Revolva vs. Oprah: Should You Ever Work for Free?
In a perfect world, everyone with the passion, skill, and willingness to work hard would have his or her dream job — and a dream salary to match. Reality, of course, is often quite different. But there’s a world of difference between making less than you want (or even less than you’re worth) and making nothing at all. And yet, for people in the arts, this is often the pitch: work for nothing, hoping that exposure or another project for your portfolio will lead you to real, paying work down the road. The question, of course, is whether or not it’s ever worth it to do so. After all, you can’t pay the rent with exposure.
(Photo Credit: jDevaun.Photography/Flickr)
Recently, Oakland, Calif.-based circus performer Revolva received an invitation to perform at Oprah’s The Life You Want tour. There was just one catch. OK, maybe two.
…Oprah, you are a wise woman. [Revolva writes, at her blog.] I should have known that, in the phone call with your producer, there was a deep spiritual lesson in store for me. Here is our paraphrased conversation:
Producer: “Your stuff sounds great. Are you interested?”
Me: “Hell yes! Oprah! Oprah!”
Producer: “Okay, so just to be clear, you’d be on a stage outside the event. And, you know, just to be clear, Oprah will not be on that stage. Oh, and just to be clear, this gig isn’t paid.”
Dude. Okay. I have to admit that I was initially heartbroken that my name would not be bellowed with 800 extra vowel sounds. Fortunately, my heartbreak was soon short-circuited by the stroke I had when I realized your tour, with its tickets starting at $99 (for the homeless), middling out at $599 (for fast food employees) and rocketing to $999 (For 90s rappers) — featuring trailblazers who never have to dig through every compartment in their car for enough change to cross the Bay Bridge — would be ringing up local performers asking them to do their job for no pay.
The whole open letter, which Revolva published after trying and failing to come to terms with the producer, is definitely worth your time, even if your job doesn’t involve anything more creative than color-coding columns in Excel. However, especially if you work in the arts or a creative field, it’s a must-read.
As far as the underlying question goes — should artists and creative professionals work for free — my own opinion is “sometimes.” I’ve been asked to work for free many times in my career, as have most writers, graphic artists, etc., and have even done so occasionally. Over the years, I came up with my own parameters for when I believe it’s OK to work “for exposure”:
1. When the organization doesn’t have the money to pay you.
In the case of Revolva vs. Oprah, this clearly does not apply. If you’re charging $999 per ticket, you can probably afford to throw some cash at performers. And, as Revolva notes, other workers, such as caterers, sound and light techs, and janitors, were all being paid. Try calling custodial services and convincing them to send someone to sweep up after an event just for the exposure. It’s not going to happen.
2. When it costs you very little to participate.
One big difference between being a writer who works mostly online and being a dancer (other than the fact that I have a tendency to fall up the stairs, especially when people are watching) is that I don’t have much in the way of travel expenses. So while dancers and other performing artists have to get to a venue, I barely have to get into some sweatpants.
This does not mean that creative professionals’ time is worth nothing, as long as they don’t need to travel. There are other expenses, like utilities and equipment, and there’s the value of the worker’s time, skills, and expertise, which is not to be underestimated. Still, if Oprah were organizing a charity event, with lower ticket prices, and holding the bash in her performers’ backyard, it might be easier for them to see their way clear to donating their time.
3. When the exposure will almost definitely lead to paying work down the line.
Writers often write for free just long enough to get clips, and then use those to land paying gigs. The danger, of course, is that by doing this, you’ll wind up with more unpaid (or seriously underpaid) work.
The same situation goes for any job that involves creating something out of nothing. Whether you’re a performance artist, a writer, a graphic designer, a painter, or a musician, you need to think carefully about where you’ll draw the line in terms of free work. Make no mistake: there needs to be one, or companies and individuals will cheerfully gobble up your labor for nothing.
Regardless of whether Revolva ever hears anything back from Oprah, or whether billionaires stop asking performers to work for free, it’s still worthwhile to speak up about how artists and creative workers get paid (or don’t). Otherwise, it’s too easy for the problem to go unexamined, and for art and other work that relies on the imagination to become even more of a cultural non-priority than it is already.
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