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When should an artist work for free?

September 14, 2016


When should an artist work for free? 


"Never." This is what I hear a lot, especially from other artists. But is this always feasible? Is there paid work out there? Whether or not it is right or wrong, we live in a society that does not value art  and artists at the same level that it does other professions and professionals. Today I aim to discuss the idea of pay and art, when to perform for free and when to demand cold hard cash. 

Are you an artist? I bet you are aren't you. You're probably a non-conformist hippy who thinks that money is the height of all evil. Me too. However, we also live in the real world and unfortunately if I don't acquire enough portraits of Elizabeth II by the end of the month, my dog doesn't eat.* Artists, contrary to popular belief, need money to live.


Most of my understanding of pay in art comes from first hand experience in the spoken word scene, predominantly in London and Southend. I've dipped in and out of music and visual art over the years and been a hanger-on in various little art scenes. I've got reams of second hand accounts from painters, musicians, singers and other various artists who I have met over the years. My experiences, and partly their experiences,in these settings, will most likely inform my observations. 


Spoken word tends to work in an open mic/ feature artist model. Basically, when you first arrive on the scene you are not going to get paid. You are going to be poor. You are going to be an open micer.** You will be paying train tickets, bus fares and often admission fees for the privilege of sharing your work with a room full of poets and oddballs that inexplicably enjoy poetry. And do you know what? It's fantastic. Open mic is the heart of the spoken word scene, it's like an arena where gladiators try to win the crowd in their allotted three (or five if you are lucky) minute spots. This is where we hone our craft, develop as artists, learn how to read a crowd and most importantly, where we see poetry. The guys at Bang Said The Gun, call it the "Raw meat stew". It's a most apt description I've ever heard of it. It's a melting pot of half formed ideas, experimentation, nuggets of gold, the good, the bad, and lots of ugly. I love it. Do not think of open mic as work. This is training as well as a bloody good laugh. (Also every open mic night in history has had at least one crank who says or does something wildly inappropriate on stage...it's worth it just for this.)


Most open mic nights have a feature artist. This is usually a veteran open micer or well known poet who has a decent and respected body of work. The featured artist can put on a show. They are the headline act after all. Featuring is where a poet can expect to start being paid. Typically you can expect anything from about twenty pounds to cover travel, right up to sixty five. If it is a funded body and a big show, there is no real upward limit for a twenty minute feature set. If you have merchandise, such as chapbooks, CDs or novelty mugs you can always flog this stuff at an open mic as well. 


But as David Turner, of Lunar Poetry, once reminded me, "If you are getting paid for this, you'd better not be shit." He was joking...I think. But the message is true. People are paying to see a poet, so they'd better see high quality, entertaining material from somebody who can work an audience and put on a show.


When do you make the transition from somebody who open mics and somebody who gets asked to do features? A question that plagues many singer/song writers and poets alike. There's no definitive answer to this to be honest. It took me about a year of hard graft on the open mic scene, performing at least once a week to start picking them up. I've got friends who are disgustingly talented and achieved this much quicker. Some people never really make the transition. Maybe their art is very niche, or maybe it's just not made for the scene they are pushing it in. 


Alongside features we have the festival scene. Musicians have been enjoying this for decades and the poets and painters are starting to creep in and make our mark too. Pay varies wildly for these sorts of shows depending on wether it is a free or ticketed festival, the size of stage you are on and the organisation who has booked you. I have been paid over 150 quid for a single festival performance but I was also once paid with a polystyrene tray of Jamaican rice and peas and a side of warm lager. 


Occasionally you may find yourself doing unpaid features for charity events, political rallies, community organisations etc. My rule is: do not work for free if somebody is going to make money out of you. Yes, do the freebie for the cause you care about, or because it betters your community. No, do not work for free when the promoter is charging five pounds entry per head at the door. Don't let yourself be exploited.


How about workshops and commission work? For example, an organisation wants you to write a poem or a school wants you to run an assembly and lead some lessons. Should you demand pay? Absolutely. Going to gigs and festivals is fun. It's hard work sometimes, but hell, you are getting paid to go to a poetry night or festival, it's predominantly fun. The pay is infrequent and erratic (it barely covers travel if you live outside of the city). You will struggle to put food on the table by doing poetry shows alone, even if you miraculously managed to get booked a few times every week. The workshops and commissions on the other hand, this is work. 


You've probably all seen the meme where somebody hires an accountant, they ask him to manage their accounts, work long hours and put their years of experience and qualifications to good work. When the accountant asks for pay, the employer says "We haven't actually got an accounts budget, but it's great exposure and you can put this on your CV."


Bonkers right? But this is the way that many organisations, promoters and schools actually approach professional artists. If you are a professional artist, you are a professional. You need to demand a professional level of pay that matches your level of skill.


Jacob Sam-La-Rose, an experienced poet and workshop facilitator, reminded me when I first started this project, that accepting low pay or no pay at all is an attack on all professional artists. It lowers the rate for the job, it undercuts your colleagues and it perpetuates the myth that artists should work for free. 


Sometimes a professional level of pay may seem a bit steep. But remember when you hire a decent professional artist you are not paying for one day's work. You are paying for the years of open micing ,the studying, the hard graft, the days of memorising poetry, the planning time beforehand, the time spent promoting websites and building up hype and the experience in leading workshops. You are paying for a professional.


The flip side of course is that if you are a painter, poet, musician or actor hoping to get work at a professional rate of pay in setting like this, you need to be a professional. I'll quote David again "You'd better not be shit." You need to turn up on time, ask if there is a dress code, answer your emails,speak appropriately to minors and other adults and sort out your own DBS checks. Turning up, pissed as a fart, with a joint hanging out of your mouth in a Sex Pistols shirt may be very Bukowski at your local open mic night, but down at the community centre who have hired you to run workshops for vulnerable adults, you are going to look like an asinine fool. You won't get re-booked and you probably won't get in! Word of mouth is more powerful than any Facebook advert or well produced website. If you make a good impression with the organisations who offer paid work, you can make a living from this. 


It's not going to happen overnight, and it's not without its risks. It has taken me four years of hard graft to get to the point where I can legitimately and honestly say "I am a professional poet".*** Even though I am a professional, I still  have to support my poetry income work with additional employment or face the wrath of the bailiffs. Making money from art in the society that we live in, whilst maintaining a comfortable standard of living, is never going to be an easy ride. Let's not make it any harder by setting ourselves up to be exploited or giving away our hard earned skills and talents for free.


- Jacques 



*If I don't acquire enough portraits of Lizzy by the end of the year, I have to eat my dog. It's not preferable.


**In fact, if you want to stay active and known on the scene, you are going to be open micing for the rest of your life in one way shape or form.)


***I've said this long before now, but it was a lie I told to make girls think I was interesting...it didn't work. Why aren't poets as sexy as guitarists? Perhaps we'll never know.

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