By Robyn Banks
“Exposure doesn’t pay rent”- it’s something we’ve likely all heard before, whether you’re a business looking to save money on photography, asking a friend for a favour or simply scrolling through Tumblr. The line “We can’t pay you, but it will be great exposure!” has become the bane of every artist’s life, and it’s understandable why. There has never been a sector of the workforce who have been asked so frequently to work for free as the creative sector. However, I don’t believe there has ever been such an individually vocal sector of the UKs exploited workforce, either.
I’ve always loved everything creative, from art to photography to poetry. I studied practical media at college, at the time deluded enough to think I could become a successful film director, and the range of practical courses at my technical college made it a tiny sharing economy. We used students from the acting course for our films, the beauty students eagerly did their stage makeup, the hospitality students on the floor below allowed themselves to be filmed for our projects year after year. For a reduced fee the student hairdressers could give you a haircut. I hadn’t developed my political views, but I felt somehow proud that we all managed to function so well on the basis of favours. Me and my best friend would attend every show that the arts or textiles students put on, eagerly lapping up the free experience and often buying the work of our friends or peers we admired. That was back when my contemporaries were selling their paintings for £20.
We wandered in to ordinary art shops, too, but with the store managers looking down their noses at us, fully aware that we couldn’t afford that £500 picture of a boat we were admiring and were treating the shop like a free gallery, we didn’t keep that up for too long. Nowadays, quite far from my dream of one day making films, I find myself unable to even afford a trip to the cinema.
Growing up often feels like a process of singling out and casting off the economy’s losers one by one until only a few remain. We ditch our dreams, close doors around us and settle for the achievable. I studied media at university, renowned for being a wise choice, hoping that theory would open more doors than it would close- and to some extent it has. I’ve found myself surrounded by wonderfully talented people who have taught me a lot and provided me with many platforms where I can gain exposure, such as the site you read this on now- but I am not being paid to write this. I write for the same reason most writers write, or for that matter, the reason most creative people create: not for the money but because there are things we want to express. And then there’s the wonderful feeling that I get to work with people I admire and that we’ll build something meaningful together, a feeling so strong is has me begging the editors for more work.
We ditch our dreams, close doors around
us and settle for the achievable.
It doesn’t look as though anyone is eager to start paying me to write or make a film immediately after graduation either, which means I need a day job, a reality that hits home for many soon to be graduates this time of year with the sudden realisation that there is no student loan next September. I had heard a joke that people who couldn’t get jobs in their sector became teachers, and since I’ve recently discovered that I actually love to teach, I thought that might be a good job. It turns out that I can’t even afford to train to teach. I think I’d make a great English teacher, but nobody wants me, so instead I do it for free. I didn’t realise this system of exploitation reached so far.
So maybe this is the crabbiest of crab logic, but when I see my friends online moaning that they won’t be paid in ‘exposure’, I feel kind of annoyed. ‘Mates rates’ are an ideal of the past and even my closest friends want me to pay upwards of £50 for a photo, which I lied about even liking anyway- if I had the money for professional photographer fees I’d probably hire somebody with some experience. When your art is accessible only to the very wealthy yet you complain that nobody will buy it, I think it’s time for a reality check.
What did you think was going to happen? Only 8.8% of the UKs workforce works in the creative sector. Have you never heard the phrase ‘don’t give up the day job’? Did you think you would become a Hollywood actor or a famous artist overnight? More people in the UK, 10% to be exact, earn over £175k a year. I’d have more chance becoming one of the UKs wealthiest 10% than making it in the creative industries. Instead, I will probably end up funding the arts- as artists who are paid are often living off taxpayer funded subsidies to the arts, and this for plays I will never be able to afford to attend and paintings I will never see. The arts are, for the most part, a past time of the wealthy to the point that a legitimate argument can be made that arts subsidies amount to nothing more than a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.
I could put my tory head on and tell you that for every creative type sneering at the prospect of exposure there’s somebody a few rungs down the ladder, like me, who is desperate for that exposure. I could say that if even teachers are now expected to do what they love for free, then you can hardly complain about not being paid to write poems. I could say that that’s your lot in life, the price you pay for doing what you love, and to deal with it.
But I won’t say that. Instead, I’m going to make a radical suggestion: change your lot in life. Of the people I see who complain about this, very few are political in any way and very few care for the exploitation of others. Perhaps the fact that creative types get to do what they love to do is somewhat of a buffer, because for many who are being exploited in jobs they don’t even necessarily want to do unionisation has been the outcome. A quick google for artists unions brings up a page created in 2014, the Scottish Artists Union and below that a page offering itself as a hub to grow your individual fan base. Have you ever heard of a doctor or train driver with a fan base?
And maybe this is the problem in the creative industries. Its incredible emphasis on individualism and the fact that it relies on being wealthy enough in the first place to do a certain amount of work for free has resulted in the arts being by the rich, for the rich. It conditions artists in to seeing each other as competition rather than developing solidarity, and hardly curries the favour of class based political groups who might be able to help change our elitist social structures. Working class artists refuse to collaborate out of poverty and fear of exploitation while my Facebook friends’ dad builds her a private photography studio as an extension to their stables.
Working class artists refuse to collaborate
out of poverty and fear of exploitation
But it can change. The idea of a universal income is growing in popularity, which would allow every person with a creative streak to devote a reasonable amount of time to their art without fearing poverty and homelessness. The arts are more accessible than they have ever been, especially music, thanks in part to file sharing and the DIY attitudes that arrived with punk in the 70s. More arts subsidisation could result in prices being low enough to be accessible to normal people, creating a society where everyone can be involved with the arts to some extent.
Artists like Sophie Crow are quickly becoming the height of Norwich fashion because her work is so accessible and readily shared. But as long as we view ourselves as deserving of fame and fortune and rage at the developing sharing economy, we continue to reinforce an elitist structure in the arts where only a few can ever really make it and the rest must give it up for good. Artists like Taylor Swift fight to prevent their music being listened to at no cost, and for a fan with no money it often feels like they would rather see a society where only the wealthy can enjoy their music than lose their own wealth.
I want art, both the consumption and production of everything creative, to be accessible to everyone and not just an elite few. But in order to achieve that dream we have to settle for incomes and fan bases on par with the rest of the workforce. We have to settle for equality.