why money is the dirty word all creative people shouldn't be afraid to use
Following a week that has seen cries of #payartists and #feenotfree trend across socials, it’s not only time to put a value on creative work but to demand it’s paid too.
The Australian writer Helen Razer has a few choice words for anyone thinking of asking her to work for free, and the main one is money. "I write words for money," she states, reasonably, on her 'About Me' page. "Money. Money. Not for fun. For money." It escalates from there, surfing a wave of swearing and caps lock, until you want to stand and cheer. Razer's righteous fury sings out from the page, delivered with a skill that is demonstrably worth - yes - money. Money.
It's absurd that she has to write that, and that I have to write this; but in a week where a major British supermarket can blithely put out a call for "volunteer" artists to tart up their canteen, it seems the point still needs repeating. Creative work has value, and we have a problem with valuing it.
Everyone pouring derision on the Sainsbury's ad and inviting them to come and fill their cupboards for free was right: it was an ill-judged, clanger of a call. But anyone who makes art (I'm using that as a catch-all term for creative work) has experienced the sickening disorientation of being unable to put a price on what they make, on their time, energy and skills: the sinking feeling of being offered a "great opportunity" for no money, and being unable to say no.
Why do we struggle to put value on creative work? It's a complex battle. For a start, the value of art is slippery by nature. It's worth millions and nothing, going by what sells at auction and what someone starting out is willing to accept. When you're getting strong signals from potential clients or employers, from your peers or from the culture that you should expect nothing for what you produce, how are you ever supposed to ask for anything? It takes an enormous amount of mental energy even to grapple with the issue, before you can pluck up the courage to shuffle over to the big table and stutter: "Please sir, I want some… money?"
Most people who ask creative sorts to work for free probably don't even think of it as an issue. To them, it's just a thing in the world that happens. People seem happy enough to do it. What's the problem? This acceptance is something we internalise and disseminate amongst ourselves, making it harder for us to ask for money, in turn making it more acceptable not to pay - and on it goes.
The culture of not paying creative people has its own daft language to prop it up, and if you're reading this you may have heard some of its stock phrases and said some rude things. I especially enjoy "We're a start-up/indie/labour of love, so we don't have any money for this". As far as I'm aware, not having budgeted for writing or artwork is not a prerequisite of a new or small operation. These are two separate facts that have no relation to each other. You might as well say "the Gerenuk is an antelope of the Great Lakes region of Africa, so we don't have any money for this".
A clutch of words you'll inevitably hear when being asked to work for free are "exposure", "experience" and "portfolio". All things we need in some form, but also things that don't just pay for themselves (or anything else). We all have to start somewhere, and we've all worked for a morsel of credit or a chance at a better chance. But then we need to move up, to the place where they pay you. All too often now we just go round and round from one "fantastic (unpaid) opportunity" to the next, hearing the same things, paying our dues over and over, getting paid the same nothing, eating the same stale toast and wondering if this is all there is.
The struggle to value our art is also hindered by the supposed truths that filter down to us. 'Work' is a thing that is hard and thankless and unpleasant, right? If you enjoy it, or even - woah - find it easy in that delicious 'flow state' way, which germinates all the best creative work and generates some of the most powerful positivity in the world... then it can't really be work, and therefore it's not worth money. And 'art' is that silly thing that you get to do at school once you've drunk your milk and done your maths - surely you're lucky to get to do it at all, and the pleasure is payment enough?
This is the heart of the problem. The notion of doing something for the love of it is an unimpeachable principle: giving of yourself for the joy of it and for the joy it brings to others, maybe even creating something that will be here after you've gone. It's one of the best things a person can do. This doesn't mean that anyone else has the right to pressure you to do it for no money, to shame or coerce you into doing it for no money, or harbour any sort of assumption that you should be willing to do it for no money. Doing it for the love of it is as far away from being expected to do it for the love of it as the gerenuk's natural habitat is from the chinstrap penguin's.
Believing you've got any sort of moral obligation to work for free means that as an artist you're being exploited even before no money changes hands. Your beautiful ideal is being used against you in the most cynical way. Money isn't something disgusting that those with true integrity would not concern themselves with - it's just stuff you need.
Think of money as a symbol of what your work is worth to someone. Imagine a lovely crisp £50 putting its arm around your latest photograph and saying: "FYI, I think you're awesome." It's the fact that someone is willing to give you money in exchange for whatever special thing it is that only you can produce for them that is truly important. It's not gross. It's great. It's normal. It's motivating.
Not getting paid for your work is a trap it's easy to fall into as a creative person, and it's not your fault. Getting paid has almost become a skill in and of itself - getting paid takes hard work and a whole other layer of thick skin.
The fear of ending up on some kind of mythic blacklist of Greedy Swine Who Want Paying is real, even if the list isn't. The fact that there's always someone else willing to do it for nothing can make you wonder who on earth you are to demand more than that. Not getting paid for your work grinds your self-esteem down to powder, and before long you really do feel worth nothing.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Creative people aren't helpless: there's always something we can do. Be bold. Value what you do even if it seems no one else will. Hold out for paid commissions. Ask how much. Don't fear doing nothing today instead of doing something for free for someone else. Take a deep breath and say no to no money. It's always going to be hard, but you can start right now by getting comfortable with saying the word 'money'. Money. Money. It's just a word. Money.
Text Sarah Bee