Folks are split on what constitutes work for which artists deserve to be paid. Photo from Images_of_Money on Flickr.

Photo from Images_of_Money on Flickr

Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on the controversy over the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theatre’s policy of not paying its performers. UCB is almost universally considered the leading improv theater in New York, and attracts much of the top talent. It’s not a small side project, or an isolated community; it shapes the social norms of the New York improv comedy scene. As such, the question of its role in defining the future of New York improv is real and the conversation deserves to be amplified by places like the Times. This controversy followed a similar uproar over former Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer’s decision to not pay her crowd-sourced band members.

When people discuss the issue of when performing for free is appropriate and when it is not, three logics emerge: utility, community, and justice.

The utilitarian logic suggests that if the artist is getting more out of the experience than the host, the artist should not be paid. Adam Thurman explains that for these professional performers, “the real enemy is being invisible.” If the exposure a professional gets from performing at a certain venue is good enough to get her jobs down the line that she couldn’t get otherwise, she should be willing to work for free because the future returns are high enough. If the exposure doesn’t help the performer get work or some other financial compensation down the line, he suggests that performer not take the gig for free. Amanda Palmer’s plan to not pay her band members makes sense under this logic—they’re all unknown musicians and they’re getting the opportunity to tour with a well-known pop artist. This opportunity is probably a pretty good resume booster for someone looking for a career as a back-up guitarist or a pop drummer. Popular improv comedian Chris Gethard agrees, saying “I owe everything to UCB.”

Following this logic to its conclusion leads to the idea that if performers are really getting a lot out of the experience, maybe they should be paying venues for the opportunity. This is happening in music and theater scenes all over the country.  Though much of this work preys on wide-eyed performers looking for a break, some folks are actually selling a great experience that performers wouldn’t be able to have otherwise.

One of UCB’s founders characterizes the question of whether to pay differently in one of the most important paragraphs on the Times’s report:

There’s a creative vibe at U.C.B., and to maintain it, we can’t pay people,” Mr. [Matt] Besser said in an interview. “If you pay, then you have to assign worth to shows, and then people will resent that.

This argument follows from the community logic. Here, performers are part of a community that a venue keeps alive. Paying performers would destroy the egalitarian we’re-all-in-this-together spirit. A similar ethic is commonly discussed in politics. Paying voters for showing up at the polls, though it may increase turnout, hasn’t yet caught on because it clashes with the idea that voting is something we do because we love our country, not for a few bucks.

But a day’s work deserves a day’s pay, right? The bank won’t hold exposure as equity (most of the time, anyway). Science fiction author Harlan Ellison lays out this problem bluntly, emphatically pronouncing:

By what right would you call me and ask me to work for nothing? Do you get a paycheck? Does your boss get a paycheck? … Do you pay the cameramen? Do you pay the cutters? Would you go to a gas station and ask for free gas? Would you go to the doctor and have him take out your spleen for nothing? How dare you call me and want me to work for nothing!

Amanda Palmer critic Steve Albini makes a related argument that if the person who would normally be paying is making money (i.e., Amanda Palmer or a venue that programs successful improv comedy), the performer should be getting paid.

With these three different logics leading to different answers on whether to pay performers, it makes sense that controversies would arise. We need to be asking what we want: low cost performances as a locus for social connection and creative expression, market-based exchange, or a day’s pay for a day’s work?

  • For those interested, the W.A.G.E. (Working Artists for A Greater Economy) for WORK project addresses similar concerns. Check it out:

  • Take a side, goddamnit.

    • Ha! Isaac, I think you missed the point of the piece. (Unless you were being facetious?)

  • Dan Thompson

    But, if you’re not being facetious, which side do you think is right and why! I’d like to hear if someone thinks that there really is a way to reason through this question that provides an undebatable solution, because I’ve been unable to find one.

  • W.A.G.E. rightly declares that the ” promise of exposure is a liability in a system that denies the value” of artist’s labor. The problem with Thompson’s suggestion that some preforming artists will gain from this free exposure is that this investment model, which might have benefits in a few certain high profile professional situations, get passed down throughout the entire arts spectrum. Visual artists are asked to donate work for causes under the guise that the exposure will be good for them. Performers are asked to perform at events for the promise of CD sales or that someone might just hire them in the future. The reality is that more often than not nothing ever comes of these donations. Artists can’t even write off the value of their work on their taxes.
    This myth of the promise of exposure is refuted by W.A.G.E. who calls for the end of the artists as speculator and demands the “renumeration of cultural value in capital value.”
    I don’t know a single artist or performer who prefers this deceptive model. Only those in political control or who gain financially from the model of free artistic labor suggest otherwise.
    Dan, you may be confused over a solution because you aren’t even telling the whole story. Amanda Palmer initially asked for 100K in a Kickstarter campaign to pay for the recording of a new album. Her Ted Talk bragged of giving as much as you receive and the intrinsic benefits that result. She raised over 1.2 million dollars( 10 times her requested amount) and yet has the audacity to ask other performers to work for nothing?
    The real issue isn’t what artists want to work out between themselves. The bigger issue is how these myths of renumeration are believed by the general public. We are in trouble as a cultural society if we keep thinking of the arts as having to survive under the same economic requirements and competitions as WalMart. Supply side economics are not friendly to creating culture and if we believe artists don’t have to be paid like everyone else gets paid, I fear it doesn’t bode well for us.

    • Aaron Andersen

      I would say that supply side economics are not friendly towards paying people who are working in some respect for intrinsic reward, including their own free expression. Any artist is competing with other artists (and amateurs and hacks) who will not only work for free, but will often pay to play.

      Frankly, a huge number of artist puts a negative monetary value on their labor. When the wage floor is less than zero, because the workers are willing to take it there, then no, supply side economics are not your friend.

      You have a couple options: 1. Try to get regulation or legislation in place that imposes an actual wage floor. But then you will reduce opportunities for expression, simply because there is more demand to express one’s self artistically then there is demand from others to pay for it. 2. Keep convincing your fellow artists not to work for free. But you also have to admit that you’ll be trying to convince them to, effectively, not work at all. Same result either way. Less artistic expression.

  • Super-interesting, Dan. This is something we grapple with A LOT at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. We have struggled with added complexity to the question because:
    –we work with artists across the amateur to professional spectrum, and they have very different expectations and needs with regard to what compensation looks like
    –we work with hundreds of collaborators per month, which makes even small honoraria have a big impact
    –we focus on active audience participation, and the lines between artist and audience are often blurred. Who should pay to participate, and who should be paid to do so?

    Thanks for adding more grist to our mill. I’ll keep thinking on it and would love to write a series on this issue at some point.

    • Dan Thompson

      Yeah! It’s definitely a hard issue. One thing I didn’t get to talk about, which you’re comment indicates, is how difficult it is to reach a consensus on how to think about what is happening now. Questions about who is playing what role speak to a deeper conceptual framing problem that I think in practice we just have to discuss among all parties wherever it arises.