A while back, a lot of people were linking to author Tim Kreider‘s op-ed in the New York Times called “Slaves of the Internet, Unite.” Despite its apparent reasonableness, it bothered me for some reason. It took me a while to figure out why (and then a while to find time to write), but I think I can explain.
Kreider’s complaint starts reasonably enough:
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.
I understand that. People with useful skills, especially if they’re artistic or creative, get a lot of these kinds of requests, and it can be very annoying. Some of the people who ask will be professional and courteous because they understand they are asking for a favor, but a depressing number of jerks will make absurd demands with a pain-inducing air of entitlement.
My own software engineering skills don’t attract too many such requests. I usually work as part of a team, and our projects take weeks or months and have budgets of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s not the kind of work that lends itself to personal favors. And most of the people who need software developed on that scale are familiar with how the business works, so they don’t ask for freebies. When they do, however, it tends to come in the form of a suggested business partnership: “I’ve got this great idea for a website. You build it, and we’ll split the income.” That only works if the idea is actually a good one, and if the would-be entrepreneur actually has business skills and connections, and isn’t a lunatic.
So I understand where Kreider’s coming from, but I think he’s underestimating the value of what’s being offered, especially to artists less established than he is.
A familiar figure in one’s 20s is the club owner or event promoter who explains to your band that they won’t be paying you in money, man, because you’re getting paid in the far more valuable currency of exposure. This same figure reappears over the years, like the devil, in different guises — with shorter hair, a better suit — as the editor of a Web site or magazine, dismissing the issue of payment as an irrelevant quibble and impressing upon you how many hits they get per day, how many eyeballs, what great exposure it’ll offer. “Artist Dies of Exposure” goes the rueful joke.
Spoken like someone who is already enjoying success in his field. Good for him. But for a great many beginning artists, their biggest concern is not how much they’ll get paid, but whether anyone other than their friends and family will ever know their art exists.
Also, while people may people tell you you’ll get “exposure,” they’re also offering something more valuable: Proven experience and references. Your band may rock the house, but club owners don’t just want bands that rock, they want bands that rock reliably. If they book you for two nights in the third week of next March, they want to know that you will show up, on time, and in good condition to perform. If you’ve got a string of performances behind you, paying or not, it helps to prove you can do that. (And it also proves how large of a crowd you can draw.)
It’s not just new artists. Some fields are so diverse that even veteran artists have to do free work to get attention and prove themselves. For example, Chicago-area photographer Jim Jurica has been earning money in the fast-changing photography business for 10 years, he’s a contributor to iStockphoto, and Getty, he’s an editor and photographer for Glamour Model Magazine, and runs his own BeautyLook Magazine. When he started making the move from stock photography to glamour, he spent a lot of time working for free with models from Model Mayhem until he built up a good enough portfolio and list of contacts to get steady work.
Jim told me that despite his paying work, he still does unpaid work all the time, as do the models he works with.
It is generally standard practice in our industry that magazines pay nothing, or next to nothing… We do it for the publicity. And yes, people get excited about publicity and hire us as a result.
Like many in the model photography industry, I’ve gone through the usual progression from trade (unpaid) photo shoots in the beginning, to nearly all paid work now. But I still do trade shoots, when it is beneficial to me. Perhaps it’s a new model whose look I would like to add to my portfolio. Maybe it’s a client I am interested in, and posting some shots from their fashion show makes them notice me. The trick is to make sure the balance of favor is in fact…balanced.
Still, he agrees there are people who try to take advantage:
There are too many out there who use the term “exposure” to gain advantage over new, up and coming talent who should be getting paid. Or those who get stuck in the “Trade Shoot Trap” of endless portfolio building. Our industry is very, very small and once you’ve established your reputation for always working for free, it becomes nearly impossible to start asking for money.
On the other hand, he also gets free work from others:
I haven’t paid a makeup artist out of my own pocket…ever. They work with me for free because they want my pictures, or they want to do a free shoot to prove they are good and reliable, and then I refer paid jobs to them.
Ultimately, you have to establish your track record before you can trade on it:
There are endless streams of new models, new makeup artists, new photographers, etc. Some of them give up nearly as soon as they’ve started… Me? I’m not willing to put some new makeup artist in front of a paying client, if I haven’t worked with that makeup artist first. So we do test shoots to prove ourselves.
Kreider does seem to understand how this works. After all, he has written this piece as a New York Times op-ed, which pays — and here I quote NYT Op-Ed editor Trish Hall — “peanuts.” He also gives away a whole bunch of his The Pain comics on his website, where he asks for donations. Having mocked people for thinking he’ll value exposure, he then exposes his work for free and asks for donations.
I have more to say in Part 2.