Poet Pete De-Graft Johnson on Balancing Art and Business

Pete De-Graft Johnson, also known as The Repeat Beat Poet, is a poet and organiser of The PAD, a studio and events space in London. He has come to the Edinburgh Fringe festival to help run Boomerang Club, a poetry showcase through the PBH Free Fringe.

Being an artist is not encouraged. But it is something that is totally necessary.

What have you been most excited by at the Edinburgh Fringe?

I have seen a trope in shows that deal with the relationship between art and commerce. This includes ‘Made to Measure’ by Sara Hirsch and Ben Fagan, ‘Till Debt Do Us Part’ by Tina Sederholm, and ‘Show Me The Money’ by Paula Varjack.

The nervousness that that artists have when talking about money is damaging us, resulting in art being undersold, underpaid, and taken advantage of. That is awful, because it mistakes our kindness for ignorance.

What is it like being a poet at the festival?

Being a poet at the Fringe is wonderful, because you can connect with other poets in the country. Silk, The Banshee Labyrinth, and Pilgrim are three main poetry venues where you can meet other people in the bar.

We do love this art. Amongst all the business talk we do love it.

What does is take for an artist to go on tour?

You need a respectful fee that covers expenses such as travel and accommodation, on top of a performance rate. One venue covering all of that is difficult. The UK’s spoken-word scene is growing fast, but we can’t pretend that businesses external to the scene are ready to support us. As a result we use sponsorship and goodwill.

Take a hotel bar for example. If you develop a monthly night there, you are bringing customers. A hotel will also have a spare room for the night. We need to look externally to see who can push this scene forward. We need to also keep our relationships professional and respectful.

What is The PAD?

The PAD is an arts venue, studio, and recording space. It was born out of a university business competition, run by NatWest. We secured an investor who is not in the creative industries at all, but saw the potential in it. We are located in Barking, just outside of London.

Poetry @ the PAD is an on-going conversation series. After their performance we have a discussion about the work that was just shown. Poetry doesn’t shy away from racism, mental health, or sexism, and we want to have those conversations with our audience.

That seems similar to a very traditional poetry night.

Part of building a new mode is a rejection of a previous way of doing things. We have kicked against the ‘BBC Radio 4’ style of poetry, but one thing they did right was allow authors time and space to talk about their work. Spoken-word artists don’t often like to talk about their work, but I believe that is changing. That is a good thing.

Is there a division in the PAD team between creating and organising?

When the momentum hit for the PAD, we had to properly look at it as a business. It has now developed into five people. On top of that we work closely with the creative community, who might work with us for a short period of time. Luckily for me I’m not working closely on the production. I work on the promotion, events management, and public relations. We have someone who is a dedicated sound technician. But we are all organising and creating. We still have such a love for creating, and the art. It is a fine balance.

Are we in a generation where being an artist requires business skills, and is the lack of those skills a failure of art schools?

It is not just a failure of art schools but instead in the general social attitude toward art. People will pay thousands of pounds for a piece of art, while not wanting to fund art schools, or grassroots arts projects.

Being an artist means being self-employed, doing it for the love, scrabbling together, having to work for yourself, and being very disciplined. If you don’t have a safety net it means working nine to five and performing two nights a week, and being dog-tired.

Being an artist is not encouraged. But it is something that is totally necessary. Being an artist is the most rewarding thing you can call yourself.

You can follow Pete on Twitter at @RepeatBeatPoet, and the PAD at @ThePadTV. The Boomerang Club is on every day until the 27th August at the Pilgrim (Venue 100) at 18:45-19:45. Full Edinburgh listing: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/boomerang-club/716382

Photo credit: Tyrone Lewis