Creative Industry Paradoxes: New business models and spaces of change

Malu Villela & Alice Willatt, researchers at the University of Bristol working on an IEI Bristol+Bath Creative R&D project, explore the possibilities for new business models in the creative sector.

The creative industries are not short of paradoxes. A culture of flexibility, self-management and creativity exists alongside precarious working conditions, excessive working hours, and a lack of inclusion and diversity. In the past months we’ve spoken with ten representatives from alternative organisations in the Bristol and Bath region to explore whether their business models are more effectively tackling the challenges faced by the industry. Here we discuss our main findings and propose some solutions.

‘Alternative’ business models

What do we mean by ‘alternative’ business models? These are businesses which put social and environmental goals alongside or before profit through democratic ownership and governance structures. They are referred to as ‘alternative’ because of how they seek to distinguish themselves from traditional shareholder-led, profit-driven, mainstream types of business. But the extent to which they manage to move away from this traditional model lies in a spectrum. Towards the more democratic and socially-oriented end, we see cooperative and employee-owned models, whereas towards the more commercial end we can find social enterprises and mission-led businesses (such as B Corps).

Espoused values versus lived values

It’s not always the case that these alternative models behave according to where they stand on this spectrum and the values they proclaim. While these models pay attention to governance, stakeholders and goals beyond profit, they don’t always prioritise the challenges of inclusion, diversity and precarity.

One reason for this is that before COVID-19 the creative industry performed “well” in economic terms. The pandemic has had a higher impact on cultural industry businesses that rely more on on-site performances, such as theatre, music venues and indoor exhibitions, compared to those that have been able to adjust to remote forms of working and digital tools. Also, thanks to the sector’s dynamism, which is often attributed to networks of trust, the creative industry has been quite resilient. However, these are networks with close ties between members and predominantly white, male, university educated, and middle class. As we heard in our interviews in Bristol and Bath, there is a culture of “finishing each other’s sentences” and being always up to speed on how things work. The freelance mindset adds another layer to that – creative workers are thought to be only as good as their last job and often can’t afford the time to get out of their comfort zone with regards to how the industry operates.

These traits turn into barriers when attempting to tackle challenges around inclusion, diversity and work precarity. If the sector is not struggling economically, then the incentive to change is low. One of the suggestions from our interviews was to translate the benefits of embracing inclusion and diversity into economic gains. That would mean making a moral imperative an economic one too, which could be a problem for some people. Surely inclusion shouldn’t be a matter of economic return but one of values, principles and ethical commitments?

Such an idea suggests that the answer seems not to be the business models themselves, but leadership, values and culture. Cultural change can be slow, resisted and contested, but is ultimately needed in order to promote the transformations we need to see. These are times where incremental change will not be enough. We therefore need more individual examples, collective mobilisation and institutional support to prevent staying in the comfort zone.

Embracing inclusion and diversity also means addressing precarity. Not everyone can afford the lack of stability and security of a freelance lifestyle. If the freelance culture proves too hard to change, then some form of guarantee and security should be offered to workers. Their value and importance will only be fully appreciated when the values of the industry are put to the test.

This is not to say that alternative models are not helpful. They provide a good skeleton for change and can potentially contribute to the response. But how far they push the boundaries of their potential and promote real change ultimately depends on what people do, not just the business structures they work in.

Progressive spaces

While our research project has surfaced some of the limits of alternative business models, it also helps us look at progressive spaces within the sector. These are predominantly smaller organisations, many of which are not tied to a corporate profit imperative. It includes organisations such as cooperatives, social enterprises and charities (i.e. Charitable Incorporated Organisations), amongst others. However, their transformative potential resides not only in their structure; rather it lies in how their ethical commitments are met through work practices aimed at building a more just and inclusive creative sector.

We believe these spaces offer a ‘politics of possibility’ for different creative labour practices, first in the way they expose the paradoxes that underlie the sector, and second through their attempts to disrupt and renegotiate exploitative labour practices.

So, what exactly does this look like in practice?

Many of these organisations arose in response to exclusions from the creative sector and are underpinned by a motivation to build alternatives founded on social justice. They are often established by people with lived experiences of exclusion, who have attempted to navigate a sector in which they are made to feel like they do not belong because of racism, sexism or ableism, amongst others ‘isms’. We spoke to several organisations that focus on supporting young people into the sector, particularly from marginalised backgrounds, alongside transforming some of the institutional barriers that prohibit them from staying there.

One organisation involved in programming public art and cultural activities developed a focus on creating spaces for local young people to engage in creative activities. This arose in recognition of the impacts of the past decade of austerity. Cuts to youth services and closures of local community centres have limited opportunities for creative engagement amongst working class young people. We also spoke to youth-led organisations working to dismantle access barriers into the creative sector through programmes that provide sustained support and opportunities for talent development, paid internships and mentorship programmes.

Some of the other organisations we spoke to worked with high profile creative sector organisations to establish greater voice and representation among young, working-class, and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups. One anti-racist organisation works with board members in creative sector companies to open conversations on issues where there has previously been silence, such as Black Lives Matter and the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol. They encourage board members to reflect on how white privilege and middle-class value systems cause exclusionary cultures and recruitment practices. In doing so, they challenge the positioning of inclusion and diversity as an add-on to an organisations work, framing it instead as a social justice issue that requires radical change.

However, it’s not only up to these organisations alone to address issues of precarity and exclusion. As one interviewee indicated, the responsibility of educating white people about systemic racism and white privilege shouldn’t only fall to people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. In any case, many of these organisations are constrained by the funding context in which they exist and compete for survival, which can make it challenging to sustain their work.

Change and transformation

Creative sector unions are also key to confronting the paradoxes of the sector and making transformations towards high inclusion, greater diversity and decent work. For example, the Designers and Cultural Workers of UVC have built worker solidarity and campaigned around issues such as precarity and illegal unpaid internships, and supported studio tenants during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are also a number of national collectives and alliances, such as the Cultural Learning Alliance which brings together organisational members across the arts and educational sectors to advocate for equality of access to arts and culture for children and young people.

While alternative business models offer scope, change ultimately requires action from policymakers to put inclusivity, security and the wellbeing of workers at the heart of cultural production. As part of this process, policymakers must engage with the voices and strategies offered by the sorts of non-profit creative sector organisations, social enterprises, unions and alliances we have talked to in our research.