I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to work for free. You probably wouldn’t even believe me, unless you’re also a creative professional. In that case, you’d probably glance over the multitude of offers I’ve had for “great experience” and “exposure” and shake your head in resigned solidarity. Because that is the nature of the professional arts world these days: when you’re selling culture, it seems that no one is willing to buy – at least, not if they have to pay.
It’s easy to see why. Our artistic experiences have changed drastically since the advent of the Internet. It’s no longer necessary to sit in a theater or walk through a museum; we can watch any movie or TV show, download any song, look at any painting by simply clicking a few keys. What used to be a very public, social phenomenon – the gathering together of people to enjoy art- is now simply social media.
And there’s way too much art out there, especially mediocre art. When it comes to the Internet, there are no barriers to entry, which makes art as a whole move available, but also, in my opinion, less impressive. You become desensitized, unable to differentiate between all of the “amazing” options you could experience, and suddenly it’s a lot harder to find the diamonds in the rough.
What this leads to is the reinforcement of the idea that art is a public right, and one that should be available for free. To some extent, I’m expected to give my services and music away without financial expectation. The never-ending battle over sites like Spotify and Pandora rages on at every music conference or industry event I’ve ever attended. Some proudly demand to be paid a fair wage, that one can’t pay rent with Facebook likes or live by Tweets alone, and I agree with them. Others say it’s stupid to limit your opportunities – that you’re cutting off your nose (and audience) to spite your face in the name of a few cents – and I agree with them too.
So how does one actually make a living as an artist? The truth is: I’m not sure, but drawing any sort of hard line on working for free may not be the best choice. I think you have to determine your value as a creator, and what you’re willing to do or not do for free. To me, long-term thinking is key – I evaluate every opportunity that comes my way, and weigh the benefits and costs of each individually. If it makes a lot of sense for me to give away a track or play a free live show in my hometown because the odds are I’ll end up cultivating fans that will repay me tenfold later, you can bet your bottom dollar I’m going to do it. If someone asks me to drive ten hours to play a free gig to an empty room that I’m also expected to fill, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
And in the end, the best thing we can do as creators is to value our own contributions and the contributions of our fellow creators – to hold ourselves to high standards and create intelligent, thought-provoking work that is worthy of respect. Because respect can easily turn into admiration, which can turn into infatuation, which can turn into lifelong fans, fans that are willing to pay you the ultimate compliment for your work: cold, hard cash.
Photo by Thomas Hawk