OK, hardly a new topic – creatives have long been sick of being expected to work for nothing in a way that most professions aren’t, though I feel for IT people who get asked if they could ‘just fix’ computers, and so on, I know it ain’t only us artsy types. I’m an entomologist in another part of my life, and I’m expected to identify obscure invertebrates for free too. It is annoying. However, my focus here is on creative endeavours, in particular, spoken word/poetry.
There are all sorts of memes and the like rightly mocking the idea that ‘exposure’ is some sort of currency that will pay the bills, or magically turn into paid gigs. This is bollocks. It doesn’t. ‘Exposure’ is a myth, and shops won’t accept it in exchange for goods and services. I do understand poetry is rarely a big money-spinner, but that doesn’t mean performers should ply their craft for nothing. Similarly, I understand that many (most? all?) small venues are run on a shoestring and rarely financially secure; I work for one and am well aware of the difficulty, and that these venues are, in effect, being expected to bear the risks of booking little-known acts. Still, creativity taken seriously, practised and crafted, is not a hobby, and performers need to be paid if we want there to be experienced professionals to go and see. More worrying are festivals that have ‘no budget for performers’. Really? No budget for the reason people are actually attending? If that’s the case, whoever’s in charge needs to rethink their event-planning. As with a venue, if the staff (bar-staff, security, cleaners, owner, manager etc etc) are getting paid, then pay the performer. I know it might not be much, but more than zero is a good start, and where there is respect, fair negotiation can follow.
Of course, there are times when performing for free might be the right thing. Like many, I do charity gigs and fund-raisers (now and again as my conscience dictates; there are more than I know what to do with, so I focus on those close to my heart), plus events like DIY festivals where nobody’s being paid and it really is just for the love of the craft. If I didn’t have to eat and pay bills, I could happily spend my time doing stacks of this; unfortunately we’re not yet in an Iain M Banks or Star Trek-style post-money economy, or even one with Universal Basic Income. Anyhow, I wistfully digress… much of this comes down to valuing your own craft – if you put a zero price-tag on it, why should anyone else value it? Since taking a stricter stance on pay, I’ve have more gig-offers, not less. Yes, you read it here – more, not less. More. Not less. It hasn’t killed off my budding poetry career, it’s enhanced it. I do still perform for free – it’s called open mic, and it’s great; I get to test and polish new material before someone takes a financial risk and books me. Just like a plumber gets trained and certificated, so performers use open mic to learn and hone their skills. So, if you are a performer doing gigs for free, I know the urge to get seen is strong (I feel it too) but please seriously consider stopping. It’ll be fine, and if we all do the same and show a little solidarity, hiring-for-free will stop being seen as acceptable, let alone the norm.