COVID-19 has changed the tides of our economy. The recession will have a ripple effect, coming to wash over one of our more vulnerable workforces: the creative industries. As reported by the Creative Industries Federation, over 400,000 creative jobs could be lost, and a combined revenue drop of £1.5 billion a week in 2020 is expected.
Throughout lockdown, we have heard about this “cultural catastrophe” through a tsunami of gloomy headlines, colourful infographics and emboldened statistics with infinite zeros. As the many changes to the creative sector soaked in, I took a peek behind the numbers and caught up with a couple of London creators to see how they have been staying afloat during the pandemic.
Our first creator, Ayshe Zaifoglu of AZCAPTURES, is a photographer, videographer and brand owner. She has worked with notable brands — Puma, #Merky and Nando’s — and photographed prominent figures — Cardi B, Stormzy and Skepta. Ayshe founded a brand, mantra and community, ‘Pay Your Shooter’, which is focused on empowering creatives. Ayshe developed this sentiment with Nike; she was one of twenty London creators selected to design a shoe through the ‘Nike By You’ Workshop — the Speedlite AZ001-95.
Ayshe sporting her Pay Your Shooter socks and snazzy new Speedlite AZ001-95 Air Max trainers.
Our second creator, Yomi Sode, is a poet, curator and performer. Yomi was one of ten poets selected in 2016 to join The Complete Works, and one of three poets awarded the Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowship in 2019. His play, COAT, sold out at the Roundhouse and toured the UK. Yomi founded two successful entertainment nights: ‘BoxedIN’ — a recurring spoken word event in Shoreditch, and ‘First Five’ — a live chat show interviewing fellow creatives. Yomi is currently working on his second play, WALTZ, a prequel-sequel to COAT.
Yomi Sode photographed by Gioncarlo Valentine.
Naturally, the sudden cancellation of events and subsequent loss of income took a toll on creators’ mental health. “There were weeks of hardly anything,” laments Ayshe, “In a time where so many industries flatlined, anxiety multiplied.” Ayshe was not deterred: “Through reading and journaling and speaking to others like me, I found peace over the panic that I didn’t have any work lined up, and let time do its thing.” The lockdown even acted as a refreshing break: “I learned to treat it like the summer holiday that I never really give myself.”
Yomi likewise spoke of his initial fear after a big contract was interrupted by lockdown, and his largest BoxedIN event scheduled at the Globe was cancelled, along with the launch of First Five at the Rich Mix. Yomi took some time to feel these losses, but quickly got back on his feet: “There’s a logical sense of how to move forward within the Nigerian community. There’s a resilience when it comes to Black people generally. After the third day, I was back on the phone.”
During lockdown, Ayshe sustained herself through video editing — a demand which fortunately increased as content moved to the web. “‘Editing’ basically translates to ‘being a secluded computer geek that works through the night’,” she jokes. “I managed to stay busy enough to support myself financially as the government didn’t feel it was necessary to provide me with any help.” Here Ayshe refers to the loopholes within the government’s ‘COVID-19 Self-Employment Income Support Scheme’ which deemed many freelancers ineligible, or left those who did comply with insufficient income. Such inadequate policy prompted the Creative Industries Federation to lobby Rishi Sunak with open letters calling for increased government support.
Despite the obvious financial stress, Ayshe notes how this time to perfect her craft may actually benefit her commercially in the future: “Now I can maybe charge a bit more for editing because I’m more confident and efficient with my work.”
Stormzy photographed by AZCAPTURES for #Merky.
Cardi B photographed by AZCAPTURES.
AZCAPTURES for Puma.
Skepta photographed by AZCAPTURES.
Gradually, these creatives found themselves busier than ever. Ayshe immersed herself in a new project, co-founding an anti-racism campaign called, ‘Have You Ever UK’. This website poses a series of questions to its white readership, all beginning with that integral question. Because, as Ayshe summarises, “If you’re never proposed with a question, you’ll never know what your answer is.”
The ultimate boss move: sticking a ‘Have You Ever UK’ information poster to a police van.
Yomi kept occupied with freelance work, Zoom appearances, mentoring sessions, his first book, his second play and BBC1’s spoken word workshop, ‘Words First: Apples and Snakes’. However, Yomi likewise discovered the importance of pacing himself as many of his peers experienced burnout. “People reacted to COVID in a way that wasn’t sustainable. You have to work within your own constraints.” In the end, maintaining his own mental health was more important than earning more money.
Another thing Yomi learned from lockdown was the importance of utilising digital spaces. Yomi adapted his cancelled events to fit a virtual setting: “COVID taught me there’s an international audience. When we do BoxedIN on Instagram Live, there are folks from Africa tuning in. One night, we had 300 people watching! COVID also did First Five a huge favour. When the lockdown eases and we can do live shows, our audience is already going to be there because they’ve been tuning in since March.”
Yomi’s first play, COAT, was performed in theatres across the UK in 2017. Photo by: @the.vital.blog.
In the future, Yomi reckons that many more creatives will continue incorporating the online world into their work. “The question will be,” ponders Yomi, “how can they sustain that on a monetary basis. Because artists still have rent to pay. It can’t always be free.” This issue continues to unsettle Yomi, who feels conflicted asking for Patreon contributions during this recession.
Ayshe has also learned some key lessons. Although ‘streamline’ is a dirty word in the creative industry, there is an upside to this ‘new normal’. Ayshe comments: “There’s a more efficient way of working. Cut all the people out that don’t actually need to be there to execute what needs to be done, and your work ends up so much better.” Overall, corona has boosted her confidence. She now tells herself: “Instead of hiding behind somebody else or being too shy to put yourself forward, just do it, mate…you’re good enough.”
“I am actually feeling super optimistic about the future,” Ayshe proclaims, “That being said, if you were to have asked me at the beginning of April I might have told you I’m thinking of a career change.” Going forward, Ayshe wishes to expand Pay Your Shooter. As she explains, this sentiment of self-worth is even more relevant in the COVID economy: “In times where jobs have been lost and freelancers are not really being taken care of, creators now more than ever deserve to be paid and respected for the work they do”.
Ultimately, these two talented Londoners embody the notable resilience amongst the creative sector — a community that refuses to drown during hard times.