Working for Free

Brilliant indictment/discussion of Amanda Palmer, the musician and Kickstarter darling turned internet supervillan, in the New Yorker. She’s double dipping, it seems, and trying to get paid over $1 million from her fans while simultaneously claiming to be too broke to pay the other artists she works with, and soliciting the “help” (ahem, free labor) of other artists to open for her on tour, and the like. Two seemingly opposed concepts:

It’s just that these two tastes don’t taste good together. One is the vertically oriented star-fan model, and one is the horizontal cohort-of-struggling-artists model, and as Amanda Palmer has learned, it is not looked upon with favor to try both at once.

She definitely deserves to get paid $1 million for her music. Many musicians do. I don’t care that she raised that much money online, I applaud it. I do have a problem with the idea that she didn’t then share that money with the other artists she was working with on tour by, you know, paying them. That smacks of nonsense to me. Apparently, she did pay certain people on her tour, but she also solicited local musicians to open for her band without being paid (you know, for the exposure).

But the article touches on a larger theme in the nonprofit world, which is why I wanted to post this for you all:

In general, there is the boom in such practices that seems tied to the digital era; you can’t spell Internet without intern. As the argument goes, you are paid in access to a desirable milieu, or the chance to do good. Work for nada at an N.G.O.: you are being paid in justice itself. Oh, you might also get the vague promise that such valuable experience will pay off later. This promise is packaged with the threat that if you don’t take the gig, you will be closed out of the disastrous job market altogether. You had better be happy about it.

Yep. We are “willing” to work for free. Why? Out of the goodness of our hearts? Because we are “true fans”? Because we are bored? Because we are ambitious? Because we are afraid that otherwise we won’t be able to network effectively and make connections in our chosen field? All of these?

But how can we fault Palmer, who is basically operating on the traditional Capitalistic model of paying people the smallest amount they are willing to take for their labor. Management has no vested interest in paying wages for labor unless forced to do so because of concerns over quality or loss of productivity. (Right? Damn it’s been a while since I read The Wealth of Nations in the laundry room of my freshman dorm.) In this instance, the investor and the labor are one and the same–her fans both contributed to the Kickstarter and donated their labor to her cause. So actually, Palmer is management. She has succeeded in uniting consumers and investors against her, as she has managed to exploit everyone who has a relationship with her and her music.

But again, I am hard pressed to just say, “Hey, Amanda Palmer, you’re doing it wrong.” I have a lot of ideas and feelings about the use of free labor in the arts (in the form of interns, unpaid creative workers, and the like). She isn’t doing anything that hundreds of arts organizations and institutions don’t do every day.

(And PS, hand knitted rewards require labor too. Just because money doesn’t change hands in both directions doesn’t mean rewards don’t have value.)


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