I’ve been to enough ‘creative economy’ presentations to know how they generally flow: They draw a big circle and then flash a big number. The big circle includes lots of creative industries — from nonprofit to full-on-profit. The big number comes from their aggregated economic activity. The message is, essentially: Holy cow, we’re big. Therefore we’re important. Pay attention. Make nice with us.
For example, Americans for the Arts points to $135.2 billion of economic activity. The Orange Economy flags the sector as worth 6.1 percent of the world economy (quoting John Howkins). The NEA and the US Department of Commerce sets “arts and cultural production” in the US as 4.32 percent of the Gross Domestic Product – more than construction, more than transportation and warehousing.
But while the big circle/big number approach does offer a first-blush flourish, it tends to dissipate rather quickly, without leaving much behind. Because, yes, the creative economy is big, but it’s also diffuse. And while the former is animating and validating, the latter is a bit of a problem.
For an allegory, consider the penny: There are approximately 200 billion pennies currently in circulation. That’s $2 billion in economic value, with serious collective weight, size, and significance (stacked together, they’d form two cubes at 127 feet per side). By the ‘big number’ playbook, that makes pennies a big deal, worthy of attention, praise, and preferential policy.
But just try to use your 127-foot cube of pennies to buy a single can of soda from a vending machine, or add time to your parking meter to avoid a ticket. Those systems don’t work with just aggregated wealth, they require concentrated wealth (nickels, dimes, and quarters). The pennies may have comparable value, but they don’t have comparable utility. Which is why you likely have a jar of them sitting in your sock drawer.
The same challenges face the creative industries. Even if they generate more economic value than the hotel industry, the hotel industry has bigger players with more concentrated wealth. Which makes them more coordinated and consequential in the policy machine. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that policy makers are focused on fat-cats. It just means it’s easier to attend to concentrated wealth than a million little bits of wealth scattered here and there. Coordinated advocacy helps a lot, of course, but you’re still advocating for pennies in a world that prefers quarters.
I’m not saying we should avoid the ‘big number’ flourish, or the big-tent perspective on creative industries. I’m just saying that we should never consider the big circle/big number pitch a persuasive argument. It’s not an argument. It’s an opener. And most of the creative economy presentations I’m seeing misunderstand the complexity of the close.