why we should treat creative work like any other job

Rents are rising and living gets more expensive, so everyone in the creative industries should stop accepting poorer working conditions and lower pay.

12 August 2015, 3:05pm

I was at an after party several years ago chatting to a friend, who, at the time, happened to be a resident DJ at one of London's better known clubs, when a girl unexpectedly ploughed through our conversation: "Hey!" she interjected, "get on the decks and play some tunes!" Unimpressed with being treated like a bear in a Russian circus, my friend, referencing the girl's job in retail, sneered back: "only if you sell me a pair of trainers first." My friend turned to me, sounding mildly exasperated at the regularity of these sorts of requests, and said: "I'm at a party. I don't want to work." And why should he have to work at a party simply because his job involves entertaining people? Where do we draw the line? Is it okay to corner a doctor in a pub toilet, pin them up against the wall, and demand a quick check up?

There's a common misconception that many people have regarding work most people would consider 'glamorous', enjoyable, or desirable. Jobs that are on the large part 'creative' - and it's almost always jobs that are in some way associated with the arts - because neurosurgeons and lawyers rarely get the same treatment. If you're a successful DJ or novelist or photographer, you're often seen as someone who has managed to monetise their hobby rather than someone in full time employment. When visualising the daily routine of a painter or screenwriter or footballer, many people view their work as highly lucrative play rather than proper graft. They might be considered hard-working or talented, but they're above all "lucky" - a tag that suggests that they're guided by some intangible force that isn't completely of their own doing. Despite what you might have heard from social media-friendly mantra like "find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life", enjoyable work is still work. It might not make your hands callus-over and harden like crocodile skin, or entail the repetitive drudgery of stocking supermarket shelves, but that doesn't diminish the value of the labour involved.

In my case, I can't actually say I enjoy the process of writing. Don't get me wrong; I love the job as a whole, I consider it meaningful work and there's something intrinsically fulfilling in that - knowing that it isn't a waste of my humanity, unlike some other jobs I've had, but the process itself is arduous. It's agonising over every sentence, being unable to read anything without picking it apart in an attempt to develop my prose, stressing over how it'll be received by editors and readers because it's not just something I do for money, but something I'm personally invested in. Then there's the melancholy that sets in after publishing, knowing that within a day, or even just a few hours, my work will be effectively lost in the transient abyss of the Internet.

Ultimately, what might've once started as a hobby takes on a whole new shape when it becomes a professional routine. After all, I'm not scribing away in my diary, I'm writing for the publication that commissioned me, so I'm expected to meet their expectations and standards. While the average clubber might look at a DJ's job description and see a relentless maelstrom of parties, drugs and groupies, they rarely take into account the mundane reality highlighted by Seth Troxler in Resident Advisor's mini-documentary,Behind the Beats, of countless hours spent waiting at airport gates whilst transiting between gigs. Former Tottenham footballer, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, outraged the SkySports-subscribing masses several years ago when he diverged from the schoolyard narrative and admitted that players are driven by their pay cheques rather than a love for the game, and anyone who says otherwise is full of shit.

For those of you creeping towards the comment box this really isn't a call for sympathy, but rather an attempt to deconstruct the mystification of creative work, because, ultimately, that mystification allows employers in the arts, fashion, media and similar fields to profit at the expense of their workforce.

If we accept that work isn't really work if you love what you do, that diminishes the value of the labour involved and creates justification for lower pay. It's a romantic notion to think that someone can thrive on joy alone, but the satisfaction of not just your work, but your life as whole, is inevitably corroded if you're barely able to cover your rent and groceries. Too often we accept guestlist entry to brand-sponsored parties with open bars as a substitute for respectable wages while wacky, Google-style offices equipped with slides and ping-pong tables further blur the divide between labour and leisure, covertly making unpaid overtime less noticeable and easier to swallow.

Inevitably, those of us employed in the creative industries often try to offset these compounded losses by becoming increasingly dependent on social capital. We further romanticise our work and perpetuate the dream job myth, desperately trying to maximise the prestige that comes with it, hoping it'll take us far away from the uncomfortable reality. But by placing our jobs on ever-higher pedestals, they become that much more appealing, increasing competition in a crowded market. As a result, people start undercutting one another and themselves, accepting poorer working conditions, lower pay, and in the case of unpaid internships, none at all.

So what's the solution? Suggesting we unionise like striking tube workers is naive, as collectivism is hardly a hallmark of a cutthroat industry. But in the absence of any tactical resolutions, I think that those of us who sustain ourselves through creativity need to recalibrate our attitude towards our own work. On an individual level, we need to reject the notion that work that isn't really work if you love what you do and that labour is only valid if it's technical, dull, or demeaning. We should refuse to be shamed into thinking that we've somehow lucked out, that we've cheated the system and should therefore be thankful for whatever meagre remuneration we can muster. Because until Tesco start accepting guest lists entry and free drinks in lieu of payment, we shouldn't either.