Yes, you ARE worth it
Money. In a world of billionaires (over 2,000, apparently), hedge funds, celebrity living, overpriced footballers and a widening gap between rich and poor in the UK, artists are pretty rubbish at talking about money. I don’t mean the people who run the Arts Council, or dish out Lottery funding – I mean the people on the ground actually doing the jobs: writing, playing, coaching, performing, proof-reading, producing exhibitions, and so on. We – I certainly count myself among them – are not good at it. So in the spirit of trying new things, I’m going to have a go.
Samuel West hit the headlines earlier this week as a result on his impassioned article for Equity magazine, criticizing the general approach to paying (or rather, not paying) actors in the UK. His comments are equally applicable to musicians, writers, and many others involved in creative professions. They also have resonance, I’m sure, with plenty of people working in higher education; particularly if those people do not have full-time contracts. And I suspect that there are plenty of other professions, traditionally described as ‘vocational’, for which this is also a problem.
As far as I can tell, the lines of reasoning for bad pay go something like this:
What you do requires talent, but you are one of many, many people who have good enough basic skills. If you want to hit the big time, you need to prove that you can go further, work harder, aim higher than everyone else. You’ll get your cash reward when you’ve earned it.
Or… This is entertainment, not a ‘real’ profession, you can’t expect to get paid big bucks just because you can sing a nice tune. People do this for fun, you know, and some of them are good at it. I could ask them instead and they wouldn’t want paying.
Or… You’re doing this because you love it, right? It’s not about the money, it’s about the satisfaction of doing something rewarding/charitable/helping others. You can’t reduce that down to the job’s worth in filthy lucre, that would be sullying your entire career ambitions.
Or… This is just the way it works. You need an unpaid internship on your CV, or no one will hire you, so you just need to save hard and take the hit, and eventually you’ll get your foot on the ladder.
Now, let’s get a few things straight. All professions are ‘real’ professions. Juggler, poet, composer, sculptor, bell caster, silk painter, acrobat, tattoo artist. All professions. Real ones. Professions do not, in fact, have to suck and make you miserable for you to be ‘worthy’ of pay. I can’t think of many things more soul-destroyingly awful than having to work in some kind of finance job. But there are plenty of people who love doing that stuff, and I’m delighted for them. If you are an accountant, you are entitled to no more or less job satisfaction than if you are writing novels. And in both professions, time, dedication and training play an important role.
Also, for those who missed the memo, it is no longer the nineteenth century. What this means: people in ‘the arts’ do not spend all day lolling around in velvet smoking jackets, gazing out the window and waiting for inspiration to strike. We are not all men, nor are we all white and straight. Extraordinary as it might seem, none of these things actually disadvantage our ability to be creative, organised, innovative, sincere. In this age of rich, vibrant cultural eclectisism, this grants all of us (often via education and the arts) the chance to do something unique and individual without following the Child Prodigy Grows Into Towering Genius model of development. That is an easy marketing tactic which promotes the few and undermines the many – not only in terms of status and pay, but also in terms of how the ‘many’ think about themselves and their own achievements.
If you’re good at something, and your skills are desirable, you deserve to get paid. If you are being requested to undertake a task that requires your particular expertise, you deserve to get paid. If you show up to an office every day to make tea, deal with the photocopying and, through being in that office and sitting in on meetings, begin to uncover the secrets of your dream career, you deserve to get paid.
If you don’t get paid, or don’t get paid enough, make sure that you are the one controlling this. Are you being offered less because the employer in question thinks they can get away with it? Or because your agent is ripping you off? Read the small print. Speak to your union. Remember that for every piece of work you take on at a below-standard rate, you could be potentially endorsing that employer’s opinion that they can get what they need without paying for it properly. If you are doing someone a favour, be clear about your terms, especially if it is a friend, or the agreement is relatively informal. Don’t get stung.
And if you are not being offered as much as you want, then – here’s the big secret – you are allowed to ask for more money. They might say no. They might stomp off, in which case they probably weren’t worth it. But they might just say yes.
I don’t earn an enormous amount of money. I took the decision – and it was a carefully considered one, I can promise you – that I would rather earn less doing only the things I really wanted to do, than earn more and be miserable. I couldn’t be sure that it would work, and I kept a close eye on my savings in case I needed to dig myself out of a financial hole. I don’t know what the going union rate is for a set of programme notes, because I don’t know which union covers that, if any (I am a member of the Society of Authors, though, which I thoroughly recommend to anyone involved in publishing written work, fiction or non-fiction). I have had to find my own way, and ask people if they can pay me more sometimes. Just now and again, I have found myself offered much more for a job than I was expecting, and that has helped inform me on setting my own rates.
We mustn’t be afraid to talk about money, to our friends, our co-workers, and our would-be employers. Being squeamish only exacerbates the problem – it’s not rude to bring up the question of your fee, it’s simply part of setting up a professional business transaction. At root, remember that what you do is worth something, culturally, spiritually, intellectually… and economically. So be proud of what you do – and of what it’s worth.