The creative underworld

Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

An article about the local music industry written by Katrina Stuart Santiago a couple weeks ago (“Representation, development, equity: OPM’s dilemma,” March 25) caught my attention because it touched on a couple of terminally problematic issues: Government support—which also unavoidably means government regulation—of creative industries, and the effective (or not) self-support different segments of creative industries provide. Katrina’s piece focused on the music business, but the issues are common to many artistic endeavors.

The sector in which I have had a hands-on education over the past year or so is the modeling business, in which my young daughter Ilona has become something of a hot commodity. She and her model friends represent a resource in an extensive ecosystem that includes advertising agencies, talent agencies, talent managers, trainers, photographers and videographers, and hair, makeup and wardrobe artists, all of whom are collectively creating a product for the end user, an enterprise marketing its own product or service.

This business ecosystem is also connected to others—for example, the television/movie entertainment industry, photography services for private consumers, and event organizing.

A similar sort of ecosystem map could be drawn for any creative industry as well—writers, musicians, graphic artists, stage and screen artists, and even some things that are not usually considered in the creative context but probably should be, such as clothing and fashion design and game and entertainment software development.

Not being personally acquainted with some of these other creative sectors I can only guess at the level of business formality that characterizes them, but I suspect that they are probably similar to the modeling industry, which is largely a part of the informal economy.

At the top of the food chain, as it were, are the advertising agencies that create the promotional materials and campaigns for business clients, and at this level business is conventionally formalized, but below it, things are, shall we say, approach rather more casually.

The talents the ad agencies need—models to catch the eye of the consumer, the photographers who turn the artistic concepts into visual forms, copywriters, graphic artists—are not usually permanently employed by the agencies, but are recruited on a per-task basis. Some of that need is handled by talent agencies, which are regular businesses, but much of it is filled by freelancers, either independent talent agents or “handlers”, or in the case of photographers or designers, the artists themselves.

The level of business formality in terms of honoring legal requirements such as having a business license and maintaining proper labor and tax records among these independents likely varies, but in my own anecdotal observation seems to be largely ignored. To a great extent, particularly in the Philippines’ business environment wherein excessive red tape and persistent, ubiquitous petty institutional corruption can quickly paralyze even the simplest endeavors, this is completely understandable; one can hardly find the time to actually be creative if one jumps through all the regulatory hoops and attends to every niggling legal detail, and most work doesn’t pay well enough to justify the trouble to do so. And because the government here has traditionally been very good at making rules and regulations but absolutely hopeless when it comes to actually enforcing them (or following them itself), pursuing one’s creative trade in the vast underworld of the informal economy is an attractive opportunity.

Attractive, yes, but not without a great deal of risk, because unfortunately, the absence of regulatory oversight means that most business is conducted on the basis of trust, with mixed results.

There are of course many, many agents, photographers, and modeling training facilitators who hold themselves to high personal ethical standards and conduct their business in a properly thoughtful way. But there are not a few who do not, and just about every model, talent handler, or photographer one meets has at least one story about a deal gone sour, such as the one related to me the other night: A certain photographer and talent coordinator, one who specializes in the “babies and hair ribbons” style using young models (a niche that is popular because of the great demand for children’s clothing and accessories), had apparently collected a couple thousand pesos in ‘fees’ from several aspiring models’ families for the purpose of staging a mall fashion show; not surprisingly, the event never materialized, the photographer instead, after many inquiries from concerned parents, offering a “workshop” to soak up the money already spent.

Hang around this business a little while and stories like these become commonplace—talent coordinators skimming expense money, or photographers (the one mentioned above was also said to have pulled this particular stunt) charging models for photo sessions already paid for by someone else.

These kinds of things happen because one of the downsides to the open opportunity creative pursuits offer is that supply outweighs demand by a wide margin. For models, particularly young models, there are definitely more who have unrealistic aspirations than who have a real chance of seeing a reasonable return for their personal investment, in part because it’s human nature to overestimate the talent or attractiveness of one’s own child, and partly out of conditioning by a popular culture polluted by far too many “get rich quick” reality and game shows, and in many cases—too many, sadly—because of a lack of other economic opportunities.

The families of these kids are the most vulnerable to exploitation, and more often than not, the least financially capable of absorbing the costs. Other parts of the ecosystem have equally difficult challenges and an equally troubling likelihood of failure or being exploited. Unlike modeling (wherein most of one’s marketable attributes are acquired at conception), much of the skill of photography, for example, can be acquired; certainly, one must have a certain artistic sense that probably cannot be learned, but on the whole the field is even more intensely competitive than that of the young men and women on the other side of lens.

As ferociously competitive—and for a vast number of aspirants, ultimately futile—as the modeling business and most every other creative industry is, they do provide a relatively equitable opportunity for anyone with a desire to try to “make it”, and our culture as a whole would be worse off if the one or two in a hundred who actually do make it didn’t have that opportunity. But while the high risk of failure is unavoidable, and in a certain sense, necessary as a guarantee of artistic quality, the high risk of exploitation should not be.

The problem is, the conventional approach to that problem—the carrot and stick of government support and regulation—almost never results in anything that provides the same sort of opportunity for artists, or the sort of artistic output the wider public audience demands.

Fortunately, there are hopeful signs. I have recently become acquainted with a group of photographers called the Philippine Outdoor Photographers, organized about a year ago and already numbering about 4,000 members. While the group now is built on a shared passion and knowledge exchange, there are indications that it is working toward something resembling that Holy Grail of creative industries—a union—that Ina Santiago highlighted in her discussion of the issues in the music business. It is a concept that is still rather alien to this particularly labor-unfriendly land, but if “art” and “culture” are ideas that mean anything at all here, one that ought to be supported.


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1 Comment

  1. Ben, thank you for a very insightful article.

    A few general points first. I have moved to the Philippines from the UK (London) and have been here for nearly two years now. I have just married and will being staying here full time…I really like it here.

    The Philippines has an enormous “left field” potential. It is brilliant at absorbing other cultures but does keep touch with its roots. It does not have to aspire to being “Korean” or “American”. The Philippines has a very strong identity of its own.

    London used to be the happening city in Europe, I don’t know if this still the case, but creative industries, fashion, computer games, music etc, were big earners. Creative people flocked to London from Europe and else where. I get the feeling Berlin has taken over now in Europe. Manila has definitely got this potential!!!

    Architecture: Domestic designs are staggering, highly creative, crazy crazy colours, amazing use of wrought iron, stone work etc, Miles better than the tired domestic buildings I remember in the UK. The same goes for some commercial buildings. for of colour and form.
    Fashion….sandal mad of course, but again boundaries are pushed, a lot of experimentation.
    Music, I play tenor sax and have played a few gigs here. There is a strong scene in many styles in Metro Manila. Standards are very high Coming down to practicalities, getting paid for gigs is an issue. I remember this was a problem in London, but more so here. To get your playing up to standard you need to put the time and effort in…It is not a case of wanting to be the next pop super star, money for a taxi or gas would be enough.
    Art/Fine Art, I also have an interest in art and have exhibited a few pairings here.
    I remember the Guardian Newspaper pointing out a few move ago that there was a rising art scene in the Asia Pacific region and in the Philippines.
    Movies/TV/computer games….texting and web usage is very high here.

    To come back to your article, I would say all of this is a “no brainer” as we English say…there is a massive potential here. The Philippines could more than match South Korea and Japan given the right frame work.

    Creative industries need the right environment, open mutually supportive and as this article clear states, free of unnecessary “red tape”. The second rock revolution was British, bored teenagers listening to Muddy Walters and John Lee Hooker LP’s in the late 50’s and 60’s absorbed these and then blew the music world apart in 1964. With the web etc things are far more complex now, but I do sense a very strong vibe here. Yes President Aquino iii, “The Philippines is fun”…super casinos etc etc…but this is a real arrow in the Philippine quiver..the creative industries….and very important…Thank you for this article.

    PS…I was staggered when I heard there was a “Norther Soul” club in Manila, and a guy here knew all the ins and outs of the old Teds and Rockers fights in Brighton in the 60’s…..people know there stuff here…the government here needs to realize what an asset it has here with the creative potential of the Philippines which I feel is huge!!