Saturday, November 09, 2013

Dying of exposure - why writers and musicians should be paid

Who fills up the intertubes? 

It turns out that a lot of "content providers" are unpaid writers - for example at Huffington Post, where they can pump out articles on how the meanie Atlantic doesn't pay writers. Often, the editors or owners of these sites use a line - "What a new writer needs most is exposure. We can offer you thousands of eyeballs."

Blue Dog, New Orleans ca. 1992. Art in its natural environment: being sold

Recently Dangerous Minds ran a piece from another kind of creator - a musician. A TV company asked Whitey, also known as NJ White, to allow the use of his music in a program, for free.  He not only said no, but hell no. Whitey mentioned on his Facebook page that he wanted to spread the word, so here it is.

I am sick to death of your hollow schtick, of the inevitable line “unfortunately there’s no budget for music”, as if some fixed Law Of The Universe handed you down a sad but immutable financial verdict preventing you from budgeting to pay for music. Your company set out the budget. so you have chosen to allocate no money for music. I get begging letters like this every week - from a booming, affluent global media industry. 
Why is this? Let’s look at who we both are. 
I am a professional musician, who lives form his music. It me half a lifetime to learn the skills, years to claw my way up the structure, to the point where a stranger like you will write to me. This music is my hard earned property. I've licenced music to some of the biggest shows, brands, games and TV production companies on Earth; form Breaking Bad to the Sopranos, from Coca Cola to Visa, HBO to Rockstar Games. 
Ask yourself - would you approach a Creative or a Director with a resume like that - and in one flippant sentence ask them to work for nothing? Of course not. Because your industry has a precedent of paying these people, of valuing their work. 
Or would you walk into someone’s home, eat from their bowl, and walk out smiling, saying “So sorry, I’ve no budget for food”? Of course you would not. Because, culturally, we classify that as theft. 
Yet the culturally ingrained disdain for the musician that riddles your profession, leads you to fleece the music angle whenever possible. You will without question pay everyone connected to a shoot - from the caterer to the grip to the extra- even the cleaner who mopped your set and scrubbed the toilets after the shoot will get paid. The musician? Give him nothing. 
Now lets look at you. A quick glance at your website reveals a variety of well known, internationally syndicated reality programmes. You are a successful, financially solvent and globally recognised company with a string of hit shows. Working on multiple series in close co-operation with Channel 4, from a West London office, with a string of awards under your belt. You have real money, to pretend otherwise is an insult. 
Yet you send me this shabby request - give me your property for free… Just give us what you own, we want it. 
The answer is a resounding, and permanent NO. 
I will now post this on my sites, forward this to several key online music sources and blogs, encourage people to re-blog this. I want to see a public discussion begin about this kind of industry abuse of musicians… this was one email too far for me. Enough. I’m sick of you.
Hooray for Whitey.

I recently wrote something for free. I was approached by someone at work and asked if I wanted to contribute a chapter to the big technical manual that covers our profession. It would be "good publicity for the company." (They couldn't use the line about "exposure" for me as I was not making my living as an author.) My name in lights! Oooh, yes, obvs!

So I wrote it. I don't feel particularly put-upon by that incident as I was earning a salary at the time. But if that's how books get written these days - and webpages filled, and recorded music leased to TV companies, and art browsed and borrowed off Deviant Art - then no one is going to get paid. So, now, I know to say no.

 Tim Kreider in the New York Times recently wrote:

Slaves of the internet unite! 
NOT long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint. People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.
 He goes on to say:
This is partly a side effect of our information economy, in which “paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom, like calling people after having sex with them. The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, “content providers” — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art” — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads. 

And there's the rub, I think. It's fine for a website owner, like Ariana Huffington, or the guy who started IMDB, or Twitter, or a book publisher, or a TV producer, to make money on their output - but the content is expected to be free. Aggregating, or collating, or building, is rewarded these days, but the building material is drawn from some sort of commons - just out there for taking whenever Mr. Capitalist gets an idea on how to fit them together.

Curation is a creative activity in itself, and has always been a paid function. It's new that it's the only paid function. Particularly now, where bandwidth is cheap and the curation itself is done by the "eyeballs" themselves, or at least their owners' fingers, pressing "like" buttons until bad content is invisible and the good content automatically floats to the top. In the old days you had to build the rep of Max's Kansas City or The Marquee and find the hip bands yourself, or read through a five-foot slush pile to find the few gems that would actually sell your book. (And even then, you mostly paid your musicians/writers.)

As several articles have pointed out to me, "exposure" isn't something that will pay the rent. On the contrary, it's something you die from.

 Work Made for Hire, a blog for creatives has a piece on how to say no, politely, and get the word out that creatives need to be paid:
So let the client know how many hours of work are involved in what they’ve requested from you — the research, preparation and execution. Explain why all of those steps are important to produce a good quality piece of work. An easy way of doing this can be to explain a bad experience you’ve had where one of the steps wasn’t done or was rushed through and how it hurt the project in the end.


Juli Page Morgan said...

I remember when some of the NYTBS authors jumped into self-publishing and offered their books for free (or at $0.99) to generate buzz. Unfortunately, now it's become the norm to just give away ebooks, and it's led to the devaluation of all books. Readers now expect to get books for free, and balk at paying over a dollar for something that the author slaved over. I can't tell you the number of my fellow authors who have urged me to offer my books for free (for a limited time, mind you, but still ...) but it's never gonna happen. I don't care how good my Amazon numbers would be for that limited time. I worked too hard on those books to just toss them out like some throwaway junk. No, they're never going to be at the top of the NYTBS list (or even at the bottom!), but they're good books, and I worked my ass off writing and editing them. My publisher has teamed up with Amazon to offer my first book for $0.99 in December, and unfortunately I have no control over that. But hey - at least they're not giving it away for free.

Peromyscus said...

I agree. Also, Amazon is not working on your behalf - it doesn't help promote your work on your behalf - and the only result I can see for you offering a book for "free" is that you'll attract readers who want a free book. Possibly not even that, as they would have to wade through all the other free books.

I've read a lot of articles on "what the new artist needs is exposure!" but a free book on Amazon isn't any more exposure than a $0.99 book on Amazon. Stick to your guns!


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