by Rachael Longshaw-Park
For the Arts and Events industry the last few years have been unforgiving, as a freelance theatre practitioner myself I have seen my fair share of loss with redundancies, thousands of dollars of lost contracts and opportunities, and the ever compounding grief that comes with watching your industry and your community buckle under the weight of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
I spoke to a group of people across Aotearoa’s Arts and Events industries in an attempt to shine a light on some of the issues people have been facing in sustaining their careers during the pandemic. Whilst I set out to understand financial impacts and what support was needed, I ended up gaining a much wider understanding of how precarious the situation is for the entire Arts and Events industry looking forward through the current Red traffic light setting and beyond. Throughout this article we share pictures from our interviewees of their arts and events practice.
So, what is happening?
Coming off the back of the Government’s “Two Shots for Summer” campaign, those in Arts and Events had spent the last few months gearing up for the summer season, creating, organising and building back up our industry after 2021’s lockdowns and disruptions. Summer is the height of income opportunities for many in this industry, and an injection of cash would have been a welcome relief after two years of financial losses, cancellations, and setbacks.
But on the 23rd of January, the PM announced that the whole country would be moving to the Red traffic light setting, immediately wiping out the bigger festivals and shows, and in the days that followed events everywhere were cancelled in droves. Very soon it became apparent that the current schemes in place to cover these losses in the event of a move to RED alert were falling dangerously short (see James Wenley’s article for more context). After pushback from the sector and media coverage, the government responded with an additional $121 million to be added across the schemes offered through Mānatu Taonga Ministry of Culture and Heritage (MCH). However, some of the issues with schemes that had already been raised by industry guidance groups such as Entertainment Technology New Zealand (ETNZ) were not addressed, and there is concern that even with the new funding others will fall through the gaps and it may not be sustainable long term.
What are the problems?
The Events Transition Support Payment scheme, administered by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). is designed to support larger, paid-ticketed events with over 5,000 attendees, and MCH’s Arts and Culture Event Support scheme targets events with capacity of 100-5000. Both rely on organisers to apply and pass down that money through the supply chain and ensure everyone gets paid.
We’re relying on the promoters organising the event in the first place to take the risk to organise the event, and then put all the paperwork in place for when it cancels to then be able to pay us out. And if they don’t do that correctly, or they can’t be bothered, we’re high and dry. And there’s no way for us to actually access that directly.
– Jamie Blackburn
Co-Founder of Pilot Productions
The financial support needs to be going not necessarily via the MCH, because we know that a trickle down doesn’t work, but we need to make sure that the financial support is going to our performers, our creatives, our technicians, our designers etc. We need to pay our rent now. My landlord won’t take an IOU.
Freelance Technician, Lighting and Sound Designer
Co-owner of Creative Ambience
Recently reduced to part-time at the company due to financial burdens of the pandemic and relocated to Rotorua to take on a full time position
The Arts and Culture Events Support scheme clearly outlines that the registrant of the event has “an obligation to make full payment (as if the event had gone ahead) to artists, performers and production crew/organisations.” But relying on this trickle down method of distributing financial support can take a long time to get to the contractors on the end of that chain when immediacy is needed.
Unfortunately there are examples of how people from these events lose out due to the eligibility criteria for this scheme. Another example are the markets that would usually take place at festivals like Big Gay Out, an event that has registered for the Arts and Culture Events Support scheme and was subsequently cancelled. But since the scheme does not cover goods for sale at the event or markets, local artists who were planning to sell no longer have the same opportunity for business. Big Gay Out has since launched a Big Gay Virtual Market in order to help encourage community support and are urging us all “to help each other out at this tough time.” But it shouldn’t be up to this community to share around what little money we have in order to keep ourselves afloat.
MCH’s Cultural Sector Emergency Relief Fund, with it’s recent injection of $35.5 million, is a fund of last resort, and is not intended to be ‘income replacement’. Eligible cultural sector organisations, including businesses and charities, are able to apply for up to $300,000 (an increase from the scheme’s original $100,000 limit). Organisations must be at risk of no longer operating viably by meeting the shortfall between income and expenses over a six-week period. The MCH states, “It is intended to support organisations that are in danger of imminent collapse”.
No one wants your business to get to that point. So, do you let yourself run into that position? or do you try avoiding it?
We’ve been looking at the criteria required for the Cultural Sector Emergency Relief Fund…we’re not quite at that crisis point but we’ve been pretty close a couple of times which is a thing that I don’t think any business owner or manager wants to admit. Half of our industry is about public confidence.
As part of the Omicron Arts Relief package, self employed and sole trader practitioners will be able to apply for a one-off $5000 grant. Thankfully this grant does bypass the top down method of funding and allows the payment to go directly to the practitioners, with MCH promising to make the fund more accessible. MCH’s latest update from 9th February advises that “we expect to have a detailed design in place and open for applications around the middle of the week beginning 21 February.” With this anticipated delay of 3 weeks between the announcement and applications open, and a further week before the payment arrives in people’s accounts, this timeline ignores the fact that many of the people who need this payment will struggle to wait this long. ETNZ’s Omicron survey found that 27% of the people surveyed did not think they could “stay solvent for 3 months without targeted support and many don’t expect they can last that long”. The one-off grant of $5,000 is roughly the same amount of money you would receive on 8 weeks of the wage subsidy payment scheme, working out at $625 per week (this compares to $600 (before tax) per week on the full time wage subsidy or $359 (before tax) per week on the part time wage subsidy offered in 2021). Since this is framed as a grant, it stands to reason that the payment will be tax exempt like the CNZ grant released in 2020. Both the wages subsidies and the one-off grant work out to be significantly less than the living wage which at $22.75 equates to $910 per week before tax at a full time rate.
The practitioners I spoke to raised a number of concerns about both schemes:
While the new announcement will help somewhat, it has left behind a lot of production companies, venues and organisations with staff and overheads who are only able to get what organisers apply for. A lot of events fall short of being covered for various reasons, employees fall short of being covered by the 5k one-off payment and frankly people are starting to mothball warehouses and figure out how they’re going to let staff go and sell what they can already. It’s heartbreaking.
It’s a great start and will help, but it’s missed the mark on covering a large sector of the industry who without further support in the way of a targeted wage subsidy and loss of income based RSP [Resurgence Support Payment], will not be here in 4 months time when most people are rescheduling.
Some companies have told me they’re looking at under 10% of their income even with the scheme compared to pre-pandemic. The emergency grant I feel will get used a lot in the coming months.
– Tom Anderson
Freelance Production Manager
Co-owner of Whammy Bar
Director of Save Our Venues
I am glad that there is money that has gone back into this pool and they’re extending the insurance scheme, so it hopefully gives some confidence for producers and promoters to be able to keep actually trying to make work in preparation for when we come out of RED. But for an industry that is fucking exhausted doing the work to put on a show isn’t just “Oh, yeah, you know what sounds great. I wanna do Les Mis”. There’s months of rehearsals, getting the rights, securing a venue, doing auditions, actually rehearsing the show, figuring out the financial possibilities and the physical limitations of whatever venue you’ve managed to get etc. And actually a lot of venues aren’t taking bookings under RED. The fact that it’s a one off $5,000 payment? Great, what about the rest of us? What about people who haven’t been able to work since July? We did have a wage subsidy for a large chunk of that and we did have resurgence payments for a large chunk of that too, but most of us haven’t had our Christmas season. We didn’t have the festival season last year, and we had a truncated festival season the year before. We’re seeing a slower uptake from people being in a position to do shows, or wanting to try again, and we’re seeing a lot of companies talking about just mothballing and coming back to it when this pandemic is over – if they can. But we can’t mothball a company that owns equipment and is liable for a lease; those costs don’t go away. We can’t sell performance equipment in a pandemic and we can’t afford to store it.
For the events that are going forward under Red’s restrictions (100 audience cap with 1 metre distancing), those working them are forced into vulnerable situations having to advocate not only for themselves but also to keep their customers and patrons as safe as possible. The tension between grabbing what little income opportunities are available and prioritising safety is a heavy burden for desperate people to bear.
There is one event I’m working going forward which is going to be in quite a high risk location: a mall location. Here is the tricky thing: The people I’m working for don’t feel like they want to mandate vaccine passes so it leaves it to me to navigate who’s vaccinated and who’s not. Moreover as a Facepainter and Balloonist, my job literally requires direct physical contact right by the mouth area.
Gathering outside is one thing but usually we have huge queues of people waiting for an hour… just because we technically can, should we be gathering crowds together in an enclosed space? Especially if there are potentially quite a few unvaccinated people? I feel like I’m having to have to choose between the income, that I’m in no position to say no to, or protecting the vulnerable, or doing what’s best for the community, which is really shit.
Owner of Children’s Entertainment business
My whole thing is health and safety and mental health in theatre and I’ve got to think about what if a cast member gets sick? One of the shows I’m working on in Fringe is in the round so do we as actors need to wear masks? What is the risk to us from audience members? Is it safe to perform if the audience is that close to us? Is there a point in Fringe going ahead as audiences are capped to a minimal level when there’s active COVID in the community? It’s just like this really massively stressful time between being prepared, and then panic, and I do think I’m losing.
– Emma Maguire
Recently moved into full-time job in Communications for financial security
Everyone I spoke to supports the health response, you know, no one wants to be part of an unsafe event. Everybody wants to do the right thing.
Personally, I know a lot of people in my community that don’t really want to go out at the moment, and trying to put on any kind of show in that environment can be quite scary, trying to get people to come out too. We don’t want to be a “superspreader event” either.
And there’s so many cool venues, especially the really small ones, and we want to support them. But at the same time it’s like a double edged sword because we hope that they can continue being open and can make the money too but you’re still kind of worried about leaving the safety of your own home at the moment. So it’s a really, really tough time to make decisions.
– Kris Raven
Member of New Zealand band Coridian
Also has a full time job in a different industry
We’ve already seen venues begin to close their doors due to the risks. In Auckland, Q Theatre cancelled it’s summer season and Basement Theatre is closing its doors for the next few weeks, iconic Wellington music and events venue San Fran has temporarily closed, and festivals like Auckland Pride, Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts, and Auckland Arts Festival have cancelled most of their live performance programme. It’s a clear indication that not every venue and promoter that could meet the 100 person event restrictions feel that they can operate safely or financially.
Some shows under 100 capacity are eligible for funding if it is a multi-show event and the cumulative audience is greater than 100 people. One off shows though, such as music gigs or poetry gigs for fewer than 100 people would not be covered by the Arts and Culture Events Support scheme. And for shows that can theoretically continue for 100 people or less under, some organisers are then faced with the choice of making a guaranteed loss on a show or pulling the show.
The capacity for these shows has been significantly reduced. With two of our shows the capacity went from 60ish to 11 seats.
Neither are great options that lead to stability in this sector. Recently Whammy Bar hosted intimate gigs with Jasmine Mary and Julia Deans at 50 capacity but co-owner Tom Anderson isn’t sure if they can continue.
The staff had a really lovely time and punters had a very special experience sitting seated and masked watching a band that you would normally be standing to in a much bigger number of people. It’s quite a special thing, but it’s also not a long term solution in any respect.The losses for the bar doing a couple of those versus doing a few sold out shows this weekend, which is what we were looking at in both of our venues, it’s a miniscule percentage of income, but it was an important thing to do.
Practitioners also raised concerns about how the casual nature of contracting work in Arts and Events as a freelancer can make it difficult to prove your income or account for lost opportunities.
Half of these things don’t have proper contracts. I have no idea how to prove to the government that I’m losing money..
This is the artist’s fucking deal. We don’t know what we don’t know, we randomly get jobs at the last minute because someone else is too busy with other jobs. So, that’s not going to happen anymore and because there’s no evidence to prove that I cannot get financial support… They (Ministers) really just don’t understand because there’s no lived experience there of what it’s like to be an independent artist.
– Amber Liberté
Choreographer, dancer and performer for screen and stage
Also works in live events
The nature of contract work is so changeable, and it would be hard to prove that I had lost income even though I was shortlisted for a $10,000 advert. But then, the ad got cancelled because of COVID…and also because there is also income you get literally a week or two out in advance, so it’s so hard to project those things sometimes.
And the list goes on, it’s not just freelancers who are losing out – with theatres and other venues closing down, ushers, hospitality staff and other casual workers have had all their foreseeable shifts cancelled. And with no wage subsidy or RSP this time around there’s nothing to help businesses support those workers and ensure those workers can pay their rent. The idea that most freelancers and casual workers can put away emergency funds after the last two years is laughable. The reality is most of us are working week to week because we don’t have any other choice. And the nature of this industry means that often your supplementary income is also based on events generated work, taking a side step into another industry isn’t as accessible as it’s made out to be.
So people going out to try and find jobs outside of this sector will find it hard to get work, especially older people, because companies today hiring people want young, business minded people. It’s really hard to prove on an art CV what you actually do because you’re kind of a jack of all trades. Corporate companies don’t see a director CV and be like, oh, you’re really good at managing people.
It’s really hard to justify even being a contractor now. Both my income streams are dependent on live events and I’m about to lose about 60% of my work. People don’t want to program or hire us, because they worry that their events will be cancelled, or people are only willing to hire you if they can cancel with a complete refund, or not pay until the day. So I can’t recoup because there’s just absolutely no certainty if events can go forward at all…if there’s no intervention, then I would potentially have to go with a minimum wage job.
The wage subsidy, the RSPs and short business loans have been touted as a saving grace for so many and many have called for their reinstatement as a solution, but they’re not a catch all solution.
If you’re single with no dependents and low outgoings, the RSP and the wage subsidy is just enough for you to live on. But if any of those other factors change you’re fucked.
The RSP payments and the wage subsidy definitely went a long way, but weren’t completely covering our lease and fixed costs basically. Plus all the support based on Full-time Employees provides support for corporate style businesses and completely misses the businesses supporting freelancers on an event basis, as is the case for most theatre and arts companies.
Having the RSP and the wage subsidy saved my ass and so many people’s asses last year. And I was actually able to make stuff without the pressure of worrying about each week…which meant I could actually give my artist friends or contemporary artists support where I could see they were struggling.
As a sole trader myself, they were enough to meet my needs and it’s due to the recurring RSP that I have the capacity to even write this article – it gave me a buffer to survive off through most of summer. But I am single, and I have no dependents. So if that’s where we are setting the bar for a liveable income on support then we are setting up anyone outside of that narrow margin to fail in the coming months. And if you need to turn to WINZ you’d be looking at even less income that offers no financial security or mobility. Whilst WINZ is a crucial social safety net, the current thresholds are in dire need of reform as they sit far below the living and minimum wage and the full time wage subsidy offered in 2020/2021, leaving many people unable to meet core bills and leading to more debt. Nor is WINZ artist/practitioner friendly, with case workers often misunderstanding the nature of work within our sector forcing people into work outside of their sector and skills, which can be a huge setback when you’ve been building years of momentum to get to where you are. WINZ is not a viable solution for all.
The wage subsidy, RSP and short business loans were instrumental in keeping a lot of people afloat over the past two years and guaranteed that some people managed to pay their core bills, but for a lot of businesses they just weren’t enough.
I’d say that through the August lockdown last year we had about $80,000 of profits sitting there ready to go, which we usually would use to grow our business, but we used all of that up just staying afloat. And that’s with all those supports and payments.
And whilst the Small Business Cashflow Loan scheme can provide assistance of up to a maximum of $100,000 to businesses employing 50 or fewer full-time employees, loans in times of financial loss are not a reasonable solution.
A loan is a short term thing that relies on there being an end in sight to make some money back. So, if we have a theatre that’s got 600 seats in it, but we can’t sell all this week, we can’t then suddenly sell 1200 seats every night next week? So, there’s no money to pay back the loan…I think it’s ignorance, it’s a lack of understanding of how the model and our industry works.
As a company, we would consider applying for it, but actually with the last 22 months of disrupted business, particularly Auckland being locked down, I’m not sure we’d really have the cash flow to actually be eligible anymore?
So, what kind of support do people need?
With few places for people to turn we need to do away with the Government’s current reactionary approach; the arts and events sector requires ongoing targeted support with equitable access. The government must be proactive in ensuring the sustainability of our industry through till the end of this pandemic and beyond.
[We need] targeted wage subsidies, targeted RSPs and also loss of income based funding pools for larger organisations that have more than just wages to cover…we’ve seen some great schemes that have come through to give people the security to be able to plan, and now we need some great schemes to be able to give people the security to stay in the industry so that when we come back, they’re still here…if we’re able to give some people some breathing room, then we’re able to grow and have a much stronger, healthier industry together…This is a small moment in time in the scheme of things, but it’s had a massive, massive toll.
That (wage subsidy) would make a massive difference, it would be helping people pay their rent, and put food on the table, but it’s not enough. But if we fund a combination of the wage subsidy and the resurgence payments, and something that’s for businesses to address their overheads.
Bring back the wage subsidy, even if it’s targeted specifically to people that are using the performance tax codes, I mean, film should also be included at this stage. So, should our venue pals because they’re all hurting, but like anything, we all require a large gathering of people to be able to do our arts. We should be supported in this.
I think our venues need support….it’s welcome that the government has provided COVID-19 relief for the arts, but further thought needs to be considered in regards to wider support. The pandemic is not going to go away, and what happens in six months – or twelve months? A sustained artists’ income would be very welcome in the dire straits that we are facing in this industry.
I’d like to see event insurance for small and medium productions that don’t have ridiculous red tape around them. And I would like to see the government invest in reviving the arts scene and creating a viable infrastructure to allow art and artists to not only survive, but to flourish.
The ETNZ Omicron survey showed that “95% of respondents would like to see a sector specific wage subsidy scheme or similar form of financial assistance to support our freelancers and businesses”. The need is clear, but if the government won’t reintroduce the wage subsidy and resurgence payments, then funds held by the MCH need to be made easier to access across the board. The survey also reported that people have seen “an estimated loss of 85% of their revenue for the period from 24 January to 1 May 2022 due to postponements or cancellations caused by the move to Red” which equates “to an estimated $40 million loss” for just the 280 people alone who responded to the survey. As this survey had a limited sample size it’s clear the losses must well exceed that amount over the 3-4 month period.
What is at stake?
This industry is interconnected in ways that mean when you take out one piece, everyone suffers from that loss. As the industry sees suppliers shut shop and skilled, experienced workers leave the field for good, the quality of what we can provide will also suffer.
We’re in a position now where the industry has kind of regulated itself somewhat to the point where there is a place for all the suppliers…and if we lose any of those, then that leaves a massive hole in those particular sectors. Then when things come back and come back with force, and all of a sudden we have to supply enough trucks, stages, PAs, lights, crew, security, all of that, there simply isn’t those resources, because people have either shutdown, the gear is not there, or people have left the industry…we end up with quite a scary situation where we’re just not in a place to be able to provide those or we are, and it’s with a lot less experienced crew members or a lot more inferior products. And we’ve basically jumped backwards 20 years in terms of international touring.
As a sector we cannot sustain anymore losses or we stand to lose our community and livelihoods.
I think that we’re going to lose many valuable, important places where our history is, and where our memories are.
Unless something happens to start financially supporting & educating artists (e.g. a wage subsidy) the only artists who are likely going to continue making art that is programmed in more mainstream spaces is going to be artists who can afford to do it, which could exacerbate the elitist nature of Arts. If it’s just the people who are earning money making art (because they have more time, more resources etc.), and there’s no fringe artists able to do stuff, and there’s no marginalised or minority groups, no BIPOC, no LGBTQ etc., if they don’t have support to make their work, then the Arts is going to become gross, homogenous, unrisky and boring.
I predict that we’ll lose a lot of talent and people will leave the country. I think people will shut down their businesses. With people not going to the city other businesses will hurt too. We won’t have people putting on shows at Civic which means all of those restaurants, cafes and bars that rely on people being in the city are affected. It has an effect on Uber drivers and it has an effect on any other transport system…I think we’ll lose all of that. And I think we just live in a slightly more unexciting and less colourful country.
It’s a grim outlook, but there is an opportunity for the government to not only speak to our current issues but act preemptively and introduce measures that commit to creating a healthier and more robust industry going forward.
What are people hopeful for?
Perhaps arts will shift to be less product focused, and more process focused, which means we will realise that we actually need arts every day in our lives to help us mentally, physically, emotionally, socially. Rather than always having to focus on an end goal or an in show or an end theatre performance or dance performance it will be about just having a ritual around theatre practice and dance practice. I want to see people realising that the process is just as important as the product. I would really like to see an artist benefit introduced.
I hope that we come through the end of this with an industry that is still largely intact. And that we’re able to continue putting on great events. I think targeted funding is highly necessary for that to happen.
If we could have a scheme that meant that we could administer a bunch of upskilling and training for people already within the industry, I think that will keep them in but also people who are interested in coming into it. You know, we could come out of this with a more highly skilled, professional workforce than we had before.
Honestly, I’d like to see a universal basic income for artists. It would give me the freedom to put the community first and make better calls when it comes to running high risk events. It will also allow me to not be depressed. It would really allow me to create and find more viable and sustainable ways of existing in the art industry. And it would allow me to not burn out. It will allow me to invest in projects that also provide more employment opportunities for other people. For me, the main point, though, is actually like it will just allow me to make calls that do have, like public health at heart instead of having to battle having that be at odds with that income. And it would allow me to give my time to more community initiatives that couldn’t afford to pay me otherwise.
I think if they can have a system where it helps people now but also helps get the industries back off the ground after that, I think that’s really important. Oh you guys are free to do what you want like, well, actually the theatre show or this music festival can’t actually continue anymore because it’s lost so much money so there needs to be a system for that as well. I know they’re doing tour grants for like music tour grants and stuff like that, you know, it’d be cool if that could continue. Just having that added kind of bonus of support financially or whatever else would be great because we don’t know what’s going to happen next.
I was chatting with one of my festival pals earlier today. And we were talking about an artist wage, or even a UBI. And how if we could establish that we could go back to focusing on thinking big things and doing big things and trying to figure out how to make a transformational society. Because it’s our fundamental needs met we actually have space to do that.
Below are links for all the current schemes available and some supporting information about the schemes:
MBIE: The Events Transition Support Payment Scheme [for events of 5000+ capacity]
The Events Transition Support Payment Scheme – Eligibility form
Due to the Government’s recent announcement, some of the details in these pages are undergoing urgent review, check the pages for updates.
MCH Manatū Taonga expects to provide further information on the criteria for the $5,000 grant for self-employed individuals/sole traders by mid-February and open for applications by the end of February.
(Sign up to the Manatū Taonga newsletter to receive updates directly)
Updates to the funding available
A new Covid-19 Support Payment(CSP) has been made available to businesses and self-employed people providing they could show evidence of a 40% in income during ‘Red’ when compared to a reference period. Self-employed people could get up to $13,200 from this scheme if they meet all the criteria. Applications for the first round opened at 8am on February 28th. The Minister of Finance Grant Robertson also announced that the first payment will be open for at least 6 weeks. A reminder that to register for the CSP you must have a New Zealand Business Number.
Similar to the Resurgence Support Payments from 2021 the eligibility outlines that for self employed workers whose work is seasonal, “you may select a 7-day comparison period which is before 5 January 2022 and which may be from a past year, which reflects your typical revenue”. This is important given that most people in live events have not seen their work return since August 2021.
It’s important to note that you cannot apply for both the Manatū Taonga Grant for Self-Employed Individuals and the first round of the CSP, however, you can apply for the subsequent rounds of the CSP given that you can provide evidence of the 40% drop in revenue for the outlined affected revenue period. MCH has provided a grant comparison table for comparing the Manatū Taonga Grant for Self-Employed Individuals with the Inland Revenue COVID-19 Support Payment so you can make an informed choice. The MCH website states, “We strongly recommend that applicants check their eligibility for the Inland Revenue scheme, before commencing an application for the Grant for Self-Employed Individuals.”