Thoughts: Free Arts Service for Exposure – Is It Really That Bad?

21 June 2021

by Dr Nellie Seng, Head of Studies (Keyboard) & Senior Lecturer, School of Music

Prologue:

May I start by saying that I am very proud of what I do, proud of being an artist, and especially proud of being an artist in this supportive community that is Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and yes, what I proudly do every minute of my life, whether I be awake or asleep, is considered the #1 NON-ESSENTIAL JOB!

When I was tasked to contribute to this series, I chuckled upon reading the proposed topic, “Free Arts Service for Exposure - Is It Really That Bad?” This was timely considering the hotly debated topic in an article that was put out by The Sunday Times , that sparked outcries in the arts communities on a global scale. Much as it was upsetting to read the article, I was happier to read the ensuing articles supporting artists and glad for the spotlight it shone on the arts itself, especially during tough times like this.

Ultimately this particular article, when published in the difficult times caused by the pandemic, rallied artists together. Most importantly, I felt that especially during these tough times, artists rose to the occasion and showed the true meaning of art. Countless artists came together in the virtual world, sharing their music, their art, their stories etc. All this was done in the spirit of humanity. I am sure many were worried about the financial implications brought on by the pandemic and its effects, but I think many were more concerned about not being able to create art.


Remuneration for the arts has long been a contentious subject. There is constant discussion about the price tag put on a piece of art, or the “going market rate” for arts services and its providers. There are often gripes about how expensive an artist’s performance rate is, but there is a lack of awareness with regards to the number of hours needed to put up a performance or to create a piece of artwork. Art lacks a certain tangibility. People often struggle with the intangible.

Ultimately, I feel there is a need to understand that we all live in an ecosystem of sorts—a financial and social ecosystem, where everything is dependent on one another. Art is everywhere, music is everywhere. I will be the first to admit that I tend not to listen to much music when I am not teaching as I tend to overanalyse when I end up listening to a performance or a recording. It may be compared to the idea of “I do not bring my work home with me”.

However, during Singapore’s Circuit Breaker, I found a new hobby. I started going down the rabbit hole that is the Hi-Fi world. I started listening to all genres and styles of music (and if I may shamelessly and unabashedly proclaim to the world that I am a huge Andy Lau fan!) through my computer hooked to a DAC (Digital-to-analog converter) and a headphone amplifier. As I sat there listening, I listened as an enthusiast and not a critiquing fellow artist. Let us try and recall the different levels that art and music permeates our lives. What about the graphics that we see in the newspapers? What about the music that we hear in elevators and cafes? What about weddings? Could you imagine a wedding without hearing the traditional wedding march?


Nellie-02
     
“Work is work, regardless of whether it be a paid job or not, especially when one is starting out in their career. Work should not be ranked in importance according to the dollar sign attached to it. When starting out, it is about building credibility in every aspect, the quality of your work, the sense of responsibility.”   Opening Gala Concert of Nanyang International Piano Academy 2020 in the Lee Foundation Theatre (Photo by Lu Heng)

I know that I have digressed from the actual topic till now. But before I may even vaguely answer the question posed in this article, we must ascertain what is really meant by exposure. Is this exposure for a student as they are still in the process of working on a piece? Or is this exposure that is meant for a fresh graduate or new artist trying to get started? I am assuming that the question posed here is not meant for the established artist. I feel that students performing “works-in-progress” for free, is part of the learning process. They may use this opportunity to work through performance-related issues such as anxiety and learn coping mechanisms. Fresh graduates may need to do so for exposure in order to get noticed.


Nellie-03   “When we are able to bring joy to their lives for a moment, and put a smile on their faces, these are the little things that will give us the strength to forge on as artists. Students and young artists can work from these experiences, creating their own artistic identities and build their reputation as responsible and reliable artists.”

  Photo by Nic Seng

The next question down the line would probably be—when should a student/young artist get paid? Through the years, I have found this to be a rather seamless transition. I am very grateful to many small spaces and establishments, even senior centers. I say this in the broadest stroke without any intention to offend anyone or any establishment. Many small organisations often offer a token sum. With some financial prudence, one may be able to sustain a simple lifestyle that is artistically fulfilling and even more importantly, on a humanistic level. In these contexts, the audiences are always appreciative.

When we are able to bring joy to their lives for a moment, and put a smile on their faces, these are the little things that will give us the strength to forge on as artists. Students and young artists can work from these experiences, creating their own artistic identities and build their reputation as responsible and reliable artists. As a word of advice to the younger generation out there, we must live up to our artistic credo and carry ourselves with a sense of professionalism and decorum in our work.

Nellie-04   “I feel that students performing “works-in-progress” for free, is part of the learning process. They may use this opportunity to work through performance-related issues such as anxiety and learn coping mechanisms. Fresh graduates may need to do so for exposure in order to get noticed.”

  Masterclass at the Zhejiang Conservatory of Music, China, 2020 (Photo by Wong Sun Tat)

Work is work, regardless of whether it be a paid job or not, especially when one is starting out in their career. Work should not be ranked in importance according to the dollar sign attached to it. When starting out, it is about building credibility in every aspect, the quality of your work, the sense of responsibility..

My personal belief is that one does not (and should not) pursue art to “get rich”. After all, at the point of decision whether to go into art/performing arts professionally, how many of us had friends and family try to dissuade us from doing so for reasons of financial practicalities? Ultimately, there must also be an understanding from the other side of the fence, the “hirer”, that we the artists are providing a service. This service, requires years of training and hours of work just for those mere moments. The service provider after all, is human and is only trying to make an honest living.

At the end of the day, to put a price tag on art may be difficult to impossible. Free arts service for exposure is also a highly debated grey area. As artists, we would simply like some appreciation and respect for what we do. Even if our tastes differ and one may not like my work, it would still be appreciated if the audience can recognise the effort and respect the process.


Nellie-01 Dr Nellie Seng is the Head of Studies (Keyboard) and Senior Lecturer at NAFA. She embarked on her early musical journey at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, England. Nellie was awarded the prestigious Shell-NAC Scholarship to pursue her tertiary education at The Juilliard School, New York and completed her post-graduate studies at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Named as the Audi Junior Musician of the Year in 1995, Nellie concertised widely around Europe. She made her concerto debut with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in Europe, with a repeat performance during one of their regular concert seasons in Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow in 2000. Her notable accolades include the Chopin Prize at the Juilliard-Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition (2001) and 1st prize at the Puigcerda International Piano Competition (2000).

i https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/manpower/8-in-10-singaporeans-willing-to-pay-more-for-essential-services

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