Minimum Wage Artists & The Price of Work
Earlier this week, Noah Bradley published a piece concerning the astonishingly low wages that many artists endure. Although raising valid points, he neglects to address the multitude of factors that help create and sustain such a scenario.
Do not work for less than minimum wage.
These are the bold words that Bradley begins his post with. Nobody in the their right mind would consider working for less than the minimum wage, right? Even the joy of working in a field you’re passionate about isn’t worth your time if you cannot be paid what society deems is the least amount anyone should earn. This is especially so in the US where the minimum wage is a ‘true’ minimum and not what is considered a ‘living’ minimum.
Bradley does a really good job of breaking down why many artists fool themselves into thinking their rates are sustainable, yet the issue is far from a new one, and despite the advent of the internet, the problem persists. There are solutions, but they are not simply a matter of artists refusing work that doesn’t pay the bills. This is because the issue actually results from a variety of a factors that combine to perpetuate creative arts as a generally low-paying field. Let’s look at them.
Supply and Demand
Pure economic theory states that supply and demand are correlated. As supply goes down, prices go up, and vice versa. As supply increases, prices drop accordingly. The price at which supply is met by an equal amount of demand is called the equilibrium price. Essentially, this is the price that you will pay for anything assuming a perfect scenario.
What is the supply of artists like? The answer is: it depends. It depends on the type of artists, the location of the artists, the health of the overall industry, and last but not least, their skill set! If demand is high, but supply of talented artists is short, then wages go up. The Disney renaissance fuelled a surging demand for animators in Los Angeles during the 1990s that pushed wages through the roof, only for them to come crashing down as success waned.
Since creative industries are bit more secretive than others, wage information can be hard to come by, and that’s a problem because only by knowing what others are charging, can you also know what your talents are worth. So many artists, as Bradley alludes to, make an assumption based on what a client is proposing, without any external or objective data to compare it against. The Animation Guild publishes an annual wage survey [PDF], but that isn’t going to be much help if you’re a graduate storyboard artist living in Rochester, or working in a different country entirely.
Furthermore, what do you do if supply is not a concern? We’re a long way from the days when you needed serious equipment to produce professional-grade art. Today anyone with a computer can crank out work on a par with a pro, and charge a lot less too. An extreme example perhaps, but without an excellent reputation and network for clients, the professional can and will be undercut at every turn.
Wanting More, Accepting Less
I call this the ‘Walmart Delusion’. Why? Because it was illustrated in a documentary on the company I happened to watch years ago. In it, an employee of the corporate giant was interviewed as part of a group at one store who were demanding higher wages. During the course of the interview, it was revealed that he was earning $11 an hour, but was fighting for $13. Sounds like an easy solution, right? An enormous, and profitable, company like Walmart ought to have no problems at all scrounging for an extra two bucks an hour for the guy.
They could, but they don’t have to, and if they don’t have to, they won’t. Why? Because the employee was accepting $11 an hour. He was complaining about it, sure, but he was also still an employee and working for that amount. Why is this important to note? Let’s say someone came along and offered him a job for $8 an hour. Do you think he’s going to accept that? Hell no, because he knows he’s worth at least $11. If he really is worth $13 an hour, he wouldn’t be working for Walmart, or at least for two dollars an hour less.
The reason I mention this at all is the fallacy in believing that you are worth more, while actually accepting less. Capitalism states that you are worth what you are paid, so an artist who merrily accepts work at a particular rate, is worth exactly that despite what they may believe to the contrary.
Now before you reach for your pitchforks, that is not to say that just because an artist accepts a rate does it mean that the rate is a fair representation of their actual value, which may be a lot higher. However, if the artist willingly accepts the lower rate, they forgo the difference and there is no way for them to retrieve it. Again, this feeds into a broad knowledge of the industry and comparable wage rates. If the industry rate is a certain amount, and you know this, and your skills are comparable, you will have an approximation of what your value is, and how much you can charge. If you don’t you may charge less, and lose the difference in earnings accordingly. Shockingly many companies and businesses know this, and they are not afraid to exploit it.
What do you actually learn if you go to art school? If you thought ‘how to make art’, then you are correct. If you thought ‘how to acquire the skills to make art while earning a living’, then you are incorrect. Arguably this is a failure among all education institutions from secondary level upwards. Schools are more than happy to teach you the knowledge you need to undertake a particular job, but they are next to useless when it comes to giving you the nuts and bolts knowledge of how to actually earn a living with it.
For many people, the answer is straightforward: find a job. For those whose skills do not require the resources of a company, the answer is not so simple. Finding work is one thing, but no art school that I am aware of does a decent job of teaching students about things like taxes, costs, overhead, forming a corporation, or even how to invoice clients!
Students are very knowledgeable about their abilities, but they are clueless about how those abilities operate in the economic sphere. Rent is always going to be a factor, but if an artist does not factor in utilities, software, and even depreciation on their equipment, then they end up wasting a lot of money that they otherwise need to live on.
An educated artist is one who knows what their costs are, what they are willing to work for, and when they can afford to turn down work (because they budgeted, see.) If a student or young artists is not aware of how basic economics work, then of course they will jump at the opportunity for paid work no matter how low it is.
When clients promise ‘exposure’, what they are really offering is the sunlight shining out of their backside. Exposure is completely worthless because 99.99% of the time, the only ‘exposure’ that is being generated is for the client, and the client only. For example, unless the poster or ad that an artist designs prominently features their name, anyone who looks at it will never know who created it. Furthermore, such work almost always serves the exposure of the client, not the exposure of the artist.
Clients do not have anyone else’s interests in mind except their own. Any commissioned work serves their wants and needs, and a creative individual who is brought on board is merely a tool to accomplishing or fulfilling that need. Does that sound disingenuous? It should, because work done for others is essentially renting out your time and skills and is an opportunity cost to doing something else.
In a capitalistic society, economic value is measured in money. Exposure is meaningless and offers no value to anyone. Anyone who works for exposure effectively devalues themselves, their time, and their skills to precisely $0.
As someone else put it, if you’re going to work for free, why not work for yourself? At least then you also reap any rewards.
Let’s just get it out of the way immediately: I loathe internships. Even ones connected with academic institutions. Students need to learn, and working is a great way of acquiring knowledge and skills, but the system is abused to the point where internships are about as valuable as exposure.
Experience does matter, yes it does, but results matter more. For example, as an engineer, I’ve acquired certain skills, but they pale in comparison to the actual work I’ve done. Creative industries are no different: graduate students land jobs based on their portfolios, industry pros do the same, but with work they have been paid for.
The belief that an ‘internship’ is an intelligent way of gaining experience is flawed, and not just because the extreme pervasiveness of the practice has pushed the value of it down to nothing. There was a time when an internship counted for something, i.e. a student forgoing their free time to acquire knowledge and skills that would be beneficial to future employers. Nowadays interns work regular hours year-round, and often have completed their schooling.
Think about it, if you’re at a internship that uses up 5 days of your week, are you forgoing some ‘free time’ or are you sacrificing the opportunity to have a real job?
This is an important aspect that should be addressed in a post like this. Artists are generally honest, hard working, and willing to please, but they are not always sincere, most importantly of all to themselves.
Taking a low-paying job is akin to admitting that you are not worth more. You might be, you might believe that you are, but by accepting a poor offer, you are actively admitting that you are not. Thankfully this is easy to fix. Skills can be improved with training, personal projects, or even work itself.
Artists need to be as honest with themselves as they are with clients. As Bradley notes:
“But I work a lot faster than that! I can make good money!”, they scream.
You really can’t.
Being sincere means trusting your judgement, and not being afraid of a negative response. Being sincere means knowing where you have come from, and where you are going in your career. Being sincere means knowing that whatever shortcomings you do have, can be overcome.
Above all, being sincere means not short-changing yourself for the art. By all means challenge yourself, stretch your abilities, and aim for the stars, but don’t toil 100 hours a week for someone else’s art. Believe in yourself, and take steps to fulfilling your true capabilities.
So what’s the solution? Is there a solution? Yes, but it’s not as easy as it ought to be. Gathering all the points outlined above, it’s clear that artists in general need a better grasp on how their skills are worth money, why their rates should be what they ought to be, and why carving out a successful artistic life is about more than work.
Noah Bradley makes a great statement on how things stand, but the problems are deeper and more ingrained than they appear. They can be corrected, but it’s not going to be easy.