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NEWSLETTER

COMING SOON!

  • Ru Pearson

Unpaid Work and the Myth of Exposure


© Collage by Ru Pearson


The arts, more than any other industry, revolve around a culture of unpaid work. But how does this impact creatives who cannot afford to work for free? For musicians in particular, the promise of a “big break” is what keeps them going. But when funding is sparse and grassroots venues are closing down, it’s not all sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll; it’s hard graft, waning opportunities, and measly performance fees.



When you imagine life as a successful musician, it can seem pretty idyllic. Money, fame, and international travel are the hallmarks of a lifestyle that most of us will only ever experience in our dreams. But the reality is less glamorous. In the UK, where government funding for the arts has decreased by 46% since 2005, opportunities for young and up-and-coming creatives are few and far between. According to the BPI, the UK music industry made a revenue of 1.32 billion in 2022. Why, then, are so many burgeoning musicians barely scraping by? One answer to this multiplicitous minefield lies in a seedy undercurrent that riddles the industry: unpaid labour and the myth of exposure.

If you are a creative, how many times have you been asked to work for free? Or undertaken an unpaid internship that may or may not offer you stable, paid work somewhere down the line? In the early stages of a career in the arts, unpaid work can sometimes feel like the only option. Sure, you might get the chance to make new connections, develop your skill set, or platform your work, but when you continuously put time, energy, and creative juices into projects that offer no monetary compensation, the shiny appeal of the industry can start to fade. All creatives, from writers and illustrators to artists and stylists, will know just how ubiquitous these issues really are. But for budding musicians - many of whom self-fund their gig expenses, tours, and travel - dealing in hypotheticals and the promise of a “big break” is an ongoing and unavoidable reality. Drawing on their experience as a songwriter for other artists, rising star Bambie Thug told me about the precariousness of the industry:

“You go into the studio, work your ass off writing a song for someone else, and you’re often not even paid for your time. You are constantly counting on hypothetical royalties. You could be in the studio for three days and, unless that song makes it, you get nothing.”

This is not unusual. According to the Musicians Union, 71% of artists have been asked to work for free and more than half have been told that the exposure gained from a gig should be taken as an acceptable imbursement. As a result, making money as a budding musician is as good as gambling. Alexandra of Vlure, a Glasgow-based five-piece who recently took to the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury festival, claims that the band have consistently struggled with money. In the earliest stage of the band’s career, they were paid in beers for a festival slot they had to travel over 300 miles for. Later, when they played their first gig in London, they were offered a mere £80 for the performance fee and travel. That barely covered half a tank of petrol. “If you’re not born with money or connections in the industry, you are at an immediate disadvantage” Alexandra says.



© Vlure at the Bermondsey Social Club, photo by Jamie Macmillan


It's no secret that the creative industries have always been considerably more accessible to people from high-income backgrounds. Who else if not those who already possess a solid degree of socio-economic mobility can regularly afford to work for next to nothing? Courtney McMahon of London-based dream rock band, Rats-Tails, tells me that:


“It’s so expensive to be in a band, and it’s a given that people who are more financially stable, or people who have rich or successful parents, have doors opened for them much more often and more quickly than kids raised in working class homes. As a working-class artist, you’re forced to build up a sort of ‘social nepotism’ instead. It’s never impossible to make it, but we just had to work extra hard to be where we are.”

The problem is not the presence of wealthy people in the industry, however saturated it may be. The problem is that it’s an unfair playing field; the system is broken if working-class creatives cannot even access the industries in which their talents lie. Funding cuts to the arts, job insecurity, and a lack of educational access at foundational levels all combine to disproportionally impede working-class creatives from flourishing in their chosen fields. In a country with such a strong tradition of the Working-Class Hero – think The Beatles, The Who, and Oasis – it’s disheartening to read that today, only 7.9% of creatives come from working-class backgrounds. So, the question must be asked, how are up-and-coming artists supposed to smash through the ‘Class Ceiling’ if they are not even paid fairly for their labour?



© Rats-Tails, photo by Diego Hernández

For Rats-Tails, playing unpaid gigs is not an option: “At the end of the day, we have a project to fund, so we don’t accept free gigs anymore. We put aside any money we earn from shows to pay for rehearsal spaces or to record.” But when grassroots venues, the lifeblood of the live music scene, are closing at the rate of one a week, unsigned artists and burgeoning bands are faced with a daunting lack of opportunities to play. “Independent venues are crucial for bands in the early stages of their careers,” Courtney claims. “They are more accessible to bands of varying levels. You can so easily message a promoter or a venue on Instagram and get a show. They’re approachable, you know? I think that makes them particularly important for working class musicians, actually. If they disappear, what are we meant to do? Contact the O2? The Roundhouse?! I think the soul of the industry would die if venues like The Windmill or The George Tavern closed down.”

While the future of these venues looks uncertain, there has been a noticeable improvement in the London gigging culture. Gone are the days of “pay-to-play” schemes, which, according to Courtney, saw bands losing considerable sums of money to promoters and venues. Instead, many independent venues now operate much fairer systems: “Venues like Paper Dress Vintage in Hackney will give you a guaranteed fee and if the event does really well, it will increase in line with that.”


This symbiotic relationship, with bands supporting independent venues and vice versa, highlights the undeniable importance of community and collaboration when it comes to self-driven creative projects. For Rats-Tails, this has never been more apparent than when working on the release of their sophomore single. ‘Coke in the 70s’ is an epic shoegaze-y track that glitters with 70s glamour, but the reality of the creative process was much more practical. With a small budget for the music video, the band had to be imaginative:


“At the time of recording, I worked at a pub with a beautiful old-style cinema attached to it and they let us film in it for free. We saved a ton of money that way. George Pritchard, who filmed it, is an old friend of mine so he gave us mates-rates. We styled ourselves too, and our friends acted as extras.” Sharing skills and utilising resources available to them made the project possible, but “the downside of doing it all yourself is the time it takes. ‘Coke in the 70s’ was recorded last winter and we filmed the video in March, but things take so much longer when you have to work alongside your creative projects.”


When making a living has to be your number one priority, creative endeavours naturally sit on the backburner. Emerging artists from privileged backgrounds are more likely to have a monetary safety net, free time, and a wealth of connections in the creative industries that facilitate gigs, tours, top-quality equipment, and opportunities. Meanwhile, working-class musicians are on the back foot, paying for projects out of their own pocket while keeping up with rent payments and the increasing cost of living. Sacrificing steady jobs for that once in a lifetime shot to make it big, low-income artists are constantly risking future security. But while it's easy to look at the current situation and feel defeated, there is hope. According to a new government report, there is a planned increase in funding to the arts on the horizon. We can only hope that it will be spent wisely, and shared fairly. Meanwhile, we can all help to promote diversity within the music industry by supporting emerging artists from all walks of life. Go to their live shows (many venues in London, such as The Old Blue Last, put on free gigs!), buy their merch if you can… just spread the word. Having these conversations is the first step in inciting real change, but we need to turn up the volume.



Rats-Tails’ single launch party is on 14th October at The George Tavern. Tickets are available on DICE.




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