of budget constraints the organisers are working within.” and “Yes, if the event in question is not charging the audience and I support what they are doing. I draw the line if the audience are being charged, even if the organisers have a lot of overheads I think even a small payment as a gesture is vital.” It would have been interesting to ask here whether requests to work for free had increased in recent years as anecdotally several respondents said it had. A few respondents referred to having a set proportion of their work they offered free. This response was typical of the spread of events that someone’s goodwill might cover: “Yes. Friends events Local events a lot or local youth groups Youth clubs – did year of free weekly workshops last year Some charity gigs ie Amnesty International young poets judge. Mainly if it involves young people” Despite this, or because of this willingness to give their time to benefit what they perceived as worthy, cash-strapped causes, poets and spoken word artists overwhelmingly referred to fees when asked what they would want a poets network to say and to whom. We could have asked questions to elicit more of the problems it causes such as: “My publisher expects me to, so I’ve stopped doing it because I can’t afford the petrol to the venue and the overnight stop at a hotel and then the petrol back.” “I feel like I’m doing pretty well – perhaps in part because my work crosses into theatre/playwriting, which is paid better. Only occasional frustrations with festivals like Latitude where the ‘fee’ doesn’t even cover transport expenses”

A collective voice saying what to whom?

137 people responded to this question. 53 fell into the category of saying we should ask funders for fair pay/ a fee. 16 explicitly asked for published minimum fees and 20 were in a broader category of making a plea for poets and performers to be valued for what they do and for this value to be communicated more widely. There was an overwhelming sense of unity of voice here: “Pay poets! Far too many festivals ask for poets for free. These are both large and respected festivals and smaller volunteer-led ones. Sorry, but if you want poets, please pay them or increase the funding you apply for to also give respect and payment to up and coming or less well known poets, not just your blockbuster headliners! Too many of us are too generous and do too much for free. I completely understand small, local events/open mics with no budget or funding cannot always offer payment, but big ones or long running ones should know better” “Don’t take the piss and use the excuse of ‘lean times’ to pay people a very small fee. A Leeds museum recently offered 125 a day for a writer in a project they were advertising. This is a 1990 fee. Also I feel experience is not rewarded. And application deadlines are ridiculously tight. ‘If you get the job, the project starts in 2 weeks…’ “ “Poetry is a job, like any other writing job. We have worth, like any other writer. We need paying. We do not live on fresh air. The words don’t write themselves.” “The culture of not paying excludes artists from less privileged backgrounds from being heard.” “I’ve been performing my poetry seriously since 2007 but have been running workshops since 2003. As a single mother with little support and money, doing gigs was virtually impossible. Fair payment would dissolve some of these barriers and make performance poetry a profession rather than a hobby for more people.” “To the Arts Council-the position on fees needs clarifying To Arts Council and the general public; that poets merit the respect accorded to other art forms in that their work involves their time and expense and that they should be rewarded accordingly.”. “That writers cannot work for free any more than anyone else can. That the lure of selling books is not enough – it often doesn’t materialise” 
Some wondered if a network could act more directly: “The pay issue is one thing that obviously needs to be addressed, but more often than not I’m just desperate to get some paying work of any kind. So maybe a spoken word agency or some other help might be useful?” “Creating a comprehensive touring network with established structure of fees. This would involve co-ordination with venues and promoters” “Advice on negotiating fees for poets with Festival organisers, schools, funded bodies etc. Perhaps also articulating what poets need / want for professional development from national / regional organisations like Apples & Snakes.” “I get asked to do a lot of readings free for no particular good cause. I think they should be made aware that this is not good practice and that I can tell them this with an organisation’s support.” Several notes of caution around alienating the open mike scene: “Need to address concerns to Funders, festival organisers etc. focusing on small events/organisers would be problematic, not least because many of these organisers (like me) are poets too!” There were also some pleas for a general raising of standards in the field and for disability access to be addressed more strongly. “we need to raise industry standards, dbs, liabillity insurance, utr, self employment , good practice”

What should a network do?

There were a few strands of consensus here too -also around fees and the wider issue of the sector being valued and advocated for. “Lobby for payment for all poets in any form of performance” “Focus on all aspects of activity not just performances” “We need to have a voice that is united. That is respected by the sectors that we operate in.” 74 called for the publishing of pay scales (many suggesting sliding scales relevant to people’s experience and profile, several suggesting codes of practice). “Promote the fact that we need to eat” “Disseminate information about fees and what one should be offering in return.” “Establish set fees for workshops, performances etc. with sliding scale depending on qualifications and/or body of work and experience” “Act a bit like a trade union to raise profile and get solidarity on fees etc” 23 suggested advice on pay and other practical matters would be useful. Returning to the issue of poets being valued 28 made calls for campaigning and advocacy for the sector, Several comments along the lines of how if there were pay scales then funders needed to understand how these had been calculated and the value of what poets had to offer. “Present poetry as something that can be accessible and valuable.” “Create an established set of ideals for the professional poet” There was also a strong call for peer support and information sharing – from 38 people, which connects to a call for support and training for newer and existing poetry workers (15) and opportunities to collaborate and share best practice (6). “Inspire each other and share good practice” “Share information and success stories so people can use the same arguments/reasoning/terms.” There were also a significant number of suggestions for a directory of poets (11), a directory or network of touring venues (13) and opportunities to have work brokered by an organisation. It may be that organisations such as Apples and Snakes fulfil some of these roles. Organising an organisation? 76% of respondents said they would be willing to pay a fee to a professional organisation assisting or supporting poets – 23% said they wouldn’t. This question was originally asked with the possibility in mind that an existing body eg the Poetry Society might possibly be interested in taking up some of these services. An average fee they said they might pay was around £25 p.a. Looking at other recent initiatives (eg the Artists Union), the creation of a union can be expensive (around £5k) and require thousands of members to make services like insurance, pensions, legal advice viable. Currently 41% of respondents pay money to a professional organisation. Mostly (41) to NAWE- with many citing the Public Liability Insurance as their reason for membership and finding it valuable. There were 9 Poetry Society members, 5 Equity members and 5 Society of Authors members. Plus one A-N (artists network member), one NUJ member, one Society of Editors and Proofreaders member. There were also some calls for the network to have an AGM, be constituted and communicate regularly with members.

Conclusions

The survey shows widespread confusion around fees and widespread support for a group taking measures to reduce this confusion in the form of suggested pay scales. There is acknowledgment and caution that this would need to be handled carefully as open mike events are an important part of the ecology of the scene for poets/spoken word artists. However, professionalisation means that the scene is able to be more diverse and not restricted to only people who can afford it. There were many more comments like this:

“I think the big thing really is about fees! knowing what you can charge. I have held back from asking so many times what i now realise is a totally acceptable fee. Am really pleased someone’s done a survey like this!”

than cautionary notes like this: “I would rather not see a militant guild blocking the way of people starting out by forbidding them to perform free if it’s offered and if they so wish. Each performer makes a choice of where and when to perform and the best performers graduate through hard work (and some exploitation, admittedly) to the position where they are in demand for their powers of entertainment. To force poets to pay a union fee to perform would be to exclude many”

but both points of view must be addressed. A few people said things like: “This is a very welcome move. But poets are a not very clubbable constituency, so good luck!” but what is noticeable particularly in reading the comments under what a network could say and to whom and what a network could do is the strength of the call for more clarity and fairness around fees, even in the face of a current culture that means this is not the norm: “Well done for tackling this thorny issue. I think the biggest stumbling block is that there are sooooo many poets out there who are quite willing to do lots of gigs for free, which makes it so much harder for those of us who don’t want to do this/can’t afford to do this”. There is a great call for poets to be more valued by funders, promoters, the media and society. For there to be greater awareness of what poets and spoken word artists can offer. “It’s made me think about value: how money is part of how we value artists.” “Need to discuss in general how can poetry/spoken word be more sustainable? If every city had an open mic that could pay a decent fee how would that effect the poetry landscape in the UK? Can every city achieve this without funding but good marketing/management? What can we do to develop NEW audiences? Both engaged arts seekers who go to other artform events but also people who are disengaged?” whilst again, some caution over the limits of this: “Poetry organisations have been presented as petty/unpleasant/absurd in the national media over the last few years – Poetry Soc and Poetry Book Soc. and there will be people who want to make a news story out of ‘jumped up/ petty poets’. I think it’s a delicate thing and I would be more in favour of a network that inspired change in the members, more than something that demanded change from organisations/those who aren’t members.” It could be suggested that at the same time as putting forth the ask- of clearer, fairer fees, then an offer is put forward too. Whilst acknowledging that a strength of that offer lies in the diverse, creative experience of poets, writers and performers and it cannot be summed up in tick boxes or universal qualifications. There is a general good will for working poets and spoken word artists to be able to connect with each other and share information.

Therefore it is proposed that:

A volunteer working group put together a draft code of practice and pay guidelines to be voted on by members of the collective (members are currently those who have joined the poetsnetwork@gmail.com list).

That some names be proposed for the network/collective and voted on. How important is the “working”, “paid” or “professional” element in changing perceptions of poetry as a hobby?

That a website with a forum be developed as a public way of displaying and disseminating the pay scales/code of practice and allowing members to share best practice. (How will this be funded?).

That relevant funders and bodies, particularly ACE, NAWE, Poetry Society, Society of Authors and unions Writers Guild and Equity be kept informed of the network and the code of practice/pay scales.

That further discussions be had about the constitution of the network. Informal collective? Led network? Independence and transparency seem key. Is there a way for it to be member-run without an unpaid burden falling too heavily on members? Should there be a monthly newsletter? Who would have authority to issue press releases? Should there be face to face meetings organised? How could online forums and voting tools make this a possibility?

That membership remain open to poets and spoken word artists who are, or want to be, working writer/performers.

That membership is regularly surveyed or polled on matters of relevance including the running of the collective. That volunteer members offer to share advice and support based on the code of practice/pay guidelines to members who feel they’re being treated unfairly by employers/potential employers.

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