Why Do Employers Lowball Creatives? a New Study Has Answers

This content has been archived. It may no longer be accurate or relevant.

From KQED:

Larissa Archer has been asked to perform for free so many times she’s lost count.

Despite her years of training, impressive resume and credibility as the founder of San Francisco Bellydance Theater, she often finds herself turning down invitations to dance for a few wrinkled dollar bills.

As Archer explains it, event producers “can’t cut corners on how much beer costs. They can’t cut corners on the rental of the venue.” But many can, and often do, skimp on the take-home pay of the talent that attracts showgoers in the first place.

And it’s not just small clubs. As KQED first reported in March, despite reaching a valuation of $1 trillion last year, tech giant Apple doesn’t pay the artists performing in its stores, compensating them with low-end merchandise such as AirPods and AppleTVs instead.

Following our report, we heard from graphic designers, musicians, muralists and comedians who say they’re frequently asked to work for “exposure” by companies large and small, sharing tales of missing payments, false promises of paid work and full-time jobs disguised as unpaid internships.

In the arts, working for low or no pay has long been an industry standard for all but the upper echelon. But as workers in other professions prone to exploitation organize for a living wage, including teachers and rideshare drivers, creatives are questioning why event producers, venue owners and companies find it acceptable to pay below the minimum wage for their work or subject them to subpar working conditions.

. . . .

Recent Duke Ph.D. graduate Jae Yun Kim, Professor Aaron Kay, University of Oregon Professor Troy Campbell and Oklahoma State University Professor Steven Shepherd studied the ways that workers’ passion is increasingly being used as a justification for their exploitation in today’s labor market.

On one hand, passion for one’s work can lead to greater satisfaction. But the researchers’ new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Understanding Contemporary Forms of Exploitation: Attributions of Passion Serve to Legitimize the Poor Treatment of Workers,” lays bare the unique ways passionate workers can be taken advantage of in a culture that encourages us to find our life’s calling at work.

Through eight different studies with over 2,400 participants, researchers discovered that people find it more acceptable for managers to ask passionate workers to work extra hours without additional pay, sacrifice sleep and family time, and take on demeaning tasks outside of their job descriptions.

. . . .

“When people read about the exact same job but learned that the person enjoyed their work, they think it’s more fair, or less illegitimate, to have them do things that would objectively be considered approaching exploitation,” says Kay. “Meaning having them do things they’re not paid for, or the company getting more benefit without giving people more of the profits.”

“Passion, or expected passion, out of that work can be seen as compensating for poor treatment,” Kim says, adding that in his native South Korea, young professionals refer to low-paying gigs as “passion wages.”

Kay explains that there’s a common misconception that if someone loves their job, they would prefer to work instead of doing other activities that contribute to a fulfilling life, which he says can be a slippery slope. “A graphic designer who works for a cool website and gets to make cool art may love their job, but they may not want to miss hanging out at their kid’s softball game over the weekend,” he says. “Forcing them to do more of it assumes it’s more joy for them, when you gotta realize that, like everyone else, they’re trying to balance their lives.”

Link to the rest at KQED

So, are authors with day jobs (or not) asked to use their writing talents for inadequate compensation on a regular basis?

20 thoughts on “Why Do Employers Lowball Creatives? a New Study Has Answers”

  1. Everyone thinks that, because you’re a writer, you can quickly toss off something useful in a couple of minutes, and thinks you’re mean for not doing it for something so worthy as [insert cause]. For free, of course.

    But no one asks dentists to.

    If they knew how much blood goes into my writing, the gore would scare them out of asking.

  2. I get this, as a musician, all the time.

    We play for free for local dance groups in our community (by choice), but if you want to book us for a wedding, pay up. Even then, the amounts rarely cover gas money.

    • musician, (n.) someone who will load $3,000 of electric guitar and amplifier into a $500 car and drive 200 miles to play a $50 gig

      • And how is that different from a person who spends 10,000 hours crafting a novel they’ll wait five years to find an agent and a publisher that’ll buy a century of copyright for $1300 (minus agent fee)?

        Humans are strange, emotion driven creatures.
        And loathe to admit their creative endeavors are more hobby than business until the IRS rears its head.

  3. Dilbert had a comic long ago where the boss admitted he knew nothing about what he wanted done but figured it shouldn’t be too hard or take too long.

    Those that have never done can have no real idea how just easy/hard something might actually be.

  4. Why do employers lowball creatives?

    Because creatives compete to work for the lowballs. There are so many creatives they can always find someone to work for the lowball.

    And nobody asks dentists to work for the lowball because dentists say, “No.”

  5. Why do employers lowball creatives? Because a lot of creatives are willing to be “lowballed”. Too many believe exposure is payment enough.

    Most people figure it can’t hurt to ask and if they get enough acceptances, they’ll figure that’s the going rate.

    The problem is enough creatives agree to work for free or predatory terms that it quickly becomes the “industry standard”.

    Like when Random House sent out their contract amendments to change digital royalties from 50% to 25% of net in return for a 2% boost in hardcover royalties. Most authors didn’t even blink before rushing to sign. Didn’t even wonder why RH was being so “generous” and didn’t realize they were swallowing a massive cut from a growing emerging market in return for a minor boost in a stagnant/declining market. It wasn’t very long when they saw ebooks grow to a quarter of the business that the griping began.

    W.C. Fields would’ve been proud of RH.

    • See Fred Dannen’s excellent Hit Men and the bits about Morris Levy in particular. He was said to be one of the record execs famous for giving artists a Cadillac in lieu of royalties, and most of them had no idea what they were being cheated out of.

  6. I agree with almost everything the commentators have said. I hate to see artists being exploited but it’s going to happen as long as people are willing/happy to work for exposure.

    Two points though:

    – some of the artist are actually only worth what they are getting paid

    – sometimes exposure can pay off. A quote from someone’s unpublished memoir, talking about a school friend: “(he) later went to art school and tried to make his living as a professional artist. After graduating, he sold two paintings to be used as greetings cards for a grand total of £55. Shortly afterwards someone asked him to design a logo for nothing, which he did on the basis that he wasn’t earning anything much anyway. It is now so famous that, with it in his portfolio, his career was transformed.”

    If only one could identify in advance the worthwhile exposure. Maybe if you are sitting round not getting paid it’s not such a bad idea to occupy yourself this way, but only if you have no reputation or hope of income at the time?

  7. Working for free, lowballs, or exposure is a rational competitive strategy. Each individual determines the probability of reaching his objectives via different strategies.

    Those probabilities can hover around zero for many, and they really don’t care that someone else has succeeded with the same probabilities. That also means many more failed.

    So an individual takes the lowball road, uploads freebies, and works for free. Others don’t like it because he prevents them from succeeding. However, our lowballer knows those who do succeed aren’t about to share with him. He also knows he gets nothing from following the advice of those who regularly warn about the race to the bottom. He’s already at the bottom, so he risks nothing by lowballing.

    This is pure competition, and suppliers have never liked to compete.

    • Some do it knowingly, as you posit.
      Others do it because they think they *have* to, that it is the *only* way to go. Fear or lack of understanding of their options.

      Rational self-interest isn’t universal.
      Incomplete or fallacious data, bias, and emotion gets in the way.
      Even economists have had to accept it.

  8. Rational decisions are made all the time based on false or fallacious data. The individual bases his decision on the information he has at the time. The rationality of the decision can be evaluated by examining the available data and the subsequent decision.

    Emotion is often a factor in the decision making process because it has a very strong effect on the objectives the individual chooses, and the values he holds. That doesn’t mean emotion gets in the way. It simply means zillions of human objectives are emotion driven.

    So, one can easily make a rational decision based on faulty information designed to secure an objective based on personal emotion.

    Economists have accepted that for a very long time. Many independent authors, however, have yet to accept that many other authors share neither their objectives nor values.

  9. “You’re a writer? Cool! I’ve always had this great idea for a book, but I’m too busy to write it. What if I tell you my idea and you write the book, and we split the earnings 50/50?”

    • A good reply might be: “Ideas are a dime a dozen and Shakespeare did most of the good ones centuries ago. Christie and Asimov did the rest.”

      • And Shakespeare stole most of his plots anyway; it’s not the idea but how he told them … and he didn’t share the profits with his sources.

Comments are closed.