Sustainability, Visibility and Value
I am a musician, singer-songwriter and composer based in Northumberland. I am
also the wife of a farmer (I can’t claim to be a farmers wife, that’s a whole other
profession) and I’m a mum too. My background is in Folk music. As a performer I
have toured internationally most recently with my trio Katie Doherty and The
Navigators. In 2019 we released our album ‘And Then’. We toured extensively, and
played live sessions on BBC Radio 2 and 3. As well as teaching, community
projects and a short stint as an events coordinator, my bread and butter income for
the past 10 years has been through composing for theatre. I’ve worked with most
theatre companies and venues in the North East, I am Associate artist for
November Club I am also Assistant Director of Folklub Newcastle.
Most of us in the Arts are familiar with this portfolio career way of working, we are
multiple hat wearing people, skilled in juggling and spinning plates. It’s fun, it suits
me in lots of ways but of course it has its draw backs and I think these come from
some fundamental issues which have been magnified and exacerbated by the
Pandemic. I don’t think any of the things I am about to talk about are exclusive to
the music sector.
I spend most of my working days in front of a screen, sending emails (most of
which go unanswered), developing plans, talking about projects, applying for
funding, updating social media and music platforms, working on new marketing
strategies, new PR strategies, new digital strategies, and booking gigs. I’m always
looking a year or maybe two ahead.
The pandemic has meant that the last year of my time spent doing all this ‘stuff’
which enables me to tour the band, employ the musicians and actually pay for the
tour itself, which at my level is very rarely lucrative and depends upon funding, has
gone down the drain. We lost a 13 date national and international tour. We are still
receiving cancellations for the rest of gigs remaining for 2020. I am not looking for
bookings for the trio in 2021. There’s no point, we were already near the bottom of
the pecking order in terms of bookings. We don’t have a manager or an agent, it’s
just me and the rules and the uncertainty of what is to come in terms of live
performance make it too precarious.
If you are a musician who relies solely upon the income of gigs and tours, because,
let's face it, selling music as a product has been so devalued in recent years due to
the structure of the streaming industry etc, then I don’t know how you survive this.
In fact I know of some who are leaving the industry completely, years of honing a
A relatively small amount of my time is spent creating music. And when it is, it is
usually to a project brief, contributing to a bigger picture, answering the needs of
another writer, director, creative. Mind you, I am one of the lucky ones, by one way
or another I have managed to maintain this as a career which allows me to do the
thing that I love. I am so grateful to the organisations who commission me to make
work because often this is the only way I can use my skills and creativity and get
paid. I am currently writing music for 2 large audio projects commissioned by local
So my thoughts or provocations to you today are based on these 3 things which I
think are intrinsically linked...Sustainability, Visibility and Value... and I have a few
Art has always been a precarious profession, now more than ever, but why should
it be? Does it have to be? Is there another way?
What could we put in place as a County that goes someway towards sustaining
the creativity of our artists and musicians?
I’m taking it as a given that we believe that it is important to do so. Why can’t we
be the start of something innovative? For example, an annual artist in residency
post for Northumberland which gives an artist or a musician the freedom of time
and space to develop their own ideas and their creativity inspired by the County.
I do believe that the current situation can offer possibilities for action and change
at a county level. Obviously the next question is, how do we connect the County
to the rest of the nation so that our artists can spread their wings and take the
home grown culture outwards.
In doing this or something similar, can we make artists and musicians more visible
within the community? And would doing this demystify the jobs we all do?
My work with children and young people often presents questions about my job,
they don’t see me on Xfactor, or Youtube, or follow me on Spotify, therefore how
can I be a musician?! This thought is not exclusive to young people, I can’t tell you
the amount of conversations with friends outside of the cultural sector where well
meaning people have asked whether I can't just give Sting a call? Because
obviously I need Sting to solve the problems of what they perceive to be an
unsuccessful music career...I don’t blame them. If you can’t see it, does it really
exist? And in demystifying an often invisible industry and process of creating work,
perhaps this would go some way to address the subject of value.
So much has been offered for free over this period. You could say that the
desperate situation some artists and musicians have found themselves in have led
to them to devaluing themselves in order to compete with others. An example of
this is teaching online. Many musicians do this as a way to pass on their skills and
of course supplement their income. During lock down, a number of world class
musicians have been able to offer online lessons and many have under charged for
this. Not only has this taken precious work away from the musicians who do this
regularly but it is yet another example of devaluing the product.
And yet, we have all, every one of us taken so much comfort from art during this
time. We have attended theatre performances and intimate performances with our
favourite musicians we would never have dreamed of being able to do. We have
watched world class television and film, we have made art with Grayson Perry and
what a joy it was! We have come together in a community performance to applaud
our key workers once a week...and the list is endless.
The government Emergency response package for the Arts seeks to protect ‘The
crown Jewels’....which just reiterates the invisibility of us at the very roots of art
So...How can we, who are here in this County with such a rich Cultural landscape,
protect the value of the product, the music, the art?