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Getting Paid for Creative Work

February 25, 2013

busker case

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If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me to play free music “for the exposure” – well, I wouldn’t be rich, but I’d probably have a couple of hundred dollars.

When you are starting out in any creative field, you are untested.  If nobody knows who you are, then yeah, you probably DO need to do some free stuff to get yourself out there.  But the other side of that coin is the expectation that you SHOULD give your work away for free:  you enjoy doing what you do, therefore, you should enjoy doing it for nothing, and be grateful for the opportunity while you’re at it.

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I’ve only been in the music business for about five years.  My experience is pretty fresh.  But that doesn’t mean us noobs are the only ones this happens to.

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canada day 2012Riverside Park | Kamloops, BC | July 1, 2012 | photo by Michelle Hammerton Fraser

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My mentor has put in tens of thousands of hours perfecting his skills, played music professionally for 40 years, been in 50+ bands, crossed the nation with his Strat and his Marshall.  I’ve worked with him countless times.  He is the guy you can count on to be there early, to set up and tear down the gear, to twiddle the knobs, to do what needs to be done in the most professional manner possible.

Still, there is an expectation on him at times that he should play for free.  And of all the people I know in this business who need more “exposure,” it’s not my mentor.  Not to mention that music is how he pays the bills and puts food in his belly.

Truth be told, I can get more exposure going downtown with a few business cards and busking on a Saturday afternoon than I can playing freebies.  Plus I’ve never made less than fifty bucks doing it.

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Think of it this way.  When you go to a restaurant, does the chef get paid to cook your meal, or does she do it solely for the pleasure of cooking?  What about the guy who fixes your car?  Do you think, however much he loves cars and tinkering with engines, that he is doing it “for the exposure?”  How about your old university profs?  I hope for everyone’s sake that they DO love teaching, but I also guarantee they aren’t doing it for free.

Everything in your home was created by somebody.  Somebody got paid to make your fridge, your saucepans, your sofa, your computer, the very house you live in.  We take our modern innovations for granted, but there is nothing we use in our daily lives that was not created by somebody.  Somebody who most likely got paid for it.

Frequently, though, people waffle when it comes to paying creative artists for our experience, talent, and skills.

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artists should get

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The problem here is that artists are expected to go spend 40 hours a week somewhere making money to pay the bills, and THEN come home and spend even more hours on our “real” work.  Creative artists can and do run ourselves to the point of exhaustion.  (Even moreso if we are parents or family caregivers on top of that.)

Yet if all the creative artists went on strike for a month, do you think the world could live without art, music, photography, dance, movies, theatre, and other creative works?  Do you think for one second the human spirit wouldn’t suffer if it were all withdrawn?

Making art, entertaining audiences, writing articles – it’s no different than any other work.  At some point, we have reached the phase where we have put in a shit load of time getting as good as we are at what we do, and spent a shit load of money on the equipment or materials to do it with.

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Like it or hate it, we live in a money-based society.  That’s not going to change anytime soon.  Art IS a contribution to that society – a valuable one.  Why should this one lonely little sector have our productive work continually under-valued, or de-valued completely?  There comes a time when we have earned the right to get paid for it.

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riverside park aug 2012Riverside Park | Kamloops, BC | August 11, 2012 | photo by Jason Englisch

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Listen, I still give my music away for free sometimes.  I spent years on the frontlines of human rights and social service organizations, and I know damned well there is no budget to provide relief from the relentless onslaught of non-profit work.  There are still charitable causes I support; I contribute to those causes by showing up to events with my gear and encouraging people to sing and dance.  The least I can do is entertain the troops.

But what I won’t do is show up to someone’s rented hall or their six-bedroom house, or to a business where the staff gets paid, where money has changed hands for the expense of booze, food, and ambiance, and use the gear I paid for out of my own pocket to entertain for free.

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When you place a value on your work, others will too.

Do it because you love it, yes.  But don’t be afraid to insist on a paycheque.

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Dodie Goldney

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related posts by Dodie Goldney:

The Insta-band

Women’s Work is in the Home (Renovations)

Convergence and Community


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