Love What You Do – You Won’t Get Paid For It

For anyone stumbling across this blog, sorry today’s entry is a bit type-dense. Normally we do knob jokes and LOLcat virals, honest.

This is a piece penned in frustration – never a good idea – but it’s a subject close to my heart. Last night I went to an event for writers, artists and directors, and got talking to some people who, like me, write for a living. It took a drink or two, but we had a very open conversation about the problem of actually earning a living from it.

I’ve learned not to be shocked by how little people make for doing something well. I’m sure we all have friends who have given up being nurses and teachers because they couldn’t make economic sense of their careers anymore. One of my friends has taken a job as a supermarket shelf-stacker because he can’t make ends meet as a writer. Which probably wouldn’t annoy me if he wasn’t so talented. In the UK, the average wage of a writer is £7,200 per annum.

The conversation coincided with my partner visiting the new BBC London offices – the word ‘cathedral’ sprang to mind, because it was generally agreed that their new building was the most insanely lavish artifice anyone had ever stepped inside. Setting aside the point that it’s taxpayer-funded, let’s recall how little money the BBC spends on outsourcing. One of the writers I spoke to admitted he could no longer afford to travel to the studio to provide the BBC with a 30-second soundbite for free. He’s had to balance interviews with his fares bill, and has given up.

But that’s what is expected of us. Like our universities when compared to their endowment-funded US counterparts, we are on our beam-ends. The arts, possibly because of their long and virtually invisible tradition in the British Isles, are regarded as something that should be provided gratis, like healthcare.

We’re back in a world where the neo-Victorian dilettante is the only one who can afford to write, because finely crafted prose is no longer valued (although I do think this is a passing fad connected to the erroneous idea that we can all create together online). And yet perhaps – just perhaps – the writer’s day is over, and we only require a kind of collective low hum of chat to amuse us while we work for others.

Closing Opportunities Instead of Opening Them

Balance this against lobbying efforts to shut down any websites that infringe copyright, and Republican-driven bills like the doomed SOPA, which resulted in the blacking out of Wikipedia and according to its sponsor was about pushing the legal boundaries and ‘addressing the problem of foreign thieves who steal and sell American products’.

These battles are never waged to protect and reward the creators of content, no matter how carefully the press releases are worded. They’re about protecting the very same businesses who fail to pay originators in the first place. Piracy occurs because the content companies never created a viable alternative, and everyone quickly got used to the idea of free content because businesses failed to turn pirates into consumers of their services.

Look what happened when the BBC created a weblink on their main site for Douglas Adams’s ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’, a series of successful books which the Beeb basically appropriated because it had once made other versions. The site, H2G2, was user-driven and quickly became popular (I and many other writers provided content for it).

It became too popular. Fearing that it would somehow compete and draw users away from its main site, the BBC closed it down. Let’s say that again; they closed it down because it was overly successful.

I remember working on a BBC film to be theatrically released called ‘UTZ’, about a man who collected rare china, from the book by Bruce Chatwin. It was directed by George Sluizer just after he had made ‘The Vanishing’, and starred Brenda Fricker and Armin Mueller-Stahl. It was quite brilliant. The week before it was due to be released into cinemas across the country, the BBC’s viewing figures slipped, so they chucked it onto TV instead of releasing it, and it has never been seen again. This cold-feet attitude was driven by fear of competitive content.

Who Cares About The Arts?

All the effort that goes into fighting revenue loss could easily go into its legitimate creation. Instead, there’s a bizarre disparity between the hours we put in and the amount organisations take for our work, between the safe options they exercise and what they could achieve by widening choice. Writers have no power, and its unions are toothless – if we stop working now, who cares?

We have the lamest and least elected government in forty years, so who cares about the arts?

Who cares if television execs dump their remit to expand horizons and spend their time arguing about the perceived ‘threat’ of the internet?

Who cares if the only British film at Cannes is by a 76 year-old man? Who cares that theatres once packed with plays by Rattigan, Nichols, Stoppard and Bennett are now filled with Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson tribute shows? Who cares if the astonishing history of women writers from Emily Bronte to Virginia Woolf is replaced with chick-lit? (In America, who now reads Willa Cather when there’s Stephanie Meyer?) Who cares that London’s biggest sight is now Renzo Piano’s crass eyesore, the Shard? Who cares that there are hardly any black writers and artists? Who cares that the arts are just a network for dealmakers, insensible to discovering fresh talent?

Art is a right, not a privilege. The ability to reveal dreams and hopes, to reflect lives and families, to understand the nature of love and loss. When I was ten years old, I had to sit before a board of teachers to be accepted into a grammar school. The first question I was asked was; ‘What do we mean by exhilaration?’ I can’t imagine that question being asked of a ten year-old now.

The arts are something to be rewarded and esteemed, to engage in, to be supported, discussed, derided, loved, fought over and exhilarated by. Instead content is just something that gets in the firing line of business models, and it would be more convenient for everyone if it just went away.

This is not a new complaint, of course. There’s an old British comedy featuring a panel discussion called ‘Whither The Arts?’ that made the same point fifty years ago. The difference is that the arts have already withered, pushed back to what many think is their rightful place – a Victorian lady of means, seated at a writing table for her own amusement.

11 comments on “Love What You Do – You Won’t Get Paid For It”

  1. Mary says:

    How very interesting and enlightening. My daughter has left nursing. Insulting pay, ridiculous politics etc. She’s going to ‘put into action’ her painting talents and hopefully make money. Writing, painting etc are God given gifts and MUST be pursued.

  2. stephen groves says:

    Where’s the knob jokes?

    But seriously i think it’s discusting how writers are treated they provide just as tangable service as I do in my job for which I get paid a reasonable sum and I cannot see any differance, we both provide a service or product for which we should be appropriately paid.Writers and artists more so as they can reach far more people then the normal man in the street.

    all best

  3. BangBang!! says:

    A heartfelt piece, admin and a great read, thank you.

    Unfortunately, the lowest common denominator seems to be rampant everywhere. Milton Keynes theatre is one of the busiest in the country but there seems to be very little except a continuous roundabout of touring musicals.

    Even my beloved pro-wrestling has been reduced to cookie cutter characters with zero personality to help retain advertisers. In fact, they’re so boring I haven’t seen a proper crowd riot for years!

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    I’ve seldom been with several writers when they haven’t talked about the horrible pay, or when the pay is better the horribleness of what they’re asked to produce. Shakespeare had the same problem, didn’t he? He wrote for the ladies and gentlemen on the raisers and in the boxes, but also “knob jokes” for the groundlings in the pit.
    It’s an undervalued profession, like poetry, art, music, etc. And the general public’s taste is always trending, low-brow and “sucky” as the kid’s used to say.
    (I spent 10 years raising money for a highly-rated classical music organization, but every season it was/is a fiscal struggle and although the audience is loyal, it’s seriouslu going grey. And the texting types are ill-prepared to enjoy a concert,
    Someone at home(wife, husband, partner,child with a high tech job or a grant)almost always ends having to support the writer or artist. It’s lousy, but…
    The problem is: How can the writer, artist, etc. stop? It’s what’s driving him/her and not to express yourself is so frustrating. It’s that person’s best way of addressing life.

  5. FabienneT says:

    Great blog. Agree 100% and will be sharing it on facebook, because it should be read. *bravo*

  6. I.A.M. says:

    Sad, depressing, and entirely realistic in every syllable.

    Add to the above situations my fruitless search of longer than six months for a ‘day job’ with nary an interview to show for it, as I can no longer afford to do this publishing lark without some outside source of income. “Surely you’re making money selling books, aren’t you?” you may cry; the answer to which is “no, not after advert costs, printing and posting of Advance Reading Copies, distributor’s fees, retailers’ discounts, and writers’ well-deserved royalties. So far I’m in the negative position financially far deeper than I am ready to admit even to myself.

    Meanwhile, I’ve recently been most encouraged by an inside connection which might net me getting a few days’ labour plonking hats on heads and gowns on shoulders of local University Graduates.

    It’s all I can do to keep from weeping sometimes.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    People working for companies have annual reviews at which their work for the past year is assessed and they are told whither their career (unless they smarten up). In the meantime they have a living wage. Authors and artists don’t get that because the review is self administered and the pay is what is left over after all the above mentioned costs. As admin said, it isn’t even whether the work is popular or not since someone else can pull the pin on the project whenever they feel a little nervous. It’s not right, you know, but I seem to remember bewailing the loss of backers like the de Medicis, the kings of France, and the renaissance popes some time ago. Even then Leonardo had to shape his art to the sponsor’s desires. I wonder how hard it was to be one of the bards? Bet there was a lot of wearing out shoe leather tramping from one hall to another and hoping old Lord So and So wasn’t suffering another attack of arthritis.
    The worst part is that writers, composers, and painters seem to work on no matter what. It seems to be some sort of addiction. Perhaps there’s a treatment for it.

  8. William Raban says:

    I agree with every word you say and thanks for bringing this to the fore. Artists of all kinds: writers, visual artists and musicians must keep banging on the door. Look what has happened to the Arts Council. See how arts funding has been diverted into sport and the building the Olympic Park at Newham which is now being defended by smart missiles and Typhoon jets.

  9. mikenicholson says:

    Here’s an added take on the notion of the worth of artistic effort:
    In my work as a tutor of degree students studying on a broad-based Graphic Design, I am noticing more and more a strange attitude towards how they market themselves/their work or fail to understand their/its value.
    It’s particularly worrying in the case of the aspiring illustrators (we embrace that endeavour within the broader course and it was my own specialism and subsequent career).
    Simply put, these are a generation to whom the internet and its avenues are like breathing – yet this is having a negative effect.
    They can all self-publish via print on demand, they enter online ‘competitions’ hosted on sites that – should they ‘win’ by submitting a good idea/image for a tee shirt, say, then sell the designs (for which they receive minimal reward. . .
    In this age where they can circulate an image in ways that would have seemed impossible when I left college in the mid-80s, they seem strangely parochial in their plans. They set their table out via a website, say, and appear to expect the world to come calling.
    Like the web is some pan-dimensional village hall craft fair.
    When I ask them – with a couple of months to go before graduation – what companies they plan to approach to show their folios/how are they facilitating the creation of a profile by outreach to publishers/booking interviews etc. very, very few of them are doing so.
    They seem extremely naive, many of them, in their grasp of the way one creates a sense of value for what one does. Appearing on websites that will gladly show your work as content but offer no financial remuneration appears to be enough, and peddling ‘zines’ of their work through their own websites.
    Technology has allowed them a sort of faux version of exposure but is ultimately in danger of seeing them drowned out by the sheer volume of other stuff out there.
    And of course there are – because of the web too – more circling sharks happy to exploit your skills and work for nothing than ever before.
    SO – alongside the real issues of how poorly one is paid (illustration rates for editorial work, for instance, are almost the same now as 27 years ago) there’s also a disservice done by young and inexperienced artists themselves.
    Regards pay for writing there’s a hilarious and volcanic rant by veteran writer Harlan Ellison on the subject (“I sell my soul – but at the highest rates.”) – Google his name and the phrase ‘Pay The Writer’. It’s on Youtube.
    No truer words have ever been spoken.
    I make sure to show it to every batch of my 3rd Year students.

  10. Meme Smith says:

    Here, here! You hit the nail right on the head. This is exactly why I gave up pursuing a writing career. So sad, really.

  11. Shuku says:

    This resonates with me. I’m a part-time copywriter (some would say I don’t write, I’m merely a curator of verbal bathwater), and a full-time musician/voice coach. I live in a country where the arts are under siege, and honestly, if I didn’t love what I do despite the acute frustrations, insults (from school teachers and parents who think it’s easy so I don’t need to be paid for my time), and distinct lack of support, I would be working a proper 9-5. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when we have to take part-time jobs so we can make ends meet at our full-time jobs. I guess it’s rather universal?

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