Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

From Davenport to Parliament Hill: Andrew Cash fights for a middle class of artists ...

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From Davenport to Parliament Hill: Andrew Cash fights for a middle class of artists ...

Andrew Cash is one politician who can relate to the struggling artist. As the singer-songwriter approaches his one-year anniversary serving as MP for Toronto’s Davenport, he and many of his NDP colleagues are busy making sure the government understands and appreciates how far and deep the arts sector impacts the Canadian economy, let alone our culture.

Cash speaks from experience. He is one half of the Cash Brothers duo that produced a series of critically acclaimed albums in the 1990s, culminating with the brilliant 2003 offering ‘A Brand New Night’ (if you don’t own this CD, find it, now.). Cash first sang of the consequences of tough economic times in his 1989 hit Boomtown. Before joining forces, Andrew and Peter Cash played in numerous bands (Peter in The Skydiggers), logging individual and collective miles as working musicians.

Andrew spoke with me recently about the economic challenges communities are right now facing, and how artists are often the hardest hit because “they’re already living below the poverty line.” But Cash said despite the financial gloom and emerging threats like digital theft of creative property, he is optimistic about the prospect for writers, musicians and artists in Canada.

“Vibrant arts and culture scenes are popping up all over the country, particularly in small towns and northern communities,” he said from his Parliament Hill office. “We’ve been trying since we were elected in May to put out there that the arts and culture sector is a major player in the Canadian economy. The old idea that the arts are a charity case is gone. Investments in arts and culture net out with returns for both the public and the private sector. I think there’s great potential for arts in this country.”

Cash said he and his colleagues just wrapped up deliberations concerning the new copyright bill the Conservatives have said will balance the need of consumers and creators. Cash quickly showed his understanding of the complex legislation and his skill in driving to the heart of the matter with just the right words.

“The bill represents a real lack of understanding on their (Conservative) part about how artists get paid. Essentially artists are small business people, sole proprietorships,” Cash explained. “You rely on payments from many small sources. Royalties, the odd show, but it’s tough and you have to understand how it works. What concerns me is (the government) has no sense what it means to be an artist in Canada.”

He said the birth of the digital file has certainly created issues for artists in terms of ensuring they are fairly compensated, but it has also created new means of reaching an audience.

“I am optimistic that new business models will emerge that foster what I call a middle class of artists. We’ve got a small group of artists that do really well, are very successful, and the majority who are just scraping by,” adding he does not begrudge success, just that it is not representative of the majority of working artists.

Still, Cash is not convinced it is any harder to be a writer or a musician in Canada compared to other jurisdictions such as the U.S.

“I don’t know if it’s harder here because there are also a lot of artists struggling down in the States,” he said. “They have more private foundation support down there. But I can tell you when I’ve played the U.S., people envy our public support up here. We still have a public broadcaster, the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council, the Toronto Arts Council. What we’ve also got is a government that is more interested in laisez faire capitalism than in a strong, robust national cultural policy. These days it’s tough to find a decent, affordable place to live in Canada, let alone make a living as an artist.”

The schedule of an MP is gruelling, and Cash is deeply dedicated to his task. Still, I had to wonder how he was able to find time to scratch the writer’s itch. Because once a writer, always a writer.

“The time is very tight now. I was elected to do a job and I’m very excited to do it. I can say I’m playing a fair bit because everywhere I go people want me to play some songs. With writing it is an itch you need to scratch. And as you know, you’re always writing even when you think you’re not. It’s always percolating.”

Cash gets a chance to bring his old life into his new when he performs the song Diamonds in the Snow with fellow NDPer and Grievous Angels frontman Charlie Angus. I asked Cash if it was NDP strategy to create a rock band one member at a time.

“We have quite a few musicians in our caucus right now. It’s actually troubling. Too much competition,” he joked. “No, we have a very large arts caucus here, men and women who understand what it’s like to be an artist. I think we’ve got enough lawyers around here, surely we could use some people with other skills.”

While the bulk of his reading these days may centre on copyright legislation and crime bills, Cash does find time to enlighten himself. He offered up his latest readings.

“I’ve just read The Death of The Liberal Class (by Chris Hedges), and The Perfect Spy by John Le Carre. Those are the most recent. And this is going to sound crazy, but I’m reading a book right now and I can’t tell you the title or the author. She’s Scottish, I know that. I’ll try to Google her as we’re talking ... ”

We never did find the author of the nameless book. But it didn’t matter. I was already thinking of a new short story titled ‘Death of The Middle Class Artist’. And I’m going to copyright that right now.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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