It’s a dirty story of a dirty man… Should writers be funded like symphony orchestras?

Over on his Cultural Policy Reform blog, Ben Eltham has put forward an argument for an organisation to employ writers in the same way that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra employs musicians:

[T]he Sydney Symphony Orchestra is a very important provider of salaried jobs for artists. This is an economic difficulty for the orchestra, because musicians’ wages are a significant cost. But it is a wonderful outcome for the musicians employed, who have steady jobs with salaries paid every fortnight, plus superannuation, sick leave and all the other normal conditions of full-time employment.

There is no comparable organisation that pays writers in this way in Australia. Why not?

It was circulated with praise among the arts writers, but would it work?

Eltham’s analysis skips over why orchestras employ musicians on steady contracts: an orchestra doesn’t work if you don’t have musicians.  When the Sydney Symphony Orchestra releases a season’s worth of dates for performances, they want to know that they are going to have the best musicians to perform.  Therefore, they employ them.  They can issue instructions about what material will be performed, and they can sack them if the performances are inadequate.

But Eltham’s proposal wants the benefits of employment without the consequences.  In exchange for a steady salary, superannuation, and sick leave, you give up autonomy and independence.  The violinist in an orchestra can’t decide that they want to perform something edgy and new in the middle of a performance.  Do we want writers similarly constrained?

It turns out that this proposal of Eltham’s already exists in various forms.  Media companies employ storytellers as ‘staff writers’ to work on projects that require a mix of skills.  You can get a job writing episodes of a soap opera, a satirical news show, &c., &c., &c.  In exchange for a steady salary, you give up creative freedom and write to spec.

Eltham’s proposal would inevitably result in a company who churned out pulp paperbacks (probably for e-readers to reduce printing costs).

It’s not a stupid proposal, but is this really the kind of literature scene that we want in Australia?  Do we really want literature produced in Australia the same way that symphony orchestras produce theirs?

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