Features August 31, 2018

Anonymous Confessions: the music industry speaks out against the abuse of free work culture

Former Assistant Editor
Anonymous Confessions: the music industry speaks out against the abuse of free work culture

Doing unpaid work to earn your stripes: a necessary evil, or just plain evil?

The oversaturation of qualified music workers (and the tiny pool of full-time jobs available) means the more proven experience in your field, the better your odds at employment.

But, as you will read, major companies often abuse the culture of free labour, or undercut established workers by using a cycling unpaid workforce of interns.

Similarly, there are many grey areas of the industry which are traps for those who don’t know their rights.

This is a collection of stories from industry workers who have shared their experiences with TMN under the protection of anonymity.

Freelance photographer

I have shot for about six years now for a major music news publication. Small gigs, big gigs, Splendour, everything. Never received a cent.

Other photogs got paid I think $100 or so to shoot cover images and that was using their own gear, and time. Never been asked to do that either, as it seems to be the only time they’ll part with money for images (even when I’ve said I do studio work too, it’s not out of my wheelhouse).

The main festivals now are outside of Sydney. SITG, Falls, Bluesfest, various things at Perisher, Golden Plains etc. For the majority of media there who aren’t either crew (and even then I’d hesitate a guess that the pay isn’t that good) or major publications reps, there’s no financial reward for taking the often days to over a week out of your life to cover that event.

You do that at a loss, or don’t do it at all and lose more money with ticket prices etc. I’m glad more rural areas can get such great entertainment, but the media covering it from “home” haven’t adapted their game plan.

Some sucker will go and do free work. And for what. Page clicks? “Building their portfolio”? Instagram likes and followers? Most likely the latter as that’s the currency of popularity these days.

Creating the images fuelling all of the above should happen with some degree of financial remuneration as well. We live in one of the Top 5 most expensive cities in the world, the execs in these publications are getting paid, the office crew are, web designers, printers for the damn magazine.

Why should the people who actually fill the pages with good content miss out just because “they can’t make it work in the budget”? Get a new accountant.

Music journalism intern

I found out that a major publication I was doing an unpaid internship for were charging bands for content and then getting me to do the interviews for the ‘experience’. They knew I was in a tough financial position and when I asked if those pieces could be paid even $20 they said I just didn’t have to do them.

They cycle through interns constantly to handle the native content load that their paid staff don’t want to do.

Independent PR company founder 

I learnt a lot from my experiences as an unpaid intern, and I was also lucky enough to have one instance of interning turn into paid work, which then led to all kinds of things, and now I work for myself.

But I was always uncomfortably aware that someone just as passionate, hard-working and talented as me would never have got that same leg up, and all because they weren’t in the position to give up a whole weekday of their time for free a couple years back.

That’s messed up – do we really want the future leaders of the music industry to consist only of people who can afford to miss a day of work?

Now, if I need extra help, I pay for it.

Veteran artist manager 

I cannot begin to estimate the thousands of hours of labour across two decades of helping artists in the foundation years of their career. Many not fairly remunerated but the work was expected – by artists and the industry.

Commonly, everyone else (including the artists’ expenses of living, touring, making art) gets paid from the labour of a manager on the punt of long-term success and “getting paid eventually”.

Artists have every right to change their representation HOWEVER too often artists, at the end of the first term or wave of success, choose to jump to a “big dog manager” in the hope of greater success. The new manager reaps the economic rewards from the first manager’s time and financial investment.

As a first manager I was owed money from direct expenses including bar tabs, riders, management travel expenses, cash advances and recording costs – to appease the expectations of the artists, and yet not protected by “traditional” management contracts.

Respect for, and a business model that reflects, the financial and labour investment of managers into the early years of an artists development is long overdue.

Live music photographer

Most of us aren’t lucky enough to be paid to shoot festivals, so a contract telling me that I wasn’t going to be paid wasn’t a shock – it was how many rights they asked me to sign away so they could profit from my unpaid work.

By signing, I would grant them “the irrevocable right to use my media for release and/or reproduction in any medium…  including but not limited to promotion and branding.”

I would also sign away all my rights to payment for their use by third parties:

“I acknowledge that I have no interest or ownership in my media or the copyright in my media, and any use of my media may be made without compensation or notice to me.”

I also “waive any right to inspect, approve and/or otherwise control the use,” of my media.

The rest of the document outlined how I had to send them all my unwatermarked images within a week of the festival ending, and reiterated that I wouldn’t be paid, even if they sold my media.

Safe to say I sent it back unsigned, but the fact that it was sent out and approved in the first place is only one of many ways in which the industry tries to take advantage of and exploit hardworking photographers for free.

Independent media publisher

Small, independent publications and blogs have no future without marketing dollars; media are one of the only areas of the industry that genuinely don’t make money solely from the product they produce.

Larger publications are valued for the size of their audience, while smaller pubs – regardless of the quality of their content – are overlooked.

But native content in large pubs gets lost in the sheer glut of content they’re pushing out daily; unless it’s really plugged through socials and pinned on the homepage, it won’t actually be seen by the number of eyes you think you’re paying for.

If you have it to spend, a few hundred dollars will help keep the lights on for small pubs and support the next generation of local, independent media, as well as putting you in front of a localised audience (who will buy tickets!) rather than an audience spread over the globe.

Australia’s indie publications and blogs are run by hard-working, dedicated teams of creatives who desperately need financial remuneration for the quality content they’re creating in their own time, often alongside full-time jobs to pay off expensive journalism degrees.

To ensure their survival and a balanced media landscape, the value in engaged, local and niche audiences needs to be rewarded beyond ‘opportunities’ to create content.

Put your money where your mouth is; if you’re pushing for feature interviews, reviews etc. to sell tickets, clearly you see value in that pub’s content and audience. Have some respect for their work and time; they are not a free marketing machine.

The expectation that they will continue to write article after article after article indefinitely without even the hope of a single cent of marketing spend to back it up is what will sign their death sentence in the long run. It doesn’t need to be one for one, but if there’s money to spend, allocate it with this in mind.

Throw $100 of the budget to independent media every now and again; they need it (and appreciate it!) far more than the big fellas do.

Gig reviewer

I was pressured to go to shows that I didn’t really want to see so that I could get priority on bigger/international shows and festivals; the editor was very pushy. Then, when I’d apply to review bigger acts, most of the time I missed out to a permanent staff member.

If I had to pull out of a gig for other commitments like paid work, or if I was sick, they’d make me feel terrible and would ‘take it into account’ for my next request.

I also started noticing that the smaller bands which were really pushed on reviewers were also advertising on the site, or had small write-ups.

I feel like our (unpaid) reviews were part of the bonus they were giving to bands buying advertising to make [the publication] seem like they were going above and beyond.

Real generous guys… after two years I realised I was being taken advantage of and quit and never heard from them again.

Media publisher

The reality in the music industry is if you’re not willing to do unpaid work at first, you’re not going to be able to get a start… But there does come a point where you have to stop taking unpaid work, or at least pick your battles wisely.

The problem becomes when companies that can pay, don’t. And there are boatloads of them that take advantage of even well-experienced people.

And often the same people will cry foul when artists they work with aren’t offered enough money for this or that. Yet the photographer they want to shoot their album cover or the music video director they want to work on their music video, they suddenly don’t have any money.

And there are big companies and artists guilty of it. How is their art less valuable than yours? In the arts I think in general we need to do more to value our own work, as well as each others. 

Freelance journalist 

“Whilst unpaid work has its place in making the music industry accessible, it shouldn’t be its backbone. Sadly, I have seen how unpaid work can be used unfairly.

“It makes people starting out in their career feel like their work is worthless.”

Equally, there are some companies and publications that use unpaid work structures to the benefit of the workers, connecting them with key industry players, giving them valuable experience, and also having a lot of fun.”

Signed musician

Labels and teams have their contracts and agreements, and we sign them being made to think it’s the only way we can succeed… As soon as they’re invested, it’s not just about you anymore.

After years of just giving and giving, and getting nothing but “exposure” back, it gets draining… and knowing you’ve created lots of music which has made a lot money, but you never see any of it. It’s hard not to get bitter.

There’s the underlying expectation and narrative that this is okay, and that it’s normal. It’s like “this is what you get if you decide to be an artist”… It’s sad that it’s normal and even expected. If something’s not fair or reasonable, then we should change it.

It’s difficult to justify working other jobs (and how hard it is to find jobs that allow you to take so much time off to tour/record etc) just to keep making money to spill your guts for others to use to their own advantage.

It’s a system that uses the artists’ desire for exposure and their unrelenting passion to their advantage.

There’s not much that is fair or reasonable about the working for free and for “exposure” argument. I’m sick of hearing it, seeing others resign to it, and resigning to it myself.

Live music photographer 

A few years back, a certain festival asked me to work for free for them which made me feel really uncomfortable, so I declined the opportunity.

I found out weeks after the fact that every other person was offered to be paid a decent sum for the same amount of work I was offered to undertake. Not to mention the multiple artists/companies asking to have unpaid work done for the “experience” or the “opportunity”.

Artist manager

As a manager, you often give all that you have to justify your position as an artist’s manager week in and week out.

Although there are always exceptions to the rule, generally speaking, developing artists are not usually willing to pay any manager commissions they’re entitled to… There’ve been a couple occasions where artists I managed earned in excess of $100k AUD through touring and syncs (opportunities that were financially maximised by the manager).

“Each time, management are; a) the last to get paid, and b) had had to fight tooth and nail to justify any kind of payment – both ending with a management commission of 10-15% of net at most.”

One needs to play devil’s advocate in these situations as this isn’t an industry that’s based on a weekly, or minimum hourly wage, and music businesses are built on making money off artists and their art. However, there needs to be a clear conversation around responsibilities, expectations, and deliverables when discussing an artist/manager relationship.
Ground rules: Have a solid agreement in place, don’t party with your artists, keep it professional.

Independent musician

Friendships are based on trust… and there are many many many people in the industry that are happy to abuse that trust and I’ve been burnt far too many times than I’d like to admit.

Scenario: You go in [to the studio], spend some time working and writing… and then radio silence. You message, call, email… ghosted. Then you hear the song on the radio… and there’s your fucking lyrics or chords or melody. You shake your head and end a friendship.

“I’d say my worst instance of this would be working on an album for over a year to getting ghosted a month before release and left marooned without a contract and only hearsay to back my story.”

Artist manager

I’ve worked multiple festivals as a volunteer for free and haven’t been given breaks or fed and rarely even get a thank you… once again because we should be grateful to be working it.

People are too scared to call out these companies and these people because the industry is so small and you are walking on eggshells so you don’t get a bad wrap for yourself, so you have to be quiet and cop it!

Radio Host

[I worked at a] community radio station where 98% are volunteers, maybe a small handful people working get paid. Worked with my co-host for 1+ year where he worked for 5+ years almost every week co-hosting a weekly hip hop show.

Artist Manager

I did an unpaid internship with a pretty famous artist management company managing one of Australia’s biggest international exports and who make millions of dollars a year. While I was grateful for my experience I could tell I was just there to do the crap that they didn’t want to do… I was giving a day of my time instead of working my other job for money in an expensive city like Sydney.

One day I’d given up a paid shift to be in the office, and when I arrived no one was there. I waited for an hour and finally, the manager got back to me and said, “Oh, I’m out for breakfast then have a meeting you can just head home.” That was when I stopped bothering trying to help out companies and get experience through unpaid internships…

You get used and abused and treated like it’s an absolute privilege to be there doing shitty jobs for them.

Gig reviewer

I worked out that I have spent literally thousands of dollars on travel too and from unpaid review gigs for 8+ publications.

The small ones I don’t mind because they don’t have funds but there’s some major ones I’ve written for that have never even reimbursed an Uber fare for their extensive loyal unpaid workforce of broke journo students trying to get their foot in the door. They don’t put the reviews or galleries on the home page or their socials either, they just get lost in the content glut. 

Independent artist manager

One thing I’ve noticed that may be worth mentioning is the working for free trap that is self-initiated.

It is not uncommon to see emerging managers take on extra work, they hear something a vocalist or a producer who has incredible talent and they want to be a part of the journey. They ‘sign’ an artist up or put a handshake deal in place, they start out knowing there is no money to be made yet, but there could very well be soon. The trouble is they probably have other artists on their roster who are (more) profitable and likely more absorbent of the manager’s time.
It’s a very tricky situation, one that often comes from a good place but more often than not should be avoided at all costs because the burn out rate is real. It should never be done because you end up looking like the bad guy, and people talk.

Music journalism intern

In a sense, I feel like the internship (most internships) I completed were a waste of time. I wasn’t a friend to them;

I was someone to get their admin work done for free.

Now that I have doing reasonably well in music, people from my numerous internships think of me as a friend. But, it is only because they think they can gain something from me in most cases. When I was an intern, there was nothing to gain but free labour. 

We’d love to hear from you: share your thoughts and stories in the comments 

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