The Pay Debate: the value of experience

The Pay Debate: the value of experience

By Rupert Reid 30/01/13

As part of our ongoing Pay Debate, musician and singer Rupert Reid asks, should we expect professional artists to work for food and experience...?

I've never tried to pay a roast into the bank. The credit slip has no place to enter the number of vegetables, and the gravy would make a terrible mess of the machine. 

It sounds bizarre, yet this is precisely what thousands of professional artists (in my case, as a musician) are being asked to do every week, as the recession bites the arts ever more seriously.

The emails are daily: “Dear Rupert, Come and sing this music at a prestigious venue to paying guests. We are unable to offer a fee, but a roast lunch is provided.”

Sunday lunch at their place must be a massive affair. Who's that in the corner? Ah, that's the plumber; he's currently fitting a new bathroom and is happy to exchange his skills and years of experience for a good roast. And there's the mortgage provider; he comes every day in lieu of collecting a monthly repayment...

In reality, people would never dream of taking this approach with other professionals. The only guests at the lunch would be artists, as our profession is increasingly seen as easy prey for those seeking to cut costs. Worryingly, we are being asked to work for free - or vastly reduced rates  - more regularly, at more venues, and for longer in our careers than ever before.

A successful artist needs lots of contacts and experience, and doing work for free can be a great way to get them. The problem is that the amount of paid work is declining severely (I have now had more concerts cancelled for this year than concerts remaining). So the inclination for an artist who wants to be busy is to accept this free work. 

When, as is increasingly the case, this is work that used to be paid, a vicious-circle is formed: clients are unlikely to pay in the future for services that they can now have cheaper or for free. And so the amount and value of work on offer decreases further. Ultimately, the same argument that keeps labourers in sweatshops keeps professional artists working for nothing, or very little - if you don't do it, someone else will.

Of course, it's not just musicians who are feeling the pinch, but all artists. In 2011, the Arts Council faced a budget cut of nearly 30%, leading to cuts at 206 other organisations. These cuts are now starting to put many artists out of work, intensifying competition for the work that remains, and increasing the volume of “work” that is now unpaid. A friend of mine who is a professional dancer estimates that his income will fall by a third this year, and further next year. As a result of financial pressures, many promising artists have already left the industry, unable to pay their way, and countless more will have to follow suit. Accordingly, a wealth of future talent won't be seen or heard, and this is already an irreparable travesty. 

On a personal level, two examples of financial pressure have really struck me recently. The first was an offer of a solo engagement with a well-known choir at an extremely prestigious venue, which should be paid in the region of £500. The fee on offer? Experience. No cash, just experience. The second example was an offer to record jingles for a radio station, work for which I have received a fee in previous years. This, too, would now be paid just in experience.

Experience, just like a roast lunch and exposure, cannot be paid-in and cannot cover your bills. It is also utterly useless if all you can gain from it are opportunities in an industry where nothing is paid any longer. That situation is closer than you think, and gravely threatens the future sustainability of the UK's glorious arts heritage.


More from The Pay Debate:

Member case studies: working for free

Is work experience worth it? 

Daisy on unpaid internships

Is journo pay paltry?

Employment rights: the lowdown

Should employers of unpaid interns be arrested?


Image: my roast dinners are always veg overload by hayley.baily via Flickr under a (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license.
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