Exposure is not payment

Keyboard exposure

Like most of my work today, this story begins with an unsolicited email, this time from a music technology company:

“Dear Robin,

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.

massive exposure

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.

Whitey Exposure

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 🙂



  1. The same, to me, from a few years ago…
    “Would you like to make a piece of work that would be exhibited in a month long, capital city, public gallery exhibition?” Well, of course I would. This will of course impact on my other work (commissions, future personal show work etc.) so what is the budget for this piece of work that this publicly funded gallery would like to show? There isn’t a budget? Ahh… so will the finished piece be purchased by this institution? No? Can I offer another piece of work that’s already made and available for display and you arrange for the shipping of that? No? It has to be specifically produced for this show alone… but you are willing to pay for the transport of the work – how generous. So you publicly paid, art professionals expect me to have to put off paid work and future commercial gallery show work so that I can make work that won’t be sold and won’t be paid for in materials? “But it’ll be an excellent PR opportunity Mr Denning. And there are lots of other artists happy to be involved and they’re not being paid either Mr Denning.” Splendid… and thank you. No doubt you museum-fellows go home at the end of your art-professional, paid working day to a plate of hot, tasty PR vindaloo.

    • Sorry to hear this Guy. That’s horrendous. I really think it’s time we call out these situations publicly, hence my post as I’m really exhausted by such treatment. I’ve worked professionally for 26 years and people still continue to treat me and others like this too. Good luck with all else!

      • I won’t get started on gallery commission… particularly the newer, more predatory gallery operators… I agree with you though, it does need publicising. I dumped the last fiasco on that front here:


        Apparently the piece has been used by a couple of colleges (UK) to inform current art students – so a positive outcome in some way.

  2. The broken keyboard pic cracked me me once I realized who the company was! Thank you for writing this! MI is a small industry and their product is niche, but that is just disrespectful.

    • I honestly couldn’t find an image that I owned the rights to that suggested ‘broken in music’ and found this photo I took of this keyboard I saw dumped on the street where I used to live. There’s no intention of anything regarding it and had no idea who actually manufactured it. I apologise but it’s no comment on that. It could easily have been Roland, Yamaha or any other keyboard someone dumped on the street. The article extends beyond an image, but of course we are all drawn to strong images in the media. I was going to post a post of me naked to suggest full exposure but wasn’t sure that would encourage anyone to actually read the feature!

      • No, I mean that you took a picture of a broken keyboard in an article that is about a company working on surpassing standard keyboard interfaces. I thought that was an intentional comment that I found witty.

        • 🙂 It was intentional in that sense!! Hope all is well with you man!

  3. Phil

    Bang on Robin: this attitude extends towards visual artists as well as musicians- I’m both, but that’s only relevant in that I have observed both sides.

    • Thank you. It’s the reason I link to the visual arts and exhibitions advice at the end of the article for everyone too, and speak about creatives in general at the end. “Remember too that any suggestion of ‘exposure’ is an oddity as it seems to be found almost exclusively in the creative sphere” – here’s hoping for a more positive future for us all!

  4. Nrnenjjsjdjdjr

    Fuck Roli. Fuck John Beyer.

  5. Takes me back a couple of years when L’oreal wanted one of my label’s artists to provide music for a web video ‘for exposure’. Their market cap is $116 billion.

    It was a really short conversation.

  6. This systemic dismissal of musical/artistic talent has existed for centuries – sadly to say. Books have been written about the problem – and musicians the world over have been trying to fight the big companies now using ‘streaming’ as their banner of defense. The public at large, ever eager to get as much as possible for as little as possible – happily endorses streaming – even though composers now earn pennies for millions of streams.

    There has been a musicians ‘joke’ on the scene, about your post, for decades and is exemplified in the more current ‘Craigslist’ Ad below:.

    Craigslist Ad:
    We are a small & casual restaurant in downtown Vancouver and we are looking for solo musicians to play in our restaurant to promote their work and sell their CD. This is not a paying job, but only for special events which will eventually turn into a nightly event if we get a positive response. More Jazz, Rock, & smooth type music, around the world and mixed cultural music. Are you interested to promote your work? Please reply back ASAP.

    A Musician’s Reply:
    Happy new year! I am a musician with a big house looking for a restauranteur to come to my house to promote his/her restaurant by making dinner for me and my friends. This is not a paying job, but only for special events which will eventually turn into a nightly event if we get a positive response. More fine dining & exotic meals and mixed Ethnic Fusion cuisine. Are you interested to promote your restaurant? Please reply back ASAP.


    • I remember reading that Craigslist one before – utterly brilliant!

  7. Some ironic instances spring to mind: the book publisher (which rhymes with ‘Black Dog’) sought to publish a coffee table tome by homeless ‘renegade gardeners’ without paying their interviewees and correspondents. There was also the TV company making a programme about dustbin-diving – documented several years ago here:

  8. Gregory Taylor

    Well said, Robin.

    Perhaps once this circulates a bit, the slightly less clueless among the Marketerati will begin to develop a vague suspicion of how their approach sounds, which might be the first step to asking themselve WHY it sounds as it does.

  9. Hey Robin,

    Love your work, and this article made me smile and also yell (at the corporate-ness of these fuckers.

    You make absolutely valid points. And will have an army of artists/producers etc. to support with similar stories. You have earned far more respect. Fuck them. Having been a fan since your early 90s Warp records, and still today, focus on the good stuff and perhaps a cool modular piece with a working title of “Silly” will eventuate.

    I started making acid, techno and ambient in the late 80s and still do so today. Having had ‘record deals’ with countless indies and three majors, and everything that goes with that, I weaved in and out of graphic design for decades to pay for gear and survive. Today I’m a partner in a branding agency with a young family but I make and play music most days and be sure to complete something every week – and have a nice modular rig which I am grateful for.

    I do all of this to maintain control and do whatever the fuck I want without any external bullshit. It’s only one way, but it works for me.

    I don’t have any ‘Silly’ products. And now I never will thanks to your piece here. #fuckingclowns

    I love Hainbach’s take on the broken keyboard – awesome!

    I might make a T-shirt for my next modular gig:

    The new SILLY ‘COCKS’ out now

    OR just:


    Stay true – all the best.


    • Great response and thanks for your support too. Stay positive too!

  10. Yep to pretty much all of that. I’ve had similar requests myself for various things (talks; articles; even bits of books).

    About the only thing I disagree with in this post is the note it’s “one thing if someone unknown wants to play for free in a situation like this for exposure”. To my mind, it’s no different. Someone with experience will in all likelihood be worth more, and command a higher fee (at least usually), but it’s unhelpful for newcomers to be in the free boat. It trains them to expect this as a potential default, and it gives companies like the one you mentioned ammunition. “Well, X will do it for free.” The net result of people working for nothing or shitty rates is to bring the ‘average’ down for everyone else.

    So Montiero’s refrain that I and presumably others posted is something people need to learn from day one – although perhaps with a touch more tact in the opening stages of a discussion!

    • A very valid point Craig. I think I was just trying to consider a situation too where I still offer my services for free when it’s clear that everyone else is also not getting paid and it’s towards something positive that we all want to happen, and I can control the expectations and demands. But it’s very true it should indeed be instilled in the minds of all creatives working that nothing should be for free. I just know that for this event in London that SILLY won’t fail to get artists playing for free for them and doing that work I rejected and that most certainly does not help the situation for everyone else. I’ve yet to find any other trade where expectations suggest that a fee shouldn’t be paid to them for doing the work!

  11. This happens with regular monotony with in the poetry / performance world. It’s bullshit. Really good to read your article Robin.

  12. Excellent article – same here in the world of photography. People promise credits / exposure or even future work. Never happens. And also a few recent commissions who decide after the work is complete and images have been used that they aren’t going to pay. Sucks big time chasing debts.

  13. i think “silly” needs some exposure as well.
    let them have a good cup of public shaming.

    • Please go ahead as you wish. Plenty of places you can do this if you wish 🙂

  14. Matt D

    I just bought a SILLY. After reading this, I am seriously considering returning it.

  15. Antti Huovilainen

    This made me wonder about a related but slightly different scenario:
    Suppose you’re making a free product (plugin) and would like to get feedback and possible demo snippets. How should you approach musicians to avoid annoying anyone too much? Given that you can’t offer payment (free product that’s purely a labor of love).

  16. AC

    While I’m taking this topic outside of the arts world here (and therefore might get shot down!), it’s worth adding that this behaviour happens at lots of stages along the line. Brands ask creative agencies to do some stuff for free, on the basis of things that ‘might’ happen in the future. Bigger creative agencies ask smaller creative agencies to do some stuff for free. You could argue that this is different, as it’s about businesses, but the same principles of those who dominate squeezing those who do not basically apply.

    • I can imagine it works its way through the system. It’s interesting how this seems to almost exclusively happen within the creative arts still though. You never heard of services such as plumbers or electricians being exploited so consistently in this manner.

  17. i am afraid that is just another step in degrading musicians value – i mean: hey, our music is freely available throughout the net, so why pay for performance?? seems almost logical in a way, but nevertheless this is just another step further acting shameless…we may need a stronger lobby-work and clarification, raise the awareness for that issue – in that sense your move to make this public is totally right in my opinion.

    I see the same in the internet: if you remove all data where the user is not the original author of the art that is exposed all you receive is a more or less empty interface without any “content” since the payment is nothing or too little, while the owners of the interface make shitlots of advertising industry bucks with our music…i am afraid that is happening intentionally…no fair deal at all.

    So what to do?
    – say no: no pay no play! gotta bridle that!
    – stay with the good ones and expand your network of honest people that
    are usually the ones you know for some time already
    – raise awareness on that issue (big up & respect Robin!)
    – support lobby-work
    – don’t stop ’til you get enough 😉

    • Fantastic words Gabriel, and here’s hoping this post makes many of these companies and individuals rethink their positions on using the services of other creatives for free. Here’s to a paid future for everyone!!

  18. Harmonisch

    If only there were more downright stand up geezers like yourself, Sir! As a DJ, this situation reminds me of the “pay to play” crap going on in my home town of Glasgow for the last 10 years. Not just play for nothing, but sell a certain amount of tickets or you don’t even get to play! Thankfully left that nonsense behind and moved country.
    And everyone who accepts these “gigs” just makes it so much harder for the rest. Well done for using your fame (or is it notoriety?) to possibly make this point a little louder than most of us could.

    • My ‘fame’ made me laugh 😀 If anything I’m just using my voice, a rather angry voice, to vent my feelings and hope that this post goes somewhere towards highlighting issues that have affected so many for just so long, and yet still there’s so much exploitation and appalling treatment of creative people. Here’s to a positive future!

  19. Bravo Maestro. The world needs more of this honesty.

    “LA is the only city in the world where one might die of encouragement”

    I think F. Scott Fitzgerald may have been responsible for that one.

  20. Disenchanted Social Media Manager

    It’s ROLI, they dragged me through several interviews across 3 months for a position of a ‘Social Media Manager’, loved my ideas (their own words), got a 15-page marketing plan as required as ‘part of recruitment process’ (you know where it goes, don’t you)…

    …then, yes, they didn’t end up hiring me, I got sent a boilerplate e-mail “Sorry you weren’t successful” – which is fair dos and they’re in their full right not to offer me a job, but, somehow, they immediately proceeded to use my own ideas pretty much verbatim on the same they they turned down my candidacy!

    Nothing I could do about that either, as the interviews were held in their Shoreditch office and I was required to sign an NDA that said that whatever happens and is discussed on their premises becomes their property.

    Screw them, honestly. A lot of cognitive dissonance at play here too, because it’s a pretty great product all in all, but a lot of people there are truly, absolutely awful and thoroughly horrendous..

  21. Well done Robin.

    Fight it all of you… Tooth and nail, fight it for all of us.

    Speaking as a public sector worker who cares for vulnerable people every day I can say that (even in that sector) we’re seeing it more and more. We live in a society that attaches no value to that which is invaluable (health, social care, the beauty and struggle of art and creativity) but escalates the value of the meaningless – vulture funds, the promise of a gambler, corporate schmooze.

    We’re drip fed the lies from the top and we need to rediscover our soul as a society.

    Creativity is the indefinable key to that soul. We need to learn the error of devaluing it before it’s too late.

    Thank you. Keep it up. Rant over!

  22. I was just getting curious about Roli as I’m kinda bored with standard keyboards. But, not that bored to support another swarm of vampires. They Suck!
    The only time I play “for free” is for a good cause and on my terms. If these people really think exposure is so great, I’ll be happy to drop my pants and let them kiss it.
    My fav personal story is a venue that would only let me sell my CD’s if they got half. I sent them the studio production invoice divided by 2…

  23. Gua

    Scanner ? “The” Scanner ? They tried to get you for beer. LOL – thats hilarious. What a bunch of cunts.

  24. bob

    “Unfortunately we have no budget for your music…”

    “Unfortunately I have no budget to support your corporation.”

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