Work for Free for Peers, Not for Owners or Bosses

The Amanda Palmer kerfuffle over whether she is abusing artists by one of her bandmates putting out a call for volunteers to play brass instruments during part of her tour led me to a lot of thinking (and conversation).

My friend Xeni writes a thoughtful post at Boing Boing about the inherent sexism in the terms in which the situation has been described (including from an epic troll) and some of the dynamic involved. What I've come down to is that while artists should always be offered payment for work, they should also always have the freedom to choose not to be paid. This plays out in the power dynamic among equal and unequal parties.

As it turns out, I have this precise relationship with Boing Boing. I have known Cory Doctorow for many years, hanging out at many conferences a decade ago with him, and Mark Frauenfelder and Xeni Jardin I met a bit more recently, but have a many year history with. Rob Beschizza, the managing editor, I work with on a regular basis as a contributor. I love them all.

I don't say that like, "hey, I love you guys," and it's not like we're always at each others' houses or something (nobody lives within driving distance). Rather, it's more like the feelings I have for these colleagues extends far beyond a professional relationship, because of the history of respect and mutual admiration that's developed. I have that relationship with many colleagues.

A few years ago, Xeni asked if I wanted to write some guest posts. I did, with gusto, for a few months. I never asked about money. I didn't need to. Boing Boing is a great forum to write in, and I liked being in it. Money comes through the portal, but none of the editors is getting rich from it; they all have a variety of jobs and work that keep them and their families in kibble, including Boing Boing. (I don't have any knowledge of the finances, but it's clear how it all works based on a lot of observable factors.)

Why did I write for free when I have rarely written for anyone for free even early in my career when I had no clips to my name? Because these are my friends, colleagues, and peers, and I trust them. They have enriched my life and my career, and I am happy to reciprocate, rising all boats at once.

A bit ago, Boing Boing developed a budget to pay freelancers, and while I would refer you to them if you want to ask about rates and such, I'm absolutely pleased to receive any payment for work, and the payment makes it easier for me to schedule my time to write for them. They love writers' voices, and it's great to work in a forum that lets me write long and personally, and that's rewarded by them and by readers with their responses.

But, you know, I'd probably still write for free (maybe a little less often) because of the kind of site it is. I shouldn't admit that, but the point here is knowing that, the editors and staff wouldn't use it against me or anyone. It's a cooperative effort in which some people are nominally in charge to make judgments and sort out finances, but in which there is no coercion or power relationship in play.

I try to apply that to Amanda's situation. I interviewed her for the Economist, and it is amazing how much love and joy can pour out over a phone. If you have followed her career, or read her Wikipedia page, you know that she was a long-time busker, and that her current level of fame derives from many many years of hard work on the street and then into music development and persistence.

She told me, and I have heard this from others, that she has a passionate and intense involvement with her fans. She stays after every show. She answers email and forum posts. She kisses and hugs and sometimes poses nude for or with those who love her music. She's an incredible life force. (In the Economist, I described her Kickstarter page as having images of "exuberant nudity," which I think describes it well.)

When she went to Kickstarter and raised $1.2 million, those who don't know her and aren't her fans griped about the level of money and her getting rich. Read her post about where all the money went to make the tour and album and backer rewards. She'll be lucky if from that $1.2 million she makes minimum wage for her time.

But she paid for the work of so many other artists, released the album on her own, and built her own tour. It's gravy at this point, all future CD and download sales and other parts. The profit comes from the future, not from the work to get to this point. So it certainly irked people when it seemed she was asking for musicians to give of their time when she had "$1.2 million" in the bank. She also paid for brass players in some cities, did trades (berths in a bus), and gave her own time to other artists. She is their peer and colleague, not a boss or owner. (She explains this in a September 14th post.)

What I ask here is: did Amanda Palmer call musicians and they felt threatened if they turned her down? No. Did Amanda Palmer (or, rather, her bandmate Jherek) ask the universe if it wanted to play and some musicians said, yes, please, for hugs and beer and being on stage with Amanda Fucking Palmer (her full name)? Yes, yes, they did.

Artists should be paid. In the marvelous words of the super cranky Harlan Ellison, Pay the Writer. But artists should also have the freedom to work with their peers and colleagues when they choose on whatever basis they choose. There's a difference between The Man demanding (even when he or she is asking) that you perform your work for no charge, and a man or woman asking if you care to be part of the party. Payment isn't always in money. Sometimes it's in love, the hardest currency to convert of all them.