COVID-19 – what about the creative and media industry?

COVID-19 forces us to be honest

PREAMBLE: I wrote this article in German on the 13th of March 2020 and translated it to English a couple of days later. Although it’s mostly referring to German politics regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the measurements taken here, it’s mainly about the economic situation of creatives and freelancers in general, who are going to suffer from these events for a long time which I’m sure is the case in any country facing COVID-19. Therefore, and because I’ve had great support and feedback by many readers, I’ve decided to offer my views and my researched information on the situation to an international audience. I’m not only trying to reach my colleagues, but also and especially those who never knew how it really is to work in the creative industry as a freelancer. I really think, for us creatives, it’s time to be honest.

Click here for the German version

13.03.2020

With the COVID-19 crisis, we are facing an economical disaster from which politicians are trying to save us. In Germany, Finance Minister Scholz and Economics Minister Altmaier reported at a press conference on the 13th of March that they will guarantee the liquidity of all businesses regardless of their size. Tax breaks (in the sense of postponing deadlines) and loans should be made possible immediately and even unbureaucratically, the latter with the governmental support for guarantee banks. These actions certainly make sense and in many cases, they represent a true solution. However, in plain English, it means that we need to get over the period of job cancelations with borrowed money that is to be repaid later on. In other words: we should run into debts! There’s more detailed information about these possibilities provided by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy here.

Without question, for many companies, it’s common and fair enough to work with loans if the status quo is stable and repayment can be managed. This is called solvency. Unfortunately, the situation is different with freelancers, because their financial conditions are mostly unstable. Many self-employed creatives literally live from month to month, so basically on the breadline, which is why they wouldn’t get a loan by default. They might not be able to pay it back. 

The situation of artists and freelancers in the economy

Now, some may be questioning why we haven’t saved up any reserve assets to overcome such difficult times. There are three answers to this at once:

1. We’ve already hurdled many crises which used up any reserves we may have had. Freelancers have to struggle with difficult (financial) situations every day: silly seasons, cancellation due to illness, unpaid holidays (if at all), burnout, to name but a few.

2. The monthly and annual costs that freelancers have to bear are much higher than those of permanent employees. We invest in material and the equipment we need for work, pay rent for studios or workshops where required and rates for insurances that an employer would otherwise pay. The media liability insurance compensating my customers and me for any property damage, personal injury and financial losses, costs me over 800 € per year – that is probably more than most people pay for their car insurance – but one of many examples.

3. Having a look at the numbers (from January 1st, 2019) provided by the KSK (short for Künstlersozialkasse – the German artists’ social insurance) gives you an idea of the annual incomes of female and male artists which are on average less than 20.000 € in all age groups (!) and sectors. According to that, a female visual artist in 2018 between the age of 30 and 40 would earn about 1,500 € per month while being at an age when she might want to have children and by a time when monthly rents increased to be in the four-figure range. The equivalent in the music scene was on average even less – that is to say barely 1,000 € per month. (See the lists under “Entwicklung des Einkommens der Versicherten” here.)

At the same time, freelancers often have to tolerate a long wait until their issued invoices are paid. I can tell that no reminders and no calls actually help to speed things up – our money lies in other people’s accounts for many weeks or even months, and unfortunately, this is the rule, not the exception! There are various reasons for this, each of which is situation-specific. From my personal experience, when it comes to larger clients it’s bureaucracy. With smaller clients, budgets are usually very tight, which noticeably impacts the planning and performance of productions too. We increasingly work underpaid – even at night and on weekends.

What’s COVID-19 got to do with it?

Particularly since the 10th of March 2020, the German government and experts in the fields of virology and epidemics (listen to the German podcast on COVID-19 with Prof. Christian Drosten, virologist at Charité Berlin) are calling the population to contribute to the protection of risk groups, especially by helping to relieve resp. control the burden on the health care system. Considering that there neither is a vaccine against the pathogen nor a drug for the treatment of infected people yet, a major goal is to slow down the exponential spread of the virus. This can only be achieved by reducing any gathering of people to an absolute minimum, which is, of course, the right and necessary step to take even though it includes the professional life. A side effect of this, however, is great uncertainty, especially at an economic level. For weeks already, companies have been holding back with orders and commissions, which interrupted a number of otherwise normal events and caused various cancelations of orders and bookings. Companies, agencies, etc. suddenly find themselves without customers or material, their turnovers shrink drastically. With the amendment to the German law for short-time work compensation, which came into force on the 14th of March, the foundations have been laid to prevent large-scale redundancies. Where home office isn’t possible, forced holiday is the last resort, at least with low payment.

However, the commandment has a particularly dramatic effect on the art, culture and media industry, which lives in many ways from the fact that people come together and is also largely run by small (micro)enterprises and freelancers. 

German Minister of Health Spahn calls on the citizens: “Weigh up what is so important to you, in your own everyday life, that you can’t refuse to do in the next two to three months; whether it’s a visit to the club, a birthday party with your family or a club meeting. I trust that citizens will make wise decisions for themselves and their loved ones in these times”.

I do not wish to contradict this statement because, in fact, I totally agree. However, it remains to be added that freelancers whose work depends partly or entirely on society’s participation in such activities, or more generally on the fact that they physically interact with other people, will not be paid if they can’t continue doing so since in their case there is no employer supported by the state. Now, while the economy is reasonably kept running, our clients understandably set priorities that are not in our favour. So we stay at home – and fall by the wayside.

How are freelancers compensated?

According to the German association for photographers and filmmakers “BFF” (short for Berufsverband Freie Fotografen und Filmgestalter e.V.) and probably applicable to other creative professions, freelancers are only entitled to receive compensation for job losses under the Infection Protection Act (IFSG) if they are officially quarantined because they’re suspected of being infected. If the client cancels an assignment, the freelancer alone bears the risk. 

Currently faced with shutdowns and a missing order situation our entire cultural industry will be suffering for a long time and many creatives will have nothing to show in just a couple of weeks or even days. The German association for professional event service providers “ISDV” (short for Interessengemeinschaft der selbständigen DienstleisterInnen in der Veranstaltungsbranche e.V.) dedicates a survey to this fact and collects up-to-date numbers on job losses to make them available to politics here.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any more current information or commitment from lots of other professional associations in the creative industries yet. We can only hope that numerous statements and updates will follow here. After all, there are voices calling for a rescue fund for artists. Celebrities such as Jan Böhmermann and Fritz Kalkbrenner draw attention to the distress.  

Further, there are petitions to help artists and freelancers. At this point please sign here:

https://bit.ly/2UhgkyH

How is the fashion industry doing?

Of course, I can report mainly from the point of view of photo content productions for print media, blogs, social media, online shops, etc: we’re also affected. For a few weeks now, photo shoots have either been postponed, moved to other locations, or now increasingly canceled. You have to imagine that on set at fashion and beauty shoots at least three, but often 10, 20 or more people work intensively side by side for many hours. The model, the make-up artist, and the fashion stylist are well below the recommended safety distance of one to two meters because it’s exactly the point to prepare the model, her hair, and what she wears perfectly for the photos – again and again, all day long. Home office instead of shooting is obviously not an option in these professions, neither is mouth protection, at least not for the model. Of course, I also work from home, but these are not paid jobs, it’s mainly about marketing tasks (writing blog articles, social media maintenance, newsletter, etc.), editing and the planning of shoots – there is a big question mark behind the latter now. Today I would have had an important shoot, but we weren’t allowed to do it and I think it makes sense. I want to deal with this situation responsibly and be solidary. At the same time, I don’t know how to afford it. I see myself represented in all three of the above-mentioned points and I can’t imagine how I would shape my professional career if I had to pay off a loan in the future – because the following is clear: even the seasonal cycle of the fashion industry is now beginning to fluctuate. Giorgio Armani presented his collection in Milan on the 23rd of February without an audience and streamed the show online. Whether this would be possible again at the current state of affairs is to be in doubt – behind the scenes of fashion shows, dozens of people are involved and working in the tightest of spaces. It’s much more likely that the design and production of new collections will also fall behind (large textile companies produce up to 8 seasonal and other special collections per year). What is already there can’t be photographed right now and therefore not be marketed. And under these circumstances who would buy it anyway when shops stay closed and people avoid each other? I don’t want to meet trouble halfway because the course of the crisis isn’t predictable and panic is anything but what we need right now. I think it’s much more important to assess the situation in an objective and constructive way to make the situation public and to find solutions. It is clear that we can’t do this alone. We, the creatives, need help.

Brainstorming for the rescue of the creative industries

What clients can do:

* It’s understandable that times are uncertain and artistic projects are not a priority right now. Nevertheless, after the crisis, you will surely want to continue hiring freelancers to work for you. Please be aware that they will come back on the market with more difficult conditions. Loans will have to be paid off and one or the other will have to start all over again. We have lived in a bubble for a long time in which services and compensations were strongly out of balance. Please make sure that we will see a fairer market post-COVID-19.

* Wash your hands

What politics can do:

* For a long time now there has been a discussion about the “unconditional basic income”. Now is the perfect time to test this concept. Funds amounting to half a trillion (!) Euros have been mobilised in Germany to save the economy. This should be possible, and not only here.

* For us, only grants are an option, which do not have to be paid back (see above reasons)

* Let us hope that the federal and state rescue packages will not force us to use up savings that are intended for retirement (if any) in order to be eligible for the aid.

* Wash your hands

What anyone can do:

* Listen, like, share, follow, comment & recommend

* Sign petitions

* Those who are in quarantine or on forced holidays have time now. Plenty of time for streaming music, buying books (reading won’t hurt either), buying merchandise and other products from local artists. The economy (in all sectors) is going downhill, especially when demand falls. You are in control.

* You’ve got tickets, but the event has been canceled? Keep it as a souvenir and support the organisers during hard times.

* You can also support crowdfunding with small amounts or be a patron for one or more artists on platforms like Patreon (this is how it looks like). Also, donations are and will always be welcome.

* Wash your hands

What landlords can do:

* Creative minds looking for a place to live are unlikely to be credit-worthy in the near future. Nevertheless, (most) are diligent and should be allowed to claim proof of income from times before the crisis.

* Many rents are excessive. Platforms such as www.wenigermiete.de (for the German market) help to calculate whether this applies in individual cases. Make the rents fair!

*How about a rent-free April?

* Ensure the water supply, because everyone needs to

* Wash hands

What we can do ourselves:

* Anyone who is a member of the above mentioned KSK should send them a change notice of the projected yearly income to reduce contributions as soon as possible. The form for this can be found here.

* Use the time at home for the projects that you have long put off, especially for those that could give new impetus to your work when you resume. Build and update your websites, prepare social media and newsletter content and develop strategies for your marketing and acquisition. Create systems and clean up your archive. Maybe you’ll find old work that you can reuse (such as stock photography).

* Document the Corona crisis with your art and craft – from your personal point of view. The interest in this content will be great for a long time. This is a historical event!

* Start crowdfunding or using platforms like Patreon and put a donation button on your websites

* Maybe in some cases, there are remote solutions that you can offer to your clients

* Perhaps the basic provision for self-employed persons is an option for you (comparable to Hartz IV), but in fact, any reserves you might have must first be used before.

* Apply for ‘Wohngeld’ (housing benefit) – you can use the housing benefit calculator here to get a feeling about it of the BMI (German Federal Ministry of the Interior, for Building and Homeland)

* Adobe CC can be used for free for 2 months (yes, heard right!) – this video explains how to do this (in English – yeay!)

* Talk to your landlord about the current situation – maybe he or she is willing to lower the rent temporarily

* Ask your accountant for more favourable tariff options

* Prepare your tax declaration for 2019 and if it turns out that you will probably get something back, submit it immediately. If you have to pay sooner, wait until the deadline.

* Wash your hands

* And, I think, the most important thing:

Artists, photographers, designers, stylists, musicians, actors, authors, freelance journalists, and event organisers – please forget about “fake it ’till you make it” for the next time because we have to be honest now – and LOUD! Share your thoughts and situations with society and politics to create an awareness of the fact that besides commercial companies, freelance artists also need support that is tailored to their situation.

Updates

20.03.2020

(German) governments

A week has passed and, like the number of infected people, the number of posts about the COVID-19 crisis on the internet has increased. Politicians emphasised the taken measurements to social distancing but until recently, not much new has been launched on the subject of freelancers and their rescue. According to media reports (e.g. SPIEGEL and RBB|24), rescue grants are to be distributed quickly and unbureaucratically both by the federal government with approx. 40–50 billion euros and by the states (in Berlin with approx. 600 million euros). The Senate Administration’s press release of the 19th of March 2020 provides more detailed information on Berlin. Although signatures are still being collected with petitions – apropos: this petition for an unconditional basic income in the Corona crisis is going the circuit and should be supported – however, the message has already been received and the topic was already addressed by the Minister of State for Culture and Media Grütters on the 13th of March 2020. We are eagerly awaiting to learn under which exact conditions and requirements subsidies can be claimed and whether they will provide real relief.

Professional associations and trade unions

Furthermore, many associations and trade unions have now provided more or less detailed information. Relatively committed, the “BDG” (Professional Association of Communication Designers) lists to-dos in the crisis and further links. On a more personal level, ver.di (United Service Association) has shown solidarity with a ‘handout for the support of independent and freelance cultural workers’, which can also be downloaded as a PDF file. Unfortunately, some federations are just updating their websites quite undedicated, so I will spare you further examples for now.

The greatest help comes from our reviving community

Meanwhile, I’ve seen so many posts on social media dealing with the issues that freelancers and artists have with the COVID-19 crisis. Not only are letters to politicians written, as well as petitions signed, but there are also many lists and tips on how to save costs and which kind of help is already available (some points in my brainstorming are inspired by this). 

Furthermore, people from all over the world join together online to work together on projects or to compensate for the loss of all cultural offers. For example, Berlin’s clubs now offer live acts streamed online, as well as lectures, films, etc. The proceeds of “United We Stream” go into a rescue fund for the scene. 

Collective and individual contributions are also available on the subject of online courses and digital products – two markets that will certainly take on an important role from now on. For example, experts in the fields of photography and film are joining forces in the project “die-3-Tage”, in which everyone can contribute to a bundle with the help of video tutorials, which is then going to be sold online. The proceeds are divided fairly among the participating tutors. 

Under the motto #wirvsvirus (wir = us) the Hackathon of the German government starts today. Until yesterday (19th of  March 2020) the participants were asked to name different challenges and to form teams, to which each citizen can contribute with his or her qualifications to work out and develop solutions until next Sunday (March 22th 2020) – of course, all via digital channels. 

Anyone who missed the starting signal can also contribute much more conveniently, almost passively, to fight against COVID-19 by using the unused capacity of their computers and run software that permanently calculates protein simulations in the background. Information on this can be found in an article by PC Master Race. I would like to give this recommendation with reservation and do not take responsibility for which programs from the Internet someone installs on his or her computer. Maybe my slight doubt just comes from my designer-eye because it can’t judge the authenticity of computer and gaming websites. However, NVIDIA, a well-known manufacturer of processors and chips for computers and gaming consoles, encourages users on Twitter to install this software.

These days we are experiencing wonderful potentials that are unfolding. We learn to appreciate culture, travel and freedom of movement when we suddenly feel that these are not self-evident. To compensate for this lack of art in our hearts, many museums, concert halls, etc. offer online tours and streams, which are very nicely summarised in this article (by Harper’s Bazaar). Furthermore, we grow together as humanity, even if we can’t gather physically. I personally am overwhelmed (totally positive) by all the constructive and forward-looking approaches I discover every day – they give a lot of hope. Lastly, I would, therefore, like to mention this article by Matthias Horx (German futurologist, publicist), which offers us a new way of looking at the situation, namely a re-gnosis (a COVID-19-backward-prognosis, so to speak). Therefore: Chin up, chest out!

By the way: I have added the following items to the brainstorming list.

* Perhaps the basic provision for self-employed persons is an option for you (comparable to Hartz IV), but in fact, any reserves you might have must first be used before. 

* Apply for ‘Wohngeld’ (housing benefit) – you can use the housing benefit calculator here to get a feeling about it of the BMI (German Federal Ministry of the Interior, for Building and Homeland)

* Adobe CC can be used for free for 2 months (yes, heard right!) – this video explains how to do this (in English – yeay!)

* Talk to your landlord about the current situation – maybe he or she is willing to lower the rent temporarily

* Ask your accountant for more favourable tariff options

* Prepare your tax declaration for 2019 and if it turns out that you will probably get something back, submit it immediately. If you have to pay sooner, wait until the deadline.

 

06.04.2020

(German) Politics

Applications for an immediate aid grant for Freelancers and small businesses are open all over Germany for 10 – 14 days already (the start differed from federal state to state). The Grant consists of financial means of the federal government and the states. The Ministry of Finance lists all requirements here. While the complexity of the applications in the different federal states varied greatly, especially in the beginning, they are currently being standardised. A list and links to the competent authorities to which applications must be submitted can be found here.

Special emergency aid has now also been established for start-ups. An overview of the entire corona protection shield for all industries and sectors is also provided by the Federal Ministry of Finance here. In addition, the otherwise very bureaucratic application for unemployment benefit (Grundsicherung) has been temporarily eased, e.g. by not having to carry out an initial asset check. Click here to go to the Corona FAQs of the Federal Employment Agency (Jobcentre), where you can also find a video link that helps you to fill out the form (in German). 

While the application and distribution of grants have been as quick and uncomplicated as possible, it turns out that, oftentimes, various banks have been refusing to budget the promised quick loans to small companies. The reason is the left-over 10 – 20 % of the risk, which they would have to bear. Thus, organisers, restaurateurs, etc., who are neither micro-entrepreneurs nor financially positioned like a corporate group, are still at risk. According to press reports, e.g. by FAZ, there will soon be improvements here, so that the KfW (a German funding bank commissioned by the Federal government) will, if necessary, take over the full risk for the loans of certain businesses. 

Tenant protection

It’s by no means an April Fool’s joke that since 1st of April special protection against tenant dismissal has been in force for the period of the Covid-19 crisis. Tenants are therefore protected from terminations if they default on rent payments as a result of the pandemic. The rents can be paid back until June 2022. Further information on this is provided by the Tenants’ Association in its press release. In addition, any tenant issues concerning the pandemic and quarantine will be clarified here.

Mutual assistance using the example of Berlin

Other noteworthy projects have been launched to keep vulnerable industries reasonably afloat. At helfen.berlin, for example, Berlin’s gastronomy can be helped by buying vouchers for a later visit. 

Our popular Berlkönig (driving service by the public transport BVG) currently offers its trips exclusively and free of charge to health care personnel to ensure their mobility and health safety. 

In addition to “United We Stream” (see above), “Berlin alive” should be mentioned for its various cultural offers that are made accessible through live streams and financed by donations going to the artists. 

The Fashion industry

Parts of the fashion and perfume industry (and by the way also producers of spirits) are now converting to the production of face masks and disinfectants, after the lack of these resources in the medical sector has become a major problem worldwide. According to The Guardian, luxury brands such as Prada, Gucci, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, etc., as well as corporates like Zara, Mango, and H&M, are now producing medical protective clothing on a large scale.

Click here for the German version