It's really that simple, people. Four words that could start a revolution, if everyone suddenly started abiding by them. Some people reading this might be saying to themselves, "What the hell is she talking about? Work for free? That's preposterous!" You, my lovably naive friends, are clearly not working in the arts. Because if you were, you'd know that working for free is a generally-accepted norm, a given, a supremely discouraging reality. Until we decide to change it.
There may be critics out there who would say, "Why shouldn't artists and sundry other creative types work for free? That's the price they pay for not working in a real job." To them, I would say, among other, more inflammatory things, that you can go ahead and keep adhering to that view. But you must live without music, books, movies, theatre, dance, painting, sculpture...you get the picture. Maybe all some people need is an XBox and a 2-4 of Bud Light to have an entertaining weekend. But I'd like to hope that most humans crave more out of life than that. So premise number one of my argument: we need art. Can we all agree on that? Good. Let's move on.
Other critics of my position - perhaps even some people working in the arts - might argue that asking those pursuing careers in the arts to work for free early on in their career development is perfectly reasonable. If one doesn't possess the precise qualifications for a particular position, one should be willing to work for free until such time that one possesses said qualifications. Hence the popularity of the internship, where the opportunity to work in a given job is supposed to be payment enough for one's labour. Not only that, but interns are routinely expected not to get paid working anywhere else for the duration of their internship (or to work "without distraction" as it's commonly, euphemistically phrased). While these kinds of assumptions do crop up in other sectors of the economy, nowhere are they more prevalent than in the arts. Arts and culture job listings are dominated by internships and volunteer work. It's well-nigh impossible to gain work experience and be paid for it. In what other industries is this acceptable? Banks pay their employees to learn how to count money. Auto makers pay their employees to learn how to make cars. McDonald's pays their employees to learn how to flip burgers. But if you're answering phones for a film production company, or writing copy for a new on-line magazine, it's likely you're doing it for free.
Hold on, my critics will say -- there's one huge difference between banks, auto manufacturers and McDonald's, on the one hand, and film production companies and on-line magazines on the other. The former are reliably profitable (more or less -- I recongize the auto maker example is a weak link), the latter are reliably unprofitable. The worker has a choice: pursue the career of your dreams without getting paid, or abandon it to pursue a job where you will get paid. Fortunatley for them, those who dream of becoming construction workers, computer programmers, engineers, teachers, lawyers, or even fast-food workers rarely have to make that choice. Life's not fair. Deal with it.
Such is the prevailing view that has allowed working for free to remain a norm in the arts sector, particularly in the entry-level echelons. As if this harsh outlook isn't discouraging enough, we are still as a society very much under the sway of harmful Romantic notions of who artists are and how they tick: eg., they are perpetually starving (by choice), garret-dwelling (now, more commonly, basement apartment-dwelling), drug-addicted, solitary, moody, pasty, all-around unpleasant creatures who thrive on their own discontent while producing work that will inevitably only gain public admiration post-humously. While there are a few artists today that match this stereotype, the vast majority do not. They have families, mortgages, student loans, pets. They pay taxes, vote and are, by most counts, fine upstanding members of their communities. They don't want to die at 27. They also don't necessarily care about becoming famous (although it would be nice). They just want to make a living doing what they love and are good at.
I'm not arguing that those working in the arts should get paid the same amount or more than workers in other sectors of the economy. I'm just arguing that they should get paid. Period. Part of the responsibility for change lies with employers. My message to you: don't hire people to work for free. Be responsible to your employees. Recognize that they'd like to eat three meals a day and hopefully not live with their parents until they're forty-five. If they do work for you, pay them. It doesn't have to be much. Minimum wage will do for a start. And if you can't afford that, don't hire anyone.
My message to workers: don't work for free. I know it takes a tremendous amount of fortitude to pass up an offer of unpaid work that comes along with a golden promise of future paid work, or portfolio-building, or networking or whatever other kind of carrot is being held out to you, in the hopes that you will agree to labour for free. The trickiest part of all of this -- and the reason why my hopes are slim that my "don't work for free" campaign will ever succeed -- is that we all have to stick together. Solidarity, my friends. Employers can only ask us to work for free as long as there are those out there who are willing to do so. But what if we all just said no? If employers really need our time, labour and skills, they can pay us for them. And maybe they will, if that's their only option.