By Professor Andy Pratt

10 March 2017 - 21:30

'The creative industries are built around people'. Image (c) Unsplash, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.
'The creative industries are built around people'. Image ©

Unsplash, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.

We asked Andy Pratt, Professor of Cultural Economy at City University London.

Why are most creative industries based in cities?

There are two main reasons. First, cities provide the critical mass to support an activity. You need enough people to form a theatre company, or to fill the seats of an auditorium. Cities provide a pool of people large enough to support two or more theatres, not just one.

Second, cities provide a diverse range of skills, ideas and opinions. Artists need the challenge and stimulation of this diversity to produce new ideas and creative solutions. On balance, I think that this is even more important.

Why do creative industries need such huge pools of talent?

Most need a range of skills to go from idea to finished object. Only some artists catch the limelight; many others labour behind the scenes. Film is a good example. We all recognise movie stars, but where would cinema be without the special effects industry?

Often, the skills required, and their application within a particular project, are intensely specific. In the special effects business, there are people who specialise in animating hair in the wind, or the action of water on skin. Camera operators, sound technicians, scriptwriters and voice coaches are all likely to be mixed and matched to their particular forte. They are often freelancers who move from project to project: whoever can deliver the required skill on time gets the job.

Cities, and only a few cities, are the only places big enough to support a population that covers the vast range of skills and ideas that go into producing a new product. This is why creative production works best in cities.

Besides performing or making things, what other creative careers thrive in cities?

Having lots of artists in one place creates other jobs. Organising a lot of creative people into projects is a specialised skill in itself: one much-valued in the creative world. The film director with the artistic vision gets the popular credit, but it’s the producer who makes sure everything gets done, and on time.

Successful creative cities need these ‘cultural intermediaries’: agents and advisers who know the right people to contact and whom to connect with whom. Their networks are based on a tissue-like structure of reciprocal favours and inside knowledge. Deciding on the right person for a creative job is a big judgement call, and their reputation depends upon getting it right.

Why are these less high-profile jobs so important?

Everyone loves the performer on stage. But they are just the icing on the cake. The support team can make a star shine; or, burnish a tarnished one. Where would the film, television, or music star be without a technical team to produce special effects, a backing track, and a video? These are not optional extras. They are an essential part of the cultural experience.

A good agent will not only find and cultivate an audience for a new book or work of art, but will also create the buzz, publicity and sales, and turn these into income. The mythical artist starves in their garret because they don’t have an agent, and they aren’t at the preview party meeting their buyers and audience. Without an agent, the artist has no money and no audience.

People are at the centre of the creative industries. We have all been in teams where, however good one person is, no one gets on with them and problems ensue. Experienced agents and producers can navigate these clashes. They ensure the curtain goes up, the book gets finished, and the product launches before deadline.

Is face-to-face networking still necessary?

As mentioned, the creative industries are built around people, so networking is an important aspect. One might expect that social media would replace the expensive and messy world of in-person meetings. But despite futurologists' predictions that people will move to a cottage by the beach with an internet signal, cities have become more popular than ever. This is especially true for digital media designers, who seem to thrive, as do most creative people, on face-to-face contact.

How important is contact with people outside the creative sphere?

It's no good working in a bubble. Creative people need an audience, and they need critics. Audiences tend to be conservative, but culture relies on new ideas. There is a fine and dynamic balance between stretching an audience, and giving them what they want. The dividing line is constantly moving, so creatives and their support teams need their finger on the pulse of the ever-restless audience.

With all that being said, must everyone move to a city to have a successful creative career?

Creative worlds exist within cities. They operate like organic ecosystems: delicate support networks. However, the cultural and artistic life requires peace and reflection, as well as time in the limelight.

All creative activities are different in their balance. You may develop ideas in a vacuum, in the back of beyond; but even then, most likely you’ll need to find an audience for your work in a city. The audience and your co-artists help you develop. As a developing artist, you learn from others. Even audiences learn from one another. Not just basic skills, but subtlety and nuance. In this sense, artists are always learning and experimenting.

Not all cities are equal. Over time, and through changing fashions, certain cities have ridden the wave of popularity when everything came together. From many examples, we could choose the art salons of 1920s Paris; the cabaret and bars of Berlin in the 1930s; or music and fashion in the 1960s in Carnaby Street, London, or the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood in San Francisco. Usually, this moment is not realised until it’s over, but if you have set your sights on that art form, it helps to be there.

We can’t all be pioneers, and not all audiences like the avant-garde. But some cities do shine at particular times for a specific cultural activity. When a diverse group of talented people intermingle in one place at the same time, creative magic can happen.

Andy Pratt is Professor of Cultural Economy, and teaches on the MA Culture, Policy and Management, at the Centre for Culture and the Creative Industries at City University, London.

Andy spoke at Going Global, the British Council's international higher education conference, from 22 May to 24 May 2017.

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