on paying for an arts education

I could talk abut Trump in a grump, but World + Dog is at it, so I’ll do some retiree navel-gazing instead. Yes, I’m relieved to be shot of the narcissistic psychopath in the short term, but still fearful of the poison he gave licence to. A lot of people thought he was so good at his job that they wanted more of it, the pushback was a blue ripple, not a wave. There’s a message in that signal that bodes ill for 2024 IMO, so I’ll celebrate a reprieve, but not trumpet a resolution for now.

So I will talk about life beyond the 9-5. And how Covid helps clarify some things and mess up others.

living well in covid confusion

Well, obvs #1, try not to get it. Many people’s lives make that difficult, but for a retiree it isn’t that tough.It’s the whole K shaped recovery thing – there are many people who are really suffering. And others who are doing OK, I am fortunate enough to be in the latter camp.

Covid has buggered up recreational ideas, which is a pisser because it’s the first year for a long time when I have an answer to the question how much can I spend – pretty much all of my pension. Before it was always ‘as little as possible’ to try and bridge the gap between leaving work and getting the pension. We were toying with going to Paris in March, glad we didn’t book that. In general, I book nothing. If an opportunity presents itself, I will pay over the odds to do it. That’s not what the economy needs, but sod it. Book nothing…

I still remember the tale of one fellow at work who had been on holiday with his family to Morocco or something like that when the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland grounded flights ten years ago. He was spitting bricks because if cost him over five grand and an extra week to get ’em all back overland, plus extra accommodation costs.

It’s not that I can’t afford that. But it’s not what I want to spend my money on. And from enough experiences of having gutrot or the flu in hotels when I was travelling for business I don’t want to fall ill in foreign parts. So I haven’t been abroad this year, and that’s OK. And that was just flu and gutrot. I really don’t want to fall potentially life-threateningly ill in foreign parts, even if the revolver has 99 empty chambers…

So the answer to living well is different these days. It also makes for a wider reflection because of the narrower experience.


As it turns out, because Covid stopped many other things I’d like to have done I have started working, at a relatively low level. I am doing some engineering/CAD work for a small firm. I don’t need the money, but I am solving problems, it is mostly in a computer, and I learned some new stuff. Crazy old world, eh. In the absence of Covid, I am still of the opinion that if the best thing you can think of to do with your time is working then perhaps you lack hinterland, but on the other hand these are unusual times and one should deploy resources where best they can fit. This works for me. I am, of course, sore because I pay 20% tax on the entirety of my work income because my pension already takes me over the personal allowance. First world problems, eh?

Now Monevator bangs the drum endlessly that you should never give up working, because otherwise your brain rots and drips out of your nostrils. I haven’t gone over to his way of thinking at all.

I understand – The Man sucks – but it’s not a good reason to quit working. Especially if you’re impoverishing yourself for the rest of your life to do so.

Reversing this, the money I do earn isn’t enriching my life either. It’s the absence of other options due to all the other shit that’s going down this year that makes that attractive. I can never earn enough to appease these fears. This is because they are recordings of ancient stories playing out- hearing my German great grandmother relate losing her life savings. Twice. If I went back to work for The Firm I couldn’t earn enough to forestall that sort of incoming grief. We’re talking Peter Thiel prince of darkness sums to be able to buy the NZ island retreat. Even assuming that I could do that, there’s one small problem. I would have to become an evil shithead like Peter Thiel1, and I don’t have the talent, and I’m not sure I have that level of Ayn Randian sociopathy in me. I am an introvert, and while the introvert stereotype is the shy, dangerous loner with a gun  I am not a sociopath.

The other points Monevator raises about working at home sort of  hold. I am a right pain in the arse for people to get hold of, because I am not in one place at one time, and I don’t have a mobile phone implanted. If I am in the lab I can’t use Zoom because the computer there isn’t hard enough to run Zoom, and anyway you don’t want to be interrupted if you are developing some circuit and it’s being ratty. If I am out on the Somerset levels for a walk you can’t get hold of me because: no mobile phone. OTOH I am reasonably responsive by email. I’m not being deliberately obstructive, but I seem to have skills and originality valuable enough for people working full-time to be prepared to put up with my working pattern. And if I say I will do something  I will do it, or flag up showstoppers. And I am flexible, and capable of lateral thinking. Because I am very part-time, I can reflect on things and seek solutions which full-timers are too run-ragged to wrangle. So it is a win-win in the face of Covid limitations. Covid also made me think about other things in life, in the way an increased presence of death does 😉

Q what is creativity?

A the relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

early passive income successes

The Ermine is biased towards the sciences, by inclination, by education, by career. Oddly enough, early in my post-work ‘career’, it was in the arts that I made money, at that stage my investments didn’t return enough to help much.The shock of an instant-off to what had been a decent salary was massive – all of a sudden I had decent savings, some tax-embargoed. And hardly any income, but I did have some. I didn’t recognized it as ‘passive income’ because it didn’t fit any of the classic personal finance models of the time. The FI/RE community is not biased to the arts 😉

I earned money through writing2, I earned money through stock photography, and I earned money through field recordings, more particularly sound effects (SFX).

How come, after all it’s not something I have shown previous form? Because my exit from the workplace was a rout, not a controlled descent, it shattered my view of the worth of my primary skills, which are along the thinking/academic3 axis. People under pressure tend towards binary thinking, and for me it was working full-time on a decent screw at The Firm, or it was working minimum wage at Tesco, I could not see any shades of grey. The loss of this primary function4 made way for the inferior function of feeling, which as a very broad approximation mediates the arts among many other things.

I did not leave work with enough5 to bridge the eight-year gap, so the fearful early me searched for solace in the chimera of passive income. Oddly enough, the arts have some semblance of passive income because of the way intellectual property is viewed in Western culture. It’s a hard row to hoe for many reasons, and I am still not quite sure how I got away with it. But I did, because I was given grace in those first years of leaving work, until the stock market crawling from the wreckage of the GFC could take over. It was the stock market that did all the heavy lifting, but it took about five years for the ISA income to cross the totemic point of being more than JSA. That was a concern in 2010, where I hadn’t made it, though I was still working. I cleared the more income than JSA bar in 2015, three years after leaving work

Back in the day, passive income used to be a big thing in the FI/RE world, presumably until people realised that passive income meant an awful lot of work up front, and if it was mediated by platforms, your passive income had a half-life of about three years before the platform went titsup or got taken over. The grand-daddy of passive income is a stock market portfolio of ~25 times your desired annual income, but that’s a  really big ask, so in the FI/RE world we hung our hats on other so-called passive income streams that were easier to achieve. The classic passive income streams of yesteryear were:

  1. Buy To Let (leveraged on a mortgage). How the hell people didn’t class wrangling with tenants and fixing houses as work beats me, but anyway. If I had a penny for all the people who said property is my pension, you can’t go wrong with bricks and mortar, I would be rich as Croesus by now. As someone who had battle-tested how to go wrong with bricks and mortar early in my career I couldn’t see the attraction. BTL was finally pasted by the demise of the tax breaks that privileged BTL slumlords over people who wanted to borrow money to buy a house to… boom-tish… actually live in it. There’s nothing wrong with BTL if you are rich enough to buy the house outright, it is BTLers fighting real people wanting to buy their first houses in the mortgage market with the unfair advantage of not having to pay tax on the interest that was wrong. The problem here was regulatory hazard
  2. Matched Betting. Also looked like work to me, the upside was you could do it at home. The down side was you felt a little bit bad about fishing in this pool of sewage, and the risk of screwing up was high for people without OCD. You’re basically arbing one big number against another one cancelling it out. It’s picking pennies up in front of a steamroller, I’m just not a careful enough worker for that to be safe in my hands. Other people make it work. It’s extractive, but you can’t feel too bad extracting money out of bookies, or rather their punters by proxy. regulatory hazard is a problem here too, because betting really shouldn’t be allowed on that scale, and historically in the UK it wasn’t. To that should be added technological hazard, because I assume bookies are paying bright minds in AI to run matched bettors out of town by spotting them and shutting them down.
  3. Spam Kindle ebook writing. As a Kindle customer I reserve a particular place in hell for the people who churned out tripe which made it harder to find books worth reading on Amazon. Presumably Amazon jumped to this too, because it’s not a problem any more. Trying to charge people real money for pay by numbers tripe is cheeky, particularly when you try and masquerade as a useful source of information, padding out an index of attractive chapter-heads up until the end of the free preview and it’s followed by padding. Looks like the clockwork stopped on one major protagonist, who also charged people to learn from him how to…get rich writing crap Kindle books. Let’s hope he got financially free by his target age. technological hazard writ large. Betting that you are smarter than Amazon is a fool’s game…

All of these were extractive to some extent, good while it lasts. BTL lasted until there were enough people taking the shaft from buy to letters that even the Tories saw that tax-favouring people front-running first-time buyers  was evil and not a long-term vote winner as the shaftees started to outnumber the shafters. MB is an arms race between the matched bettors and the bookies trying to shake them off their backs, one that so far the matched bettors seem not to have lost yet. The rubbish Kindle books presumably collapsed when Amazon got AI onto their platform because they don’t want too many customers getting pissed off with their purchases on Kindle. That’s the trouble with a lot of “passive” income – when the mother lode runs out your passive income dries up. There is no safe withdrawal rate from that sort of income, because it’s living on borrowed time.

Compared to the extractive nature of those sorts of things, royalty income for minor creative works is relatively benign. It’s always puzzled me that passive income tends to mean skimming in the FI/RE world. I guess we have a bias towards the sciences and tech so it’s not the obvious route.

There is an argument that writing for a content mill fell into the parasitic category, and sure enough, I got my comeuppance about four years later when the business model went titsup when Google cut the operation off at the knees. Nevertheless, making a few grand out of the operation was more than I got out of matched betting, and a lot less like hard work, and I felt less filthy afterwards. I had no money capital value at risk, either, although of course my time on this earth is one stock of capital that was consumed a bit.

For photography and audio I used iStockphoto, which got subsumed into Getty images. I wasn’t really a strong enough photographer to do well at stock, certainly not enough to make a living. I’m not sure anybody makes a living at microstock, because the business model is a little bit evil, it borders on the vanity publishing of the photography world. But it paid for the hobby, when you are newly out of a regular paycheque is no bad thing to sweat existing assets. I had spent too much of camera gear while working because I was a geek, and it was actually getting the kit out into the field and using it that made the difference in getting better pictures. A better camera means you can make pictures under more varied conditions, but most of the effort and money should be invested in getting the damn thing in front of interesting stuff. Again, like the writing, I did learn something from producing for a market rather than as a pure hobbyist.

I was a competent field recordist, albeit very much on the technical side. My revenue followed Zipf’s Law, however – one recording made the lion’s share of my revenue. I never really understood enough about how people used these short clips to be able to target subjects better. And my edge was probably that I had decent gear and knew how to use it. Some subjects simply can’t be done with a handheld recorder and a cheap and noisy microphone. That recording was technically quite difficult to make, and although the talent was common, it was difficult to manage,

Anyway, Getty music has got out of the SFX biz, so my ten year run is at an end. But since there is a global pandemic on, and the SFX field recordist has a dislike for the presence of other humans6 with their wittering, noise and clobber, I wondered if this is perhaps an opportunity to try and learn something and develop the inferior function. I am also mindful of a commenter from a while back observing that scientists and engineers do their greatest work in the first half of life, but artists can improve through their lifetime. I am not in the first half of life…

the arts is a foreign country, they do things differently there

Nearly all sound recording is pressed into the service of music or film. Even there it’s shockingly tough to make money in it. It’s slightly easier to make money in these fields as an engineer/tech/operator than as an artist. The starving artist in a garret is a cliche because it’s common. The world is awash with starry-eyed young folk who call themselves film-makers, though they sometimes have limited control of both their story and their tech. But it lets them express their dear little selves. Art delivers part of its pay packet in terms of meaning and expression, but the trouble is a lot of art has meaning only for the artist originating it. Which is why it isn’t always terribly good at paying the rent. This comes as an unwelcome surprise to legions of meeja studies graduates, because while there are examples of where art pays the rent, only good or great art resonates with enough other people that they sponsor it. Many are called, but few are chosen. Right up top in prospects.ac.uk

The creative industries are competitive, so use the skills gained from your media studies degree along with personal determination to succeed

Ermine Translation of ‘personal determination’: If you are rich enough to consider your degree part of the entertainment budget, and Mom and Pops are rich enough that you can spend two or three years working for free (called interning) in London, one of the dearest cities in the world to live, then knock yourself out. Everybody else, save yourself fifty grand and a shedload of heartache.

Elizabeth Gilbert would not approve of my cynical curmudgeonliness. She had a whole page on trying to shut down such naysayers. But she would say that, it’s not like she is a resting actress down to her last ten bob, eh? Maybe it’s different in America. But it’s a recognised problem over here. They are also rampant lefties but I guess you knew that already. It tends to go along with being skint 😉

Some of these young media studies pups also need to pay attention in lectures, or mebbe even show up. If you are interviewing someone and your mic is on the camera then either your microphone is in the wrong place or your camera is.

The Ermine has a thread of philistinism running though his lopsided one out of Two Cultures bias. For example, when I was working as a studio engineer in BBC TV’s White City complex, the Television Centre bar was a watering hole common to the engineers and the arty sorts. Every so often I would hear someone waxing lyrical about theatre and how absolutely fantastic it was, while bemoaning that the pay was absolutely crap, that this was for people doing this occasionally in London’s West End, not some provincial repertory. They’d do some TV to pay the bills while ‘resting’ 😉

I have great admiration for my younger self’s restraint in not asking the obvious question after eight pints of whatever, broadly along the lines ‘if it’s so fantastic then why are people not prepared to pay a living rate for it then?’ I’ve been to the theatre on about three occasions spaced out by a decade. Every time I did it I came away with the feeling ‘why do people do this, now that we have invented movies to make sets look less kludgey and scene-changes work right?’

Up and down the country, there are am-dram societies putting no end of work and time into staging plays. I can only presume that the experience is rewarding to them.  There’s nothing wrong in hobby acting, but it doesn’t pay the bills. You wouldn’t expect to make a return on fishing, or model railway building either. Theatre is one of those artistic endeavours that seems terrifically rewarding to do. To consume, not so much. There are 4500 cinema screens in the UK, and about a quarter that many theatres. QED.

One of the things that has always done my head in about the arts is its relation to pay. If you engineer/design a product or service, in general if it sells then it does something for the user. If it doesn’t sell, it’s considered a failure. For a good artist, it seems that it first has to do something for the artist – express something within themselves, the search to be witnessed is secondary to communicating something. If it doesn’t then it will probably end up pablum. I saw this in my content mill days – occasionally I would write something to meet some minimum delivery requirement. It was always crap, and monetized poorly. So you can have a successful piece of art that just lets the artist express themselves, even if nobody is prepared to pay for it. That is not necessarily a failure, indeed some art is only considered great posthumously.

Mrs Ermine improved my art appreciation no end when she shared the concept that you shouldn’t look at art purely along the lines of ‘do I like it’ but more along the lines of ‘what does this tell me?’  – if you think it sucks but you look at the world a slightly different way mediated by that, then perhaps it has done its job.

I still struggle with that – suffice to say that I don’t think I am ever going to go to the theatre again in my life 😉  But it has helped me open up to some material where I would have just passed it by.

As a sound recordist, I favoured accuracy 7, but people often use field recordings as part of telling a story. Either in film, or increasingly in video games. I have never played modern video games – I used to play the odd shoot ’em up on an old Atari 800 in the 1980s but I don’t do that now. Not because I think games are terrible, but I am not young, so I do not have the loads and loads of time people tend to put into that. I’m not sure that video games are necessarily an art-form, but on the other hand perhaps they are very much so – a different form of story-telling.

Something else about the arts is that there is a lot of baggage – you need to know the vernacular of that genre to be able to appreciate the content. I don’t have the right sort of education or background for that sort of thing. I pass CP Snow’s test of having read some Shakespeare, but  I have read only 13 out of Penguin’s 100 must-read classic books, for example. Slightly more worryingly, I have given up on quite a few, literary talent is thin in this mustelid.

Google can tell me how to make something. It can’t teach me the language of the arts

Up until now, I have taken the line that if I want to learn something new, spending time with Google and armed with an inquisitive mind is pretty much all a fellow needs. So far that has served me well. It worked well in my last few years at work, it solved many problems at the farm, I have stayed generally with the twists and turns of Web design. It’s a shame that so much instruction has gone towards YouTube these days, I hate learning anything that way, I far prefer to read about the principles. Science and technology is easy with Google. For example if you want to know how quaternions help you rotate stuff in 3D and avoid gimbal lock, Google is your friend. One of the few examples where YouTube works rather better than text 😉

Most days I have learned something new and one of the good things about being a mustelid of leisure is that it doesn’t have to be useful or directed.

Conversely, I am terrible with MOOCs. I just don’t stay the course. I hate the pacing, often glacially slow to start with, the faux-interaction with others. It is possible that I am culturally unattuned to modern teaching. It is over 30 years since I last darkened the halls of a university, and over 40 years since I matriculated at what was then called Imperial College of Science and Technology. To me MOOC pacing stinks, and I am used to yearly exams, not itty-bitty coursework. I did okay on a MOOC learning how to use R, but the government futurelearn digital skills course on how to use social media for business bored me shitless in about a week, so I quit. And the pacing sucked. It is possible that my problem was I didn’t have anything to sell and wasn’t that interested in social media, but hey, I am not a statistician, or writing 3D software so I will never use quaternions for anything. I retained interest long enough to at least feel good that I understood it while they were talking.

However, Google failed me in teaching myself to read anything academically written about the arts. Sure, the words pass my eyes, and each one I can understand or look up each and every one of them. But I read such papers like a nervous rat in a maze, skipping ahead, searching back, trying to distil understanding from an alien world. For instance, I found Michael Gallagher’s publications less impenetrable than many, but Listening Geographies is still tough sledding for me.

I did learn something from it though – as I walk through the Somerset Levels I become more aware of the interrelationship between places and the sounds. Enough to investigate when I heard the sound of water running where I was not used to it, and then to investigate how the Somerset Drainage Boards try and keep this water in the right place.

I’d say the Somerset Drainage Boards Consortium keep their water in the right place with the help of some fine Dutch engineering

With the help of some fine Dutch engineering from HC Waterbeheersing by the looks of it. So I could temporarily shift my consciousness to a artistic sensibility, though I didn’t really understand what the heck he was on about. I’ve walked past that thing many times without observing it or asking myself how the heck does that happen that the water isn’t up to our knees on a regular basis.

Now realistically my professional sound recording career has gone with the closure of gettymusic. Most sound designers now either shoot their own SFX or they use libraries, it appears bought from individual recordists than from aggregators.

This surprises me. After all, if I am some young sound designer working in post up against a deadline I would have thought I want one large library, but clearly the economics of the business didn’t work at scale. Or it’s just too hard to locate the sort of sound I want in a large collection – searching for a particular type of sound clip is notoriously difficult, there is no competent audio search engine.

I don’t want all that overhead of selling the brand of me, I liked the faceless anonymity of Getty. So what I really ought to do is to return to being a sound hunter8, and carry on as a hobbyist. Most of what I record is humdrum, it is evocative for me only. Some of it is more widely evocative – on 11-11 it seems apposite to hear the sound of a Spitfire flying over England’s green and pleasant land

It is ML407, the Grace Spitfire, noodling over the Suffolk countryside. Apparently you can get 425 mph out of these things, which is most of the way towards the speend of your Easyjet flight to Ibiza. It’s quite remarkable something which is towed by a spinning bit of wood. Kind of heartwarming that replacements are made in Germany these days, although concerning for the state of British manufacturing 😉

keeping the learning curve vertical for the hell of it

But that way lies stasis. I want to learn something new. Goldsmith’s College does a 10 week course in an Introduction to Field Recording. Now I know most of the early part, and from my previous rant about MOOCs, I’d be in trouble, though I have much to learn from week 1 and 2 which are the arty meaning sort of thing. Week 3 and 4 will be a dead loss for me. The practicals are lost with online, but the last four weeks are what I want to learn, because I always stopped before the composition stage.

So the question I have to ask myself is do I want to spaff £300 on what is basically a MOOC, in a field where I have spent several decades showing no aptitude for? Playing on the weakest string, the inferior function

Also it’s on Zoom, FFS. I will look different from all the other students. They will be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, dreaming of great things as a sound designer in the already oversubscribed media industry. There will be all these bright young things, and a cynical grizzled mustelid with streaks of grey hair. Look at the pictures on the ASD website. Nobody over 40 😉 Looks like I need to watch it with that attitude to theatre, too!

educating ermine – the business case doesn’t stack up

In my work using the primary function of thinking, an inquisitive mind and the trusty sword of Google and the most mind-bendingly aggressive ad-blocking and cookie-destroying plugins serve me well. Strictly speaking the sort of engineering I am doing now isn’t something I’ve ever done before but I have been able to learn how to use the tools and I am adding value and solving problems.

In the inferior function this is not enough. I cannot compose discrete sound element parts into a whole, and I am unable to derive how to do that from YT videos. It is, of course, possible I have no talent. That would be the obvious conclusion for ‘why have I never gone further in several decades’. I am very unlikely to recover the £300.

So I’d have to file it under entertainment budget. And I have spent many years being cynical about the value of paid-for university education, along the general lines of that Monevator fellow.

But the Ermine snout is curious. One of Carl Jung’s ideas was that the process of individuation was the gradual integration of the opposites. Perhaps the inferior function that was written off early on wants to go to university. I am not short of £300, so perhaps the primary function’s cynicism about the value of an arts college experience is irrelevant. I don’t need to make a career out of it. I am not 19 and starry-eyed, thinking I will be the next [insert name of current celebrity here]. The business case doesn’t stack up at all.

Maybe the signal I am hearing is of that unvoiced part, saying

“I was there when all seemed lost. I held the flame that gave irrational hope among the wreckage when you left work, a trickle of passive income that slowly grew. I forestalled the total surrender, I am the strand of the wire that did not fail under the load, because I was not the part of you that established your career.

And now, because symbolically my apparent value has come to an end as these earnings cease, because you know the price of everything and the value of nothing, I ask for a channel that the river can still run towards the sea. I have been despised and never regarded, but I am part of the whole, and I share the inquisitive nature of the primary function, but in a different realm.

And over the eight years my earnings worked quietly and steadily. They never amounted to much in any given year, but when you compute the total they are about half of your last year’s working salary. I want recognition, so for a moment, still the cynicism you share with Monevator.”

Anyway, it wasn’t a less time-consuming arts degree, let alone something deeply spurious like a photography course or a diploma in fashion

“You are cynical because you repudiate the life not lived. I am always the shaded pole, but I have carried the torch across the darkness before, when the primary function failed. At school in the Lower Fourth (key stage 3 Year 8 in modern parlance) when you fell to rank 31=31 in the class in many academic subjects you came first in art9, much to Dad’s annoyance, because the shaded pole became unshaded when the primary function went. You had cleared the de facto 11+ entry exam, but it untempered the mainspring. I took the lead in that troubled year, before the fire returned for your O levels.”

“You have seen many people become ossified as they refuse to change across the first and second part of life. I am the skull in the picture because no traveller on the path of life reaches the other side intact if they have thrown something of themselves overboard in haste to gain speed.”

Perhaps I should find the £300. Not because it will restart my moribund sound recordist’s earnings. Not because I will make a £300 back with what I may learn. The shaded pole paid its dues – all the gear is bought and paid for many times over, but like the primary function the shaded pole wants to learn, and perhaps it needs to learn that in the normal way that my primary function despises. Still grates to pay for arts education, though, because I have long held the view that artistic talent is innate, if it’s there it will out.

Thunder on the horizon

It has been a strange year, one of greater hazard, one of more general angst among  many people, and an awful lot of real distress and tragedy. I have had good fortune that I am less exposed than many. I rolled back the stone that jammed work, but perhaps in doing that I destabilised something. Perhaps the unvoiced inferior function feels the echo of what happened in the GFC, and demands to play its part for the sake of balance. Maybe it senses the distant sound of thunder on the horizon.

I opened Iweb for the first time after the election, and thought holy shit, something has screwed up. The excitement isn’t particularly in VWRL, though that is doing well enough, it is in the investment trusts, where someone seems to have stuck a rocket up their backsides. I don’t really understand why there is this skew, but then perhaps at the moment nobody knows anything.

The one thing I do know is that markets are either too high or the value of money is dropping like a stone. This really isn’t right. I am uneasy about both things that seem to be driving the euphoria. The Covid vaccine is good news, but even if it sorts the problem 100% much lies broken and ravaged. The answer to why are the markets higher in Q4 2020 after a year of value destruction than they were in Q4 2019 isn’t that everything is tickety-boo and going swimmingly after a great and productive year.

Many things are deeply borked, and solutions are being sought along some strange axes. For instance the Tory Northern Research Group is banging the drum for

building up a research capacity, and looking at how the north can be turned into a ‘globally exporting superpower to drive Britain’s economy forward after Brexit’.

which sounds great, but I would say a universal basic income is probably a better way to improve the lot Up North, because after 10 years since the financial crash the idea that work is the way out of poverty should be classed as religion, not evidence-based policy. The modern world needs smarts that are above the level of most of us, and the bar is rising. I am not smart enough to work for Google in research, though I was smart enough in the past to work in industrial research. The difference isn’t that I have become shit for brains, the difference is that globalisation means the competition is a lot harder. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the assumptions we made when the economy could find productive work for most of us need to be re-evaluated.

Pandemics accelerate social change  – perhaps the Christian West got a boost from one pandemic at the start of the Dark Ages. Niall Ferguson would go on to claim that the Protestant Work Ethic derived from that after a thousand years was one reason is why the West owned all the things up until recently. But there was a fair amount of collateral damage.

As for t’other reason to celebrate, there is this issue

Let’s hope it’s a matter of “I’ll be back”, rather than “I’m still here, whatcha gonna do about it?”

  1. See also Thiel’s fellow sociopathic PayPal alumnus Elon Musk. ‘Evil is strong in these padawan, it is’ 
  2. somewhat to my shame for a content mill, but it was a decent run while it lasted. I still can’t write a decent headline to save my life, but I did learn something from some basic targeted discipline. And I did try to add value. Was it art? Probably not, but if Dickens got paid by the word and is considered art, I’ll have a bit of that. I did reclaim some of these articles then the site went titsup, and one of them is still the goto article on why one type of sound tech sounds shit if you plug it into your mic input. 
  3. academic as the sort of thing you get a leg-up at university, not academic as in being a professor 
  4. Primary function in Carl Jung’s terminology is the  most differentiated, in me it is thinking and analytical, which is fitting for someone who worked as an engineer. The corresponding inferior function is feeling, which I would say mediates artistic sensibility and expressivity. I have used Jung’s terms here because I find his model useful. Any capability that lies unused has hazard in it, it can easily become destructive. Part of the aim of individuation is as you go through like is to integrate the various aspects of the Self. 
  5. Enough being defined as as enough cash to clear the gap at a minimal rate of spending. Something will Turn Up, Mr Micawber. It did, but there was more luck in it that was initially apparent 
  6. Oddly enough some of the field recordings I am most pleased with as derivé feature humans, but you can’t use them for stock audio/SFX because you need model releases and all sorts of argy-bargy. So as a professional field recordist I don’t like humans. As a sound hunter, they’re fair game 
  7. to my simplistic mustelid mind accuracy is does this darn thing sound like it did IRL. I have read a lot of academic critique that challenges this, saying by choosing your moment or letting the helicopters fly by before pressing record you are distorting reality in a different way, and separating sound from the environment does violence to the notion of accuracy in a different way. I couldn’t work out whether these guys were really onto a truth I could only see dimly or if they were simply overpaid trustafarians, since everybody in this biz seems to be sponsored by some arts organisation. At least they made me think I guess, which is part of the job description of the arts. 
  8. in the Karin Bijsterveld sense of the term rather than the early years spelling program. It’s surprising that post-war manufacturers expected people to create using their tape recorders, rather than tape their records which is what happened. The irresistible attraction of the lowest common denominator is strong in tech users still now. I recall the tail end of this from my schooldays, and it influenced radio programming, much more so in mainland Europe than the UK, though Radio Ballads like Song of a Road by the BBC about the construction of the London-Yorkshire motorway (now knows as the M1) show the slow pacing and unusual production of mixing with tape and the discrete production in those days. We are much more used to layered production now, and this is something I never learned. 
  9. And first in physics. Which puzzled the teachers, crap at most  subjects apart from opposing the ends of the spectrum, If you are going to have a teenage crisis, the L4th is a good year to go off the rails – enough to establish some competence in the third form so they don’t kick you out, and getting it out of the way before you start the first set of formal exams (O levels at that time) 

39 thoughts on “on paying for an arts education”

  1. As all artists should know, the parallel lines of a train track do not cross. The same can be said of the sun, that it doesnt do below use, it is just our perspective.
    How is it then, that so many people believe they live on a spinning ball when we use Euclidean Geometry!?

    Very interesting article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would like to see that inquiry too. Into how we can pay so much money to Dom’s mates and get so little in return? Aren’t these dudes meant to be masters of Big Data and Big AI. Similarly McKinsey are supposed to be the creme de la creme and is seems they can’t manage to keep a fart in a paper bag. Mind you, I’ve always had the view that management consultants are way overrated. It’s dead easy to point a finger at what’s wrong with something, but actually making it better needs a much different skillset. I really don’t think the world needs more people that can move fast and break things, we’ve had quite enough of that sort of things to be going on with.


  2. My favorite Physics professor at Queen’s just passed away at 91. In reading his obit I learned that after retiring from a career of scientific teaching, he went back to school to get a B.A. and M.A. in fine arts. I’m sure he didn’t make any money at it but it cemented his reputation as a Renaissance Man. Lifelong learning in a life well-lived.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Most days I have learned something new and one of the good things about being a mustelid of leisure is that it doesn’t have to be useful or directed.”

    I think that you hit the ermine on the snout there. Even as a man of leisure I still like to think that I can solve problems and learn new things. The fun bit is that none of them are of the type – “How do I deliver this next week when the customer is still moving the goalposts?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. > hit the ermine on the snout
      be careful out there. Needle-sharp teeth 😉

      Initially I thought you had to go nuclear on your career. Since then I’ve come to the conclusion you have to always be able to go nuclear on working. It’s the power structure that’s a bastard. They can make You do what They want because dreadful shit will happen in your life if You don’t do what They want. Like sleeping on park benches, or your kids going hungry.

      As soon as it doesn’t matter a toss the power balance improves no end. Of course, there is the ancillary argument that there’s no point, possibly other than in a global pandemic where you are thin on other options. I don’t even mind if the customer moves the goalposts. They’re paying for the extra work/time 😉

      Mind you, if there’s ever a whiff of KPIs or all hands events or some sort of outward bound event with everyone singing Kumbaya I’m out of there yesterday!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting piece, and lots to ponder here. My first instinct was for a career in the arts, where my strengths probably lay, but I also understood from a pretty early age that I had a strong need for financial stability. It was pretty obvious that there would always be a tension between those two things. So I moved in the direction of steady work that paid well.

    I was very successful in my career at the intersection of finance with law, though it was not the career I had originally dreamed of. Looking at friends who followed the arts dream, do I wish I had followed it too? To put it bluntly: no. I’m happy I took the path that gave me financial security and the opportunity to retire somewhat early, rather than having to negotiate a more precarious financial path and eventual retirement. Covidworld has thrown that into even starker contrast.

    I was always able to enjoy participating in the arts as a hobby while I pursued my ‘bread head’ career, but could not of course have done it the other way around! Friends with careers in the arts never seemed significantly freer from job frustrations than I was, nor any less hard-working (or necessarily more fulfilled). The biggest difference seemed to be income. I’m not persuaded that the people who purport to make a living from their arts-based internet ventures are actually doing so – I reckon the truth is that a large proportion of them are supported by parents or partner (or shore things up with McJobs on the quiet).

    But Ermine – as a theatre performance junkie, I’m shocked by your indifference to the theatre ;). To me, live drama performance is like live music performance – a one-off piece of magic that film and CD/vinyl can never really rival. The west end theatre (when it’s open…) is one of the good things that keeps me in London.

    Jane in London

    Liked by 3 people

    1. > To me, live drama performance is like live music performance – a one-off piece of magic

      What can I say? Philistinism runs deep in this one 😉 Mind you, the question the younger ermine never asked out loud still holds – if this is so damned great then how come punters ain’t prepared to pay enough for it to pay its way without Arts Council this and Arts Council that?


      1. Well, two (of many) answers to that are:

        (a) many art forms are inherently expensive; an orchestra could easily cost £30,000 a day for players, admin and other costs (room hire, music hire etc). That’s for a fairly standard 60-ish piece classical orchestra. If you want to play something big, like Mahler, you need a lot more people and, therefore, money. Two days (1 x rehearsal, 1 x performance) are required for each concert. So that’s £60K just to cover the costs of getting the main body of performers onto the stage. Add fees for a conductor and soloists or other artistic contributors, marketing / promo, venue hire, venue staff, transport, equipment and general overheads to that for an overall figure, and maybe call it £85K. Concert halls typically have a capacity 2000 or less, because if they were any bigger, people at the back wouldn’t be able to hear (it’s an acoustic art form). That’s £51 a ticket (including VAT at 20%) on a completely sold out show, just to break even. And of course you can’t budget on selling out every time – 75% would be more accurate – and you need some less expensive tickets for audience development, or you’re doomed to inhabiting an upper middle-class ghetto. Hence, subsidy.

        (b) artist development; for example, an organisation I work with is developing a new work by a really exciting young artist with big ideas who works in film. The bare-bones budget for the project that he wants to make is £60k (down from the 100K that he originally asked for). The artist doesn’t yet have a big audience, although there is increasing awareness of him in visual arts circles, and as he hasn’t yet made the work we don’t know exactly how it can be (ugh) monetised. The type of situation is commonplace – basically, he needs the cash to make the art, so that we we can build the partnerships and profile that is required to get wider public attention, and eventually, we hope, income that will offset the initial investment. But there are no guarantees. Hence, subsidy.

        Your argument works for things that are already established and known quantities. But the arts and artists need innovation and risk and surprise, or they will slowly wither to a calcified core of crowd-pleasing predictability.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Intriguing. Although they took a lot of flack, didn’t record companies, for instance, manage to address this problem through the talent-spotting/advance and contract system? Recording studio time was very dear, so the company ate this cost in return for a share in the future income stream, though most acts bombed.

        There’s always something that slightly sits ill about the poor subsidising the interests of the better-off London intelligentsia, although it’s probably not up there among the most egregious perversities of the taxation system. And it does colour the world a less darker shade of grey, which has value in and of itself.


      3. I thinks it’s best to view a lot of Arts Council funding as similar to investment in infrastructure or education. We make money back on the investments in the arts. A lot of theatre and music does turn a profit but the investment from the government in smaller works helps foster new talent to keep the sector healthy in the long term. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uks-creative-industries-contributes-almost-13-million-to-the-uk-economy-every-hour

        Liked by 1 person

      4. @WMM it’s quite fascinating wants’ included in that report. F’rinstance P11 How is the Digital Sector defined?

        Manufacturing of electronics and computers;
        Wholesale of computers and electronics;
        Publishing (excluding translation and interpretation activities;
        Software publishing;
        Film, TV, video, radio and music;
        Computer programming, consultancy and related activities;
        Information service activities;
        Repair of computers and communication equipment

        Nobody can argue with Publishing and Film, TV, video, radio and music but the rest I would classify as business and engineering. And as for Gambling being part of culture, please, noooooo!


      5. @ermine The report looks at all sectors covered by DCMS but the press release I shared specifically talks about the Creative Industries which is £111.7bn in 2018 not the Digital Sector (and doesn’t include gambling or telecoms or various other areas you mention). Of that £111.7bn: £9.3bn (8%) is Music, performing and visual arts and £20.8bn (19%) is Film, TV, video, radio and photography.

        >If this is so damned great then how come punters ain’t prepared to pay enough for it to pay its way without Arts Council this and Arts Council that?

        I agree that going into the arts is unlikely to be a get rick quick scheme for most performers but there is still a lot of money to be made and plenty of art does pay its way. The West End and touring theatre is a profit making machine and has made its investors very rich (Cameron Mackintosh the theatre producer is worth ~£1.28 billion).


  5. Fabulous read as ever and I am not sure what my learning style is anymore, just know I am finding it increasingly difficult to operate new TVs and gadgets etc, which is rather worrying.
    I know what you mean about the theatre, though I still enjoy the experience. One of my adult son’s recently persuaded me to watch Hamilton the musical on the Disney Channel. Wow, it was fantastic both for the music and the story of one of America’s founding fathers. I am now reading Alexander Hamilton’s biography. Have listened to the songs hundreds of times on Spotify since. Worth a listen to even if you don’t watch the Musical. Would definitely go and see it live if I could.


    1. I’ve seen Hamilton live. It was a family outing I was not sure about at all and I didn’t want to go. I detest rap. It seemed very ‘American’.

      It was amazing. One of the best things I have ever experienced. It is one of the rare things that really does live up to the hype.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. An interesting read as ever. That field recording course does look interesting – I suppose if you think of it as £30 per session it is not so bad and the guy is qualified with experience rather than just some random person on YouTube. Like you though it would irk me that some of the sessions that are mostly the tech stuff I would not really need or I could learn elsewhere quite easily. There’s also the possibility of interaction with other attendees which I have enjoyed on some photography workshops with small numbers of people – but a course on Zoom, not so much! I have done some Zoom things in lockdown and all the attendees have to have their mics and video off for performance reasons, so all the interaction goes through the person running it and depends on who they allow to talk. On the other hand, I have probably done some learnings and presentations on Zoom (mostly photography related) that I would not have done in the Before-Times because it would have involved a long round trip driving to a venue.

    I have been trying to learn some intricacies of Photo and Video editing packages in lockdown and also found most of the learning hits are on YouTube. For some things what I found is it can work well to reduce the tedium if you playback the video at 1.5x speed – on some things it works a treat and on others it sounds like they’re on Helium!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s the trouble with MOOCs, once you fall off the wagon it’s hard to get back onboard. OTOH perhaps it’s better if you are paying for it… I’m sure I do have lots to learn on the etch side, but perhaps not from an entry-level thing. I’ve queered my own pitch by being more ahead technically but a noob artistically. Oh to be starry-eyed and at the get-go, eh? Mind you, I think I am with Jane

      I’m happy I took the path that gave me financial security and the opportunity to retire somewhat early, rather than having to negotiate a more precarious financial path and eventual retirement.

      > I have done some Zoom things in lockdown and all the attendees have to have their mics and video off for performance reasons

      I am cheered by that- perhaps I wouldn’t stick out quite so much as the old man in a group of millennials!

      > It can work well to reduce the tedium if you playback the video at 1.5x speed

      To my embarrassment I didn’t realise this was possible, thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ahhhh the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine – now there is something to hear/see/feel!
    When we do get over the Covid thing, I would urge you to seek out the RR heritage centre(s). There is one in Bristol – so not too far away from you. They are not regularly open to the public, but they used to have annual open days. You will need to keep an eye out for the open days as they did not advertise them much. Whilst I cannot speak for the RR HC in Bristol the one in Derby would fire up a trolley-mounted, yup that is correct a trolley-mounted, Merlin approximately on the hour throughout the day and you can get up pretty close and personal. Free ear plugs were also available.
    I have also been lucky enough to witness fly overs of an Airbus A350 accompanied by a Spitfire and the Boeing Dreamliner with a Spitfire too. Whilst the modern jets are eerily quiet the Spit can be heard long before it can be seen – very weird!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah – the video & soundtrack are not so great – but they do convey some of the experience.
        What a video could never convey (even if perfectly shot/recorded) is how it feels – which is something you can only experience. The pressure wave and low frequency tones really do do something to your guts. A bit like live music as somebody said earlier. One of the most memorable rock concerts I ever went to was the original Black Sabbath farewell tour (some time in the late 70’s) with a relatively unknown support band that really blew them away – a very young Van Halen! At that time Eddie (GBHS) hid behind the speaker stacks with his back to the audience most of the time – so nobody could see how he played. Truly, an unforgettable experience!


    1. I had the incredibly good fortune to witness (see/hear/feel) the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight fly straight over my back garden on its way to the Southport Air Show. They were so low I could have counted the rivets. Not 1, but 6 Merlins. What a memory!


  8. Haha, I think you’re more of an artist than you admit – and a performer at that! 😉

    Because this more reflective instance of the Ermine rant genre reminds me of Ronnie Corbett sitting in his big chair storytelling 😉

    On the subject of art, I either decided or more like read once that the (okay, a) point of art is to make you see the world with new eyes.

    So when you write…

    “I did learn something from it though – as I walk through the Somerset Levels I become more aware of the interrelationship between places and the sounds.”

    …I believe that’s the sort of thing art does more than we appreciate. Counter-factual, imagine living in a world where you never sort paintings, movies, sculpture, architecture, or any words but an instruction manual, and then think how narrowly we’d see the world?

    I think we’re all trained by art to see deeper in the world.

    But what do I know? I stare at numbers half the day… 😉

    Thanks as ever for the links.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pay the £300. It sounds like you’ve spent a good few hours evaluating whether to do the course – and that thinking time is not without cost. The worst that will happen is that the course isn’t for you – and you will have spent £300 learning that if nothing else. I used the how much is my time worth calculator on Clearerthinking.org – and it turned out that I valued it at around £100/hour. I no longer spend more than about 10 mins thinking about a £20 purchase.

    I am the grizzled beard among a group of 20 somethings in one of my regular classes. It turns out they are a welcoming bunch and not without insights of their own.

    On theatre. I can only imagine you have not taken part in immersive theatre. One of the most memorable experiences in my life was chasing a group of actors around the grounds of a ruined castle as they tried to solve the mystery of the Hound of the Baskervilles on a summer’s night. I’m pretty sure no cinema or VR experience will touch it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. > that thinking time is not without cost.

      True, but I learned something about myself that I did not know before. That has value. It’s not so much about the cash, as about some of the unwritten assumptions I had, perhaps unspooling from very long ago..


  10. About couple of decades ago, back in that particular Tory-gifted recession of the day, I was in Bristol doing a conversion degree and in our little group of not-cool misfits, an older guy shyly joined. We were early to mid 20’s, he was an unreconstructed, gruff ex-miner from Ooop Narth and so obviously felt really awkward to the extent that being south felt like another country to him and he was nervous of the locals. Though he couldn’t have stuck out more, we were also all fk’d in our lives at the time and there because we were so desperate to kick start our careers, so we all got along fine, quickly realising that being human binds more than divides if you can get over the Farargiste superficiality.

    Though seriously lacking in life experience, we sensed how courageous he was to go back to the drawing board at that age and really respected him for it. He in turn could teach us the difference between theory and practice, crucial life lessons that were massively helpful if you paid attention, like ”There’s no point being perfect at the work if you’re dismal at the politics in a workplace setting, because you’ll never get to show it, or people can choose to not see it”
    So on reflection, as with all diversity, having an age range in classes teaches more, I never fully realised it back then.


  11. We too were on a family holiday in Morocco when flights home were cancelled by the Icelandic volcano and took a week to travel home overland. We took the night train from Marrakech to Tangier, via Casablanca. We then took the ferry to Algeciras (which required all of our Dirham, Euros and Pounds, literally left with a single penny – they wouldn’t take cards). A bus to Malaga, the train to Madrid, from where no further public transport was available. Some enterprising students on a university rag thing hired a coach and we went with them to Calais. Ferry home and then train and coach to pick up the car at the airport.

    In Morocco, we had been to the Sahara, the Atlas mountains, ridden camels, been in the Souk in Marrakech, driven quad bikes (a big deal for 9 and 10 year old boys). The part they still remember as one of their favourite childhood holidays, was not the stuff in Morocco, but the adventure of travelling home, and in particular playing cards (and learning swear words) with a bunch of students.


  12. Thanks for writing this.
    As someone with circa 20 years to go and two kids to offload before he hits pensionable age and no work at present, poor prospects but enough mullah to keep the wolf from the door, I loved it.
    I’ll read again mid week but it is nice to think that an old ermine can learn new tricks.
    The same vs. Isa was class – I might write a post on that once I check my future career options.


  13. Methinks the ermine doth protest too much…

    About the reasons for your return to part-time work, that is. I was interested in your comments because I have recently been feeling similar stirrings. I stopped working about 6 years ago, and the first few years were fine, but I’ve also recently been thinking about taking up some work again. Not in my original field (IT) because the caravan has moved on, and I am over 60, and I doubt if I could remember enough to hack it even if there was work out there. But something.

    It’s not easy to pin down the reasons for this. The sounds of distant thunder, perhaps. The world has become a lot more chaotic of late, and chaos makes people uneasy because they can’t fully understand where events might go, or make plans to accommodate it. But it’s also maybe an intimation of “your brain rotting and dripping out of your nostrils”. I reckon to self-motivate to the same level that a working life does for you, requires fairly exceptional powers. Most people take their foot off the gas, waste a lot more time, fail to achieve their ambitious self-set goals, etc. Think Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’. And perhaps your social life suffers in certain ways, the demographic narrows.

    Perhaps down in the murk of the crocodile brain, instinct is muttering “no work, no food”? The feeling that if the apocalypse shows up, as long as you have a roof and three days a week pumping gas you’ll be ok.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. > I reckon to self-motivate to the same level that a working life does for you, requires fairly exceptional powers.

      Ah, Philip Greenspun did that meme well

      I never did learn Morse Code. Well, I have most of the letters, but no useful speed, and it is true, largely from a lack of application. But I did managed to fleetingly understand solving some differential equations by substitution, which was my younger undergraduate self’s Waterloo in maths. I have learned across a wider field. Did it amount to aught? Not like work I suppose, because work is more directed. But I have deepened. Carl Jung suggested transformation in the second half of life transforms the self, not so much the outer world

      > Perhaps down in the murk of the crocodile brain, instinct is muttering “no work, no food”? The feeling that if the apocalypse shows up, as long as you have a roof and three days a week pumping gas you’ll be ok.

      Thunder on the horizon, though, yes, that is one of the issues 😉

      Not that working can really forestall that sort of trouble. But perhaps there is much in what you say – some instinctive programs are started early in life, and it is hard to shake them. In the same way as I don’t think there’s any point in college learning for people at the end of their careers, because: no future value of increased earning streams. Which is a prejudice perhaps I should also shake by living intentionally…

      “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”
      (Walt Whitman)


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