Art for Hire

The annual, indie-heavy CMJ Music Marathon—sponsored by the weekly trade magazine that was once called College Music Journal—brought more than a thousand acts to New York City last month, for gigs stretching late into the night. When not playing, black-clad rockers wielded badges and tote bags around the West Village. There, the festival convened such panels as "Copyright Enforcement on the Edge," "A Day in the Life of a Successful Career DJ," and "Fan-durance: Sourcing Funding from Fandom."

All good business talk, but, ironically, CMJ did not pay its musicians. Noah Shomberg, drummer for the Denver-based band The Foot, explains that CMJ tried to sell the festival as good for exposure, but that he resorted to “negotiating our own deals with clubs.” Evan Anderson, half of the electronic duo Exes of Evil, agrees. “It’s really hard to convince people to pay you.”

Most musicians, writers, filmmakers, and painters are paid very little—a trade-off for doing what they love, the thinking goes. Since the 18th century, when our contemporary notion of detached genius emerged, we've seen art as a glamorous privilege rather than artisanal labor. But working artists are starting to talk like laborers, and unions and other groups are starting to organize the creative class. The culture industry is seeing a growing revolt led by undercompensated art workers struggling to get by.

Occupy Wall Street has played a key role in politicizing frustrated artists. Although the days of park occupations are long gone, in New York City the Arts & Labor group of OWS continues to organize well-educated freelance workers in creative fields alongside low-wage workers in restaurants, homes, and laundries, all under the banner of “precarious labor.” In October, the group held a roundtable on art criticism, which, as it turns out, is another underpaid field. “The realities of writing about contemporary art,” the advertisement said, “include a precarious living, high attrition, hard deadlines, and the charge that criticism is ‘massively produced, and massively ignored.’”

Arts & Labor has also collaborated with the musicians’ union, Local 802. On the fourth night of CMJ, in a basement rehearsal space, about 50 frustrated musicians and other art workers gathered for a panel titled "What's Fair Play?" The room was largely young and white, and many donned leather jackets and dreadlocks. A guy with a large brass instrument, on his way to a gig, proposed fighting for a “set of standards” to cover all clubs in the city. The girl sitting next to him added, "They do that in Portland."

Following the discussion, the crowd decamped for a march in support of jazz musicians, to the tune of “Take the ‘A’ Train.” The action was part of Local 802’s "Justice for Jazz Artists" campaign, and the evening’s target was the venerable Blue Note on West Fourth Street. According to a working bassist, the club pays pretty well, but it has refused to divert money into a musicians' pension fund, undermining the intent of a 2007 state law that allowed such clubs to contribute to the fund instead of paying sales taxes.

“Musicians are low-wage workers,” explained Matt Plummer, a conservatory-trained trombonist and union employee who, when I met him, was wearing a T-shirt that read "Art Killed My Dreams.” Working for free, or nearly that, is endemic to all the arts. A 40-something art critic—like many of those I interviewed, she wished to remain anonymous for fear of damaging her career—regularly writes reviews for prominent magazines and newspapers, but says she earned only $28,000 last year. Vandana Jain, a freelance textile designer, says conditions for independent artists are symptomatic of a feast-or-famine labor economy. “The American model really doesn’t allow for a lot of time off,” she said. “What is sacrificed are the brighter parts of life: family, kids, community, art—the things we are ostensibly working for.”

Many culture workers may not understand their entitlement to the basics, like the minimum wage. Eric Glatt, a laid-off financial worker who, in his late 30s, pursued a dream of working in film, landed an unpaid internship on the set of the 2010 award-winning film Black Swan. Glatt eventually retained a lawyer and is now suing Fox for his wages as an intern.

Freelancers often work under informal arrangements—written contracts are nearly unheard of—and have a hard time collecting from their clients. (A graphic designer I know was forced to take down a completed website in order to coerce payment.) In a 2009 Freelancers Union survey of 3,000 workers, 40 percent reported nonpayment. The union is currently lobbying for the Freelancer Payment Protection Act in New York, which would enable freelancers owed more than $600 to file complaints with the state Department of Labor.

Sara Horowitz, the no-nonsense founder and executive director of the 170,000-member national Freelancers Union, an organization best known for the health-insurance plans it promotes on haute-design subway ads, is a labor iconoclast who rejects traditional organizing models for workers in the “gig economy.” “The old bargain created by the New Deal was that you can work 40 hours a week and have benefits, and in exchange have stability and access to the American dream,” she says. “That’s not working right now, and it maybe never worked that way for artists and cultural workers.”

Larry Goldbetter, head of United Auto Workers’ comparatively tiny 1,100-member National Writers Union, is also open to new tactics but thinks unions can help: “We’re facing the same problems all workers are facing, including the transition to the digital age.” Goldbetter, who previously drove a long-haul truck and worked in sanitation, believes that freelance writers have a lot in common with industrial laborers—though it’s not clear that collective bargaining will do them any good.

In the fine arts, though, the solutions seem less certain. “[Traditional] labor is a problematic organizing framework for me,” says Erin Sickler, an art curator. “It’s a problematic way of looking at the economy.” Sickler, who has worked in low-wage manual labor and owes $90,000 in student debt, hopes “to get artists to stop looking to institutions and start looking to each other for mutual aid.” She and her roommate Caroline Woolard—founder of the “Trade School,” where students and teachers barter for instruction in particular skills instead of paying cash—are pursuing alternative means of compensating workers and cooperative ways to deal with our contemporary economy.

The time seems ripe for an insurgency among the creative class. When Glatt, the Black Swan intern, filed his lawsuit last year, he says that “everyone assumed this is a bunch of whiny, Gen X 20-somethings who expected to be in pitch meetings with Aronofsky about camera angles.” Things are different now, he says. “People get it much more. It’s now impossible not to consider inequality, how the system functions and doesn’t function.”

Reporting this piece got me thinking about my own freelance past and future. I remembered gigging, years ago, with an indie rock band and being compensated in watery beer. Our front woman, a true hustler, was constantly doing the starving artist’s math: time spent as a masseuse for pay, massaging dewy corporate shoulders, minus the time she needed for rock ‘n’ roll. More recently, when I began writing in earnest, I resolved to only write for pay. Sometimes this meant very little—$27 for a poem, $50 for an article—but too often, I found myself writing for no money at all.

A few weeks ago, I started wearing an “Art Worker” button produced by the Arts & Labor group at Occupy Wall Street. I prefer its message to the alternative, summed up in this tip from the Columbia Journalism Review: “Before you make the freelance leap make sure you have a plush financial cushion.”

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