in the future, we pay artists
“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” -Fannie Lou Hamer
Even during a global pandemic and nationwide uprisings against anti-Black violence, requests for underpaid and unpaid labor filled artists’ inboxes.
Last summer, I received numerous requests for consultation, workshops, and information via Facebook message, email, and phone calls. Most came from white and non-Black people, often without a greeting or upfront offer of payment. Organizations that purport to value equity, transparency, and inclusion have responded to my requests around pay equity with defensiveness and incremental increases. I have invested a lot of uncompensated time and energy advocating for fair pay, reading and responding to requests, and wondering whether I was extra for wanting more than I was offered.
Even when organizations claim to value diversity, they often disregard the material reality of marginalized people. Even during a pandemic. Even during massive, fiery displays of unrest. As is the case under capitalism, the product is frequently valued above the well-being of the people who create it.
The notion that artists do not need pay is ingrained in our society. Such thoughts pervade the minds of those in and beyond theatre spaces:
We do it because we love it, we’re good at it, and it’s important.
The money doesn’t matter.
They should be grateful they get paid at all.
And I wonder:
What will it take for people to pay artists and pay us well?
After months of pondering and ranting, I feel called to write this. I hope that anyone who reads this will feel empowered to take steps to support and pay artists fairly.
First Things First:
As a theatre artist, I am writing primarily about artists in the performing arts, including actors, directors, set designers, drag performers, stage managers, singers, comedians, etc. I hope this may be relevant for other artists, healers, and workers whose work is undervalued by society.
These recommendations are mainly directed at producers. I define a “producer” as anyone in charge of gathering people together to create a piece of art, generally with the intent to share it with an audience, regardless of their main creative identity. A playwright organizing a reading of their work on Zoom would be considered a producer. Producers decide to take on a project and thus have the power to determine how much people get paid. This could be an individual, a collective, or an organization.
By “professional,” I mean “by trade,” as in, people who have committed to their art form as a path to sustain themselves with time, energy, education, and/or money, even if capitalism makes it hard to do so.
I write with a post-March 2020 lens. The pandemic, uprisings, and coup attempts have had an immense impact on artists and our communities. Things that were accepted by some in the past will no longer work. They do not work during this current pandemic moment, and they will not work in the future. We are tired, traumatized, grieving, and unsafe. We must forge a new path. #WeCanNeverGoBackToBefore
This piece is a labor of love rooted in my commitment to Black liberation.
Who are you? Why are you talking about this?
I am a Black queer non-binary theatre artist, playwright, director, writer, curator, producer, sketch comedian, and educator. I’ve been a theater kid since 6th grade and started producing by accident in college. I have a degree in Sociology and half an MFA in theatre. I love Black people and want us to be free.
Why should I pay artists?
Here are nine reasons:
- Art is their job. Artists are skilled, talented, and experienced. They practice, take lessons, get degrees, and buy supplies. They invest a lot of time, energy, and money into developing their craft, just as someone goes to medical or trade school.
- Artists need to eat and pay rent. They also need to pay for their websites, supplies, ongoing training, childcare, health insurance, taxes, classes, and application fees. While they may have other jobs, it is not fair to expect everyone to want or be able to work so many hours and still create.
- Art is essential. We all appreciate and enjoy art. We are necessary and crucial parts of our communities and society.
- Virtual performance is a lot! Many artists are responsible for duties they wouldn’t have to handle in person, including filming, tech, and costuming. The pandemic requires new software and equipment. Artists have transformed their homes and boosted their home WiFi. These new expectations extend far beyond those of The Before Times.
- Payment establishes a business relationship. If the collaboration does not work out, you can end the relationship without it being personal. Without the business relationship, the artists are just doing you a favor. Contracts help.
- Money allows them to be invested in the project and prioritize it. If they are not paid well, it is more likely they will have to put paid opportunities first. They may have to come late, skip rehearsal, drop out, or check out. Paying artists allows them to focus on their work, whether they have other paying jobs or not.
- Artists are generally paid as independent contractors. Many artists are self-employed, making their taxes more complicated. They have to independently procure insurance, pay taxes, and continually seek gigs and jobs. They do not generally have paid time off or benefits.
- THERE’S A GLOBAL PANDEMIC.
- Black people are disproportionately affected by everything about this pandemic. We watched our siblings murdered while everyone was supposed to be inside, and then switched tabs to see emails asking for free labor from organizations who claim we matter. We must get paid. We deserve to be paid, regardless of who leads the project.
How much should I pay artists?
A guaranteed liveable wage.
You can look to unions to see what standards are in your industry. As I am not in a union, I will share my thoughts and process.
A guaranteed wage is written in a contract, promised, paid, and not dependent on uncertain funding, box office sales, or donations.
Because people have been fighting for fifteen for years, $15 an hour is no longer a liveable wage in the united states. $10 for a cabaret performance is not a liveable wage. $200 for a 6-show run with an 8-week rehearsal process is not a liveable wage. Box office split is not a liveable wage. “We’ll see what grants we get” is not a liveable wage.
Do some math. How much is a liveable salary in your area? How much do people need to afford rent, food, transportation, childcare, and student loans? How much more do they need for vacation or to buy food for the local free fridge?
Divide that number by 12 for the monthly salary, and then by 4 for a week. If someone works 40 hours a week, how much would they need to make an hour? If we want to live in a world where people don’t have to work 40+ hours a week to survive (I do not), use an even smaller number, like 20 hours.
Also, consider everything the role entails:
- Is this a cold reading where actors can just show up? Pay them for the time they are in reading.
- Does the dramaturg need to read your play and prepare notes before you meet? Pay them for your meeting and additional preparation time, or factor that into the meeting rate.
- Will the drag performer need to record and edit their piece? Increase the rate to include this work (vs. what it might be for a live show).
- Is your collaborator expected to answer lots of emails beyond a standard bio request? Do they need to attend workshops or attend to press requests? Factor this into the contract.
What if I donate part of the proceeds instead?
Donating is great! However, are you donating instead of adequately compensating your artists? Do Black Lives matter if you donate to an organization but do not sufficiently pay the Black artists involved in the project?
Ensure your (marginalized) artists are compensated before jumping to donate proceeds, especially to large non-profits with more access to funding. If contributing to fundraisers is important, you can always budget contributions alongside fair compensation.
But I am just a small producer!
- Great! Producing involves fundraising. That’s part of the role. Make a campaign, bake cookies, ask your friends. Find some sponsors. Apply for grants.
- You also don’t HAVE to be the (sole) producer. Can you find a larger organization to produce your piece? Can you collaborate with another group to combine resources?
- If you’re looking for people outside of your BFFs and decide to advertise this position on forums for professional artists, either be clear that you are asking for volunteers, or pay people. Consider: Is your art so crucial and important it needs to involve unpaid labor? In a panny?
What if I really can’t get the money?
Here are some options:
- Downsize! Keep the team small so people are paid well.
- Change the format. Have a reading instead of a full production. Publish your script online instead of having a reading. Produce a 10-minute excerpt instead of the whole piece.
- Wait until you do have the money.
- Collaborate with your friends and community of volunteers. You are no longer hiring professional artists, but having fun with your friends. That’s okay! Be upfront about it if you are posting a call.
- Don’t do it. Take a nap. There’s a pandemic. You deserve to rest.
So people can’t volunteer ever?
In our society, volunteering is often considered charity. People with more give to people with less. Rich people put their money in foundations to dictate how social ills should be addressed while also getting tax breaks (see: The Revolution Will Not Be Funded). Volunteering is seen as something good people do in their spare time to feel good or have fun. Anyone who asks for money when someone else would volunteer is greedy. Who is able to donate their time. Who does that exclude?
What does it mean for so many artists to pop up to say, “well, I’ll do it for free,” instead of supporting those who request pay? What if we focused on mutual aid and building up our communities? What if we saw everyone as worthy of having their needs met?
This doesn’t mean volunteering is bad. The issue arises when underpaying artists and expecting free labor is normalized. Inequity is reinforced when:
- Producers seek professional actors without offering adequate compensation.
- Producers specifically seek marginalized artists without fair pay.
- People reach out to professional artists and ask them to do unpaid work.
- People shame artists for asking about pay rates.
- Marginalized people are viewed as demanding for asking for what they deserve and require.
- Marginalized artists who cannot afford to volunteer have access to fewer opportunities.
- The above situations happen during a pandemic. Or to Black artists during Black History Month. Or ever.
Reciprocal creative relationships can exist alongside advocacy for equitable pay.
If white people want to donate their time to raise money for Black trans artists, cool. If this is a chill passion project and you don’t mind if the artists are less experienced or untrained, or if it takes three years to complete because of everyone’s schedules, sure.
If you are going to ask for people to volunteer, especially in a public space:
- Be explicit that this is a volunteer opportunity and that you are asking people to donate their time and energy (and possibly money if they have to travel, get supplies, etc.).
- Do not try to convince them of the value of this opportunity by highlighting “exposure” or forms of compensation that can’t pay a bill.
- Do not tell a sad story about why you can’t or won’t pay people more. Scrappy, unpaid theatre does not a martyr make, no matter the justification.
- Consider some exchange to show appreciation and/or make the experience easier, whether that’s providing dinner, paying for their transportation, or promoting their work.
What about podcasts, features, and interviews?
These are part of an artist’s work. If you are able (i.e., if you’re not a journalist) and the ask is significant (i.e., answering interview questions or an hour-long podcast), pay people. If you pay, the artist will be more likely to prioritize your project and get back to you on time. You are paying for their time, energy, expertise, and experience. If you can’t pay, stick to your friends or trusted colleagues who love you. You can also pay your friends if you value their time, work, and labor. Exposure doesn’t pay the rent.
Transparency Note: The Starfruit Project previously did not pay artists for interviews or features. Moving forward, artists will be compensated for such work.
Am I a bad person if I have asked people to do things for free or less in the past?
I don’t know. A lot of people have been doing their best. We can still do better.
Am I a bad person if I do work for free or not a lot?
Probably not. It’s great your needs are met allowing you to work for free. If you’re not getting your needs met, you deserve better! Either way, solidarity in the fight for fair pay, across industries, is important if we’re ever going to get free.
Am I a bad person if I ask people to do things for free/less in the future?
I don’t know you. If you are invested in liberation, it’s a great time to embody and create the change we want to see. We just have to choose to do so.
Anything else I should think about?
- Put the specific payment amount in the announcement! Don’t make people ask. Don’t yell at people who ask about compensation or question unfair pay.
- Advocating for fair pay is not an attack. When we love our communities, we want everyone to be paid fairly and paid well, even if we as individuals are willing or able to work for less.
- Hire and compensate marginalized people for their formal & informal consulting work.
- Dissolving and redistributing resources (money or otherwise) are always options for messy white organizations, instead of hiring marginalized people to clean up your messes.
- It is okay to pay your friends for their work.
- Talk about money. Tell your friends what you are paid and share how much you are paying. The hush-hush attitude around pay only reinforces pay inequity and permits further worker exploitation.
- Pay artists for residencies, fellowships, and other educational programs, especially if those artists are from marginalized groups. If artists are paid, they can better commit, contribute, and create. Otherwise, this unpaid work, done for “education” and “exposure,” can become another barrier to financial stability and general well-being.
What about The Starfruit Project, HUH?
I have mentioned to several people that The Starfruit Project has paid people way more, often exponentially more, than what they are offering artists. In the past, I lived in the same “this work is Very Important so people can be underpaid” martyr mindset many people cling to now. While The Starfruit Project has not presented any productions where artists did not receive any money, the pay has not always been an equitable, guaranteed, liveable wage. One production was postponed indefinitely after several people dropped out, and people were not compensated for their time. None of this was acceptable. These past practices do not align with the vision I have for art-making and liberation in our world. I am grateful to have learned to be better and to be committed to supporting the artists I collaborate with.
I share these rates not as proof or out of pressure, but to demonstrate that we can be committed to loving each other better. The productions below featured work by Black LGBTQ lead artists, though not all actors involved were Black and/or LGBTQ.
In the Before Times:
non-linear was a part of Free Fringe Philly. The artists received a split of the donations, which was $8 each.
For Saved You A Plate, everyone was paid $200 for approximately ten rehearsals and a final hour-long staged reading.
Since the Pandemic:
- Artists were paid $100 for their participation, which consisted of a 2-hour rehearsal and a 10-minute performance during a 1.5-hour event.
- The stage manager and stage directions reader received $50 for their work during the event.
queer cheer holigay special:
- Lead artists received $200 for a 2-hour rehearsal and a 10-minute piece. The piece was either recorded or performed live during the one-hour event.
- Actors were paid $150 for the 2-hour rehearsal and a 10-minute performance during the one-hour event.
- People who participated in the video montage received $50.
The Starfruit Project is committed to this $50/hr rate, and rates will be stated in any calls for artists.
I dream of a world where artists thrive. Where the beautiful homes, full fridges, and retirement savings aren’t reserved for the artists on TV or at institutions. Where Black and trans and disabled artists can choose which projects they want to take on without fear. Where artists can access care, support, and celebration with ease. I dream of a world where artists have everything they need to birth the creations that make our lives better.
What we tend to will grow. If we care for artists, their creativity and well-being will bloom. If we defend our neglect and exploitation of artists, that is what will continue to fester.
In the future, we pay artists. We have to. The pandemic has offered us an opportunity to change and get it right. We can run from this call, continuing to exploit artists’ passion, or we can step into the light and choose better.
If you feel called:
Originally published at https://www.thestarfruitproject.com on February 10, 2021.