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Inequality Poisons the Creative Sector, Too

David Callahan

After years of freelancing, a journalist friend of mine recently landed a great reporting job that comes with a nice salary and benefits. Another friend's book broke out in a big way, such that she can now command five-figure speaking fees. Still another friend, an academic, has turned into a star dean at a major university -- with various perks. 

Meanwhile, though, I know any number of creative types who are just scraping by: journalists who can't find staff jobs and freelance at rates lower than 20 years ago; talented novelists who can't sell their new manuscript because publishing has become leaner and meaner; academics who are stuck on an adjuncting tread mill; television writers who once were on hit shows but now can't find work. 
Welcome to yet another sector where inequality has grown markedly in recent decades: The creative sector. 
Of course, the big gaps in income and security that I'm seeing among my friends are nothing compared to other parts of the creative sector. Most actors are unemployed, while those at the top command $20 million a picture. Most playwrights can't make a living, but an Off-Broadway hit can net a fortune. Most musicians struggle to survive, even as some become global superstars. And so on. John Grisham probably made more money last year than every writer in Brooklyn combined. 
This is hardly a news flash. Robert Frank and Philip Cook wrote about these huge gaps among talented performers across many sectors in their 1996 book, The Winner-Take-All Society
Still, my hunch is that most members of the creative class don't think the inequality debate applies to them, exactly. It's about CEOs and fast food workers, not your successful and unsuccessful classmates from J-School. I also suspect, based on lots of anecdotal interactions, that creative class types tend to do that classic American thing when they find themselves struggling financially: Blame themselves, rather than structural factors. If only they'd played their career cards betters, they would have broken out like so and so. Or they shouldn't have turned down that job to write a book. If only they had worked harder to market their Indie film. 
That's a poisonous way of thinking, one that breeds regret, envy, low-self esteem, and depression. 
It's also wrong. When enough stories keep piling up of so many people facing the same hardships, it's time to look closer at the underlying structures -- like the pathetic level of government support for the arts, the disinvestment in higher ed that's led to belt tightening, the erosion of rent regulations in urban areas, the absence of affordable healthcare or childcare. 
What we have, really, is a Darwinian creative sector. Some people survive and thrive, but the odds are stacked against most people. If we don't want a creative sector then, fine, leave the structural drivers untouched. But if we do want that richer society, we need to defend this sector. 
After all, going to law school isn't a backup plan anymore for the artsy crowd, now that that sector is falling apart, too.