Creative work is work — and it should be compensated

I recently talked about my vehement loathing of the meme that hardships create great art, and what a pile of nonsense that attitude is. But there’s another attitude surrounding creative work that’s a growing issue in the era of the internet, where everyone expects to get things for free. That is the notion that people who produce creative work don’t deserve to be paid for it. I don’t mean simply that people don’t want to pay for it — though that’s a part of this problem — but that sometimes there appears to be an active hostility to the notion that people should be paid at all.

Here’s the thing: Creative people making podcasts, music, paintings, writing, knitwear, comics, and a huge host of other things are often doing it because they love it. But loving it doesn’t mean it should be treated as a “labour of love,” a sacrifice.

Creative work takes time. Many, many hours of time, especially for a complex, multi-part project that is regularly updated, like a podcast or, I don’t know, a blog. That time includes actual work on the project itself, research, development, maintenance of equipment, and a myriad of things that happen behind the scenes. Those things have to happen because whatever it is the consumer is seeing doesn’t spring from the ether, and it needs to be sustained by something.

It also takes skills. Those skills require substantial time to develop. Some people go to school or attend trainings, while others are self-taught. Either way, you’re looking at years of hard, dedicated work to learn how to do a thing. To refine it. To do it well. Creators are always learning — I’m still learning how to be a better writer, how to work on a wider range of things, how to bring better parts of myself to the work that I do. The same holds true for people in all creative fields, whether it’s a painter learning some new techniques or a podcaster getting training to use equipment more effectively.

And it takes a certain amount of natural talent. People possess talent in varying amounts and having a natural inclination doesn’t mean you will be magically good at things, or that you will be able to cut corners, but it is an important part of doing things that are creative. Like, I love painting and think it is beautiful, but I have no aptitude for art, and all the training in the world is not going to change that. I accept that, and am glad that so many people who do have that potential are developing it and painting nice things, so I can buy their work (because they deserve to be paid).

So here’s where we get to the meat of thing. If you are producing creative work in any kind of volume, it is effectively a full time job, and often much, much more than that. You are dedicating a huge amount of energy, time, and resources to making this thing that you love, but, also? You need to be able to eat. You need to pay the rent or mortgage. Manage health care. Take care of your pets. Pay for utilities. Buy supplies and equipment. Do research. Travel for conferences and events. Enjoy yourself doing something that is not work, which is something everyone should be able to do. These things require financial resources.

Not exposure. Not Instagram likes. Not friendly emails. Not tweets. Not people talking about how much they love your work. They require actual money, and that money has to come from somewhere, and I’ve noted in recent years that people have very distorted ideas about whether people should be ‘allowed’ to make creative things and also get money from them. As though it is somehow more noble, pure, or real when someone is not being compensated for their work.

That is classist hogswash. Some people are independently wealthy and can make beautiful and cool things for free and would like to do that. Other people have access to financial resources and the time to balance schedules so they can, for example, work as a high powered lawyer during the day and make beautiful cloisonné eggs at night. They can choose, for themselves, to do that — in part because their day job makes enough money that they can afford to do what they want at night.

‘Real artists,’ Sara Benincasa points out, ‘have day jobs.’ That’s because art doesn’t pay. The vast majority of people working in creative fields will always be forced to support themselves on the side with income from somewhere else. Those authors you love? They don’t actually make that much off their books, except in very rare circumstances. That commentator you like reading? Probably has a lot of debt and scrabbles for work, unless they’re able to land one of the few staff writer jobs available at a dwindling number of publications.

Art doesn’t pay and it never has, but the attitude that art shouldn’t pay is really bizarre and frustrating. People deserve to be paid for their work because it is work and it may be fun, enjoyable, amazing, wonderful work, but it is still work. That’s why I support podcasts I love on Patreon, and why I try to rotate financial support to other artists I enjoy when and as I am able — which is challenging, because like other people in creative and intellectual fields, I do not make very much money for my work.

So when I hear that people should be giving their creative work away for free, I get a bit short-tempered. You are not entitled to free art. The belief that you are is what makes surviving in the arts so difficult, with people forced to give things away in the hopes of gaining enough fans that the small fraction who make financial contributions will be enough to support them. When I see people getting angry with artists who ask for financial support, or who create subscriber-only content, it’s extremely frustrating.

Let’s say you have a day job, gentle reader. Maybe you’re, say, a bookseller. Imagine if instead of a paycheck, you got some retweets and a friendly email. And if you said ‘uh hey actually that is work, please pay me,’ and people screamed at you, asking HOW DARE YOU be so entitled as to expect to be PAID for what you should be giving away for free. After all, you like being a bookseller, right? It’s your career aspiration and you adore many elements of it — the look on a happy customer’s face is worth the backend frustrations. Why should you be paid to do what you love? Why should you be compensated for your time when other people volunteer to do it for free? Who are you, to think you’re better than everyone else?

If you think that creative professionals should be fairly compensated for what they do, subscribe to things. Support people via various platforms, and I mean economically, not just in general. Think about the fact that compensation in the arts is often heavily slanted to white, nondisabled, male, straight creators — and as you parcel out money to creators you love, think about who you are giving money to, and why, and the long history of demanding, for example, the labor of people of colour for free, or expecting that disabled people shouldn’t get paid because otherwise why should they be entitled to government benefits?

Accept that the things you enjoy are often fun for people to make, but also, they cost a lot of money, and stop thinking: ‘Well, someone else will pick up the tab.’ Pick a set amount of money every month that you want to dedicate to the arts, and spend it. In coming years, the arts are going to be in for a very difficult time, and many people are going to be financially pushed out. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Image: Painters, Roey Ahram, Flickr