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Artists feel forced to choose between paid work or exposure

It can’t be a coincidence that exposure is something you can die from. The dictionary defines environmental exposure as, “A physical condition resulting from being outside in severe weather conditions without adequate protection.” This is exactly what will happen to you while working for the promise of getting your name out, as it won’t pay for your rent. 

The struggle is real for artists where the search for exposure leaves them vulnerable and without tangible rewards.

Creatives are usually the ones forced to choose between a pay cheque and the promise of exposure. On one hand, you won’t starve, but on the other, there’s potential for career development.

“The general public see the work of creative people as nice to have, but unnecessary,” said Graeme Dearden, who works in communications with CARFAC National, an organization that advocates for artists in Canada by providing professional development resources and lobbying on their behalf.

People who work in creative industries are often thought of as just “passionate hobbyists,” said Dearden.

Still, you wouldn’t pay a plumber through word-of-mouth advertising.

Dearden explained that this is because creative work often doesn’t allow us to see immediate results. 

Rather, artists are a long-term investment that builds character in a community. 

Creative industries employ nearly 13 per cent of the workforce, and according to Dearden, it is estimated that for every one dollar invested into the arts, two dollars is put back into the economy.

American screenwriter Harlon Ellison was once asked for an interview that would be included on the Making of Babylon 5 DVD. When Ellison was told he wouldn’t be paid for said interview, he made his feelings about it humourously clear.

He said that some companies are amateurs who are used to “getting it for free,” and it’s unethical.

The company is ultimately going to be making money off of his work and, they themselves “wouldn’t go five seconds without being paid.

“The only value for me is if you put money in my hand,” Ellison said.

If the person exposing you is actually worth the exposure, then they probably have the cash to pay you. Otherwise, the so-called exposure is likely minimal.

These companies are essentially telling you that, “Your work isn’t worth paying for,” said Dearden.

“You either budget for them, or you don’t hire them. It’s not conditional.”

The Webdesigner talk F*** You! Pay Me! given by Mike Montiero, owner of MULE Designs, states that creatives can find themselves in awkward situations where they design something for a company and are then told that the company “went another way,” or “it’s not what we were looking for,” despite the long hours the designer put into the project.

“Nobody is held hostage to a client’s whims,” said Montiero. 

Montiero emphasized the need for a contract with clear definitions and expectations, stating “starting work without a contract is like putting on a condom after taking a home pregnancy test.”

Lastly, this exposure business is flat out discrimination against the poor. 

“People who are willing to work for free probably already have money in the bank,” said Dearden. So, while the rich are able to further develop their careers through exposure, the poor artists are left in the dust, unable to live on exposure alone. 

So, by all means if you want exposure, volunteer for causes that you care about, but you should never accept the promise of exposure as a means of payment.

“The goal of gaining exposure as an emerging artist isn’t necessarily a bad goal, but it shouldn’t have to come at the expense of an actual income.”

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