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‘Fuck you Pay me’ – Money and the Arts

August 17, 2009

A few months ago, The Guardian’s pet right-wing columnist Simon Jenkins wrote a piece about funding for the arts.  In his piece, Jenkins attacks the government for spending billions on high-end pieces of capital investment while the cut and thrust of British cultural life is mostly self-sustaining and subject to the laws of the marketplace.  Jenkins wants us to take away from his piece that British cultural life does not need state funding but what I take away from it is the fact that the government has failed to focus on the right thing.  A cultural life is not necessarily one based upon consumption of high-end artistic products such as the output of the Royal Opera House (which recently received a £2.4M recession bail out), but one based upon creation and participation.  Which would benefit the most people?  £2.4M so that the Royal Opera House can continue charging £60 instead of £80 for seats with only partial views of the stage or £2.4M for small theatre companies, amateur opera productions and magazines drawing attention to both?  Culture is something that is there to be participated in.  A healthy amateur scene not only gives future professionals a means of perfecting their crafts, it also makes it easier for people to try their hand at art and engage with it in a way other than through consumption.

The problem is that while scenes (whether they are theatrical, operatic, musical, artistic or anything else) are funded largely by good will, they do frequently depend upon people who demand rather more concrete remuneration than good will and social capital.  These demands create over-heads.  The higher the over-heads on artistic production, the greater the drain on good will.  This leads to higher ticket prices, expensive membership subscriptions and greater and greater demands upon those people who are willing to contribute for the good of the scene.  These demands are part of an attitude that can only be described as “Fuck you Pay Me”.

FUPM

Example the first :

One of the great problems with amateur opera is venue.  In central London there are few buildings large enough to stage theatrical productions that have not been turned into either bingo halls or churches.  Churches are a traditional venue for amateur productions because, in principle, it’s a win-win relationship.  The company gets to stage a performance in a pleasant venue and the church gets to contribute to the cultural life of the local community and advertise its niceness to Christian-minded folks who care about such things.  After all, aside from the electricity, it costs them nothing.  However, more and more churches have realised that they can make money from charging rental fees.  This is not a question of a few pounds for the electricity and the upkeep but hundreds and hundreds of pounds.  Enough that some companies either have to cut back on performances or seek a new venue.  Clearly, this flies in the face of any claims churches might make about being ‘involved in the community’.  Unless you define “involved with” as “parasitical upon”.  Nor are priests the only people with their hands out.  Musical and theatre directors demand payment, as do costume designers and musicians.  Fewer and fewer amateur opera companies perform with full orchestras as even amateur orchestras demand large fees and the kind of set working times that you would expect from a professional contract rather than an amateur production put on for the sheer joy of participating in a piece of art.

Example the second :

Strange Horizons is an SF-related website that I review for on a semi-regular basis.  The website is free of adverts, is free to access and it relies for its funding upon the good will of the SF community because it is a boon to that community.  Everyone benefits from the continued existence of Strange Horizons.  However, looking at their funding page, I was struck by the disconnect between what most contributors are paid and what short-fiction writers are paid.  Critics get paid one tenth of what short fiction writers get paid and fully half of Strange Horizon’s weekly editorial outlay goes on short fiction.  Publishing a short story costs Strange Horizons more than six months’ worth of web hosting.  The reason for this is that Strange Horizons hopes to attract the best writers and the best writers demand professional levels of pay.

The issue is radically different levels of expectation as to the possibility of doing stuff professionally.  Most SF critics know that they will never in 1000 years make enough money to turn professional and so they write for their own sake and for the soft benefits that comes from being a member of a society.  Similarly, most opera singers realise that they most likely will not make it as professionals and even those who do not recognise that you will have to pay your dues until they get their big break.  Conversely, many musicians, even at an undergraduate level, expect to be professional.  The same goes for a lot of science fiction writers.  They want to be able to quit their day jobs and so they pitch a lot of their stories at the level of publications that pay professional rates.

In an ideal world this would not be problematic.  We should all be able to support ourselves doing what we love and only what we love.  Sadly though, this is not the real world.  Just as most opera singers will not turn professional, most writers of short fiction will never be able to quit their day jobs.  There is a market for opera and for science fiction but they are not large enough to accommodate anything even remotely close to the number of people who expect that market to support them financially.  By agreeing to pay professional rates to the people who demand them, amateur scenes are effectively pandering to the professional fantasies of groups of people who are ruthlessly Thatcherite in their attitude to the arts :

There’s not enough money in the kitty for an orchestra?  Fuck you pay me.

Strange Horizons fund raisers have to work twice as hard to publish short fiction?  Fuck you pay me.

I’m still at university and I’ve been offered a chance to gain experience in an operatic production?  Fuck you pay me.

Obviously, I am simplifying matters somewhat. For starters, many writers happily write for free or allow people to reprint their stories without demanding payment while many of the lucky few who do turn pro use their increased visibility to do stuff that benefits everyone in the community.  Secondly, the existence of professional SF writers, musicians and directors is, one might argue, a good thing.  By pumping money into the scene, Strange Horizons and amateur opera companies are contributing to the existence of a market that can allow people to quit their day jobs. By withdrawing from the professional arena, Strange Horizons would damage the market.  Indeed, this is the challenge that is currently being faced by film criticism as the willingness of so many people to share their opinions about film on the internet has resulted in the perceived value of film criticism decreasing.  A decrease that has resulted in a shrinking of the market for professional criticism and an ensuing  series of layoffs among film critics employed by newspapers.  This suggests that the best sort of amateur scene, one in which people give their time and effort simply for the pleasure of creating something larger than themselves, is one that can only be achieved by damaging the associated professional scene.

The heart of the issue, for me, is whether it is worth sacrificing an amateur scene for a professional one.  The ability to support yourself by doing what you love is a wondrous thing and something worth aspiring to.  In some cases it even results in better work than if the same individuals had been forced to work day jobs.  The idea of a world in which everyone is forced to work in order to support themselves whilst only doing what they love in the evening and weekends is a horrible thought… and yet it seems that this is the world in which we increasingly live.  The refusal of some to realise this is ultimately endangering the future viability of a healthy amateur scene as pandering to the fantasies of people who dream of quitting their day jobs comes at the cost of more work for others and more drain on the good will of an amateur scene that is already thinly stretched.

The issue of our society’s refusal to pay people to do what they love is a social and political one and it needs to be addressed at that level. The problem is with capitalism itself and that problem cannot hope to be addressed by paying a disproportionate amount to some hobbyists at the expense of others.  The blending of the amateur and professional scenes has resulted in would-be professionals feeding like beasts from the deep upon the good will of those amateurs who do offer their services to the community simply for fun and social capital.  To extract $200 for a short story from a website that is funded by good will is like demanding money for theatrical direction or musical accompaniment : Parasitical.

14 Comments
  1. August 17, 2009 3:35 pm

    How is anyone extracting anything? SH willingly pays what it wishes to pay and the donations that fund it are willingly donated on this understanding. If people felt their good will was being abused then they wouldn’t donate and, as we’ve recently seen, this isn’t the case.

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  2. August 17, 2009 3:48 pm

    There are some valid points here (most particularly the question of whether the proliferation of well-written, thoughtful opinion sites offering their wares for free has created a market in which no one can make a living off criticism), but I think you shoot yourself in the foot by assuming equivalence between several very different scenarios.

    It’s very easy to distinguish between a professional and amateur opera singer – the one works for a company, the other is a hobbyist. The difference between a professional writer and a hobbyist is much, much fuzzier, to the extent that I’m not actually sure it exists. Ted Chiang doesn’t make a living off his fiction because he publishes so infrequently, but I doubt you’d call him an amateur writer.

    On the other hand, there’s probably a relatively small percentage of the population, even within opera enthusiasts, who can tell the difference between your average professional singer and a skilled amateur, whereas the difference between professional writing and the kind that’s not ready for prime time is easily discernible even to layperson like myself. In your haste to decry authors’ greed and SH’s eagerness to accommodate it, you’re ignoring that as debased as it may be there still exists a market for genre short fiction. If authors can’t get professional rates at SH, they won’t submit there and the magazine’s quality will drop (for all that Ellen Datlow is a fine editor, I don’t doubt that a good part of SciFiction’s superlative success as a short fiction market stemmed from the fact that it paid four or five times the rate per word of any other genre magazine). There is no comparable market for reviews and criticism – I sometimes suspect that we’re the equivalent of the mainstream short fiction market, writers who write for other writers.

    I suspect you realize the irony of calling writers parasites while simultaneously calling for their wages to be transferred to critics. I’ve spoken warmly in the past about the value of criticism as a work in its own right, but even I realize that critics need writers much, much more than writers need critics.

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  3. August 17, 2009 4:24 pm

    Abigail,

    I’m not calling for the wages of short fiction writers to be transferred to critics. Emphatically not. My issue is not primarily the lack of equality between contributors… it is the sheer amount demanded for a single short story. I think there’s something very wrong with expecting $200 from a publication that is not-for-profit and which depends upon donations to stay afloat. Issues of inequality only enter into it afterwards as the increased rates for short-fiction mean that everyone else has to pull that little bit harder to make sure that the community continues to see the publication as worth supporting.

    Everyone involved in SH volunteers their support and their efforts but short fiction authors get paid. That strikes me as weird.

    As for the difference between pro and amateur, I think a couple of things :

    1) The reason why the boundary between pro and amateur writers is fuzzy is because we’ve allowed it to the term “professional” to become an indication of quality rather than of finances. Chiang is a great and (by genre standards) important writer but he’s not a professional.

    I’ve seen a number of amateur productions now. Some with singers who will probably make it as professionals, some with singers who could have been professionals but decided not to be and some with singers who used to be professional. I’ve also seen professional productions that pissed huge amounts of money up the wall and starred people who couldn’t act and had terrible-sounding (though technically accomplished) voices. In opera there’s a clearer divide but that’s because there’s actually very little professional opera about.

    2) I don’t think that being a professional writer gurantees a better quality of output than being an amateur. Some professional authors produce terrible short stories. If you removed the names from a lot of short fiction magazines I think you’d be hard-pressed to know who is a pro and who isn’t.

    Pointing to the market for legitimisation of the status quo isn’t really that helpful because the whole point of what I’m trying to get across is that while some people on the SF scene do it for the love, others demand market rates. Refusing to send your stories to a magazine that doesn’t pay market rates is a tantamount to saying “fuck you pay me”. If everyone had that attitude then places like Strange Horizons would not exist. Nobody would edit it and nobody would copy edit it. What I’m asking is, why is it okay for writers to say “fuck you pay me” while most other people seem to have gotten past that kind of Thatcherite selfishness.

    As for the parasite remark, I’m not saying that writers are parasitical upon critics. I’m saying that they’re parasitical upon genre publications.

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  4. August 17, 2009 5:11 pm

    I’m unclear on what you think the purpose of SH is. Personally, I read it mostly for the reviews, but then I am a reviewer. I don’t think John Scalzi would have rustled up anything near $10,000 had he tried to sell SH to his readers as a magazine with a great review department which also publishes fiction. Saying that writers are parasitical upon their publications is like saying that I’m parasitical upon my employer. Like any company, non-profit or otherwise, SH seeks the optimal balance between quality and cost, and that optimum is determined not only by the market but by the company the magazine wishes to keep – do you think anyone reads a lousy story and says ‘well, I suppose they’re a non-profit and have to take what they can get?’ Reducing SH’s rates will reduce the quality of the fiction it publishes, and that will cost the magazine prestige and, next time around, donations.

    There is, however, an interesting question here about who gets paid how much in semi-professional, non-profit organizations. The example I’m familiar with is my synagogue, which has been a volunteer-run organization for decades. As with any such organization, there are expenses that have to be paid – rent, printing costs, leaflet distribution – because no one in the congregation has the wherewithal to provide those services at the level we require (though good will certainly plays a part – we pay a pittance for rent because the owner of our building is sympathetic). But there are also expenses that seem discretionary, but whose elimination would cost the congregation more than it would gain – we pay our rabbi and cantor professional salaries, because they are what draws the crowd in. There’s no question that without the work of dozens of volunteers the synagogue wouldn’t run, but it’s the guys at the front who are the draw, which is why they get real money.

    A synagogue obviously doesn’t work the same way as an opera or theatre troupe – as you say, performers may volunteer their time or accept low wages in order to gain experience or simply out of love of performing, but the director will probably expect to be paid – but in any such organization there are always tasks that fall lower on the totem poll even if they’re essential to the endeavor’s success. The costumer and set designer will probably be volunteers, because a performance whose most notable aspect is the sets is a failed one. That distribution, however, varies from field to field, and it doesn’t surprise me that in short fiction magazines the bulk of the money goes to writers.

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  5. August 17, 2009 6:00 pm

    As ever, where I sit determined how I stand :-)

    I don’t read SH’s short fiction. Ever. Whenever I do dip my toes into professional short fiction publications (with the possible exception of GUD), I’m always depressed at the low quality threshold. A feeling that didn’t go away when I looked in on some of the Hugo nominees and when I recently reviewed Datlow’s Poe.

    So admittedly, my view of the issue is coloured by the fact that I don’t think that most short fiction is actually worth $200 a pop.

    Obviously, not everyone feels this way and I think for a lot of people, the short-fiction is the raison d’etre for the other stuff. People place value on the idea of bringing on the next generation of SF writers and the non-fiction is a good way of increasing the perceived value of a short-fiction publication and so increase the likelihood that people will buy it for that reason. For a long time I shared that perspective but through engaging in a few other scenes I’ve realised that rather than looking at institutions in terms of output, it’s useful to look at them as opportunities for a lot of people to take part in the artistic process. In the case of opera that’s singing, playing music, set design etc. In the case of SF publications that’s reviewing, editing, writing poetry and so on.

    Let me put it this way, there are (at least) two ways of looking at institutions :

    The first is that they are there to support a talented few. The editors at Strange Horizon work hard for no money and in return they are elevating the next generation of SF authors. Short fiction writers deserve more money than anyone else because that’s what SH is FOR… giving money to the few SF fans who might have the talent to quit their day jobs and write professionally.

    Frankly, that strikes me as sinister in its capitalistic exploitation of voluntary workers.

    The second way of looking at the issue os to place the value on community; the community that read SH or who attend amateur opera and the people who run those institutions. If community is an end in itself then it is illogical to reward fiction writers disproportionately.

    In the case of your rabbi and cantor, I would say that they’re essentially on the make. They’re in it for the money and they have the local community over a barrel. That’s fine because outside of kibbutzes I suspect that religious communities struggle without those kinds of figures to coalesce around but I would say that they’re in business… they’re not serving the community. It’s the same with the churches in London. I understand why they charge but ultimately I think that that proves that they’re not community-minded bodies.

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  6. August 17, 2009 7:06 pm

    I fail to see how the editors of SH can be exploited when they own the means of production. You are essentially saying that they don’t a right to decide what to do with their own labour.

    I know you’ve latched onto SH because of its unusual funding model but I don’t see why it should be any different to any other magazine and it seems a odd place to hang a very broad critique of capitalism.

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  7. August 17, 2009 7:48 pm

    I’m hanging on to SH because SH is not for profit and produced as a purely public good and because they’re quite open about their pay scales.

    To my mind, the fact that authors would not submit to SH were it not for the generous rates is an obvious example of a “fuck you pay me” attitude.

    Once you move over into magazines you pay for and magazines that are run for profit then the morality starts to cloud and they’re less useful in illustrating a general political point about the purpose of artistic institutions and the ways in which different groups of people interact with them. The general principle doesn’t change though : some people are community minded, others are capitalistic.

    SH are free to do as they wish, but I think that authors have them over a barrel. They can’t bring good fiction to the community for free without paying inflated prices.

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  8. August 18, 2009 5:34 am

    The prices aren’t inflated. They are precisely what the market has determined for a certain level of quality (like you, I don’t tend to read SH’s fiction regularly, but I read all the 2008 stories while preparing to nominate for the Hugo, found several I liked, and think that the problem in general isn’t the quality of the stories but an editorial slant which doesn’t quite agree with me). As I noted in the SciFiction example, what happens when you inflate your prices is that you get superlative fiction, so for those people who think SH’s primary appeal is the fiction department (and just because you and I aren’t in that group doesn’t mean we’re in the majority) there’s actually a pretty good motivation to increase the magazine’s fiction rates.

    The only way you can support your assertion that writers ought to be doing it for prestige and out of community spirit is to assume that there’s no middle ground between being a full-time writer and being a hobbyist, which is plainly not true (and requires, among other things, the absurd contention that Ted Chiang is not a professional writer). There is such a thing as supplemental income, and especially for people who work the kind of low-paying, flexible hours jobs that writers tend to get in order to allow themselves time to write, a couple thousand dollars a year (which is not a pipe dream, especially if you sell to places that pay better than SH) can make a big difference. Yes, it would be nice if everyone made art for art’s sake, but if that were the case then only the rich would make art.

    (Also, I won’t get into this at any length, but if you think our rabbi and cantor are exploiting the congregation by expecting a salary, you have no idea how hard they work for how little money.)

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  9. August 18, 2009 8:30 am

    I think that the hole in my thinking is at the level of intention : There’s no middle ground between being community minded and prancing around chanting “show me the money”.

    Hence the fact that my reaction to your cantor and rabbi is that they’re essentially working a career.

    Under this model, authors and musicians are either community minded and they sell their stuff at negligible rates or they’re on the make and they demand professional pay.

    I think the obvious response to this is “what’s wrong with wanting a career?” as under my model, the only tolerable way forward is living on some kind of commune where all wealth is automatically shared, which is why the boundaries start to go fuzzy whenever you move into professional publications that are nonetheless part of the scene.

    I’m still uncomfortable thinking about what kind of person would look at SH and go “they don’t pay enough”. That strikes me as an attitude that is utterly selfish and short-sighted.

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  10. August 19, 2009 9:11 am

    Wonderfully impassioned piece.

    My instinct is that there has always been a ruthless tension between creativity and commerce. Indeed, many of the truly greats -Goya, Mozart – were state funded. It has always been this way. It has always been difficult.

    However where it has dramatically altered is in a few key areas, some pragmatic, some psychological. Most significantly the basic cost of living has soared, and outstripped average income. Even in Thatcher’s Britain, artists were able to function on the fringes, partly due to the dole. Mark E Smith (The Fall) is a prime example of an artist who has found his niche utilising this inadvertent funding. However, with the cost of living so dramatically high in 2009, and the structure of income support dramatically altered, them that don’t work don’t eat and certainly don’t create.

    The other shift is what the internet has done to us psychologically. A whole generation raised on getting things both immediately and for free. Whilst this might allude to something truly democratic, it also undermines anyone who is genuinely trying to earn a living from their work. Revenue streams through on-line content remain almost impossible to master, hence it remains defined by theft and charity which is no good for anyone, be they creative or business orientated.

    Television, for example, is having to radically alter its funding mechanisms because the internet is undermining its profitability. TV and Film, the music industry – they’re all expensive undertakings yet their profit margins are crashing. I was speaking to a TV prodcuer the other day who told me his budget for every half hour of comedy had been reduced by the BBC by £40,000, yet the standard had to remain the same. This is absurd. It’s as if £40,000 can’t be seen in the final cut, when obviosuly it can.

    How to navigate this new terrain I’m unsure. There is plenty still to celebrate, and the world remains as creative as it has ever been. But making a living out of the culture itself? More difficult. Because the more the public gets what it wants, the more it steers the commerce towards lowest common denominator art, that is cheap to make, and utterly useless to understanding who we actually are.

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  11. August 19, 2009 9:13 am

    > That strikes me as an attitude that is utterly selfish and short-sighted.

    Short termism strikes me as an increasingly prevalent mindset. It’s why the economy has melted. It’s why the seas are rising. It’s why every bit of work has to be approved by focus groups. Having a bigger vision is increasingly anathema.

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  12. August 24, 2009 12:55 pm

    I’ve owed you an answer for a while, so sorry for the delay.

    Hence the fact that my reaction to your cantor and rabbi is that they’re essentially working a career.

    No, they’re trying to support their families. If they were career-oriented, they’d be lawyers or computer programmers, not clergymen in the Reform stream in Israel. Clearly, there’s a balancing act here – both men have accepted certain financial constraints in exchange for doing what they love and serving the community, but if the compensation for their work falls below a certain threshold, they’ll be forced to find better paying work elsewhere. The same holds for writers – if the time and energy they spend writing stories become too expensive, and compensation for them is too low, they may abandon their ambitions.

    The model you’re wishing for is a communist utopia. Which is great, but nowhere near the world we live in, and I don’t think that reducing SH’s pay rates for writers is the way to get there (if such a way exists). What it will achieve, in the short run, is to debase SH’s quality as a fiction market, and in the long run, to bring us closer to the situation I described above, in which only the rich create art.

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  13. August 24, 2009 2:02 pm

    Abigail –

    I agree, it is a communist utopia and it is ‘not the way the world works’… for now at least :-)

    As for debasing SF, I’m not sure. For example, if you look at authors like Stross or Baxter, their output would benefit hugely if, instead of writing three books a year, they wrote one book every three years. Stross has driven himself into the ground creatively (something even he acknowledges) and Baxter has tended to revisit old ideas as stop-gaps in-between periods of actual creative output. I’ve heard the same said of Zelazny… he was a great writer until he turned pro.

    As for short-fiction (as that’s what we were talking about), I generally struggle to imagine how the standard could be any lower than it currently is. Hundreds and hundreds of short stories are produced a year and of those maybe 3 or 4 are genuinely innovative and important. The rest are mostly clutter. If getting rid of high pay for short fiction meant that there was a little less clutter out there, I wouldn’t shed a tear.

    And I disagree that only the rich would be writers. Only the rich would be able to write full time (as they could afford not to work) but you would still get great and valuable works produced by people who write part-time.

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  14. August 24, 2009 2:05 pm

    Richard –

    One of my favourite theories of that ilk is the idea that alternative comedy grew out of the existence of student grants. Going to university essentially allowed people to not have to worry about money for three years and try out a creative career.

    Now, you either have to work part time as a student or be willing to put yourself in debt. Both of which tend to act against pissing about having a go at being creative.

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