Monday, August 12, 2013

Working for Free

Our culture seems to be on the verge of an overhaul. A high school diploma doesn't get a terrific job, and even a college degree isn't a guarantee you'll get hired. Internships are unpaid and all the kids want them. The few who get the internships may get jobs later, after they have worked for free for three months? six months? one year?

This model isn't totally new to artists and writers. In the 1980s I read an article in a dance publication that has stayed with me. It was written by a professional dancer who was alarmed by how many performing artists would dance, play, or otherwise perform for free or little compensation. The argument was that it cheapens the work and promotes a suspicious attitude toward those who ask higher prices. Artists have never gotten paid much to begin with. Performing artists have had a raw deal for decades; people think they are doing them a favor by asking them to perform at street fairs, block parties and such for free, "for exposure." And sometimes it does lead to future gigs, and although that's not my area of expertise, I'm betting it doesn't.

Then we've got the culture of borrowing. Content flows freely online. People know that some of their posts will get reblogged somewhere else, so they accept ads in the hopes of eventually getting paid for their time. A few people are able to subsist this way, although I don't know anyone who does. Ultimately, will most of our work be automated? Even our creative work? This article seems to lean that way.

There are many examples of hidden creative work. If we go to the apps store we look for the free apps first. No one is thinking about the developers's time. The developer is a maker who wants his/her work seen and would like to make a living making, too.

Money is a touchy subject. We've all heard pledge drives and wished they were over so we could get on with the music, concert, play, show, whatever. Do we have to make giving attractive and desirable by tarting it up with free gifts? Perhaps we are wired to look for bargains for self-preservation; after all, we have to live, too. But I believe we can transcend our animal nature and be consciously aware of our actions. Those who understand what the work entails often tend to be more willing to pay for it. Perhaps we need to educate those outside of our fields, add a description of the process or a personal note to our pieces to call attention to what it is that we do. It takes a conscious and gracious decision to support creative work. 


Helen Howes said...

I have always said that I would rather work for free than be badly paid (neither, of course, in preference to being paid the proper rate for a job). Not least because pro bono work of any kind can be shrugged off or rejected if something more interesting or remunerative turns up.. That sounds a bit hard, but I've been a breadwinner for my family most of my life and can't afford to be too willing to offer my time and resources too freely..
That's not to say I don't do stuff for the love of it, but that's not my Work, must be my Play..

Christopher said...

You have it right. Money is a touchy subject and appreciation of things like art and music is unfortunately difficult for many who lack it. They have none to give and any little they have certainly isn't going to be spent buying a ticket to the theater; they're trying to come up with last month's rent, let alone this month's or food or other bills. Why is it that this is so prevalent? Oh, to live in a world where the abuses of a system like money didn't exist. Hopefully, one day people will come together and vanquish this evil, but until then, it seems to me that it is only going to get progressively more difficult to access the arts. Ironically, it is the creative aspects that allow us to engage one another and remind us of our humanity. We are all worth being duly paid for our services and time, and any situation that does not embrace this, I feel, has at its heart a scheme to take advantage of another. In the comment above, it is unclear as to whether they would also prefer being paid more than the proper rate for a job, in lieu of being paid poorly or working for free or the exact proper rate. I think that most would not agree to this and would view it as being somehow dishonest, yet there are many who do receive such "compensation" on a regular basis and monolithic scale disproportionate to the rest of the world. It is my hope that we awaken to see beyond money as an end in and of itself. Today's monetary system will not get us to that brighter tomorrow, and I wish more would come to this realization so that change could be made.