As the Pay Debate continues, Daisy Stella Baldwin wonders how taking unpaid internships compares with making money from artless endeavours...
A few years ago, while working at a creative agency and earning scarcely the minimum wage, I ran into an old uni friend. Upon hearing what I now did for a living he looked disappointed: “Oh – you sold out, Daisy”. He’d apparently expected me to be living in a garret somewhere, a penniless writer. “But… but… I can’t have sold out!” I called after him. “I’m not earning enough to have sold out!”
So I was interested to read this opinion piece about unpaid internships, which suggests that by taking an unpaid position you’re betraying poorer students who can’t afford to do likewise. If you don’t believe in unpaid internships, says the writer, you simply shouldn’t participate in them. So it seems we’ve entered an age where we can be seen to have ‘sold out’ while reaping no financial benefit at all! Lucky us.
This ties into the Pay Debate launched this week – I hope lots of you will continue to share your views. I’ve never undertaken an unpaid internship, primarily because I felt I couldn’t afford to do so, but I find it difficult to judge friends who have; in an age of record youth unemployment and a nationwide scarcity of opportunities, it feels like begrudging a place on a life raft to a drowning person. Should we be grabbing anything we can get, with both hands? Or should we be trying to maintain artistic integrity and stay true to our values?
What does it mean, anyway, to have ‘sold out’? A recent Coachella music festival, headlined by Pulp, took place aboard a cruise ship in the Bahamas. Speaking to an intimate audience of well-off hipsters, Jarvis Cocker mused, “If someone told us 15 years ago we’d be singing this on a cruise, I’d have said... are you sure?” My initial response was ‘He’s sold out!’ but perhaps the irony of being paid to perform Common People – a cool indictment of posh poseurs – on a luxury liner was just too delicious for an arch type like Jarvis to pass up. And having ‘sold out’ is apparently no longer the preserve of les artistes – Tom Daley has been accused of cashing in on his Olympics fame for Splash, an ITV reality show featuring celebrities learning to dive and inviting snide reviews entitled ‘wash out’ and ‘washed up’.
On the other side of the fence, I know of a now-successful actor who made the decision early on that he wouldn’t compromise by taking bit-parts but would hold out for an artistically satisfying role. I respect him for his resolve – but is this a decision many actors can afford to take?
The struggle to keep the wolf from the door and/or raise your profile while maintaining your integrity will always be problematic and invite value judgments from others. All we can do is make choices we’re comfortable with and can live with. It’s really no-one else’s business. So the next time you see, say, Robert Webb advertising Compare the Meerkat, be kind; he may be doing so to pay medical bills for a sick aunt. (Although it’s probably wrong to hope so.)
…on the power of pride
…on creative culture shock
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