Writing for nothin’ and yer clicks for free!
The recent Thayer/Atlantic dust-up caught my eye because it touches on things that I have some personal experience with; writing for free at The Atlantic for one, but also the slings and arrows of being an independent creative professional.
Even today, my new-found career as master of a USCG documented merchant vessel and proprietor of a hospitality business is predicated on what nearly 30 years of making money with a camera, or a keyboard, or both lets me bring to the marketing and promotion of the enterprise. There’s a lot I don’t know about, but one thing I do know a lot about is how hard it is to set a rate and stick to it, and how important it is to do it anyway, even though it’s hard.
I have more thoughts, gathering still, but for now this Tony Comstock post from 2009 offers, if not wisdom, then sympathy and circumspection:
Learning to Say No to SXSW (and Others.)
From “Why I’m not at SXSW This Year” on blog.ni9e.com
Five weeks ago, in Part 1 of How Film Festivals and Distribution Deals Kills Independent Films I wrote this:
When you stop and think about it, film festivals are some kind of amazing. They get their films for free. They get a lot of volunteer labor. They get sponsors and underwriters. In some countries they even get government funding. Ticket prices are often higher than regular films at for-profit theaters. Overwhelmingly they are non-profit and get special tax treatment.
Yet in spite of all these advantages, film festivals can’t seem to find a way to pay filmmakers for showing their films. Oh maybe there’s money to fly you in, maybe even a hotel to stay in, maybe even a token screening fee. But mostly “doing the festival circuit” is a big financial drain. If your film is a “success” on the festival circuit, hundreds, even thousands of people will see your film, and you won’t see a dime.
In Part 3 of the rant I banged on about who does get paid:
Participating in this whole process might make sense if there was a pot of gold at end of the rainbow, but there isn’t. Getting into the “festival circuit” could well put you and your film on the road to financial ruin. Yeah, I know, that sounds like sour grapes; and with all the hype around Sundance, Tribeca, Berlin, whatever, it’s hard to accept that there isn’t any money in it. But fortunately for our fragile filmmakers’ psyches we don’t have to accept that there’s no money in it. We just have to understand where the money is going.
The news organizations covering the festivals are making money; magazines, TV shows, newspapers. Everyone working for them is getting paid. The PR people, the folks – the people charged with turning the screening of a bunch of no-name films in with unknown actors into a media event – they’re getting paid. The folks printing up all the posters, palmcards are getting paid. The venues are getting paid. A few people higher-ups at the film festival are getting paid. The restaurants and hotels are getting paid, and a bunch of people I can’t think of right now.
So you can imagine how tickled I was when I came across this rant from Evan Roth, who was invited to give a keynote speech at this year’s SXSW Festival:
I know the last thing anyone wants to hear are artists whining about money (trust me I am one of them). But with all the hype surrounding SXSW I thought I would chime in with why I won’t be in Austin this week amongst all of the web 2.0 illuminati twittering and drinking Mexican beers.
A couple of months ago I had a conversation with SXSW that went something like this:
SXSW: Hi, we’d like to invite Graffiti Research Lab to keynote at SXSW!
Me: Great. Thanks for the invitation. Our standard fee is $X.
SXSW: Oh, we only pay for flights and hotel.
Me: Really? Even for a keynote? Giving talks is in part how we pay for rent and food. How about $X/2
SXSW: Nope. Airfare and hotel.
Me: How about you just pay for meals while we’re in Austin so we aren’t losing money?
SXSW: Nope. Airfare and hotel.
Me: Thanks, but no thanks.
I am somewhat more understanding with events that are grassroots and hence under funded, but the Graffiti Research Lab keynote presentation at SXSW (a private company) is sponsored specifically by Microsoft (a giant corporation). Beyond the moral implications of having the largest proprietary software giant funding a talk about free culture and open source, what I would first like to know is where is that money going? I know it’s not going towards fees or food for the presenters. My suspicion is that the people extending the invitation will be paid, the person setting up the audio and video equipment will be paid, and the janitor cleaning up after the talk will be paid. So, is it really that difficult to pay for a handful of meals for the artists while they’re in Austin?
The problem with this as a precedent is that it leaves artists in a position where they will never be able to pay rent. This issue of not paying artists (which I have blogged on in the past) extends well beyond me and well beyond SXSW, and is something that is becoming more common as the world economy continues to crumble. In the end I’m writing this not because I’m greedy and looking to fund my Champagne lifestyle, but because in general it is a system that benefits private for-profit events (e.g., SXSW) and corporate sponsors (e.g., Microsoft) at the expense of artists (e.g., me). In the end I have two messages:
1. Event organizers: If you respect the artists you are inviting, then pay them. You can’t buy bananas with publicity, so don’t try to pedal this as a form of currency (especially since the artists are also bringing you publicity). If you can’t afford to pay artists, then you don’t have enough funding to host the event.
2. Artists: Airfare, hotel, and publicity are not payment for your time. If corporately sponsored events can’t pay artist fess then tell them ‘no’. By accepting gigs like this, we are just as guilty as they are for perpetuating a system that ensures we stay eating Ramen Noodles until the day we die.
In summary: Event organizers, show some love to those you love. Artists, god gave you middle fingers for a reason, don’t be afraid to use them.
Middle finger indeed!
Learning to say “no” is hard. As I said in my recent Stranger in a Strange Land post:
In the course of making these films, we’ve said “no” to HBO, BBC, CBC, Pulse Distribution, Adam & Eve, Women’s Health, Pacific Media, Tartan Films, ThinkFilms to name a few. In each case we were faced with the same question: Do we give up control of our films, of our brand, our values for the chance of greater recognition, greater reach, greater revenue?
It’s an agonizing question. As an artist I want my films to be seen as widely as possible. As a businessman I want Comstock Films to thrive so that I can live up to my obligations as a father.
I could have put SXSW on that list, but the “deal” they offered us was so bad, and so easy to say “no” to, it didn’t even occur to me when I was writing up the post. Here’s the story.
About a year and a half ago I was invited to be a part of a panel at the 2008 SXWS festival. Was there an offer of airfare? No. Was there an offer of lodging? No? I was told I would get an all access pass to the festival, except for the musical events. If I wanted to go see the musical acts, I would have to pay for myself. Color me unimpressed with SXSW’s notion of hospitality.
Still, we had a film (ASHLEY & KISHA) on their short-list, so I looked into what it would cost to fly from Treasure Key to TX (we were on our Bahamas trip last Winter.) If ASHLEY & KISHA got a slot at SXSW, I’d leave Peggy and the kids on the boat in the Bahamas, fly to Texas for A&K screening, and while I was there I’d sit on the panel.
Of course I didn’t go, but I didn’t say “no” to SWSW either. At least not then. They said “no” to me; more specifically, they said, “We really liked ASHLEY AND KISHA, but since it’s out on DVD…”
Grrrr. I decided I’d stay in the Bahamas with my family.
Now of course I didn’t submit BILL AND DESIREE for consideration for SXSW 2009. 1) After 8 years, I’ve figured out that film festivals don’t do explicit sex if the sex makes people happy; 2) We made BILL AND DESIREE available on DVD for our paying audience before we made it available to film festivals. So that’s not really saying “no” to SXSW.
What I did say no to was their invitation to put on a panel at SXSW 2009.
See once you’ve been put on their presenter list for one year, you get a mailing (even if you didn’t show up) asking if you want to put on a presentation for the next year. No offer of airfare, hotel, or even bananas. No, if you’re pay your own way to get your ass to Texas, SXSW is perfectly happy to let you donate content to their cultural festival, just the same way their happy to have Microsoft donate money; because that’s SXSW’s business model.
They get corporations like Microsoft to put up the cash, they get bands and filmmakers and software engineers and whoever else is willing to speak for free to donate the programing, and then they charge everyone who isn’t playing or lecturing or showing a film to come and see all the “free” content, and celebrate the indie/DIY/Alternative lifestyle, in which not getting paid for your work is apparently taken as a given.
SXSW is able to get people to give away their time, their music, their films, because SXSW has build up enough of a reptuation the place to be seen in the indie/DIY/alternative world that plenty of people who are willing to pay out of their own pocket to give SXSW the programing that SXSW sells other people tickets to go see! As a businessman I can’t help but take my hat off to them! That is one hell of a business model.
Anyway, this isn’t really a poke at SXSW; and it’s not a poke at the people who go to SXSW, to lecture or to go to the lectures or just to have fun “making the scene.” To tell the truth, it sounds like a lot of fun. But from a business stand point, it just doesn’t pencil out for us.
But I think it’s important for “independent content creators” to see SXSW for what it is — it’s a business. And I think it’s important for us to ask, “Does helping SXSW (or any other business for that matter) get ahead help my business get ahead?”
Figuring out the answer to that question isn’t always easy, and sometimes it’s down right agonizing. But you can’t figure out the answer if you don’t ask the question.
And I think it’s important when ”independent content creators” do say no to let the world hear about it. One of the problems with being independent is that it can be very isolating. When it seems like everyone else is doing it (donating lectures to SXSW, taking no money distribution deals, etc) it can be hard to stick to your guns, even when you know you’re doing the right thing; for your business, for your art, for your family, for yourself.
More on this later. Right now I have to move about 800 pounds of cinderblocks off MON TIKI, for about the sixth time this winter. At least it’s not refrigerators.