Thursday, June 16, 2011

Andreas Schroeder on counting the pennies

[Andreas Schroeder, the British Columbia writer and teacher of writers, was among the creators of Canada's Public Lending Right program and remained a board member for most of its twenty-five years of operation.  PLR now delivers about $10 million a year to about 18,000 Canadian writers in compensation for the use of their works in public library lending programs. On May 26, 2011, as part of the commemorations of the program's twenty-fifth anniversary,  Andreas Schroeder spoke in Toronto on “Canada’s PLR: The Untold Story.”
 In this excerpt from that talk, Andreas notes that collectives and PLR do different things and are not directly comparable.  But there may be lessons to draw from the cost-control attitudes he finds in PLR, and not so much elsewhere.]

…I’m old enough now to have seen the following phenomenon too often. Writers – in fact artists generally – produce the highest level of cultural expression, yet tend to get paid at the lowest level of the cultural food chain. That’s why we created the Writers’ Union, and that’s why we created PLR. But what really troubles me is what so often happens when artists of whatever stripe finally get it together to do something about this. Hundreds, even thousands of volunteer hours get poured into the crusade; dozens, sometimes hundreds of artists take time away from their art to put their shoulders to the wheel -- and sometimes, if they’re lucky, they actually manage to make their point and win the day. Resources are made available, a program is established, staff is hired, and the artists can finally go back to creating their art, relieved that the goal has been accomplished. 
And maybe it has, but flash forward a couple of years and here’s what we see far too often: the program is still operating, but a shiny new office building has been acquired, the staff has quadrupled or worse, the administrative costs have gone through the roof, and the artists, for whom the whole undertaking was created in the first place, are now getting a mere fraction of the money. Does that sound familiar? Why does that keep happening? Well the answer is obvious: the artists have left the building. There’s nobody left to adequately represent their interests – either that, or the people on the board won’t or can’t do that job anymore. We looked at half a dozen such programs when we were designing ours, and I want to tell you: that was one outcome we were determined to avoid.

And we have. Canada’s PLR program is arguably the leanest, most economically run program of its kind in Canada (and actually, in the world) with over 92% of its budget paid out to Canada’s writers each year. That’s an administrative rate of less than 8%; compare that with similar collective programs costing as much as 30% of their total budget, and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. There are collectives in Canada serving only half as many writers or artists as PLR, with staffs that have ballooned to  over 50 employees; compare that with the PLR program, which started out in 1986 with 4 employees serving 5000 writers, and today, despite now serving over 18,000 writers, still operates with exactly that same size of staff: 4 employees.  
Now people will say: that’s not a fair comparison; you don’t have the legal costs, or a lot of the travel costs, or jury costs, or whatever. And we’ll say that’s right, we don’t, but do you know why? Because we specifically designed the program not to need those things. It can be done. You just take a good hard look at all your cost benefit ratios. Travelling all over the world to set up reciprocal arrangements with foreign countries that will never return more than a few dollars annually may look enterprising, but it won’t do your clients much good. Neither will using your program’s budget to fund cultural events and festivals all over the country, all of which comes right out of your clients’ pockets too. And then the artists or writers wonder why their cheques are so small at the end of the year. There are a number of European PLR programs that do that sort of thing too, and we became convinced that if they actually let their affiliated writers vote on such initiatives, they’d never get them passed. Over at PLR, aside from two extremely modest PLR birthday celebrations over the years, and attendance at the international PLR conference every two years by its chair and its executive secretary (and even that’s been recently cancelled), Canada’s PLR program has never spent a nickel of its clients’ money on anything but the express purpose for which the program was designed in the first place. I think that’s a model to which all collective-type programs in this country should aspire…

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