In Defense of Working for Free

Amanda Palmer stirs shit up. She’s good at it, whether she tries or not. I do understand some of the issues people have with her and their arguments, but I have yet to be convinced she’s a terrible person to be despised. Maybe it has a lot to do with Theatre Is Evil, her fanbase, and even indirectly she herself helping me through rough times. Maybe it has more to do with the fact that sometimes when she blogs or tweets, it’s like she’s in my head.

She launched a Kickstarter to help fund Theatre Is Evil. If I had endless money or no fear of debt, I would’ve pledged shit tons of money for some of the more epic perks like the “Bed Song” book or a house party, but instead I had to settle for $25 for a CD. Now, this leads into a whole discussion of paying for music and how I will shell out $25 for Amanda Palmer but will not pay a damn penny for, say, Lady Gaga’s music, but that’s for another day. Maybe tomorrow. It’s also worth noting that the CD was packaged beautifully, in a book full of artwork and fun things.

Just under 25,000 other people gave money, too, totaling over $1 million. Ironically, the Kickstarter had about the same number of copies as Amanda’s band, The Dresden Dolls, sold albums, which the label considered a failure. When we talk about paying for music, we’ll get into this, but while 25,000 people buying an album was considered a failure, 25,000 people–some of them the same–raised Amanda $1 million. Joke’s on you, label.

When Amanda prepared to tour, she wanted to crowdsource musicians. They’d get to play onstage with her for the night–not the full tour–hang out and get hugs and beer. If I were a musician and the tour came to Pittsburgh, I would’ve pounced. Not everyone agreed, though, and some insisted she pay them–especially since she’d raised $1 million, even though the $1 million was accounted for and Amanda herself had previously explained where all the money went. People got really pissed off (I wrote that article, by the way, and other fans praised me). In the end, Amanda decided to rearrange the allocation of funds and pay volunteer musicians–even though they were totally cool with playing for free.

Amanda addressed all this in her recent TED talk, which is awesome and a must-see/hear for music fans, those in the industry, those interested in it, artists, art fans, and people who like money, whether you like or agree with her or not.

I understand both sides of the argument. We all want paid for what we do, and the arts is one of those rare industries in which it’s okay to either not pay or to compensate with something other than money–but that’s often because money isn’t there for compensation. People don’t try to dissuade others from going into the arts because of a reluctance of superiors to pay–they try to dissuade them because in order to get paid or end up somewhere capable of paying, it’s really damn hard. And if someone is in a position to pay and chooses not to, it’s frustrating, even if you go in aware of that.

Nonpaying jobs are everywhere in the arts, from community theater to writing. Even big groups that can afford to pay don’t. Huffington Post, for example, doesn’t, and I believe music site Pitchfork doesn’t, either. Some publications will commission guest bloggers but refuse to pay them because it’s not journalism (if you want to argue bloggers should be paid less than journalists, fine, but don’t say their work is worthless).

I firmly believe people should be compensated for their work–yet I work for free.

My first writing job was paid–$40 an article, which is good money when you’re in college, are having fun at your job, and the paper’s in small-town Pennsylvania. Other gigs have paid per page view or when my articles in general had the most page views.

The summer I graduated college, I was unemployed, like many of my peers. I usually didn’t get too discouraged and was extremely lucky–I had no pressing reasons requiring immediate employment, other than my own desire and independence, because I could stay with my parents as long as necessary, had no expenses, and had no impending student loans, since my parents paid for my entire college education. I spent my time looking for and applying to jobs. When I ran out of listings for the day, I’d write or tweak my resume (between dicking around on the internet, reading, playing video games…).

I found an ad for a music site, Inyourspeakers, in May or June. They needed writers to review music but couldn’t pay. Since I was unemployed and home all day anyway, I didn’t care. In fact, I saw a great advantage to it.

Most companies looking to hire writers wanted writers with more experience than I had because, you know, keeping a diary since I was six and blogging off and on since I was 13 probably doesn’t count. I had summers of freelancing and a fair number of clips in a portfolio, but that’s hardly enough to convince an employer that you’re a reliable and skilled employee/writer. Writing for free obviously wouldn’t give me an income, but it would give me clips and experience to potentially use toward future jobs. It beefs up my resume.

From the time I got hired with IYS to the time I did land a full-time, paying job, I was a machine. I’d crank out numerous articles a day, and I did get money from IYS when my articles combined earned me more page views than my peers one month. It was the only time that happened, as a day job has torn me away–sort of.

When I interviewed for that day job, someone–either my current boss or HR–asked me if I planned to keep up writing for all these sites if I got the job, and indeed I did and have. My time is split, and sometimes, things take me longer than they used to, but I’m still going. In fact, not even a year after IYS took me on, I advanced up to being the managing features editor.

Not everyone is okay with the prospect of working for free. We’ve gotten angry e-mails, some less angry e-mails from people who just can’t commit to putting time into something which won’t pay, and angry Craigslist rebuttals trashing the site. The money just isn’t there to pay site expenses plus staff, which includes editors, writers, and photographers. I think most of us are holding out hope that we’ll one day be able to earn some money. If I even made enough money from my day job that I could spare a reasonable amount to pay everyone, I’d do it out of my own non-IYS paycheck.

Some say us working for free devalues the work. I disagree. Bad quality devalues the work. Broke but dedicated, passionate people working hard to try to create something then turn it into something great doesn’t.

Working for free is a choice. I could have easily turned down the job with IYS because I had nothing to lose, but I saw more advantages than disadvantages. I’m there because I want to be, just like the rest of staff. Just like Amanda Palmer’s crowd-sourced musicians. We all knew what we were getting into, which was okay with us. It’s the same with all those other unpaid jobs.

If people disagree with a business or person not paying workers, that’s their right and it’s a valid argument. However, don’t put down, insult, and disrespect surprisingly large numbers of people for a personal decision. Do some businesses and people exploit the willingness of others to work for free in order to get out of paying them when they could? Of course. It’s not right, but it’s the nature of the situation and a society centered on money and greed. But do a few shitty powers-that-be dictate how the rest of the market is going to respond? No. Especially not with the internet.

I’m getting something from IYS that I literally can’t get anywhere else–experience and connections. Most companies want three to five years of prior experience, which makes entry-level jobs for college graduates–in most industries and without a Master’s or PhD–very hard to come by. It’s like a real-life, adult version of the service hours I was required to do in high school.

I think dads sum it up best.

My boyfriend’s dad apparently once told him although I’m in a profession most consider to be unprofitable and a waste of time and money in college, I can make it profitable–I just have to work my ass off and be patient.

And then there’s my dad.

“I think you’re a genius,” he tells me sometimes. “Look at the experience you’re getting.”

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