A few weeks ago now I went to something called XOXO, a festival for independent artists. There are lots of recaps of this conference on the internet so I won’t try to add to that pile. But I did want to tie together two things I heard that I think are intrinsically related, and that I have been thinking a lot about myself: the ways in which money and work and public persona all intersect. I don’t have a fancy name for this, but let me explain.
Let’s start with money. There were at least three talks at XOXO that were very explicitly about money, but I’m only going to talk about two, because as Heben Nigatu so perfectly said in her talk: “I only care about women.”
So, Gaby Dunn and Lucy Bellwood both talked about financial struggles, but in really different ways. Gaby made the case for asking for more, valuing yourself, and not letting big companies and publications take advantage of you. “We think we should be grateful for the chance—often given to us by straight, cis, white men—and when they underpay us or overwork us, we should be thrilled with our own exploitation,” she wrote in a piece for Fusion. She argued that creative independent people need to know their own worth, and ask for it. For the record, I absolutely agree.
Lucy then talked about her own economic struggles: this year, she admitted on stage in front of 850 people, she got off food stamps. But she still struggles to balance a creative life that’s both financially fulfilling, and emotionally fulfilling.
Gaby and Lucy both shared a pile of stories about the juxtaposition of perceived success and financial success. Here’s another quote from Gaby’s Fusion piece (which you should just read in its entirety really):
Connor Manning, an LGBT vlogger with 70,000 subscribers, was recognized six times selling memberships at the Baltimore Aquarium. Rosianna Halse Rojas, who has her own books and lifestyle channel and is also YouTube king John Green’s producing partner, has had people freak out at her TopMan register. Rachel Whitehurst, whose beauty and sexuality vlog has 160,000 subscribers, was forced to quit her job at Starbucks because fans memorized her schedule.
Lucy had a similar story. Her comics are popular, she’s had book signings, her Kickstarter raised $43,625. And throughout all that she was barely making enough to eat.
I know what Gaby and Lucy are talking about pretty well. I make a podcast that some people listen to. I’ve been recognized at bars for it. And it makes me almost no money. Certainly not enough to cover the cost of making it. I cover my cost of living working as a freelance journalist, not doing the podcast. Which basically means I’m working two jobs and getting paid for one.
So that’s the first piece of this thing-I-am-trying-to-name. The second is something that John Roderick called “the myth of no effort” in his talk. (Clearly he is better at naming concepts than I am.) He told the story of Kurt Cobain, who, when asked about the lyrics to Nevermind said that he wrote them in a rush just before going in to record*. Hearing that at the time, as a musician, John felt so small. Here he was, spending weeks to try and come up with lyrics that he felt couldn’t compare. And Cobain just, pooped them out basically.
But Cobain was lying, John says. He worked incredibly hard on those lyrics. But the poster child for grunge, for not caring, wasn’t going to admit that.
It’s not “cool” to work hard. It’s not cool to admit that you were up all night for weeks slaving over something. Because if you admit that it was hard, that you worked really hard on it, then any critique hurts more. When it’s something you just, oh whatever, threw together, oh this? It’s nothing really, I just did it, whatever, it’s far easier to brush away any critique.
So thus is born the “myth of no effort,” the idea that true artists and creative people produce incredible work without breaking a sweat. And it’s a myth. A complete lie.
I think these two things, the struggle for independent artists to be paid a fair wage, and the myth of no effort, are inherently related. Because if we continue perpetuating the myth that this work is effortless, then why would anybody pay us for it? If these videos and podcasts and songs and comics are a breeze, if we just crap them out without much thought, then why should we expect to be paid more than a few bucks for them?
It’s important to talk about how much people are really making. Both Gaby and Lucy talked about the need to be honest and transparent about finances. But I think it’s also crucial that we tell people how much work these things take to make. Because most people, including die-hard fans, have no idea how much time goes into the things they love.
It takes me between 30 and 40 hours to make an episode of Flash Forward. That’s a conservative estimate, because it doesn’t take into account all the logistics, trouble-shooting, emailing with fans, social media, etc etc etc. When I tell people that, even people who are my friends, who know me well, they are shocked. To me, that’s actually not enough time. I know the show could be much better, but I just can’t commit any more time to it because it doesn’t make me hardly any money.
Whenever I tell a fan how long I spend on the show, about half the time their reaction is “oh my god, I’ll go become a Patron.” I’m not here to argue that Patreon is a sustainable business model, but I say this to illustrate the fact that people really have no idea how much work goes into this stuff.
I would love to know from Gaby and Lucy how long a video or comic takes to make. And I would bet that their fans have no idea. And that’s not the fans fault, really. I have no idea how long it takes to make a dress or a car or a television. I have no idea how long Gaby and Lucy spend on their work either. I bet it’s a lot of time, I could guesstimate, but I don’t actually know. And our fans won’t know how hard we’re working, how much time this takes, unless we tell them.
So this is the thing I’ve been thinking a lot about now that XOXO is done. And if you have a pithy name for it, let me know. “The financially dangerous myth of no effort” isn’t so great.
*I tried to find this interview with Cobain to verify the story, and I couldn’t track it down. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter, because there are plenty of other examples of this kind of nonchalance. But if you know if this is true about Cobain let me know. UPDATE: A Twitter person found this interview with Cobain that seems to substantiate the story. In it, Cobain says: “I don’t like to be considered the sole songwriter. But I do come up with the basics of it. I come up with the singing style and I write the lyrics, usually minutes before we record.”
Image by Tax Credits, Flickr.