Death from exposure

March 20, 2014

Working musicians, especially those trying to launch their careers or take them to the next level, are all too familiar with the idea of playing for “exposure”—in other words, playing gigs for free with the idea that maybe it will somehow lead to paying gigs.

Playing for free is one thing; there’s no reason you can’t do a favor for a friend, or show up at a jam session for fun and/or practice. But it’s more insidious when your unpaid labor is fueling somebody else’s profits. This seems to be a phenomenon that particularly affects creative types: the same people who want your band to play at their event for “exposure” or “experience” are no doubt paying the waitstaff, stage crew, or what-have-you, because people in those jobs simply don’t work for free.

Photo, Mark Robinson
Photo, Mark Robinson

The fallacy here is that the prospective employer is offering you exposure and experience and networking instead of money, as if the alternative were gigs that paid money but didn’t offer those things. That simply isn’t the case: you get all those benefits from paid gigs, too, plus you get to pay your rent that month.

I’m discovering the same issue with this blog. I am always pleased and flattered when someone finds my posts interesting or useful. But recently I heard from a major woodwind business, one you have most certainly heard of if you are a woodwind player. An intern (again: unpaid labor for “experience” [note: I have been informed by the company in question that their interns are paid. hooray!]) contacted me, bubbling over with excitement about the suggestion that the company might like to copy some of my blog posts to their own website and call attention to them in their email newsletter. By way of (non-)compensation, a link would be provided back to my site. “What we are offering is increased traffic to your website,” the intern enthused.

I have been down this road before, and I know that this situation is going to get me a tiny traffic boost the day the newsletter is published, and very little after that. But a copy of my content will live on the company’s website indefinitely, drawing away traffic that otherwise would have been mine, and diluting my online presence.

I suggested a compromise: a summary or quote from one of my posts, with a link for people to finish reading the article at my site. Nope. Apparently the company isn’t really that interested in sending traffic my way—they want to fill their own site with good content to build awareness of and loyalty to their own brand (no surprise there; they are a business). They are surely paying web hosting expenses and a web designer, a marketing team, etc. (with the pitiful exception of the intern). But they want the content for free.

I give my content away, directly to the reader, for free at my own website, but I retain the copyright. If someone wants to read it, they visit my site or retrieve one of my feeds. I make an astonishingly tiny amount of money from minimal advertising, the occasional affiliate product link, and a few donations. But the content remains under my control, in a single canonical copy.

Don’t fall for the flattery. Playing (or writing) “for exposure” means your “employer” is keeping your paycheck for themselves.

Comments

  1. Bill Plake

    Glad you’re addressing this issue here, Bret. Musicians love to play so much, that it’s difficult to resist the temptation to play for free. I stopped doing that years ago. Your points and your logic for resisting the temptation are spot on. Not only does it lead to nothing for the artists, it devalues our work in general.

    Regarding web content, I have had to learn this same lesson all over again. Your experiences with this reflect mine, as well. I’ve even had someone request to post one of my articles (with credit, links, etc.) only to find out when I visited the site that they didn’t even do that. (I had them take down the content they “borrowed” from me. Never again. Great that your giving us this info and (for folks like me) reminder. Thanks!

    Recent blog post: The Positive Power Of Saying “No” (March 11, 2014)

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  2. Michael Schuster

    Thanks so much for addressing this issue. I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve said. As professional musicians, we must avoid this ‘race to the bottom’ where it is impossible to compete with someone who will give away their services. I would also like to put in a plug for the American Federation of Musicians, which has fought hard to maintain union standards in a difficult environment.

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  3. […] a week ago, I posted this article by Bret Pimentel to my Flipboard magazine. The gist of the article is that musicians should not do […]

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