‘There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money, either,’ Robert Graves once famously said. With spoken word often now hailed as the new rock’n’roll, though, is it still the case that poetry is never going to be a moneyspinner? I frequently meet shiny-eyed young people who are attracted by the glamour of performance poetry and who seem to think that it’s going to be a fast-track route to fame and fortune.
But, then again, I am also surrounded by poets and promoters who grumble a lot about how hard it is to keep going, about how every day is a struggle to juggle their art with their day job, about how in the YouTube, Spotify, Pirate Bay economy everyone wants something for nothing and about how it’s harder and harder to convince people that poetry is a product worth paying for. Plus, poetry has long been notorious as the ultimate self-expressive art form that has more practitioners than punters – poetry “audiences” are often more attracted by events that give them a chance to get onstage and have their work heard than they are by the chance to listen to someone else.
This question is of particular topical importance to me, as I’ve just resigned from my day job, because I want to concentrate more on my poetry. There is no question of my not getting another day job, alas – I don’t have that kind of money and I don’t have a partner or a family to support me – but the idea is to get one that is closer to an urban centre where the action is and/or leaves me more time to produce, perform and promote my poetry. I may be deluded in taking this step (several friends and family have already told me I am, in no uncertain terms), but I am sick of being pulled in too many directions and if I am going to continue to feel underrated and overlooked, I at least want to feel I have done everything in my power to change the situation. Also, I have a book coming out later this year, which has also made the question of “How easy is it to get punters to part with cash for poetry?” pertinent for me.
Should spoken word audiences pay to see poetry? Well, why not? Most spoken word nights with internationally known headliners charge between 5 and 10 quid, which I know is still going to put it beyond the reach of some people on benefits and low incomes (I was long-term unemployed when I took up spoken word, so I REALLY know), but is a tiny fraction of what you’d pay to see a world-class musician or actor, and not even the most vehement class warrior argues that gigs and cinema tickets should be free. Also, promoters have to cover their costs some way and if they don’t charge, they won’t have money to pay their featured artists. If no-one can earn a living from it, it will become a hobby career open only to affluent middle-class dilettantes funded by the Bank of Mum and Dad.
Should performers always be paid? I still accept unpaid gigs occasionally and frequently accept bookings where my travel/accommodation expenses exceed the fee I’m paid. That’s largely because I am a childish, approval-craving attention whore, but it tends to be mostly when I know the promoter is struggling to break even themselves. Does it make me look like an amateur who doesn’t value her art? Am I allowing myself to be exploited by fatcat promoters? Am I making spoken word look unprofessional? Is it one of the reasons why I am not taken as seriously as poets who issue “I won’t get out of bed for less than 50 quid” declarations almost from the day they take up spoken word, when they’ve barely got together enough poems for a set?
Because let’s not forget the promoter in this equation. Yes, some do take the piss, but many are working unpaid themselves or even find themselves out of pocket, once the overheads have been paid. Sometimes it’s because they have no business skills and aren’t running their night in a professional enough fashion, but often it’s because they are the meat in the sandwich between audiences who are reluctant to stump up cash, artists who sometimes see a paid set as a chance to test out unrehearsed, weak first drafts of new material, and venues who charge to be used, gazump them at the last minute in favour of a more lucrative music booking and/or constantly hassle them to get their audiences to spend more at the bar. At one gig I headlined a while back, the promoter split the door takings 50:50 with me. He hesitated, “Of course, I could give it all to you….but, to be honest, I probably put more work into tonight than you did.” And he’s probably right.