How much do we value the people in our community who create? We live in a society where many things we once paid for have become free or crazy cheap: Spotify playlists, online magazines, YouTube. It’s easy to begin to expect that the creative content will come to us for little or no cost. But what about the people producing all that creativity that enriches our lives? How much do we value live music, or handmade works of art, or storytelling from the ends of the Earth, and how much are we willing to plunk down hard-earned American dollars for it?
We spoke to five Durangoans working in creative fields – veterans of their trades – about various aspects of being compensated. They spoke about why we should value art and artists in the first place, when it makes sense or feels good to work for free, how artists need to value their own work and time, and how we can go about making things better for working artists.
1. There’s a lot of work that precedes the final product
Tim Kapustka: It’s like an artist painting in their studio, working on a new technique or working on a new series. This is shit. I just worked weeks and none of this is good. These are studies, and I could burn them or paint over them. Is that working for free? No. It’s working toward something. I would say that justifies getting paid even more.
That painting isn’t just X hours with someone’s right or left hand putting it on there. That’s decades of understanding, understanding light, understanding what to do, what not to do. It’s so easy to undervalue that.
Lacey Black: I’m lucky to be here and I’m having fun, don’t get me wrong, but there are a lot of nights when it’s work. Maybe I’d much rather be doing something else. It is fun most of the time, but I don’t think fun means that you shouldn’t be compensated fairly. Consider just the hours that went in to getting you to that spot.
That’s the part that no one sees. There’s no way to see it. It looks easy. All the people that love what they do and are any good at it, they make it look easy. But you don’t see the hours of frustration and the hours on the phone booking the gig and the hours on email trying to build a website so people take you seriously. You don’t see all that built into that performance. And even what I make per year, which is fine, I’m doing well, it still doesn’t come close to being minimum wage if you counted all the hours.
2. When you’re just starting, sometimes you will work for free
Kapustka: We see it all the time through Studio &, young artists come in and “Here’s my piece, it’s $10.” No piece should ever be $10. You probably have $10 worth of materials into it … That’s the responsibility that comes with being an artist … is to understand the economy. People think, “Well, I need the exposure.” People, whether they admit it or not, are not confident, or they’re insecure, which is not a terrible word. It’s what artists deal with every day.
Black: I always go by the idea of if you know what you’re worth, you should get what you’re worth or at least get close. If you’re not sure what you’re worth, sometimes you have to try different things to figure out what’s going to work in your field.
When you’re first starting out, you don’t have the experience to walk in and say, “I’m a total pro, I can do this. You need to pay me $300.” You don’t have that kind of leverage because you don’t have that experience. And you’re not good when you first start. It doesn’t matter how good you think you are, you’re not good.
Sometimes (playing free is) what you have to do because that’s the only work you can get. If you want to do work in an artistic field, you have to sometimes do stuff for free just to get started. There’s a time and place for that.
Jesse Ogle: I would recommend for beginning musicians, yeah play for free, but pick shows that are actually going to feed into what you’re going to do. Playing for free for four hours isn’t going to do you any good. I think it would be more like, play for free and make your set really short. Play for free and open up for someone. Ask someone if you can get an opening gig for them. Give your time away but share a show with another artist. See what they’re doing. See what’s working for them. Use your time wisely, don’t just grab any chance for exposure. Figure out how you can network with people. Figure out how you can grow yourself. Use it as an educational opportunity.
Kate Siber: There are lots of good reasons to write for exposure or write for free. If it’s confidence-building? Totally. It’s awesome. If you’ve never had your stuff published and you need to get some bylines, totally. That makes sense.
3. Artists first need to value themselves
Kapustka: It’s part of us as artists to educate people of the value of what we do and that it is a profession and a serious profession and an important profession. You don’t just work for free, for “exposure,” or “it’ll be good for you to get your name out.” I hate that. It’s a business, and it’s not poisonous to say art is a business. If you want to be serious about it, you have to treat it seriously.
Ogle: I’ve played probably every gig in this town, and I don’t think I’ve ever really played anything for free because I think you have to value yourself and your time you put into things. It’s like, do all these years of studying music and traveling all over and performing and working and practicing, does that count for anything?
Siber: I hate to admit this, but I find myself when I’m getting paid a lot less for a story, it’s almost hard to not care a little bit less about it because I feel like there’s some equation there where you’re not being as valued. Anything I actually agree to, I try really hard to do my absolute best work, but sometimes it is kind of like, well, are they valuing me if they’re not paying that much? And in turn, do I value them? You need to remain aware of your relationship to that because, otherwise, I think you could start to devalue yourself.
4. There are times to work for free
Kapustka: I understand me donating something to a charity that I fully stand behind once a year, that’s OK. I’m not saying never work for free. That’s something I’m passionate about. Donating to San Juan Citizens Alliance some of my art, that’s what I’m rich in. I have the ability to make art. I don’t have a lot of money, that’s how I can help them. But every one of the 300 nonprofits in town coming to artists on a weekly basis expecting them to give them free stuff, that’s where the problem lies. We can help where we want to, but it’s not just free. It’s not just give me 20 minutes, and I’ll churn something out for you.
Shay Lopez: As an artist … as an image maker, as a creator in a consumer world, I’m on the end that is the supply to the demand. And not everyone can supply that. Name me one house that doesn’t have an image, something hanging on the wall. All those things that fill our lives are things that somebody has to create. I’m proud to be on the end that’s supplying that, rather than just consuming the things of the world.
You pick where you can give your money. I just happen to not have the cash funds to donate, so I can be asked to donate things that I make.
Black: If it’s something I really believe is taking the scene in a good direction, musically, creatively. If it’s something I can support as a musician, if I feel like it’s going to help other musicians or other artists or myself being creative, then I’m all about it. Maybe I get paid, maybe I don’t.
Ogle: If I’m on the road and I’ll want to play some venue, I’ll play for less than I want. Sometimes, I’ll play on the street for free. In Santa Fe, I’ll just bring a battery-powered amp and I’ll just play on the street. But you know what, I’ll sell CDs, I’ll make tips, and I don’t even worry about what the money is. I’m doing it for fun.
The idea of playing for free, I don’t love it, but when it does give to a good cause, I’m all about it. I’ll play for free as much as I can … dude, yeah, let’s raise some money for this cause. But at some point you have to draw your line … what happens is it’s like, we’re a nonprofit and we’re raising money for people. Let’s ask the poorest people we know to raise money for the poor. Hey these musicians are poor, let’s ask them to raise money for the poor.
5. There are ways to make things better for working artists
Lopez: That’s what I want to say to people – I’m not saying appreciate my art, but appreciate art and the people who make it, and appreciate the things that are in our lives every day that somebody has made, that somebody has put their heart and soul into and value that for what it’s worth. There’s somebody who depends on making that thing. There’s somebody who’s making the world a better place as far as I’m concerned by being honest and expressing their own heart and mind and their true self. That in itself is making the world a better place. They should be appreciated, honored and compensated accordingly.
Ogle: We find, that you find a venue that fits you and you play select places and it actually returns way more money. We played at Eno and we got one guy who walked in there and we got an $8,000 gig out of it the next day. Because the environment’s very conducive to listening to music. It’s pretty good acoustics in there, there’s not a TV on the wall.
Black: I mean really, if you don’t want to pay people what they’re worth, then you shouldn’t have (live music). You should turn on the football game, turn on your Sirius radio, whatever, and just do that. If you say you want to support music, then support music, don’t go halfway. People are starting to get that message, it’s just slow. And musicians have to ask for what they’re worth. You have to know what the going rate is and what everyone else is getting paid. You have to talk to each other and figure this out.
— David Holub