Unpaid Artists, and all the ways they can stay that way
I came across two separate articles the other day, on the topic of artists working without pay. The first was this open letter to Oprah, written by Revolva, a professional hula hoop act and vaudeville performer. Apparently, Oprah's The Life You Want Weekend tour invited Revolva to work for their San Jose stop earlier this month. The catch: she'd be working for free. Now, I love me a good open letter from an artist standing up for his or her own professional respect (she didn't take the gig), and this instance seemed to me a gross imbalance of value between employer and artist. She writes, "Events that are netting a metric butt-ton of money are just being unethical to offer artists nothing—or free tickets—or a child’s birthday party rates. And if that’s what’s happening, maybe someone should speak up and say, 'Is this tour about how to achieve to your ‘ideal life’ REALLY going to rattle its tin cup and ask local artists for a free act?'" Revolva doesn't post her booking rates on her website, but I can't imagine that it would put too much of a dent in the budget for an event like The Life You Want Weekend. I mean, it's Oprah, of all things, including speakers like Deepak Chopra. Tickets run from $99-$999. I assume there's some money being made. Just not by Revolva.
A few hours later I came across this story on Slipped Disc, about Opera Australia's call for students to join the cast of their outdoor production of Aida, as unpaid supernumeraries. Norman Lebrecht disapproves of OA's casting call, saying, "An opera house that employs performers on amateur terms is an amateur opera house." My initial instinct is that it's simply different to ask students to perform without pay than it is to ask the same of professionals. Any working artist will understand that even as volunteers, the student supernumeraries that join this professional production of Aida will gain rare and valuable experience (or at the very least, have fun). But it's also a fair assumption that the student is currently studying, and not actively pursuing work in their desired field. Working for free in this case is significantly less of an artistic jab for these students, instead of having their profession undermined by unashamed requests for pro bono work.
In the case of Opera Australia, one of the growing number of opera houses with financial struggles, it's clear that the decision to call out for unpaid supers is a way to save money. Fair enough. It's not the place to slippery-slope my way into the value of singers, because that's not what this specific decision was about. But when it comes to organizations that are designed to make money and succeed at doing it, it's pretty gross to see how carelessly they approach entertainers for favours. Remember when Lena Dunham made a "fun" contest out of getting free labour for her book tour opening acts? It's just tacky, especially when everyone knows you're rich. Revolva ends her letter by giving Oprah the benefit of the doubt about her The Life You Want Weekend event: "If you didn’t realize your tour, with its wealthy speakers and its $99 to $999 tickets, was asking for a free service from local acts, is there something you can you do to make it right? On behalf of the artists of the world, that’s a question I’ll leave you with, Oprah. I’d like to believe that, as compassionate and generous as you appear to be, as a self-made woman who has been here, the life YOU want involves people being able to pay their rent."
For more on the topic, follow @forexposure_txt for real quotes from people asking artists to work for experience/exposure/love/definitely no money.