The payment is in the publishing – that’s what I learned to say as a young, eager writer, suddenly the envy of some friends because a handful of publications were running reviews and columns with my name at the top or bottom of the text. Just as there’s (generally) no such thing as overnight success in the industry I write about – I too had toiled away for a while, learning the craft and spending many hours sending emails, setting up meetings, writing letters of introduction, desperately hoping for a reply.
An offer to write reviews came here, a column there. The payment? Well, that was in the publishing! We can’t afford to pay you – but you’ll get your name in print! A fine opportunity for a while, even back when the internet wasn’t serving up, ahem, more blogs than anyone could need; you see it was the foot in the door. And I craved that. Or was swiftly taught to crave that.
Some offers for pay arrived – good offers too. Sometimes. But on and on it went – the offer for work was hardly ever offered with a hint of any payment attached to it. Not really work then, is it. Just slave-labour – volunteer stuff. And I learned to cope with the idea that my freelance writing was an extra full-time job on top of my other job/s but this freelance work, this other full-time gig came with only a busker’s salary. Sometime it was a nice surprise to see a few crumpled notes in the hat. Other times there wasn’t enough to pay for parking.
Barney Hoskyns, writer of several books, reviewer and columnist, editor of Rock’s Backpages sent out a plea this week telling freelance content providers – writers, musicians, dancers, designers, photographers – to stop working for nothing. To stop seeing the publishing or performing (the stage, the platform) as the payment.
You’re out there in this world to work and someone is asking you to provide a service so they should pay. Increasingly we’re seeing pay-to-play situations for musicians. And though you might argue that writers don’t have to pay to be published they are still running up maintenance and transport costs for computers and internet connections, for parking and toll calls, and they’re using their time. So unless they are being paid for their services then they are in fact paying to be published. They’re paying with their time. And there are costs that they have to cover. No one expects all-expenses-paid any longer, surely. But from the other end now it’s every-possible-expense-spared.
One night about a decade back I was denied entry to a gig I was meant to be reviewing. The person working the door said loudly – after I was (eventually) allowed in to do the job I was there to do – “I just wish that guy would give something back. What does he ever give back? He gets everything for nothing”.
I’m used to comments about my work – I’m used to comments suggesting that what I do is in no way work and that I don’t deserve a thing for what I do and that I should stop immediately, I shouldn’t write, I can’t write, I don’t know what I’m doing and – therefore – the person commenting cannot live happily with the knowledge that I’m out there milking it, getting published, getting (presumably) paid. Having a laugh. Ruining other people’s night – or life – with thoughtless words.
But the saddest thing I ever heard was that door-person on that night. Because I wanted to go back and tell that person that often I didn’t get paid for the work I did – that I’d made some stupid pact (with myself/for myself) that the payment was in the publishing and that I spent a lot of time learning a craft and earning a right to comment. And that I spent a lot of my own money attending gigs and buying albums and paying my bills and blah blah blah…
But of course it would have been stupid to even try. And I would have looked sillier than I apparently already did.
And since then I’ve learned to say nothing. Or close enough to it.
But it’s a strange world we live in where we’re simply expected now to front up and comment for free. Radio stations, newspapers, magazines, TV shows, they all want comment and you’re supposed to just offer it for nothing. They want (their words) “an expert” and they want it without even doling out chump-change. It needs to change.
About the time I read Barney’s piece urging people to turn down offers to work for nothing – pointing out that you don’t gain anything at all from a payment is in the publishing mentality, you are in fact being exploited – I received an offer to review an album on a radio station. And I mean right at the very moment that I was reading the Facebook post that Hoskyns had served up; it had generated a huge amount of feedback too.
The offer to review was a tweet – I’ve made myself that available. Someone just tweets me and asks me to front up and comment. So I take it to email and suggest that I’ll happily front up and run my mouth for 20 minutes to fill some air-time but I’ll need to be paid. I know the answer before it arrives in the inbox.
They know that I need to eat but I need to understand that the station has no budget. Maybe one day they’ll have a budget and maybe one day they’ll call or email – or tweet – again.
And that’s fine. Not a week goes by now without something like this happening. These non-offer offers are flooding in…
I’m not naming the station because I have no (real) beef with them. They tried. They figured it worth a shot.
But it’s sad that this is the way it is – people like me will work for free – will send it all out there in the hope that it’s going somewhere and that one day, maybe, someone (somehow) will find a budget and decide a price to put on this content.
I’m paid for some of my freelance work. But I’m paid poorly in most cases. No such thing as a pay-rise (ever). No chance to negotiate. Payments arriving whenever suits – sometimes getting “lost” for a month or more – but I came to understand that this is how it would be a while ago. I am (for the most part) at peace with that.
The frustration is in people coming to you – seeking work and then deciding that work has no value at all. It is simply not my fault as a content provider that the publication/station/site doesn’t have a budget. If I’m to entertain an offer there needs to be an offer.
I don’t think this is unreasonable.
Because how it is currently such offers should read: We really value your work – so much so we’d like to give you a slot to speak/space to write. We want you. And your work; your words. And the value we put on that is absolutely nothing. Zero. Please don’t take this personally but given the current economic climate and this tough old industry we’re all in for “the love of it” we have decided that we place no value whatsoever on you or your work. But we’d still love to have you.
Being had is right.
Recently I provided content for a radio station for over a year – once a week I’d have a rant and it had a following. I also played my part and pimped that bit on Facebook and Twitter and blogs and all the necessary evils that sap our time and fool us right into thinking we’re extending the brand and helping to share the word.
After nearly 18 months of working for nothing – my payment in the publishing/broadcasting – I asked for money. You would have thought I’d taken a shit on their desk. Suddenly I was not a “team player”. I was also told that I had some nerve. And when I politely thanked them for the opportunity and suggested we call it quits then and there – after the suggestion that I offer up one more piece of my time for free to help them out of a potential bind and so they could save face that week – I didn’t even receive a reply. No thank you in return for nearly 18 months of free content, freely advertising the station too through my channels. In accordance with their pay-rates all I received was nothing.
Funnily enough – and perhaps now it will stop – I keep getting offers to appear on radio stations. And I would love that. Really I would. I’m good at what I do. And I’m radio-ready, primed and eager. I love the sound of my own voice and I have things to say. I know I’d be great. But I’ve never – in my life – received a paid offer to speak on radio. And when I ask I’m laughed at.
A quick comment – fine, sure. An interview to promote my book – absolutely. No issue, thanks for the time and cheers for the slot. But a regular segment where I provide the content for nothing? Somebody’s having a fucking laugh. Aren’t they?
An offer arrived at the start of this year for a weekly slot on a breakfast show – I wrote back saying thanks and that I would love to do it when they could come back to me with a price. Of course I’m still waiting…