Pay the Artist

Post Date: March 12th, 2010

“By what right would you call me and ask me to work for nothing? Do you get a paycheck?…Does your boss get a paycheck?…Would you go to the gas station and ask them to give you free gas? Would you go to the doctor and ask them to take out your spleen for nothing?”

— Harlan Ellison, “Pay the Writer”

Today’s Word Count, New Novel: 238 pages

Last week I wrote about the Rusty Old American Dream, how it’s often perverted in the rush toward fame. We get a whole lot of nothing that’s published, “Radio Nowhere,” as Bruce says, as we speed toward cold, hard cash.

In case someone thinks I’m forgetting the poor artist starving in the garret, I’m not. If someone thinks I’m acting as if it’s a sin to pursue money–I’m not. I’m not looking down my nose at lucre any more than anyone else in this recession. We all could use a good savings account.

Those who don’t have to save because they already have financing: please tell me you give often to charity and support all your local artists — and that you don’t undercut the professionals by working for free.

On NPR’s Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal, Billboard news editor David Prince recently spoke of a trend in indie music where the rich rule the airwaves because they don’t have to get a day job:

RYSSDAL: What about indie music? I mean some of the folks out there just doing their own thing.

PRINCE: You know, I think of indie music in a lot of ways as the most elitist and the most ignoring the recession and the economic realities. Because if you have the opportunity to really pursue a music career in this day and age and do nothing else, then you probably have some expendable income.

RYSSDAL: Expendable income. So it’s kids who have some money, basically.

PRINCE: Indie yuppies is a phrase I think of a lot when I’m reading Pitchfork.

In other words, people need to pay people for art. The indie yuppies — the artsy yuppies — are not helping things by dodging the cash.

Harlan Ellison says it best, albeit with some rich language, excerpted from this clip, “Pay the Writer.” He says,

“They always want the writer to work for nothing. And the problem is there are are so… many writers who have no idea they’re supposed to be paid…every time they do something, they do it for nothing… I get so mad at this because you’re undercut by all the amateurs. It’s the amateurs who make it tough for the professionals, because when you act professional, these people are so used to getting it for nothing…”

If you peel away the vitriolic diction and cynical tone, you get to a truth. In this world, we value things with money. If you choose to work time and again for free, you tell the rest of us, What I do isn’t worth investment–and neither is what you do.

Accept it. Money exists and must be made. Don’t argue you’re working for a higher cause of Art, capital A, unless you’re also willing to live on the street.

I also don’t mean an artist shouldn’t work hungry, as in, I shouldn’t work my tail off in order to get that story published. When those royalties roll in, or when that one check comes through, I may end up averaging five cents an hour, but who cares. Someone understood what I did was worth something, and the person or the magazine paid me decently for it. I don’t expect excessive payment; I expect fair payment, and it’s up to me to make the work worthy.

I never resent all the hours spent on a work of art. I keep my day job and spend many, many spare hours writing when I could be watching TV or spending time with family and friends. I never expect to be paid for just showing up to the page. I expect to be paid fairly. I’ll soon have an article published that was the request from an editor of a magazine. She asked me if a piece of fiction that finalized in a contest had a real story behind it. It did, and I decided to work hard to get the article right. I didn’t know how much I would earn, but I was glad to discover the magazine paid well for its articles. Winning the Orlando Short Fiction Prize was likewise a great pleasure because the A Room of One’s Own Foundation rewards the winners well. In fact, they offer also the chance at the Gift of Freedom Award: $50,000 to allow a woman a year to create. AROHO is a patron of the arts in the best sense.

You can believe that when I shop a story out to many magazines, I turn away from those that say, We can’t pay people at this time. But we know that for the love of art you’ll be honored to have a place with us in print or online…and how about some contributors’ copies?

Hmmm. What was it Ellison said again? Something about free gas and free health care?

I used to submit to them when I was beginning to get serious about craft, but no more. Not when time and sweat prove I can write well. It just takes me a good while, lots of good feedback, and lots of honesty about what’s not working.

Face it: art may be spiritual, ethereal, undefinable and always beyond the bounds of Wall Street, but it is only financed by time and money. It is only created by investment of something. Are we as a society saying that we don’t value our artists spending time?

I know some college students playing music who regularly undercut professional musicians in Chapel Hill. As the wife of a musician, I feel this keenly. These students offer five or six band members playing for less than $100 just so they can jam. In their minds, living on their parents’ money and college time, they’re just getting experience. I don’t believe they realize they are taking a gig from a band that’s struggled twenty years to be excellent. From individuals who not only need to finance their time to make music but also work other jobs and need to feed kids and pay bills on artists’ wages. I understand college students can feel strange about charging; after all, they’re newbies, so maybe they feel dishonest asking for money. But do they realize that there are plenty of consumers out there looking for a Wal-Mart bargain on art? It’s not just buyer beware, but seller beware. Don’t treat your art like something on the bargain aisle.

And while I suppose with a liberal addition of beer and rowdy crowds, anything sounds good, but please, young musicians, young writers, young painters, young dancers — don’t try to compete in the big leagues and edge out the professionals. Don’t just jam, submit, create, or perform in the paying arena until you are the professional. And unlike American Idol dreams of becoming the king or queen of karaoke, becoming a professional who creates his own stories or her own melodies takes years. There are prodigies, but most of us are working stiffs. Sorry, but it’s the truth.

I’m known at my day job for working for free. (I don’t mean because I’ve taught scbool and worked in nonprofits; they have paid and do continue to pay me.) I gladly edit the college application essays of my colleagues going back to school and the essays of the children of my colleagues. In the regular market, there is a fair hourly charge for the intensive work that I do. But for my colleagues, whom I spend 40 hours of my life with each week, there is no charge, because they are my other family, and I would never dream of charging them any more than I’d charge my sister. This is my big exception. I’ll help my family. The rest of you, who seek my skills in order to jump-start your writing career or your child’s college career, you expect to be paid for your second job or even just your first job. So I expect you to pay for both my skill and the things you read, fiction or nonfiction. The day you stop paying for movies and music and clothes, let me know, and then I guess by then we’ll all be bartering for everything.

America’s not a big fan of waiting or age, so that may be why we resent having to pay the seasoned artist who’s earned the right to get paid. Just remember: next time you want that song or article or story for free, ask yourself if you work for free every day. If you do, more power to you and your bank account. See if you might become a patron of the arts and let someone of a different income bracket get some time to create.


  1. bobmust says:

    It’s an axiom that writers have to learn, write, edit, workshop, submit for some 10-15 years in order to have chops that qualify for the big leagues. That’s a lot of time, elapsed life, money, and back pain – probably comparable to the time, effort, and money necessary to obtain a doctoral degree.
    You’re right, I think – we’re not pros until we pay our dues, and not then until we begin to act like pros in the realm of money.
    Forget all that about a freebie on Amazon 😉

  2. Hi, Bob,

    I’m reading The Art of War for Writers and it reminds us to behave like professionals in all realms–communications, financial, work habits. I’m also a big believer in energy: telling myself that my work is worthy, and practicing confidence even when I’m feeling my work is weak, tends to attract success. Good energy. As someone who’s worked in decidedly not lucrative professions, it’s sometimes hard to think money should flow my way, but that’s not healthy. Anyone who works hard, is devoted to quality, and plays well with others, ought to live a lively living wage.