The myth of exposure

I’ve written quite a bit lately about money as it relates to creativity – from what makes a good craft fair to supporting independent venues. I’ve had a lot of positive responses from this, so it’s time to tackle a somewhat thornier issue – fair pay for creative work. If you’re a musician, poet, artist and so on, you’ll know what I mean – being expected to perform or create for free, often with the line “it’ll be good exposure”. Well, I beg to differ on that last point. As far as I’m aware, utility companies, shops, landlords, mortgage lenders and so on have yet to accept ‘exposure’ as legal tender and this highlights a core issue – that those working in creative fields aren’t, you know, proper professionals, so they must have a ‘day job’ that pays the bills. While it’s true that such areas are hobbies for some, for many it’s either a second, or their only, source of income. Being creative for a living does not mean accepting poverty. I’ve also yet to see that ‘exposure’ translate into income. So, please do read on – and keep going, there’s a treat at the end.

We don’t expect tradespeople to fix our cars and houses for free, so why creatives? Yes, it could be argued that we need, say, plumbers, but we don’t need artists, but that’s (a) not true, and (b) not the point. Most of us do need artists (in the broad sense) because life would be horribly sterile without them – no music, no design, no… anything beyond sterile functionality, and given that need/want, it is reasonable to expect to earn a living wage when providing it. I’m not getting into the details of why working-for-free has become the norm for many, nor issues around streaming downloads; plenty has been said elsewhere, especially as regards the music business. On the whole, once people can be crowbarred away from the insidious draw of Starbucks or Netflix, they don’t expect gigs, books, CDs, plays or whatever to be free, so the problem lies elsewhere. I’ve certainly heard venue-owners and festival-organisers argue that they can’t afford to pay performers, but I strongly suspect this is – and I use a technical term here – bollocks. I work in a small independent venue which has the same pressures and struggles as any other, but it still manages to pay its acts a fair rate. Similarly there are plenty of festivals (including ‘charity’ ones) which have a budget/funding and seem able to pay everyone except those on stage. At best, not budgeting for your acts is a gross oversight – at worst, well…

…but don’t get me wrong – there are times when plying our creative wares for free is fine, for example, we can choose to do so at benefit gigs where we have a personal interest, open mics and open exhibitions (after all, it’s where new stuff, and new artists, get tried out), and events where everything’s for free and that’s the point (such as DIY culture events, and even then we can sell merch). We might swap skills/favours. Fair enough. However, this can’t be the norm. Whatever your field you will have bought kit, travelled to this-and-that event, maybe paid for professional training, and spent innumerable hours practising, rehearsing and, yes, creating. This is not free in either time or money. Like with everyone else’s cash, our donations should be voluntary – and working for free shouldn’t be a requirement for progressing in our chosen fields. So, the point’s been made that creative people need fair pay – it also means that more creatives need to take a deep breath and refuse to work for nowt. The more they do, the less the Scrooges will be able to say “well if you won’t, someone else will” – like any area of workers’ rights, unity and solidarity are key (psst, don’t be the one who undercuts the others, eh). It works out in the long term, even if it feels gutting at the time, and not a little scary. Like many (most? all?) others, I’ve done more for free than I should. Within the provisos above, I’ve now stopped, and guess what? Yup, people have started offering money – because if they didn’t want my services, they wouldn’t have contacted me at all, even if they were hoping to get me for nothing. I do less, but get more out of it, and not just financially. I’d say my work’s improved as I have more time, and feel more valued. Win-win. And that’s it from me – sometimes I’d throw a satirical poem in at this point, but today it’s something very different. As part of the Fair Pay-You Say! campaign (for exactly what I’ve been talking about), veteran songwriter David Mindel has penned ‘Play me some music’, which has recently been recorded and released by the splendid Dead Crow Road. Enjoy, absorb the message, and you know, if you like it, it’s on iTunes…

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