Columnist Sarah Jessica hosts Hotshots on her website Sarah’s Hotspot: a regular podcast series for musicians, artists and professionals within the scene to discuss the ups and downs of working within the Canadian entertainment industry.
In November’s podcast, Sarah Jessica speaks with Chris Hampton; a Hamilton-based freelance multi-media journalist specializing in music and arts reporting. His work has appeared with CBC, The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and many more.
True to style, Sarah Jessica hosts a timely, honest and straightforward look at how he got his start in the industry, challenges as a writer, the evolution of the industry and the impact of the pandemic. A condensed version of the conversation is below, with the full podcast available at the end, or directly from Sarah’s Hotspot.
Sarah Jessica: Where did you grow up? Are you from Hamilton originally?
Chris: Yeah, I’m from Hamilton. I grew up in Stoney Creek- so the east part of Hamilton. And I lived there until I was in my mid-twenties. And then I moved to Toronto for some more school.
Sarah Jessica: You’re currently working as a full-time freelancer. Why did you decide to work as a full-time freelancer? Why did you make that decision instead of getting a 9-5 [job]?
Chris: I feel really committed to the things I write about. Fairly often. It’s not always true, but fairly often. And it’s like, I get that sense, that story sense where it’s like “that’s a story. I should write that.” And you just get a log or a queue of those in your brain that you got to work on. And if that’s the only way that those stories are going to get written, because no one is paying me to be there from 9-5, then that’s what I’m going to do.
And to be totally honest with you, yes, I’m a full-time freelancer, but it doesn’t mean I don’t do other kinds of work as well. A part of what has made things more secure and stable in the last number of years is doing editing and copy-editing for hire. I’ll bet you I definitely make as much money doing that kind of stuff and spend as much time doing that kind of stuff as I do actually writing stories. So it’s different skills that use a lot of the same skills but a different part of the brain and not as draining or stressful to me as writing.
Sarah Jessica: I hate to bring it up, but we are living in a COVID-19 world. It’s different from 2019. How has arts journalism changed? How has this industry changed? What have you seen changed for you personally and what has shifted in the industry in general?
Chris: That’s a big question. What happened immediately was that the size of the arts section went to zero. Lots of papers cut their arts sections. I was doing a column with the Globe and Mail at that point in time that just got like . . .yeah. And it was travelling to go see- it was about art shows happening elsewhere, so there was a real travel angle to it and it was like ‘yeah, we can’t do that anymore.’ So the arts sections got gutted. Which was already happening, it was already being hollowed out, but COVID for a period of time made it go to zero. . .
But I think it changed things for me in that I learned that there were a lot more stories that I could do from home. Just getting somebody on the phone, talking to them, I could write a lot of stories. I haven’t worked for a magazine since. The idea of a travel budget has never really come up again. I don’t know if that’s a thing that is done with, or a thing that is rarer now.
But I feel like I have noticed a bigger push recently from both the Globe and the Star- the big newspapers- really trying to enliven their arts section again. Putting a little push on it. Because those are really colourful sections, and if you’re committed to telling stories of place, arts does that, you know what I mean?
I’ve also seen COVID was the death knell for a few big arts magazines and newspapers already stretched thin. Advertisers had just kinda gone away, and that was enough to kill a couple big trusty outlets. I’m not sure that the ramifications of COVID are entirely figured out yet. Like I said, I’ve seen a little bit of a push from some of these places to put more of a spotlight on arts journalism, but we’ll see. Like I said, budgets change and priorities shift quickly, so I’m not certain which way we’re going just yet.
I would love to see- you know, I talked about a bunch of magazines fold- but I love to see something new come up. That seems exciting. Exciting, but not just “exciting but we can’t pay you anything.” Like “exciting but we’re going to pay writers fairly.” I would love to see something new come up.
Sarah Jessica: Why do you think. . .people don’t want to pay for art in general, right? It’s a well known thing. People don’t want to pay for art. But I find that journalism and writing in general is so heavily included in that as well, is that people don’t expect to have to pay for that. Why do you think that is?
Chris: I think it’s because in the early. . .the early web journalism, we gave it away for free. For the price of ads. So, sidebars on your webpage was what magically paid for all those people’s work. And at a point in time, those ads were worth some money. Now they’re worth pennies. They’re worth nothing. So we know that that’s why there are a lot more paywalls now and subscription services.
I think people just got used to not having to pay in the early web for lots of things. I think the devaluation of art, you know, it’s that same era when you get pirating a lot of music. And now we’re not in the pirating music era, but we’re in a hybrid world where it’s like, ok, I’m not going to buy every album that I want to get, but I’m going to pay a subscription service ten dollars, and it’s virtually like pirating in that everything is at my fingertips. So it’s like a hybridized world. And there’s a lot of people that float ‘does journalism move in that way’ with some sort of a subscription; we’ve seen some of the magazine apps do it, where a one-price pays the cover price for a bunch of different magazines. Or people have floated “micro payments,” for stories or something like that.
I don’t know. That seems really complicated. But it does seem to be the way people have increasingly become comfortable paying for art as a kind of compromise. I’m not sure that it’s the fairest to the content creators, but it does seem like the other side, where the consumer market has been kind of willing to meet content producers is with things like big package subscription services. Is that a place where journalism can go? I’m not sure.
Featured image by Christopher Arndt.