My words are worth not(h)ing.

I really like those blogs/articles/speeches/songs which begin with the author recounting a character-defining piece of knowledge which was passed on to them from their father. Those are great. Wisdom passed down from generation to generation. Maybe I like it so much because I’ve never really experienced it. I didn’t grow up without a father, my father just isn’t very wise. He’s a lovely bloke and a brilliant dad but… you know. My mum, on the other hand – super intelligent. A professor, no less. Genetically, I therefore fall somewhere awkwardly in the middle of the spectrum. I’m just about bright enough to realise how little I know.

I ask a lot of questions because, although I have an intuitive intellectual response to most issues, I constantly worry that I just haven’t understood the discourse. I rarely speak seriously in absolutes and get frustrated when arguments are broken down into defined opposing camps of which, if I don’t choose one, I’m unwillingly placed into one to help someone else make their point.

I’m going to bore you with one more piece of biographical context before I get to the point of this blog. How I came to be here. How I came to be a Huffington Post blogger. The truth is, I know very little about HuffPo besides the correct way to abbreviate it. Until recently, I just knew it was ‘bad’ – that it exploited its contributors and was part of an evil mega-corporation. It was accepted knowledge, I’d never actively found out about it, but that was the buzz that seemed to surround it. I was very happy blogging away on my Grumptimism blog, which got a few hits here and there but generally was untroubled by interest. I don’t consider myself a blogger. It’s not listed on my business card. I keep the blog to get stuff off my chest, keep my writing muscles well exercised and see if other people feel the way I do about things. I’ve never considered it a potential living, I hold no ambition or aspiration for it. I just enjoy it. My day-job is any number of things around the theme of films – I make films, I teach film-making, I critique scripts for a literary agency. I don’t have much money but don’t live the kind of life that requires much.

A few weeks ago, on Twitter, I saw a self-proclaimed ‘high profile woman on Twitter’ write:

Every single time you say “I’ll do it for free” you’re actually saying “I am worth nothing” Don’t work for ANYONE who won’t pay

I voiced disagreement – having taught screenwriting for years, I’m aware that in this industry, you have to go through an initial period of giving it away and being screwed over before you’re experienced and valued enough to earn a decent living from it. Indeed, the experience alone is often more valuable than money in terms of education and exposure. What followed was a few days of public nastiness in which, apparently unable to debate her position, she resorted to making public baseless accusations of harassment which were entertainingly contradicted when I published her private correspondence with me. In those few days, my blog got more hits than it had got in all the years I’ve been doing it. The argument got so muddied it became worthless but at one point she mentioned the Huffington Post being exploitative and I agreed. I realised quickly how stupid that had been as I really had no actual knowledge of it, so I did some reading and subsequently rescinded my comment. The irony of the whole kerfuffle was that this bought me to the attention of the HP who read and liked my writing and offered me a position (unpaid) blogging for them. The offer sounded good to me. Although they weren’t offering pay, they weren’t expecting anything of me. I wasn’t to be a journalist, so wasn’t working for them, they were just happy to publish my views whenever I wanted to offer them. I could submit as often as I liked, they wouldn’t censor or interfere, they held no copyright and I was welcome to publish the same posts anywhere else or even sell them. What did they get out of it? Content. What do I get? A platform where my writing can be seen by an audience of over 3,000,000 readers. What’s to lose there? At the point where I’ve just self-released my first feature film (http://www.acpgthemovie.com), I could use a bit of platform.

The seemed to divide my friends of both the real-life and internet varieties. Half of them were happy for me that my talent had been recognised and was to reach a wider audience, the others (who were mainly writers/bloggers/etc) politely mocked me.

Today on Twitter, I found myself politely arguing with a gaggle of Tweeters all of whom I really like and respect. (@LFBarfe, @angusbatey and @brokenbottleboy) they’re all published writers, excellent wits and far more eminent than I. That said, I just couldn’t get with their contentions.

Again, I’m hearing people talk about getting paid for a fair day’s work. I didn’t understand people’s issues with HuffPo because it was entirely voluntary. They weren’t forcing me to work long hours and pay me miniscule wages, they weren’t claiming copyright over my work. They were just saying ‘you give us content, we’ll give you exposure’ – seems like a fair swap to me. Nobody is going to their site specifically because I blog there. I’m not bringing much to the table. Am I saying “I am worth nothing” like that high profile woman on Twitter has warned? Yes. Yes I am.

Because here’s the important divide; there is a difference between the value of art and the commerce of it.

I’m not saying my writing has no intellectual or cultural value – it does, I’m brilliant – I’m saying it has no commercial value as nobody has ever heard of me. And I’m fine with that. Perhaps one day the HuffPo exposure will lead to my work having commercial value. That would be lovely.

I totally get where the Twitter lads and even the high profile woman on Twitter are coming from. They’re in a different position to me. They’re established professionals who are suddenly seeing a huge change in the media, people who have made a living from writing who are unfairly getting caught in a landslide of inexperienced people like myself happy to offer content for exposure rather than money. That sucks, it’s really not fair on them (except the woman – sod her).

But then, life isn’t fair. Three times, as a professional, I’ve had similar things happen to me.

The first was when I was 12 years old and started my first business. This is true, by the way. I found out that a computer games manufacturer was offering a wholesale fire sale deal. For £50, I could buy a box of computer games with a retail value of £300. I could sell them in the playground no probs. I reasoned with my parents as I begged for investment that at the very worst, if I couldn’t offload them at the 600% mark-up, I was hardly likely to lose money. When the box arrived, it was full of less-popular games for older formats. I barely sold any. Certainly couldn’t pay my folks back.

Twenty-one years later, I had to close down my tiny chain of two indie video shops because, well, people no longer rented videos. They bought them from supermarkets for cheaper than we could buy our copies in, they illegally downloaded them, they joined Lovefilm. To me, paying £3 to see the film once was a good, fair price, apparently time had rendered me wrong.

In the last few months, I self-released a film I made (did I mention? Http://www.acpgthemovie.com) this seemed sensible as it was a documentary about Radiohead, Supergrass, Ride, Foals and some other huge bands, featuring new interviews and never-before-seen archival of all of them. I made it completely independently, own it 100%, worked my arse off on it for almost 5 years – having to give up paid work from September until now just to deal with finishing it, touring it, publicising it and doing all of the mail orders from my house. How much money did I make after 5 months hard graft? Nothing, I’m still in debt.

Each of those three things were done for the thrill of doing them and I’m so glad I did all of them. Maybe it’s my love of doing something that gets in the way of my ability to monetise it. Maybe a complete lack of business acumen. Most likely, I’m just one of those idealists who is unable to accept that there is a huge difference between a thing of cultural value and financial value. Who knows. All I know is that at each of those three moments in my life, confused, depressed and skint, I found myself at some point sat quietly with my dad, throwing my arms up and shaking my head, saying ‘I can’t understand how I’ve still got no money’ and on each of those occasions, he said the same thing to me –

“Something is only ever worth what somebody is willing to pay for it”

Clever bloke, my dad.

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Published in: on February 10, 2012 at 11:46 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. Hello Jon,

    Thanks for taking the time to engage with the issues and examine them so carefully. They’re vitally important for the future of any industry that involves creating intangible goods, especially if they’re easily copied, and that clearly includes films such as the one you’ve spent all that time on as well as the journalism we discussed on Twitter the other day, and of course music and software and so on and so forth.

    I take the point you’re making and I respect the position you’ve taken, but I feel you’re missing a couple of elements of what Mic and I were trying to argue. That’s as much a factor of trying to discuss complex issues the compressed space of <140 as anything else, I expect. The main point where we differ, I think, is that, respectfully, I believe you're wrong to say that your work has no commercial value because people don't go to HP to read you specifically.

    Firstly, I'm sure that when you post there you link to your work, whether that's on Twitter or Facebook or here, and that some people – admittedly small numbers, but not zero – will go and read what you've written as a result. If you do this, you are not only providing HP with free "content", you're also advertising and promoting their site, and you are giving them additional eyeballs which they can sell ads to and monetise in other ways. That clearly has value to HP, and indeed is an important part of their growth strategy and commercial proposition. When I write for a newspaper or magazine I am not under the illusion that anyone actually buys it because they're curious to read the latest piece by me – they buy it because of a number of different factors, such as what's on the front cover, whether a particular issue discussed is important to them, or out of habit – but those magazines and newspapers all recognise that the work I have done adds to the package of information they are selling, and pay me a fair rate (well, usually…!) for my contributions.

    Secondly, even if the sums are small, HP makes money out of your work. Every time it's read, even if those times are few and far between, they will be making some amount of cash, however small a fraction of a ha'penny it is. I don't know specifically if HP has ever ruled out sharing revenues with contributors on the grounds that the sums are so small that the cost of accounting that way would make doing so uneconomical, but other publishers do make this point. I think that's bollocks, frankly: if algorithms can be written to serve relevant ads to individual users based on browser histories, surely someone can come up with a quick and easy automatic mechanism to count up individual page views and divide ad revenues accordingly. It's just an excuse, akin to the one that a fellow freelance journalist friend once was given, apparently in all seriousness, by a commissioning editor at a print magazine that didn't pay, who said that "we find paying our contributors reduces our profits."

    Thirdly, the business proposition HP offers you – exposure in return for work, which you can then hopefully turn into money, or opportunities for other paid work – is manifestly not working in your case. If it had done so, you would have seen increased sales of your film. This concept – that wide exposure on the internet will help creators of journalism, music, film, etc. to reach wider audiences and therefore enable them to profit from their work – is I feel perhaps the biggest and most iniquitous lie of the internet age. It's most frequently deployed by people – like HP – who make money out of others' labour and are unwilling to pay for that labour in actual legal tender, because they want to keep all the money for themselves.

    Fourth, I don't agree with your conclusion – it is your conclusion, really, although I realise you don't make it in quite these terms – that just because your work hasn't broken even means it has no commercial value. I've not seen it so I can't comment either way (though I will be buying a copy as soon as I've finished here – a direct result of your own work on your own site, and nothing to do with your work for HP, I might add; except thematically), but I doubt very much that it is intrinsically without commercial value. More likely you've just not been able to alert sufficient numbers of people likely to be interested in it to its existence as yet. The internet is supposed to be the mechanism that allows us as creators of this type of work to alert everyone on the planet to what we do – but in reality this doesn't happen.

    You talked in one of your Tweets about a "level playing field" and I tried to make the point that it doesn't really matter how level the field is when it's so huge: the chances of a mass audience even noticing the most talented players on that field are ridiculously small. As one of your documentary subjects – Radiohead – have most vividly demonstrated, the internet can be a powerful tool used successfully, if you're already an established brand with a large fan base. The reason why artists like the Arctic Monkeys, Sandi Thom and Sean Kingston got press for having risen to prominence via Myspace was not because this is the new way people will become successful, but because their stories are rare and therefore remarkable. They are exceptions, not the rule.

    This is why I feel so strongly about the HP business model being a wholly negative force: it is built on a lie. Your experience, and that of thousands of other unpaid bloggers for HP and countless other sites with similar attitudes, underscores that exposure does not translate into renown or income. The very fact that you have interpreted this as confirming your view that your work has no commercial value depresses the shit out of me, because it says that HP are winning. They are convincing even those willing to work for them that writing is not something that is worth paying for – while sitting back and raking in the money that their large unpaid contributor base makes for them. There is a fundamental and inherent contradiction there – you doing stuff you feel has no value while a corporation profits from it – and that contradiction has become a cancer eating away at the creative industries from the inside. They are helping to destroy your confidence in your own skills and abilities and judgments; they are profiting from turning what can rightly and accurately be considered "work" into a hobby.

    Just because you enjoy something and are passionate about doing it does not automatically mean that it is not work, any more than it means that work is only work if you find it unpleasant; similarly, the fact that your work has not found a mass audience yet does not automatically mean it is lacking in commercial value. In terms of hard work, artistic worth and extreme effort to find new ways of monetising what they do, another Oxfordshire band, Goldrush, spring to mind: I don't know if they're in your film or not but they're a fine example of how hard work and talent and innovative thinking doesn't always translate into commercial success – but surely you would agree that the fact that they failed to become a household name does not mean that their work over many years can ultimately be said to have had no inherent commercial value.

    The opportunities the likes of HP offer are not to get a foot on the ladder, they are adding countless extra rungs at the bottom of that ladder. They are making it more likely that you will not reach break-even on your film, not bringing you closer to the day when you turn a profit from it. And they are doing this to feather their own nests. To me, they represent exploitation in its purest form and I find their behaviour despicable. Though of course they are far from alone in any of this. I think you should continue writing on your own blog – retain control over your work, and promote yourself, not a money-making brand that won't ever pay you back. You will generate more genuine interest and indirect income in the long run, of that I am convinced, and you will feel a greater sense of self-worth – both personally and about your output – than when contributing to an exploitative business's bottom line.

    Good luck and thanks for treating this subject as seriously as it should be treated.

    Cheers,

    AB

  2. A very interesting discussion. Academic publishing is a far worse rip-off. My research is effectively paid for from the public purse but I don’t get paid for the papers I write, apart from the occasional small handout from the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (which all published writers should join, http://www.alcs.co.uk). I don’t get paid as a journal editor or reviewer, either. Journal publishers get their content for nothing and charge huge subscriptions to university libraries… which are also funded from the public purse. The peer review system which the government has set up to allocate research funding (originally the Research Assessment Exercise, now the Research Excellence Framework) makes publication in top journals even more essential for an academic career, which gives publishers even more power.


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