When to say no to unpaid gigs

Working for 'exposure' is sometimes a raw deal


Like so many other starry-eyed hopefuls, I started a band in my freshman year.

Starved for music venues and promoters that would give us the time of day, we naively agreed to play a show for a production company. These were the terms we accepted: the band was responsible for selling tickets to the “showcase” concert at $10 a piece. Twenty or so artists were crammed onto the same bill and asked to compete against each other for the most ticket sales. The incentive? Set times (both length and placement) would be determined by which band sold the most tickets. It was unpaid. In exchange for our trouble, we were promised only exposure .

We sold 20 tickets, a modest but respectable amount for an upstart act who’d only played two or three shows, especially considering the relatively high asking price. It was a number that we hoped and assumed would at least guarantee us a reasonable set length. After all, we had coerced our unwitting friends and family to come all the way out to Vancouver to support our new venture.

The day of the show arrived and we were handed a sheet of paper with our set time: 15 minutes including set-up and take-down. And as for that big exposure they had promised? There were perhaps five people in the crowd that we hadn’t personally invited. The promoter had not promoted, but simply booked the show and asked us to do the rest.

The production company pocketed an easy $200 and we packed up and left, just another young band fleeced by a skeezy promoter who preyed on our lack of experience to turn an easy profit. We were disheartened and disillusioned. It made it easier to spot these sorts of gigs worth turning down in the future, but it was far from the last time we encountered this kind of situation.

The balance between the value of exposure and compensation, experience and pay is contested in every creative field. For those of us who want to make it in journalism, we’re asked to commit time and energy to unpaid internships and supposedly career-advancing “opportunities” that are to our benefit. And frankly, unpaid labour is hugely beneficial to the companies providing said opportunities.

This is nothing new. To some extent, internships and volunteer experience have always been a part of these freelance-driven industries. But there comes a point at which an exchange of money for services needs to enter the equation.

It’s a conversation many newcomers are afraid to have when discussing terms of freelance contracts. Not so much when it comes to veteran journalists like Nate Thayer.

In a recent blog post, Thayer included the verbatim email correspondence between him and an editor for The Atlantic, a U.S. magazine with a readership of over 13 million. The editor asked Thayer to retool a blog post of his for inclusion on their website with zero compensation.

The request is absurd and insulting to an established writer with 25 years of experience. These problems are not unique to The Atlantic, but indicative of bigger problems in the field.

Because so many people are willing to work for free, it makes it more and more difficult for anyone to make a living by writing. The same goes for music producers, graphic designers, photographers and other vocations that require years of experience and sometimes specialized training to do well.

There are many of us arts majors for whom graduation is little more than a giant, looming question mark. We face the uncertain prospects of a shaky job market in which the work of those with soft skills is consistently devalued. Entering these fields, we will certainly have to do some pro bono work to find our feet. But there’s a point at which you have to pony up and ask for money for the thing you hope to become your livelihood or else risk not only your own career, but those of everyone else in your field.

Dangerous and romantic notions of the underpaid, poverty-stricken writer still carry weight with the credibility police. While it’s true that you shouldn’t entertain false notions of wealth when you’re doing something you love, paying the bills is something that needs to be addressed. The creator determines the value of their work by assigning it a price. And eventually, the free work needs to stop.

This appeared in The Cascade, a student newspaper at the University of the Fraser Valley.

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