Just Say NO!

DoughnutA first year graduate student in my arts management class presented a paper this week on arts labor economics.  Her undergrad degree was in acting so she had never delved into the topic formally. She certainly understood through anecdotal observation that there is an imbalance between artist labor supply and artist opportunity and that artists are often paid less than their peers in other fields (to put it mildly).  Among the factors she considered was that artists are often willing to work for low or even no pay because the joy of doing the work is payment enough.   In concluding her presentation, she posed a rhetorical question that I paraphrase here: How can we make this vicious cycle of artist oversupply and underpayment stop?

Following this presentation, I returned to my office and this email:


I want to reach out and see if you have any film students that are interested in expanding their portfolio with an opportunity to be our videographer for a day and film one of our [donut company name] Grand Openings! This is a great chance for film students to work with a well-known brand on a one-time project and get some good experience. We feature their work on our official [donut company name] social media pages and possibly on our official website!

As a reward, we give the videographer(s) a dozen free glazed doughnuts every week for an entire year!!! Please let me know if you have any interested candidates.

Note: This particular Grand Opening will be taking place ….. Thank you!

The email was sent to a long list of faculty members at film programs in the region. I hit reply all with the question “What is your pay rate for these skilled services?” To which the “marketing coordinator” replied:

Hi Linda!

Unfortunately, this is a volunteer/intern opportunity.  We will give the student videographer a punch card for a dozen free glazed doughnuts every week for an entire year as a thank you for their time! Hope this helps answer your question!

In addition to the overuse of exclamation points, this response invoked what some uninformed folks think is the key to unlocking the treasure chest of unpaid artist labor: INTERN.  I am a huge supporter of internships as experiential learning opportunities if they are truly that, with clearly delineated learning objectives, supervision by experts, and time limits.  But this was obviously not an internship in that sense.  Seeing a teaching moment, as well as an opportunity to stop the vicious cycle of artist underpayment in some small way, I responded, quoting chapter and verse from  the  Department of Labor rules for determining if an “opportunity” is actually an internship [I highlighted the salient points for her]:

Will there be someone onsite providing education and training? Here are the US Department of Labor rules on unpaid internships:

“There are some circumstances under which individuals who participate in “for-profit” private sector internships or training programs may do so without compensation.  The Supreme Court has held that the term “suffer or permit to work” cannot be interpreted so as to make a person whose work serves only his or her own interest an employee of another who provides aid or instruction.  This may apply to interns who receive training for their own educational benefit if the training meets certain criteria.  The determination of whether an internship or training program meets this exclusion depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each such program.

The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

If all of the factors listed above are met, an employment relationship does not exist under the FLSA, and the Act’s minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the intern.  This exclusion from the definition of employment is necessarily quite narrow because the FLSA’s definition of “employ” is very broad.”

The response:

No. There will not be. This is a volunteer opportunity. Thank you for sharing this information! Very good information to know!

I posted this exchange on facebook where a friend reminded me of a meme on a similar topic that made the rounds a year or two ago:

Craig’s List 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 daily job, but only for special events which will eventually turn into a nightly event if we get 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.

Craig’s List Response: 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 daily 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.

So, one answer to my student’s rhetorical question is “Just say NO.” As in, no, I will not make your donut commercial for free; no, I will not play at your restaurant “for the exposure;” no, you cannot have my painting to hang in your home because your “important” friends will see it; no, I will not paint your set “for the experience.”  What I will do is accept a slightly below market wage because I’m still in school and you’ll get what you pay for; yes, I will play at your restaurant for one night if you provide dinner for my family of six beforehand; yes, I will loan my painting to you for a fixed period of time if I am invited to the cocktail party to meet your important friends; yes, I will paint your set with you so that you can train me on a specialized technique with which I am unfamiliar.  Or, yes! I will gift my talents to you with generosity and an open heart because I love you, your cause, or your work. But no, I will not make your donut commercial for free.  [In a follow-up post, I discuss saying “YES!”]

PS. Can you imagine what eating a dozen donuts every week for a year would do to your body? Yuck! [photo by Angeldm, Creative Commons License]

UPDATE: In July 2015, the courts dealt a blow to upaid interns eveywhere, ruling that the six criteria established by the Department of Labor were outdated and instead the “primary beneficiary” test should be applied. Which still begs the question, when a highly skilled person works for a commercial company for no compensation, who is the primary beneficiary? Read more here.

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About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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142 Responses to Just Say NO!

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  23. Sarah says:

    I agree and disagree. I am an actor, I have been out of college for 4 years now, and I still work for free, on projects that I love. And for people that make it worth while. I do get paid for some work, corporate work, but the actual roles that I am passionate about, I don’t get paid for… in cash. Instead I get paid in, experience, IMDB credit, footage for my reel, and most importantly, a reliable network. Generally, these people aren’t getting paid either, for the projects they are passionate about (for corporate work, they do), but if the project pays for them, it pays for us. There is nothing wrong with working for free, or more accurately, for trade. You just have to be sure that what you are getting is worth what you are putting out. I have dropped projects that I worked for free because I realized that the producer, did not respect me or my time and the pay off would not be worth it (the footage would be horrible quality, or they will have a bad rep in the network). On the other side, I worked for credit and deferred pay on a project that has paid me in more projects, both paid and unpaid, because of the network that came with the project. Not only do I have access to a very talented network of professionals, they have become my friends. As they move up (which they are doing) so will I, as long as I keep investing in them.

  24. Annie says:

    I loved this. I have a friend and mentor who promotes this same idea and, knowing how little practical business training is taught to fine art students, minored in business so she could confidently work for herself. Smart girl, that one.

    I think in this current culture where people often expect creative work (from photography to typefaces) to be free, it is our responsibility as creatives to educate others on why what we do is valuable. Before we do that we must first value it ourselves. We need to remember the time, money, and hard work that went into honing our skills and talents and remember that not everyone can do whatever it is we do. Then, as we talk to prospective clients, I think it makes all the difference in the world to explain to them what *really* goes into the work we offer and what kind of quality they can expect to receive in return. I have had clients think they were just asking/getting a little logo but once I explained the process and how important the full identity package would be to their overall brand (being used on everything from merchandise to letterhead) they wanted it more, were more willing to pay for my services, and they valued it much more.

    I also appreciate your “Say Yes” piece and feel it’s important to give back. Even so, I think it’s still important to place value on your “free” projects. If you’re offering something at a discount or for free for valid reasons don’t be afraid to state what the usual value for that project would be. It will make the beneficiary appreciate it more and they will realize you value what you do and that you don’t usually work for free.

    I’m sure you’ve seen it already but just in case, Jessica Hische, a letterer and typeface and graphic designer, put together this great flow chart, Should I Work For Free, to help people out if they’re still unsure. http://shouldiworkforfree.com/clean.html#no5

  25. Production in LA says:

    I think the case of fledgling actors (especially arriving in NY or LA) is a bit different than someone who’s graduated with technical skills and seeking work in a local market, or for traditional artists working in paint or other mediums (who are solo entrepreneurs). In film, you join a production as part of a collaborative machine. The community of studios & production houses is really quite small, everyone knows everyone else at that level. Hiring actors or crew who don’t have a proven record represents risk the production can’t tolerate, and no casting or other hiring team has the time (or patience) to interview hundreds of people that aren’t referred, meaning not pre-qualified. Actors, makeup pros, camera techs, all have agents that keep them working. To get work you need an agent, which means you’re qualified, and are a proven quantity. But you can’t get an agent if you haven’t worked and don’t have experience & credits. Yet new talent does make its way into the business, so how do they do it? Mostly training, student work, internships, and yes, unpaid non-union gigs for credit, reel portfolio, and experience. It’s important in the business because it provides an opportunity for fresh faces to meet & network with working crew, and production staff. And being film, it gives actors the opportunity to be SEEN by those who can hire them. In any job hire situation we’re all judged on our looks, personality, and ability. It’s even more the case in film, where everything starts with the look, and a smooth running & happy set is critical. Film & Television is well paid & a great lifestyle. Of the thousands of people who try to break in each year, most will not be equipped to succeed. But some who persist, make work connections, and prove themselves in the ways available to them, will.

  26. Jaye says:

    Reblogged this on Jaye Em Edgecliff and commented:
    Perfectly said.

  27. dhorak says:

    Reblogged this on Grappling With Art and commented:

  28. Agis says:

    A thought-provoking piece.

    A few thoughts:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned or linked this article which discusses the trouble with giving our Art away for free. It’s a great read. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/opinion/sunday/slaves-of-the-internet-unite.html

    Wouldn’t the writer of this NY Times Opinion piece about the destruction of writing-for-pay (everyone and her uncle has a blog and gives the content away for free — which then causes the consumer of writing to expect to receive the content gratis) be upset about someone producing THIS blog content for free, instead of either paying a professional writer or charging us viewers? Or if this blog is merely a hobby, isn’t that cutting into the territory of professional writers? Or perhaps it is written for the exposure?

    As an entertainment professional in Los Angeles I see many, many young people arriving here everyday having been “trained” by BA and MFA theatre programs from all over the country. Many (most) have absolutely no idea how to go about getting a job here — the practical knowledge they’ve received at school is woefully lacking — and they are also saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt. It’s a nice idea to suggest that they should all say NO to working on free projects, but I fear for many — like the potential donut videographers in this story — that will mean never working at all and giving up what slim chance they may have to happen upon a career.

    Is Professionalism merely a question of getting paid (and if so, how much?) Where do we draw the line — a living wage? An honorarium? A bunch of donuts? Or is Professionalism what we bring to the table whatever money we are (or aren’t) earning?

    • lindaessig says:

      Thank you for your comment. Actually, I do get paid as a writer. I’ve written books that earn royalties and publish in academic journals as part of my university employment. I started the blog to work out ideas in writing (writing is a way of thinking) and get feedback on those ideas from people who may be interested in the topic. Until this post, the blog was probably read by the same several hundred (or maybe several thousand) people who read my academic writing. I don’t feel that I am giving my writing away for free, but rather seeking audience input on ideas while they are in formation, using a technique analogous to “fast prototyping” in the tech world. Clearly, the topic of this particular post is of interest to many more people than I had anticipated.

      One of the things we’re trying to do in the program I coordinate is give students coming out of a university with a BA or MFA in theatre real skills they can use to negotiate the marketplace. You might be interested in reading about a successful internship program we created in cooperation with a major media company. See https://creativeinfrastructure.org/2011/04/04/intern-need-not-be-a-dirty-word/ . Every student who participated in the cooperative education program found employment after finishing school. The internship was unpaid, but a legitimate learning experience.

  29. Dyl says:

    To negotiate successfully for competitive pay, artists need leverage. Around the country, artists often simply do not have enough leverage.

    It is more common to see small businesses interested in a good relationship with the artist pool. When any business owner considers a partnership with an artist, he is not only considering his potential profits when it comes time to hire an artist. He has to consider the potential losses from failing to hire that same artist. BUT – a small business owner is more likely to consider his possible gain. He has to be fixated on gain, even if he doesn’t understand why any given art form is popular. That small business has to worry about failing, year in, year out, and it desperately needs to bring in profit from any trustworthy avenues, even if the owner doesn’t understand them fully.

    Once the artist climbs above that — when it’s on to looking for contracts or employment from more stable firms — it is no longer enough to make the business owner see that a refusal to hire the artist would be missing out on doing better than the business currently is. Big freaking deal. That business built itself into a stable situation without you, and it doesn’t need you to keep going. More leverage is now needed. What is more important to the bigger firms isn’t missing gain. It’s avoiding loss. The larger business owner is going to be much more motivated if the artist can make him understand the consequences – the pain – that the business would incur by not hiring that artist. (i.e. the artist takes his business to a competing firm).

    Now that’s where artists are screwed. The more artists available for businesses to pore over, the bigger the leverage wasteland for an aspiring artist.

    I’ve been an aspiring musician-for-hire in one of the more competitive places around, New Orleans’ French Quarter. And I’m currently an aspiring businessman with a couple years’ experience in the field. So while I’m far from an expert on the subject of art labor economics, I’m eager to be level with anyone that might have delusions about the power of the artist to “just say no”. As the article stops short of admitting, that business was not exactly heartbroken because one artist won’t sign on for donuts. Big freaking deal. Even if a thousand artists won’t, there will be ten thousand more that will, in an effort to use that break to climb the ladder. Forget this notion of collectivity and solidarity. The artistic community is a collection of opportunistic individuals, each of which are too desperately looking for their big break to keep from crossing that picket line. The fact is, until there’s a smaller market of labor available, the real answer to artists getting opportunities is for them to appear enticing. That means setting one’s self apart, the most likely way being to acquire specialized credentials, education, and/or connections.

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  31. lbregitzer says:

    Does anybody else find this article hypocritical, in that the writer uses a free Creative Commons licensed photo, that was probably used to build a portfolio, when she could have paid a small licensing fee to a student?

    • lindaessig says:

      The author of the photo chose to make it available via Creative Commons licensing; that is the creator’s option. What would have been hypocritical would be to, as many people do, fins a picture via a google image search and cut and paste a photo from another website without attribution. Were I to be selling donuts, I would hire a professional photographer and food stylist.

      • I disagree. Clearly you are decrying people wanting art done for free. Then you want a photo for your article and then found one that was free and used it, free license or not, you wanted free art and found it, in an instance where you could have paid for it. That’s no different than a doughnut company wanting art done for free, as well.

        • lindaessig says:

          One could argue, as another commentor does, that the photo is not art. I certainly could have purchased two donuts and taken a photo myself but didn’t do so. Had I, the quality of the image may have been the same or, given my background in lighting, better. I could have published the blog without a photo. I reiterate that what would have been hypocritical would be to cut and paste from another website or, worse, ask to use a professional photogrpaher’s image at no cost “for the exposure.”

        • JCyrk says:

          It is completely different. Creative Commons is a specific choice that the artists or creator has made. It would not be there for free if the artist or creator did not want it to be. The author chose the free image specifically because it was free. She did not go to an artist who desires to get paid for their work and say, “I know you think you should get paid for this piece you created, but I want you to give it to me for free and in exchange I will give you a bag of candy.”

          The company has every right to pursue individuals who would produce their advertising for free, the difference is they sought out individuals who should get paid and then told them that they should be happy about this opportunity and be satisfied with free donuts. They are a business. A donut business. They are not agents for videographers. If you are a business you should budget for these things. Especially if they are a “well known brand”.

          Perhaps they should start with their Uncle Larry who owns a nice digital camera first – he loves to do things for free (or maybe a case of beer).

          I understand your argument, but it seems like you want to attack the author and are using sketchy connections.

    • No, I don’t see the connection there. Using my time to create an image that others can use so that I can support a particular industry (or several industries) by providing free resources is something that I can willingly do in my spare time for my own reasons, most likely for fun. If I take photos, choose the composition, the subject, and how, when or if it is to be done, everything about it gets done my way on my schedule, it’s enjoyable to do, and I don’t care if I make a profit or who uses it nor what they use it for, and you approached me and asked me if you could use my freely available image but didn’t want to pay for it… gosh, I probably wouldn’t be insulted.

      However, if a person or business has a specific need for a specific type of image, and it has to be done within a certain timeline and serve a specific purpose, and I have to use my skills, experience, and resources to do it… well, that’s work and I should be paid for my work.

      Whether or not you choose to use free resources is not the problem. The problem is asking professionals to work for free just because free (or less expensive) resources exist. Had she paid a professional photographer and food stylist to create an image for her, it would have most likely had a better composition, better lighting, and a better setting, instead of this poorly lit, slightly blurry, noisy photo set on boring wax paper that she found for free. Of those choices, it’s pretty clear what a business selling donuts probably ought to do.

      What would be hypocritical is if she asked the professional photographer and food stylist to do the work, and In exchange for their time and energy, instead of money, she gave them a link to the article so they can “share it for exposure” and “see the final result”.

    • Whatever photographer put this photo up on Creative Commons chose to do so voluntarily. What would have been hypocritical is if the author had asked a photography student to take a photo of two doughnuts for free use in the post in exchange for all the good exposure the photographer would get from people vising the website and reading this post.

  32. My wife is an aerial artist, among other things. She and her duet partner are approached quite frequently to do free or significantly reduced price gigs. They always say no with the exception of gigs in support of the aerial/circus arts community itself as fundraisers for practice space/equipment/etc that clearly benefits them in other ways. Part of it is personal, but part of it is precedent. We have many friends in town here who make supplemental income from aerial performances. In addition the equipment can be quite pricey, the training is pretty extensive, and the art form itself is dangerous and requires special insurance.

    Doing freebies or far below market price performances undermines all of that not just for my wife and her duet partner, but for everyone else in the local community. And since they perform in Minnesota and Iowa as well, it can have extended effect elsewhere. What’s more, given the aforementioned costs, most of them would not only not be able to afford to do gigs, but some wouldn’t be able to afford to practice their art at all.

    Absolutely. Politely demand a fair wage. It’s good for you and everyone else you know in your medium or similar media.

    • Clytemnestra's Sister. says:

      This. I paint and I do fibre art, and while over time I’ve gotten quite decent at it, I don’t even try to sell. I give what I don’t keep for myself to friends and family, as holiday and birthday presents.

      Why? Because I have a very good well-paying job that allows me to subsidise my hobby. If I go out and sell my artwork for what I think somebody will pay for it, or even just the cost of materials, I am dragging down the incomes of people who are trying to make their living (or at least a good part of it) by doing what I do for fun.

  33. Andy Horwitz says:

    Please check out “The View From Here” a report by The Brooklyn Commune Project that goes into this in great detail. Visit http://www.brooklyncommune.org, for more information, join our Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/bkcommune/ and check out the first iteration of our DIY Commune Kit to help artists organize and create change. http://www.culturebot.org/diy-commune-kit/

  34. Leroy says:

    The fact is, students or people that are willing to do this type of work for free are usually at the beginning of their careers or students just starting to learn the craft. So, they aren’t very good and need all the practice they can get. As a graphic artist I volunteered a lot of the time to do passion projects like gig posters and album covers that brought me no financial compensation. They did, however, allow me to practice a craft that I wasn’t actually any good at yet (despite being at the top of my class in design school)

    When people try to get free services they usually get the type of quality they pay for. $260 worth of donuts is going to get you a very amateur video production. So I find it very difficult to believe that a flood of amateurs offering free work will ever displace or significantly devalue quality professional creatives.

    I personally don’t do freelance work for free. But I don’t concern myself with trying to stop others who want to do so.

  35. Steve says:

    Donuts and art are a terrible comparison. They occupy two VASTLY different tiers on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. A starving person might say, “I could sure go for a donut right now, and I would pay a lot for them, and buy several at a time,” but a starving person would never say,”I’m about to die of hunger, but let’s go buy some paintings from a local artist to spruce up this home I can’t afford because I also can’t afford to eat.”

    The problem with artists, is they do not realize that art is a form of self-actualization, which is a LAST PRIORITY need, which people will only seek to meet once the lower needs such as air, food, shelter, social acceptance, and love have already been met.

    I’m not talking about graphic design, where the designers piggy back on purveyors of goods which fill more pressing needs. The purveyors have full say in what and how the design is conceived, and the designer follows orders with only a margin of creative wiggle-room. I’m talking about art in its purest form of expression, where the artist has a full say in what is created.

    TL:DR There will never be real money in art unless you’re a modern Micheal-freaking-Angelo, because people won’t buy real art until their other needs are already met. If everyone decided to be an artist, they would quit really fast, because everyone has to eat, nobody is making the food, and nobody cares about decorating their home when they’re starving.

    • Steve says:

      That being said, I do agree with the article. Just venting

    • lindaessig says:

      Maslow himself aknowledged that the heirarchy of needs he described (illustrated by others as a pyramid) is not fixed. He wrote in the 1948 paper A Theory of Human Motivation:
      The degree of fixity of the hierarchy of basic needs. — We have spoken so far as if this
      hierarchy were a fixed order but actually it is not nearly as rigid as we may have implied.
      It is true that most of the people with whom we have worked have seemed to have these
      basic needs in about the order that has been indicated. However, there have been a
      number of exceptions. [example 2 is particularly apt for this discussion]
      “(2) There are other, apparently innately creative people in whom the drive to creativeness
      seems to be more important than any other counter-determinant. Their creativeness might
      appear not as self-actualization released by basic satisfaction, but in spite of lack of basic
      satisfaction” (pp. 12-13).

      I would also argue that donuts do not satisfy the human sustenance needs Maslow recognizes. They are not equivalent to a nutritious meal, such as the musician with the family of six might request of a restaurant owner in exchange for playing for one night.

    • Mariposa Art says:

      Art is not high on a list of crucial needs, but neither are many other things, but those people get paid for their work. I can get around by the bus or with an old beater car, I don’t *have* to have a nicer car. I can get along with an old PC, I don’t *have* to have an iPad. I can wear thrift store clothes, I don’t *have* to have designer outfits. But people still *want* these things, however when it comes to paying, they somehow feel like artists and other creatives don’t deserve to be paid. I’m sure they’d pay their jeweler or watchmaker, or the car dealer when they buy a higher end item that they don’t *have* to have. . .

    • Nobody is arguing that all art that is created must be recognized and paid for, what is being argued is that art should be recognized as work, and that when one is asked to create art by a specific company for a specific purpose then the artist ought to be entitled to monetary compensation by that company. If I build houses, I do not go around to random plots of land building cabins and duplexes and then run around whining and wondering why nobody is paying me. But if I build houses and someone asks me to build a house for them, I do expect to be paid in actual money for my labor and time, not merely in “experience” or “exposure.”

  36. Angela Woodward says:

    This issue is not just common amoung artists and musicians. I am a hair dresser. I paid $20,000 for my education, not to mention the amount I spent to get an inventory, the product I used on you, and my tools. I also spent 2 years in school learning, studying and perfecting my craft. So no, I will not come to your home on my only day off and bring all of my hair tools so I can give you a free hair cut. No, you can not come to my house so I can dye your hair in my kitchen on a sunday and you’ll just take a shower after so you’ll only pay me $15 instead of the usual $65.

    On top of that lawyers, doctors, carpenters, dentists, mechanics, anyone who works in a service industry are asked to do things for free all the time. It has got to stop.

  37. BTW, have reblogged, posted on my department FB page and am discussing this in class tomorrow! Thanks!

  38. Pingback: The infamous donut post, reblogged | Artini – Arts Management with a Twist

  39. Love this column and all of the responses, Linda — you certainly hit a nerve! I am struck by the several comments that said that as long as there are people who are willing to do it for free, the professional artist is essentially screwed. It reminds me of when, as a young aspiring soprano, I got my first church gig. My family was horrified. They thought that since my talent was a gift from God, I should not charge for it. I replied that I thought a surgeon’s skill was also a gift from God. I don’t know how to solve the problem of the general public unwilling to pay for artistic skill, but I do know how to control my intern situations and that is what I will continue to do.

  40. Meigrowstall says:

    Reblogged this on Mei Grows Tall and commented:
    As an emerging creative professional that aspires to support myself with my passions, this article hits close to home. To all the interns trying to make it out there, question what you are doing and why.

  41. pwetzig says:

    Reblogged this on Ramblings of a Tenor and commented:
    Man, I really wish I could have read this a few years ago!

  42. Wayne Altman says:

    This is NOT limited to “the arts.” I work in the field of training, and social media, before that it was sales.. No matter WHAT industry you choose from medicine to legal work you will have people ask you for “advice” or counsel without considering to pay you for it…
    I could not count the number of times I have sat with someone to design a media plan, or offer advice on content creation without once being offered payment of any kind. Do it, don’t do it, but do not complain about your desicion either way. Someone needs my help and I can do it I will do it.. If they want to pay me fine, but that is not why I did it.

  43. JCyrk says:

    Of course, every artists has the ability to accept any job – no matter what the pay – if they think it will pay off for them in the long run. But it is not right for a business to try and pull the “but this will be good for your career and your portfolio” move. It is manipulative and only benefits the company. They have no way of knowing what the video that was created for free for them will do for the artist and it is insincere for them to insinuate that they do. How could they?

    Coincidentally, this ploy is how casting agents got young starlets on the couch all the time.

  44. Reblogged this on TravellingthroughLife and commented:
    Love this post I came across – especially as I was a victim of this type of person in 2012.
    The Company – LM Searches) employed me (for a relatively small wage( + commissions) but I then discovered that of the other 10 staff 7 of them were “interns” – the other three were lowly paid.
    This was not in work in an artistic field although the interns were all but was certainly a creative area as they were marketing 2 new websites and a service. So the staff were involved in graphic design for e-mailshots as well as the logos, etc
    I got out quickly (the guy NEVER paid me the first month so I walked!) but the other staff remained there until the business folded 6 months later. The staff there learnt one thing I feel – that some employers will stop to anything and use/abuse you for their own schemes. So go out and demand what you feel is a FAIR price for your work. Doing things for the love of them is truly admirable but it won’t pay your bills and if it only gets you doughnuts it will certainly make you obese and possibly very sick!

  45. Anonymous says:

    Artists feed right into this when they promote their shows/showings/concerts etc. using a plea for “support”. I see it all the time. Why not create art you’re proud enough of to invite people to pay money for rather than beg for “support”? I want to buy a ticket to something that appeals to me and will create value in my life for an hour or two. I have to support myself and my family. I don’t want to support your endeavors – I want to be compelled to pay for them. Act like a professional if you want to be paid like one.

  46. Anonymous says:

    Heck, screw the free donuts each week for a year… how much does that cost? Approximately $7.99 x 52 weeks… pay the darn kid the $415.48!!

    • Anonymous says:

      If they paid money, they would have to report it to the IRS. That gets complicated and involves excessive amounts of paperwork for just a day’s worth of actual work. Also, the donuts to money doesn’t fully translate. In any given food business, there will be food waste at the end of the day. It’s just not possible to predict how much food you need to make each day with that much precision. So these 12 donuts a week could theoretically be the average amount of wasted donuts produced in a week that would be lost anyway. Which means the bakery loses nothing, financially speaking.

    • Production in LA says:

      You’re quoting retail prices… the actual transfer cost, cost of goods attached to a dozen donuts is more like $1, so the net expense to the shop is about $52 for the year.

  47. Production in LA says:

    Too many forces are in play for pat answers, and people unfamiliar with the industry trying to reduce it to an economic equation easily misdirect the conversation. The elements of supply & demand, pricing equilibrium, and the intangible called ‘Talent’ all are at work in the artist’s field. Van Gough experienced the same effect when he traded paintings for his drinking tabs, which now 100 years later sell for tens of millions of dollars. Though there is a supply/demand effect at both ends of the scale (a tiny fraction of actors with marketability become millionaires while 99% eek by with other jobs), artists do not do what they do for pragmatic economic reasons. You cannot ‘cap’ numbers on artists seeking to realize a level of spiritual fulfillment and human expression, that’s as unAmerican as it is ‘American’ to allow those aspiring to a higher plane of creative existence to suffer in poverty . Nor can you convince marketing people at Donut shops that it’s better to pay a day rate for the B (or C, or D) Roll quality video they ‘think’ they might use 7 seconds of if it works out. There are so many aspiring Crew & Actors out there trying to obtain real life credits & experience, so they can chisel out a place for themselves in the paid end of the industry that volunteer gigs often make sense from an experiential and networking perspective. The line between paying your dues, and being exploited is one each artist draws for themselves. It would be nice if America was not the nexus of money grubbing that it is, where the govt budget sends trillions of taxpayer dollars to weapons contracts that make politically connected billionaires richer, and there were a rational system of supporting the artistic effort, because it’s through such support that talent is nurtured. But that would cost 0.00001% of the budget for world domination. Yet, if we look at how other societies manage this exact problem, in England artists contributions to society are explicitly recognized and a support system of baseline economic assistance for those working at the craft is in place so those engaged in the field do not suffer beyond a given threshold of economic hardship, and they’re able to bring forth their art with some dignity.

  48. timothy price says:

    Look at the whole rather than the parts…. it isn’t just the value of the donuts, but the entire process. Eating 52 dozen donuts would be life changing experience. 🙂

  49. evafitness says:

    Interesting topic and I find it very relevant as I’m a professional dancer and aerialist. I do get paid for my work now because I don’t look at, audition for or accept unpaid work. But I did, in my younger days when I wanted some experience and to meet people in my field. I found there’s not much quality in the companies that ask you to work for free or the people you work with. And then I moved up little by little and now it’s not worth my time to work for free or for barter. However, I did have to start somewhere. So I danced, modelled and acted for hair cuts and manicures and video footage for my reel while working full time at an office until I got my first big enough paying job to quit all of that and pursue higher paying wages full time. I think it sucks that artists are asked to work for free on one hand but on the other hand there is a point in may artists careers where they are not good enough yet to demand a wage. Until then, taking free gigs for experience can be valuable – and they should improve and move on to only paying jobs eventually. What you get out of any opportunity is up to YOU not the other people around you.

  50. BH says:

    To play devil’s advocate (since I do agree with your overall point): 1. In the donut email, they only want a student for a single day as well, but you don’t think barter is acceptable in that case. 2. So one could say that donuts are unacceptable due to their relative nutritional value, not the fact that the company wants to offer food and not pay. If, perhaps, it was an apple company, this might be acceptable. (Again, playing devil’s advocate since I loved 98% of your article and most of your recommended solution).

    • It seems it would depend on how many apples one ate per week, although apples have very little nutritional value outside of their water content and fiber. If this were a protein bar company that offered products that could conceivably replace a significant amount of the artist’s nutritional needs (and therefore appreciably decrease the artist’s food costs for that year), then we could start negotiating.

  51. BH says:

    I love this article until the very end in which you suggest that playing at a restaurant in exchange for dinner for the family is ok. I’m not sure how that’s different from filming for 52 dozen donuts, which you (rightfully) feel is not an acceptable form of payment.

    • lindaessig says:

      You make a good point – I view them as different because the restaurant would be providing what, in writing the piece, I assumed would be a nutritious meal for an entire family. In other words, the musician’s creative work would be putting food on the proverbial table, meeting a need through barter. While a dozen donuts may provide as many calories as a dinner for six, they do not fulfill the family’s needs in the same way. One cannot live on a diet of donuts just as one cannot pay the rent with them. Also, the example was time limited – one night only – unlike the Craig’s list situation, in which the restaurant implied it would be a regular (unpaid) gig.

    • To follow Linda’s comment, I would say that receiving one night’s food budget in goods is fair compensation for providing one night’s entertainment for the restaurant’s guest, and no further benefit to the restaurant after that night. The difference is that the doughnut shop would receive continuing benefit from using that commercial spot for as long as they wished. (This is why the acting unions insist that their members receive royalties every time a commercial they performed in is rebroadcast, at least for a certain time period.)

  52. Great article! I hold two degrees in music, but am now the owner of a small tourism business, so I have been in both the supplier and consumer side of this issue. As a musician in college, there were many times when I wished I had just said “No” to non-paying gigs – but hey, it was a gig. Sadly, I think what would likely happen if trained students took a stand and started saying “no” is that they would just get passed over and the “jobs” would eventually fall to the lowest common denominator. This is already pretty common in photography – we all have a friend or two who starts a part-time photography business, despite the fact that they have zero experience or training, believing that a brand-new DSLR is the only thing required to get into the profession. I believe these photographers fill out the lowest price points in the market, doing work for free or for far below the going rate for a professional shoot, because the customer does not understand that they are not getting professional-quality material, or doesn’t care about the quality. (I do not mean any disrespect to self-taught part-time photographers out there; as with any artistic medium, I have seen plenty of amazing work created by people who never studied formally.) What eventually happens is that the overall quality of artistic work in the community becomes diluted. This devalues the training and experience of an educated artist even further, making it less likely that a consumer would want to pay fair compensation for their work.

    I think university professors of art and design are in the position to be able to help the most. Those who are tenured often have long-standing connections in the community, and they can act as liaisons between fine arts students and the businesses and consumers that desire their services. They can essentially be regulators between the supply and demand sides of the art economy. I have two suggestions:

    1.) Fine Arts professors should build a network in the community with local businesses and organizations and make it known that they have a group of talented students who are eager to gain real-world experience. Professors should then do their part to negotiate appropriate compensation, and should make sure the level of the job is matched appropriately with the level of the student. Luckily, I think this already happens most of the time.

    2.) University Fine Arts programs should do their part to educate the potential consumers in the community about what is professional-quality work. They could offer seminars to the public for free. Host a class called, “Visual Marketing 101…Using art to build your brand” or something like that. As businesses and consumers come to understand a little bit about what goes into graphic design, photography, etc… and that it requires a great level of knowledge and hard word, they will begin to understand the value of hiring someone to provide these services, and will be more likely to pay a fair wage to the person they hire.

    Thanks again for writing a great article!

  53. Dan says:

    I agree with a lot of the sentiment here but the “volunteer” videographer is getting paid. It’s still probably not enough but the opportunities that could come along simply because you did the work well and the advertising that you get because of that. It’s something to go in a portfolio which helps you differentiate yourself from other videographers and word of mouth from the company you did it for. I’m not saying it’s enough compensation at all I’m just raising the point that yes, you are getting something.

    • ksthompsonauthor says:

      Great article, but the comments have left me shaking my head. First of all, I don’t know about anyone else, but my bank won’t accept a year’s supply of doughnuts as payment on my house or my car. Yes, that is a form of payment. But that particular form is an insult, in my opinion. Oh, and I am not in the business of selling doughnuts to family and friends, nor finding someone willing to buy the punch card. That takes time away from my writing.

      When was the last time you saw a commercial with credits running at the end? Exactly. How does the doughnut company propose helping the videographer market themselves? Oh, you mean I am just going to get a copy of the final spot and I get to keep it? YIPPEE! Having a video in their portfolio is great. But if everyone who sees it doesn’t know (or care) who shot it, then where’s the benefit?

      The issue I see recurring is “clients” who have absolutely no concept of what they’re asking artists to do. This is because they don’t possess the talent, knowledge, or ability to do the project themselves. If they did, trust me when I say they wouldn’t dream of asking anyone else to do it for free.

      If you value my talent and ability enough to ask me to do a project, then pay me. If you don’t have the budget to pay me, then you need to raise the funds, find someone else with comparable talent to do it for free (best of luck with that), or reconsider the project. It’s that simple. If they don’t understand that or think I’m being unreasonable, then there is a high probability that I don’t want to work with them because that sort of attitude is usually just the tip of the iceberg. What starts out as a simple project turns into a nightmare requiring a lot more work on your part than what you were initially led to believe. Time that you are not focusing on honing your craft, making connections, working on your own projects, and ultimately – working on projects that DO pay.

      Yes, there are others both in my field and out who will do the work for free. I can’t stop them. Nor will I waste my time (which I also place a value on) trying. If they truly believe that this will help them in the long run, I wish them the best of luck. But the sad truth is that people do not value that which they get for free. Nor do they “waste” any of their time/resources promoting the artists who provided all the free work for the project they’re currently profiting from.

  54. Bob Koerner says:

    It’s true: there are more people attempting to create art than are needed, and so not all of them will be paid. But that does not mean the ones who do get work should go unpaid as well. When artists undervalue their own work, they undermine each other. I completely support the message, that every artist should offer their work for sale at a fair price and never give it away for free. If that means you can’t get work, you need to figure out how to make yourself more valuable to the purchasers. The reward for unpaid work is more people asking you to work for free.

  55. The minute I stopped writing for free, I got paid for writing. I stopped doing it. I started saying, “I’m sorry but I have to focus on my paid writing jobs” and people understood that (even though my paid writing jobs were not plentiful at the beginning). The minute I told people that my paid work was priority and what I wanted to be paid for my work it gave my work value. I’ve built (key word) a good living. I only do volunteer writing for my own personal causes and I even limit that because the creative energy isn’t infinite. Not checking this for typos and errors. I’m tired today.

    • Anonymous says:

      You hit the nail on the head–if there is quality people will pay for it!!~

    • theoffswitch says:

      You said it best. As someone with an art degree that lacked the fire in the belly to pursue it, a gigging musician for fulfillment not pay, and the owner of a PR/design agency that serves working artists—I simply do not buy the premise that there are too many creative people and that supposedly being a reason for their work not having value. If it we’re true, then no artists could make money. What I observe time and again is the creatives that don’t work for free are the ones that get paid, and if they aren’t getting paid enough to sustain their practice or their live, then they ask more. And if they can’t get paid more then they get better or add more value. Of course, we’re not only talking about visual or performing artists (we’re commenting in part on a videographer) but all creatives can get paid if the they demand it and seek out the audience for their work. From my observation, the difference between who gets paid and who doesn’t is less about raw talent and more about the ability to ask and business acumen.

      My company specializes in working for artists and creatives, something that can often be considered pro bono work. But we decided that artists needed their own specialty agency and what do you know… artists paid us. Another example, a few years back, these $99 logo sites popped up and graphic designers we’re threatened trying to defend the merit, process, and price tags of their services. Of course, someone that would jump at the chance to pay a box of donuts for a logo is not our client—and the fact that many people won’t pay (much) for actual graphic design doesn’t mean that there are too many designers or that graphic design isn’t needed. It just means that, like visual or performing art, people that don’t value it will find another way to get it or do without. That doesn’t make creativity worthless, it just means the bar is slightly higher for being a professional. Great conversation!

    • thathat says:

      THIS. Exactly.

      The same goes with raising my prices. (I’m grateful to every professional at a craft show who ever chatted with me and told me to raise my prices.) Turns out, my dance card at a craft show is STILL full when I tell people that what they want will cost $100 instead of $20. Some people shake their heads and walk away, or buy something smaller, but it’s pretty rare (if ever) that I’ve kicked myself for not coming down on a price. And instead of busting my energy on a bunch of $5 jobs to break even, I can focus on a handful of better-paying ones.

      • Everyone focuses on the supply-demand market forces from the perspective of the company (i.e. that if an artist refuses to work for free, another artist will take the job), but they forget the opposite is really true from the artist’s perspective. If a company won’t hire me for my acting/creating/artistry because I insist on being paid, there are plenty of companies who won’t hesitate to pay me. Save your energy and time for the right opportunities, and they will present themselves.

  56. Part of the problem is that art has become so many things and aims at fewer and fewer identifiable cultural values that not everything we define as art has a viable place in society. Or, it’s place is so limited that the niche audience who ‘gets’ what is happening could never support the effort and resources that went into its production in a meaningful financial way. Art starts looking less like what we have traditionally gone to museums to be exposed to and more like some alien encounter or the artist’s bizarre personal introspection. Why should we care? Necessarily?

    I’m not sure how it is possible to argue that just by being creative we deserve to get paid. I see so much contemporary art that obviously took time, effort, and quite a bit of skill to make, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why it was important to make. It may have been vital to the artist who made it, but to me? If art doesn’t speak to me should I pay for it? If art doesn’t always aim at speaking broadly is it even asking to be paid for? Is there some necessary equation between creativity and compensation? How do we reconcile this? That anything made by any creative individual is worthy of an equitable wage?

    Because contemporary art is finding its expression in so many unsanctioned and institutionally ambiguous settings the lines between what is art and what is not art have been blurred. And we have to accept that art has this new place in our lives. If the roles of the arts infrastructure are changing as much as they are it may simply be that art has to prove itself to the marketplace first in order to be compensated financially. The fact that it is art won’t guarantee that someone gets paid. Unless people actually want it. If all creativity had the right to get paid, then singing in the shower would be a full time gig. If all creativity was compensated with wages, then cooking dinner for my family would put money in my bank account. If every astounding idea I came up with had some financial reward then posting this comment would likely feed me for days…….

    We simply live in a world where people are recognizing that creativity exists throughout our lives. And this means that art is no longer special. Traditional forms of art are a species of creativity where we might know some rules for how its expressed and how its exhibited. But those lines are starting to blur as well. What counts as art is now more open to interpretation, and therefor the role of art as a profession has to change as well. Its not something that can always be justified with a paycheck. Creativity has more value in today’s world but paradoxically that also means that it is less accustomed to getting wages for its execution. Its not just the ‘special’ stuff that extremely brilliant professionals do, its what every amateur sitting in the basement and every kid in the classroom is also engaged in. Artists are no longer special people except in the wishful thinking of those who cling to an outdated model of interpretation.

    And if we think this means its an issue not of art itself but of the quality in art, then let me also point out that the role of gatekeepers itself is evolving. The idea of quality in art is now also much more up for public debate. Some folks may not like it, but the truth is that the standards that have been so comfortably promulgated throughout history are much more under attack than ever before. Art itself is acting out its own subversion of these traditional standards. So who do we reward? The ones that play it tight and safe according to recognized standards? Or do we side with the innovative trailblazers who may be acting in such unfamiliar territory that few if any can actually see what they are doing? If we have to choose who gets paid what values will we be basing this on? Meanwhile galleries are crumbling and academic departments are closing their doors……

    I’m not suggesting that there is an easy answer, or that there is an answer at all, necessarily. What I am suggesting is that its so complicated that you can make a ‘reasonable’ case from almost any angle. Welcome to the new pluralism of the modern world! Not every solution will do right by every person involved. We may have to accept the best of some bad situations. We may have to draw lines where others would not put them. We may have to push farther than some folks are willing. Don’t expect it to be easy. Don’t expect that everyone will come out smelling like roses. Don’t expect that everyone will agree. Having an opinion simply means that you’ve got something that is likely a bit different from what other people have. If these issues were objectively transparent and the values at stake universally acceptable then we would not even be asking these questions. The fact of our confusion and contrariness has to mean something, doesn’t it?

    What’s the best we can hope for? That our own chauvinism will win out? That our partisanship will prove the strongest? I’d like to think that we can learn to be a little bit more tolerant of other people’s positions and learn to celebrate the diversity that complicates life. Isn’t that the broader message of art anyway………

    • dah says:

      This isn’t just about heady, no-one-but-the-artist-gets-it art. This is also about all the art, photography, performance, and design work that actually sells the businesses, goods, and services. I’d like to see a successful businessperson who was able to just use his own photo from a disposable camera, or one who relied on her craigslist ad, text only web page. The arts are integral to business success. Too bad the art of business, that produces nothing of substance (money is really just an abstract representation of “value”) on its own, has swindled its way into relevance riding on the backs of those who do actually produce something.

    • Mariposa Art says:

      If I create work that no one “gets,” presumably no one will be asking to display or use this art (that nobody “gets”). I’ll just be ignored. In which case, I have no cause to expect payment; no one is wanting to use my work at all. But if it’s good enough to be displayed in their home, to be on their walls, if my skills are good enough to ask me to create something to benefit their business, then it’s good enough to pay for.

  57. Gavin Stone says:

    The University department I graduated from helped me find full time employment and an opportunity to support myself through the making of strong partnerships with businesses. It required a lot more effort on my professor’s part then just sending nasty emails to companies that clearly haven’t thought things through – it required patience, time, and an understanding that creating a strong supportive relationship between university and the private sector was in the mutual interest of both our institution, and the businesses as well. Due to the strong efforts of my educators, I received multiple experiences throughout college, one which led directly to my employment today. I get that this particular educator’s heart is in the right place – but it’s an awful shame for the students that more effort wasn’t put into developing this opportunity into one that was fit for educational purposes. Getting to make a real commercial!? That’s the beginnings of some awesome hands on experience!

    • lindaessig says:

      Gavin: Thank you for your feedback. I too have worked very hard to develop the very type of positive professional relationships you mention. For a description of one and a scalable framework that can be used elsewhere see the link embedded in the post or here: https://creativeinfrastructure.org/2011/04/04/intern-need-not-be-a-dirty-word/

    • Anonymous says:

      Gavin: If you do even the most basic research on this professor (including reading her byline below the essay), you’ll discover that she *specializes* in helping artists build strong connections with businesses. It is not her job to work with this donut shop to get them to provide an educational internship when that is clearly not their interest, and her email wasn’t nasty; it was merely firm. As an art history professor who has written emails like this myself, I commend Prof. Essig’s desire to protect her students from exploitation and change the valuation of artistic labor in the private sector.

    • Getting to make a real commercial would be awesome hands-on experience if there were any semblance of training going on. The doughnut shop would not educate the student in any fashion as to how a commercial is made or what needs to go into it; they are simply trying to avoid hiring a professional cinematographer or advertising company to come in and handle it. That’d be like asking a premed student to come to my place of business (with no supervision from someone who knows what they’re doing, mind you) to give me stitches for free. You know, for the “experience.”

  58. emilyineurope says:

    To me the point is that it’s not only artists, but a lot of skilled professions “in the arts” that are subject to this kind of work for free ethics.
    I like writing stories, and I don´t expect to make a living from it, or any money really. But you better believe I want to be paid for my editing and proofreading work, which I’m good at in part because I spend my free time honing my writing. It really annoys me to have to do “internship” type of things, or work for peanuts for work that is not my dream.
    Likewise the film students. Making a donut commercial is not a labour of love. I expect those same film-students don’t mind working for peanuts or nothing to produce their short film. But a donut commercial is, by its definition, meant to bring profit to the company that commissions it and it’s appalling that they´re trying to get out of paying for it.

    • Mariposa Art says:

      “But a donut commercial is, by its definition, meant to bring profit to the company that commissions it and it’s appalling that they´re trying to get out of paying for it.”

      That’s how I feel too. The filmmaker could be working on a project for their own enjoyment, or for a friend or family member, something *they* want to do, for the sake of it. Why on earth should they spend their time working on a project that will profit someone else, in a business sense, when they’re not getting paid? I can get paid nothing to work on my own pet projects, thank you. If you want something done that will aid you in your business, you *should* expect to pay them for it.

  59. Definitely got a chuckle out of me 😛

  60. Arty says:

    I think artists are overpaid already. It’s unfortunate but it’s true. If art was such an underpaid profession then there would be less artists. The pay that they receive is equivalent to what they deserve for the services they offer. I’ve watched far too many artists graduate with degrees in art, family consumer sciences, dance, vocal arts, performance who all complained that they couldn’t find jobs in their field. I commend all of them for chasing their dreams but I do not feel bad for their inability to find meaningful employment within their focus because it is a selfish focus. All of these fields offer something great to our society and we would truly be at a loss without them but the proportion of students who pursue these degrees far outweighs the number needed for our society to flourish. Many other people take degrees in statistics, economics, business, engineering and spend much of their lives doing something that they may, at best, enjoy but most likely not love. They do this to ensure that they are able to support themselves and their family. Maybe they do it because they want to make a difference in the world and invent a new way of harnessing energy to reduce pollution. To summarize I’d say that if artists want more money their needs to be less artists. Do what you love in your time and find a vocation that allows you to, in some way, create a better world for all humanity.

    • lindaessig says:

      Arty: Your closing comment really resonates with me because most of the professional artists I know are doing exaclty what you suggest. They have found a vocation that allows them to a create a better world for all humanity. The world is a far better place for the art it has in it.

      • Anonymous says:

        Agreed….are past societies remembered for their businesses? They are remembered for their art.

    • fluffy says:

      Isn’t focusing on money a “selfish focus.” I know a lot more corrupt (i.e. selfish) bankers and brokers than artists. #justsayin

    • Anonymous says:

      Arty – Since so many artists are being asked to “give it away,” then obviously someone needs, wants their work. Why aren’t they willing to pay for it? What makes people think that artists and their work have no value? We are a critical part of the fabric. And we do make for a better world.

    • Arty, please send me the metric you’ve used to determine “…the number needed for our society to flourish.” I didn’t know that was a static number. You’d be clearing up a lot of mystery for many of us.

      Sarcasm aside, I’d argue, like Joseph Beuys, that each of us is an artist, and the more art in the world, and the more it’s supported financially, the better. I think our capacity to make the world better through art is infinite.

      I’d also argue that to say there are too many artists and that’s why people don’t pay for it is simply reductive. I’m a case in point. There are many artists more talented than I am (by my talent metric, which might be similar to your flourishing society metric), who are paid less than I am, simply because I ask better, ask for more, and don’t work for free. Also probably because I’m white, male and from an upper-middle-class background.

      What Linda has beautifully and with humor laid out here is that the value of something, especially something like art, is in part perceived, in part created by the maker, not just some seemingly mathematical market.

    • Gordon Chumway says:

      The number of people studying creative fields has less an impact on the wellbeing of our society than the overabundance of MBAs, bankers, and brokers.

      More creative artists, fewer scam artists!

    • I completely agree with you Arty.

    • Lisa says:

      Arty, there have been a number of replies to your comment I agree with; there obviously is demand for the work, but people don’t want to pay for it. “Artists are overpaid already”. That is a very broad statement that doesn’t take into account years of schooling, costs of travel or equipment or performing clothes, music, licenses to perform works under copyright, etc etc that go into a cost. I have been paid for singing gigs where while I was paid what was an ok wage, perhaps, that didn’t cover the costs of preparation, or these other things. Maybe there are some more famous artists out there who are overpaid, but most are not. I would venture to say that there are professions out there that are overpaid. Perhaps I should just ask a tradesperson if they would use my home as a showcase for their work. After all, everyone who recognizes the improvements might ask me for the name of the person who did the work. Or perhaps I should suggest they should do the work for me for very little because there are all sorts of other trades people out there who just love working on homes, who would do it cheaply or just for the joy of doing it. I do know people who love using their hands and take pride in the renovations they do, but in our culture, it is accepted that they charge money or trade services, and the only way you get them to do the work for free is if they are doing it for a family member or close friend out of the goodness of their heart. Just apply your logic to any other profession and see how that sounds to you.

  61. Great post, Linda!

  62. Do you have a recommendation to increase the valuation of the labor? Because as far as I see it, if the market is so saturated with media technicians who have equipment and are competing with each other in a race to the bottom for their services, there’s no incentive on the part of an employer (besides ethics, which is murky and so far hasn’t been legislated very effectively) to pay anyone anything besides in experience or more crap like weekly donuts.
    I say this with the perspective of someone who happily decided to pursue media production as a hobby in my spare time now that I have a job which pays me a living wage and enough to pursue artistic hobbies.
    With your perspective, what is your recommendation to increase the valuation of this labor type?

    • lindaessig says:

      Timothy: my recommendation is in the title of the post. Just say no to working for free.

      • David Riehm says:

        But other people are willing to do it for free, so there’s no way you’ll ever get paid to do that job. If you say no, a hobbyist like TimothyIrvine will say yes instead. What you need to do is convince *employers* to stop using the available free labor somehow.

        • lindaessig says:

          Thanks for your comment. The first step toward convincing employers to pay is to insist on *being* paid. The concept of the unpaid *intern* who is really a free laborer has become culturally engrained. I’m suggesting a culture shift on the supply side.

        • ksthompsonauthor says:

          No offence to TimothyIrivine or anyone else… but I feel I have to say that if what you bring to the proverbial table is of value, then place a value on it. I have seen the result of some “free” services and trust me when I say they should have HIRED a pro instead. You get what you pay for.

        • aminorfigure says:

          lindaessig – I think you’re exactly right. You have to convince them that NO one is willing to do it for free, and the only way to do that is to spread the word that this is completely unacceptable. That’s the first step in forcing them to offer decent compensation for something that is, in fact, work–compensation more than “exposure”, more than “opportunity”, more than 12 free doughnuts every week. Gross.

        • Aaron says:

          A prime example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma… Each person in a competitive situation must decide between cooperating (just saying no) or defecting (working for optimally less or free). It looks bad whenever a person just says no, and gets replaced by somebody who doesn’t. The real question is “how do you convince everybody in this labor market that cooperating is in their best interests.” Historically, only strong unions or legislation has managed to accomplish this.

    • Actually, it isn’t merely ethics, it is LAW, as the writer points out. It would stop immediately if artists would stop working for free.

  63. Anonymous says:

    ^ That doesn’t take into consideration the labor time that it takes to sell those donuts (go out of the way to the donut shop, get the donuts, find a buyer). If that whole ordeal takes about an hour, you’re working at a rate slightly below the minimum wage.

    • lindaessig says:

      …and, I note, the student videopgrapher would no doubt be expected to bring her/his own equipment, so there is also the cost of depreciation. (and gas getting back and forth to the donut shop)

    • Bill says:

      However you are failing to remember that it was a punch card that was offered, so the artist could simply sell the punch card. BAM BIG TIME BUCKS. I’m sick of this underpayment argument put forth by artists. As the article notes its a market that has a massive supply, so basic economics tells us that demand is low, and therefore wages…if you don’t like it…GET A DIFFERENT PROFESSION. Why should someone be forced to pay for a service that someone else will willingly do for free/cheaper? The short anwser is that they shouldn’t.

      p.s. I’ve been a musician for 10 years. I took a crack at trying to make a living at it, and though I would consider myself talented I eventually took a different career path; I am not part of the extremely small minority that is skilled enough to make a living in the arts, and that is FINE. That is simply the way a free market works, and I certainly don’t expect someone to pay me when there are 1000 others of equal skill level willing to do it for cheaper or free.

      • So you don’t believe in minimum wage? Or you just don’t think certain professions should be eligible for minimum wage? What’s the criteria for deciding who these professions should be? There is not a single profession in the world where there isn’t someone more desperate and willing to work for less.
        ‘Rights’ are either universally applicable or they are meaningless.

        • George Haley says:

          ‘So you don’t believe in minimum wage?’

          No, I don’t. It prices the marginal worker out of the job market.

          ‘Or you just don’t think certain professions should be eligible for minimum wage?’

          I’m a little bemused at the notion of ‘minimum wage professionals,’ but perhaps one of us is equivocating on ‘profession.’

          ‘ What’s the criteria for deciding who these professions should be?’

          Ordinary forces of supply and demand.

          ‘There is not a single profession in the world where there isn’t someone more desperate and willing to work for less.’

          And yet, you can’t get someone over to your house to fix the plumbing for a can of Pepsi and a night’s stay on your couch.

          • Aiice says:

            Let’s hear it for organized labor! Go plumbers!

          • I actually have made many similar trades. I like trading for labor. I’m a skilled tradesman and have taken or traded several different forms of payment other than cash. Of course us trades people usually won’t give the higher wage earners breaks. In fact I try my best to get them to pay as much as possible, usually up to twice as much as I would charge the normal wage earner. Of course after you have been doing something for over 30 years, that is your art. If you’re not artistic in the trade that you get paid for, I say that life must be miserable and unfulfilling. When new people in the trades ask me what they should charge, I tell them “charge as much as they are willing to pay”. If we are to take that mantra “charge as much as willing to pay”, can you see what this does to the idea of worth? Example: I charge $200 to replace ones entry door, except Mrs. Jones is on a fixed income and can only afford $50. It takes me about 2 hours to do the work and Mrs. Jones paid me $25 an hour. Pretty good money right? Except in my mind I could have made $100 an hour. Did I cheat myself out of $75 an hour? Or did I help Mrs. Jones? Should I do like the Corporation and find me a $5 intern and stick them on the Jones job because it really doesn’t pay as well and Mrs. Jones really don’t know what a quality door install is supposed to look like. I’ll just find something wrong with the work he did, I’ll keep tally on his mistakes and at the end of the season I’ll let him go because of all those mistakes, claiming that I can’t make money if I have to rework their jobs. (this was done to me when I got started) then start fresh next season with a new sucker.

      • “I certainly don’t expect someone to pay me” It is this sort of attitude that keeps the vicious cycle going. And it’s not only the art field. It is also in the massage field. People have learned to devalue themselves. They learn to not promote themselves, this leads to them not getting any jobs. Part of this cycle is not just the fault of companies, but of the artists themselves. Don’t sell yourself short!

        • S J L says:

          It’s almost an field. Students these days are expected to intern in order to graduate college. This means they work for free while the college collects tuition for a semester where they do not actually teach the students anything. They’re not in a class room, they’re not taking a chair in a class or needing a teacher’s time. They may or may not be living in a dorm. But the school still gets tuition and the company gets free labor. And, from what I have seen, the students rarely learn anything of benefit to them. Sometimes they work on projects; mostly, they get coffee and make copies and answer phones so that the company doesn’t have to pay an assistant to do these tasks. It’s an incredible racket. I even know people who have graduated college and been talked into taking an internship “for the exposure.” Not musicians and artists: marketing majors, museum workers, writers. It’s really a racket. And it doesn’t matter what the Supreme Court ruled; it’s still happening.

          • lindaessig says:

            Yes, this happens as you describe, but not always. When I supervise an off-campus internship for which a student is getting academic credit, I meet with them to establish learning goals and a means of assessment (usually a journal and a reflective paper that analyzes how well the learning outcomes were met by the internship), meet with them several times during their posting usually via phone or internet, and then have a follow up meeting to debrief about the experience. It is, indeed, a class. For more on this topic, see https://creativeinfrastructure.org/2011/04/04/intern-need-not-be-a-dirty-word/

          • Lisa says:

            Actually, in the case of student teachers at least, the faculty advisor goes out to observe, advise and evaluate student teaching. Plus, the cooperating teachers get paid to take on the student teacher. The cooperating teacher spends a great deal of time working with the student teacher to improve themselves. So student teachers do get something for their tuition money from the college during this “internship” at least.

          • Ann B. says:

            Actually, a restaurant should not just use a cd player and speaker system at no cost. They should be paying for a BMI/ASCAP license if they are playing covered music in a public venue.

      • LIsaB says:

        Yeah, but you see, there is demand. The donut company had work they wanted done, they just didn’t want to pay for it. That restaurant that wanted to have live music? Again, demand. They just didn’t want to pay for it. There is, in fact, lots of demand for artistic jobs, it’s just that nobody wants to pay for it and many folks somehow believe that they shouldn’t have to. That’s wrong. And even in the arts, you get what you pay for. There might be people willing to do it for free, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me there are 1000s on an “equal skill level”. Artistic pursuits are no different from any other jobs in terms of experience and training, amateurs aren’t equally skilled. Professionals should be paid for their work.

        • Demand for a good always depends on the price. The restaurant might be willing to pay for live music that is cheap, but after a certain dollar amount they might switch to a cd player and a speaker system. That dollar amount might be zero.

          The fact is, there are plenty of artists, musicians, and actors that are entertaining enough to watch, but not entertaining enough to pay for. That is the difference between youtube and a premium cable channel.

          If a band wants to have gigs, they have to realize what they are competing against. Part of their competition is canned music. The fee they charge has to be such that the revenue with their performance minus the fee is larger than the revenue without their performance.

          • Mariposa Art says:

            Restaurants and this donut store offer less because they’ve become used to getting what they want from us. They have a feeling of entitlement that they don’t have when approaching other businesses or services, because they don’t get the freebies from them, that they do from us. This video illustrates the point perfectly: http://youtu.be/mj5IV23g-fE We are *allowing* this to happen and we are the ones who can get it to stop.

            People still want to enjoy the fruits of our labor, just that they’re cheap SOBs that won’t pay for it unless they *have* to. If no one played along with this, then things might change. I see nothing wrong with stating this as a fact, that *we* LET them get away with it, and we don’t have to.

            If it turns out that no one wants to pay for our time, well, fine. Then they can use that canned music or whatever it is, and we can spend our free time in a way that pleases us, instead of for their benefit. At least we will know where we stand and we won’t be giving our time away for nothing, to some cheap SOB who wants something for nothing.

          • lindaessig says:

            Yes, but. The “but” is that Mr. Ellison’s anger and assertion that he has sold his soul undercuts the argument — at least my version of it. Artists do not and should not have to sell their souls to make a living from their art, if their art has an audience to support it. There are many instances when it is, in my opinion, perfectly appropriate to “gift” your work, but both the giver and receiver need to understand that it is indeed a gift. There are also instances when the learning opportunity of working for free is so meaningful and important to the artist that is worth their time and opportunity cost of not working for a wage. I note too that there is a fundamental difference between gifting one’s work to a nonprofit organization in support of its social mission and gifting one’s work to a for-profit corporation in support of its owners’ bottom line. Thank you for the sharing the link. -LE

          • Sounds like you don’t fully understand YouTube or the real issue of the topic. A large part of the population wants to put professional creatives in some sort of special bracket where they have… *potentially* too much fun with their work to be paid? Can’t really say what the mental barrier people have is. However, I can say “entertaining enough to watch” is absolutely “entertaining enough to pay for”, and in most cases *not* entertaining enough to watch is usually *still* entertaining enough to pay for by virtually any other industries standard. Most every industry on Earth is loaded with, probably safe to say “primarily comprised of”, people who half ass their job and still get paid a decent wage (and I won’t exclude creative industries from that).

            At any rate, a business’ lack of a budget doesn’t mean they should get work done for free. That’s just absurd. Plus, there is no straight up revenue measure for hiring on a live musician or group over plugging in a CD player (seriously, a CD player?). Everyone has access to free music, not everyone has a live band or artist around for dinner. Then starting thinking about promoters and a residual stream factor, ignoring the fact that a restaurant would have very little information to understand whether the live music was actually a draw or not for new customers.

            Measuring revenue over a long period of time, for both having live music and not having it, is definitely not a practical way to immediately determine if one bands rate for one night is cost effective, particularly if they are part of determining a metric over the long initial period where that restaurant has no information. And again, there is no way to determine what outside factors influenced a spike in revenue such as the band with the higher rate having a larger or smaller network than a band with a lower rate to drive traffic. Or if the spike was based on a respected individuals review, consistently awesome weather, companies in the area giving out pay increases or larger bonuses allowing more people to splurge on eating out, etc.

            The point is not about a band or other creative realizing they are competing with something that can be done for free, because that’s literally everything on Earth (Thank you DIY lovers). The point is, even creatives with limited experience intending to pursue their passion professionally should only be working for free in a *very* limited capacity (as mentioned in the article), in order to be taken seriously as a creative professional. These creative individuals need to be educated on what their time is worth because that’s a significantly less daunting endeavor than trying to educated businesses and business owners on what a creative professional’s time is worth, and over time will mitigate the damage being done by businesses and business owners who try to take advantage of new or less experienced talent.

            And I mean to say it exactly that way – Businesses and business owners try to take advantage of new and less experienced creative talent. It is sometimes unwittingly, because they are ignorant of nearly every facet of that industry, but it is very often intentional, as well.

          • Mariposa Art says:

            I understand the distinction you’re trying to make about “selling your soul,” Linda. I interpreted Harlan Ellison’s comment as tongue-in-cheek, a response to the purists who *do* think it’s “selling your soul.” I certainly don’t think it’s “selling your soul” myself, but if that’s the worst thing some people can say, so be it. And of course, when you want to help a worthy cause, a charity, that’s a different matter. We all weigh whether something falls in that category or not. Certainly the donut shop is not that! 🙂

            Mr. Ellison is a cantankerous, controversial character, but he speaks a basic truth: These “moochers” would personally never find it acceptable to work for nothing if the same thing were asked of them, but think nothing of expecting freebies from creative types like writers and artists.

        • Cindy says:

          …and they will be paid for it, unless they’re giving it away, and then they aren’t professionals.
          It will be always be a buyer’s market for those artists who don’t have an established business or clientele. Artists, crafters, and independent makers need to understand the market implications of how they choose to operate in the market. We love being personable, easy and free to do our “thing”. When we choose to make a business of our passion, we have to grow up and do the business end- total buzz-kill, but there it is. Giving it away hurts us all.

      • Anon says:


        Donuts do not equal any kind if payment. I can’t pay rent with donuts. Artists are underpayed.

        People take advantage of artists because creating is payment enough. I want to be paid an amount that allows me to continue to create. Donuts don’t do that.

        As a musician you should know this. If you are as good as you say, you should understand that people took advantage of you, had they not and gave you fair payment you would still be playing.

        We need to break this cycle.

      • “Why should someone be forced to pay for a service that someone else will willingly do for free/cheaper?” This is why we have unions and minimum wage.

        Here’s the thing, we need as a society to shift this perception that the arts are less deserving of concrete pay because they are more ephemeral and diaphanous than other forms of employment. Or that because artists are doing what they love they should be willing to do the job for less money. If I mow lawns for a living because I like driving the mower around in the sun and listening to music that’s great, that doesn’t mean I should get paid less than a guy who’s driving around mowing lawns because it’s the only job he could get. Using the same example, if someone offered to “let” me mow their lawn for free because their house is in the center of town and other people will see me mowing and want to hire me (getting paid with visibility, in essence) I would be annoyed that they were trying to get free mowing under the guise of helping me. But when we do this exact same thing to artists we all assume it’s fine. We as a society are capitalizing on how much artists love what they do and how little they are willing to live on in order to do it.

      • As someone with a business degree who had to sit through several semesters of econ courses I really wish people wouldn’t throw out “basic economics” as if it has any meaning. The simple supply/demand curves are the first maybe 4 pages of your average 3-400 page econ textbook. The other 296-396 pages matter. There are a myriad of concepts that significantly and sensibly complicate the fantasy land picture of “basic economics” people throw around. Your laughably simplistic view of economics is like the classic physics of “a perfect sphere in a vacuum with no friction”. Great for teaching high school kids, but the real world just doesn’t work that way.

        The same goes for “the free market” as if it’s some magic wand you can wave around and the whole world works, all problems are solved. You want to know the secret? The market isn’t free. It’s loaded with players on the business and government side who are organized and prepared to push for the best deal they can get by whatever means they need to take to get it and a labor force that’s happy to sit on their hands and take whatever they get from above. All this article, and those like it, is suggesting is that artists quit sitting on their hands and ask a fair wage for their work. Because what you fail to realize about “basic economics” is that it isn’t a force that exists in a vacuum. It’s a negotiation that takes place between suppliers and consumers. In fact, artists demanding appropriate wages for their services is a better picture of the reality of “basic economics” than your “invisible hand” concept. The problem is artists, as suppliers, never show up to the negotiating table. It’s time they do. And that’s what this article is getting at.

  64. poorplayer says:

    One might argue, however, that the donuts have a value. One potential outcome of receiving a dozen free donuts each week for a year is to find a market so as to sell those donuts at perhaps 50% off their market value if bought from the company. Assuming the donuts were valued at $10/dozen, selling them at $5/doz for 52 weeks would net $260/yr. Raise the discount a bit from 50% to 66% and your profit increases. Might be an entrepreneurial way to turn donuts into cash. No one says you have to eat them.

    • Anonymous says:


    • Naysayer says:

      Yes, but what about the costs of procuring those donuts every week? Where is the nearest shop? Will the student have to walk or drive, and how much time and/or gas/mileage will that cost? How long will the student have to work to sell the donuts, on average? What if the student couldn’t make it that week? Or worse, what if they can and still can’t sell the donuts? And while $260 is a reasonable sum of money, is $5 should the student have to wait an entire year just to revive all of their payment? Just because the donuts could have some value, that doesn’t mean that they’re actually a reasonable form of payment for this amount if work.

    • In that case, why doesn’t the shop just pay the student $260 (assuming that is the shop’s expense to make 624 donuts and use 52 donut boxes over the course of a year) instead of wasting everyone’s time with “free” donuts (which, technically, aren’t “free” since they are in exchange for the student’s labor).

    • SandyAmandie says:

      please tell me, where is it you see donuts sold at $10 a dozen. Also tell me where you see aftermarket donuts being sold second hand..with people buying them. I assume theyre in the same place where its okay to pay people for their work in donuts because money can also be used to buy donuts so technically its as valuable as money.

      • James says:

        Donuts are nearing $10 a dozen in many places here in Cleveland OH, and we’re hardly NYC on the inflation scale.

        • Joseph says:

          Depends on the store and area. In some places donuts are as cheap as $5 a dozen, and others as much as $17 a dozen depending on source. Cost to make donuts is considerably less than what they sell them for in most places, markup is ridiculous.

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