Like most of my work today, this story begins with an unsolicited email, this time from a music technology company:
We have a pop-up shop in Brick Lane for an event. We’ll have a small performance space in the store and we’d like to invite you down to perform a live set, and then if you’re interested to follow this up with a short workshop (perhaps breaking down your setup and performance?). We’ll be filming the set so we can release content live at the popup and after across our social channels.”
So, I’m familiar with this company and always do my utmost to support innovation and forward-looking ideas so respond enthusiastically. I mention that I don’t live in London anymore and enquire about specifics such as budget and accommodation. I receive the following answer:
“We can certainly look into covering travel expenses, unfortunately, we’re not about to cover any accommodation. We don’t have any fees for the event, however, we’ll be able to cover beers, lunch and we’ll certainly shout about you across our channels a lot.”
Oh, how a very few simple words can radically alter the situation. And this from the Social Media Manager of the business who apparently “has a passion for finding new creative ways to engage and grow online communities.” Not like this he doesn’t.
Money, money, money
I’m seething with anger at this response. This tiresome offer of ‘exposure’ for no personal gain, once again, and for both a live performance AND a workshop. And I’ve been working now professionally for 26 years, having established a strong reputation for innovative and responsive work in many fields. Now for sake of this conversation, let’s just call the company SILLY. That’s a company who raised $12.8 million in funds in 2014, followed by a $27 million Series B fundraising in 2016, with a list of investors reading like a who’s-who of the VC world including Foundry Group, Founders Fund, FirstMark Capital, Index, Balderon, Horizons Ventures, and more.
I should add that Pharrell Williams is now their Chief Creative Officer. According to online reports Williams is also an investor in the company, and SILLY is “certainly” going to raise more “to fuel our growth as a global platform.” Then again he currently has a net worth of $150 million, so this conversation is presumably of little interest to him. (I did try several times to message him through different channels but with no response).
Interestingly Pitchbook, the firm that analyses venture rounds in private companies, suggests that in fact a follow-on round is underway, and that the Series B fundraising valued the company post-money at around £60 million, or $80 million at current currency exchange rates. Does this begin to rather reek of Silicon Valley and seemingly far removed from the creative music industry? Perhaps so, and it might contextualise perhaps the form of corporate play that they engage in. Not so silly now, eh?
Biting my tongue
Somehow, I bite my tongue and try to respond as thoughtfully as possible.
“Many thanks for your response, but unfortunately under these conditions I cannot offer my services.
Let me be blunt here, and it’s best to be as honest and direct as possible. Can you not consider for a moment how insulting and demeaning it might feel to send an invitation to an artist who has made work professionally for the last 26 years, and offer to pay them with beer? Perhaps at the beginning of my career I would have performed for food and drinks, when I was trying to establish some kind of context and exposure for my work, but without wishing to sound too arrogant I truly feel I’m beyond this now.
As much as I wish to support the work of technological innovators such as yourselves it’s extremely harmful and hurtful to make such offers. I live by my work and my reputation. I love my SILLY gear but I’ve bought nearly all of all it myself with my own money. It’s not like SILLY is providing me with equipment so I can connect and be part of the team. You would like to use my skillset, my creative voice and image for free to promote yourselves and offer me nothing in return.
That’s not polite, not professional nor in tune with what SILLY seems to be promoting either. It’s beyond comprehension to be quite honest. And, of course, I presume you are on a regular salary like the rest of the team? I survive by working my heart and soul out in projects that pay me.
I’m sorry to perhaps sound so angry but this is just not right.”
I copy in others in the SILLY team and receive a response from a friend of mine who works there who understandably needs to follow the corporate company guidelines, and uses a form of language that tends to alienate more than comfort. Fast forwarding through the day I post an update on Facebook which receives literally countless comments and Likes, many from active creatives offering both support and sharing their own personal tales along the same lines. And no-one is happy.
A moment of unhappiness
“The most difficult bit about these situations is that it’s often *you* that’ll end up being considered the bad/ungrateful/unprofessional guy here”
“I was approached by one of their distributors to produce a review video, have some of my performances filmed and potentially hold a workshop. For nothing – zero – simply kudos. We’re living in age where ego and ‘likes’ are the creative currency”
“I fucking despise these bastards. It’s very simple…if the organisation seeks to gain direct or indirect financial advantage from an artist’s participation, they must be paid. I’ve been a well-known professional musician for 40 years, and they even try it on with me. I tell them where to go in no uncertain terms”
“It’s one thing if someone unknown wants to play for free in a situation like this for exposure, but what really makes my blood boil is when well-known people – who one would think would know better – participate in these things. Or are willing to play for an overly low fee”
What came through many of these responses was the unifying fact that I was not alone in this situation, and I most certainly don’t wish for this article to be considered to be just an artist complaining about work, but I should add that this isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Indeed, 2018 might well be remembered for me as the year which the film industry, advertising, music and other creative industries ensured that I would be officially screwed over. Time and time again. “Would you like to work on this Hollywood movie Robin? Please work on it for three months, every night and day, respond to our every request, make all the changes, deliver when we demand. Oh, and by the way, at the end we will change our minds and send you a brief email to let you know we are going with someone else. Oh, and of course, thanks for all your hard work but we have no intention of paying you either.” Yes, this happened to me too.
It was also rewarding to discover so many other posts online where creatives have shared their frustrations at the hands of corporates or simply individuals who failed to understand how work actually, well ‘works.’ As it’s repeatedly argued, you don’t walk into a restaurant and expect free food because you will tell everyone about them.
One of my favourite responses was from an artist who constantly received requests for drawings but no-one was willing to pay him to make them. His retort was very witty indeed. Mike Monteiro also delivered a resounding talk entitled F*ck You, Pay Me in San Francisco which neatly sums up these experiences. And don’t forget to join in the refrain! Watch it here. And read this powerful response from English musician Whitey.
The next day I speak with their Chief People Officer. I can’t help but smirk at the title as it captures the sheer absurdity of the theatrical roles everyone plays in this. The response to my Facebook update has increased overnight, and many other artists have begun to share it on their Pages with equally critical comments. Their Officer is an enthusiastic and polite fellow who seems happy to talk with me but can offer no solution to this situation. I guess he realises he is also quite powerless right now. He hesitantly asks if there was any music gear I was interested in having, but I decline, emphasising that not only does this not feel morally correct, but more significantly that this was a far bigger issue than that. It goes far beyond me and my desire for shiny things. And for anyone who knows me I’m a man who truly adores musical equipment! 😀
Towards a solution
So, I’m sharing this tale as one of awareness, to alert others to the situation and, of course, as a warning. To move forward positively I suggest downloading this document prepared for visual artists to highlight key sentient points for negotiation and payment in work, but still offers practical advice for everyone. Consider reporting any such tales if they happen to you to the Musicians Union, or similar affiliated body, as they take these things very seriously indeed, and joining as a member to receive support and legal advice too. And if in doubt, ask others. Do not accept such invitations or offers and encourage this abusive situation.
Remember too that any suggestion of ‘exposure’ is an oddity as it seems to be found almost exclusively in the creative sphere. I’ve yet to pay my plumber with exposure, or my local garage. Exposure does not pay the bills or put food on the table. Knowing your work has been seen X amount of times on Instagram or YouTube doesn’t help when you can’t afford to pay your rent. Remember you have talent, you have creativity, you are not a service provider. And if you ARE providing a service in such a way then you need to be compensated accordingly.
And incidentally I don’t drink beer. And remember people die of exposure, as theoatmeal.com perfectly shows 🙂