It’s official! The UK’s economy is growing and according to new statistics released by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (January 2014), the UK’s creative economy is booming.

 

It’s official! The UK’s economy is growing and according to new statistics released by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (January 2014), the UK’s creative economy is booming. Between 2011 and 2012, employment in the creative industries rose by 8.6% compared to 0.7% for the UK economy as a whole. And GVA (Gross Value Added) rose by 15.6% between 2008 and 2012 compared to a UK overall rate of 5.4%. This success story is confirmed elsewhere. The CBI’s growth strategy for the creative industries (January 2014) extols the ‘world-beating creative industries’ and their vital contribution to economic recovery. Nesta’s mapping work (November 2010), the AHRC-funded research by Creative England (February 2013), and in-depth study of Brighton Fuse’s creative and digital cluster (October 2013) all identify concentrations of fast growth creative and digital businesses and hubs of knowledge exchange.

The UK’s creative economy has proved to be a highly attractive book cover and the first series has sold well. However, everybody in the creative sector appreciates how hard it is to craft a successful sequel. The challenge is to develop a storyline(s) that keeps policy-makers engaged and the momentum going.

Good follow-ups don’t just repeat the same story, but too much of the thinking in the creative sector still revolves around the same solutions. With such positive trends in motion and an infrastructure for innovation and collaboration in place, the policy conversation in the creative sector has not kept pace with economic change. Based on an out-dated formula, strategies and reports still start with boasts of high production values and well-known large firms; move on to ‘barriers to growth; and end with recommendations for more government intervention. Proposals include business development programmes, financial incentives, training courses, apprenticeships etc.

But DCMS’ data suggest creative and digital businesses seem to have coped very well with recession and public spending cuts. Everyone should be congratulating themselves on delivering government’s policy of ‘making it easier for the media and creative industries to grow while protecting the interests of citizens’.

However, like all good stories this one is more complex than it might first seem. As well as the ‘good news’, close examination of DCMS’ statistics reveal some ‘bad news’ and cause for concern.

While DCMS’ new methodology is long overdue, it has generated some surprisingly small numbers and variations across the diverse creative spectrum. For example, high growth rates between 2011 and 2012 for employment in ‘IT, software and computer services’ (+15.6%) and ‘Design product, graphic and fashion design’ (+16.2%), contrast with falls in ‘Crafts’ (-19.5%) and ‘Museums, galleries and libraries’ (-5.2%). Setting aside the acknowledged limitations of precise data collection (and particularly for groups such as ‘Crafts’), there are significant differences in performance that need to be teased out and explained.

This does not, of course, imply groups are discrete entities that can be discussed in isolation or in simply economic terms. The point is that the creative industries is not a homogenous sector, and portraying it as such is disingenuous.

The wrappers of ‘creative economy’ and ‘creative industries’ have proved an effective means of attracting political attention (and public funding) to date. Somehow, the storytellers must find a way of blending the rhetoric of a ‘world-beating creative economy’ with a more measured account of the sector’s strengths and weaknesses. This will require delving into the declines and falls of groups, including those more affected by public spending cuts than others. Not every creative business is booming and not every creative group needs government support.

Success stories – such as the IT and Design groups, Brighton Fuse and the ‘hot spots’ of university-business knowledge exchange – provide useful lessons on growing and connecting creative and digital people and organisations. Nonetheless, they are exemplars of what is possible and not a blueprint for replication across all groups and localities. Supporting micro-sized Crafts artists in rural areas is a different scenario to that of large Design practices in central London.

Getting the sequel right will require identifying the local support and partnerships needed for an increasingly diverse creative sector. With their strong links to local communities and economies, universities can and should be part of this process.

Failure to adapt a ‘one size fits all’ model of intervention could make the creative industries, like so many artists, victims of their own success story.

Apart from formulaic prose, there’s also a problem with how the story concludes.

Is government being asked to back the winners in the creative industries? Or do the winners demonstrate what can be done by those who lag behind? The former suggests government should help reduce ‘barriers to growth’ for those businesses clusters and hubs that already have the capacity to create jobs, GVA and exports. An alternative reading is that government should support business activity across the creative economy because de facto it’s all worth it.

Perhaps, the ambiguity is deliberate and the reader is invited to interpret the story as s/he feels best fits.

To be continued…

Dr Jules Channer is a Cultural and Creative Industries Researcher. She regularly works with Creative England, Arts Council England and the South West Local Authorities Cultural Partnership and has just launched the Cultural Research and Evidence Monitor at http://www.juleschannerassociates.co.uk/4.html

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