You may be aware of a spreading manifesto urging all freelance content providers in the creative and media industries to stop working for free. If you are unaware, you should read it now.
This manifesto and unofficial movement has been written and ignited by legendary music journalist Barney Hoskyns and, with the support of musician and photographer Mark Pringle, has set up a popular and lively Facebook group that has quickly amassed a large (and growing) number of enthusiastic supporters.
Fortunately for me, I work for these two outspoken guys at Rock’s Backpages where we believe the written word and those who have written them have fiscal worth – hence our online library of music journalism being behind a pay wall – and it was only when I began working for Rock’s Backpages that I realised that me, my time and my work was worth something too. This week marked my one year anniversary of being employed by Rock’s Backpages and finishing my English Literature degree, and in that time my attitude towards working for free in the field of music journalism has undergone some serious alterations.
Believe me, I’ve done my fair share of working for free in the form of long term internships, short stints of work experience and giving my writing away for no money in return, and sometimes, no thanks either. So when young, aspiring students and graduates wanting to work in media raise their objections to Hoskyns’ rallying cry for a unified movement against unpaid labour of, “Well how else will we crack our way into the industry?” they should know that their response is an expected one, and it’s an issue that requires sympathy and reform.
I first began taking on unpaid work experience whilst I was at college and studying for my AS-levels. I began by working as an unpaid but credited researcher on a music documentary which then led to a contact at a national music magazine who offered me a week of work experience. From that point on, throughout college and university, I used my Easter, Christmas and summer holidays to take on more unpaid work placements – some good, some bad and some ugly. One work placement saw staff laughing about previous interns to me, with me knowing they would most likely do the same about me to their next nameless minion. Another asked me to take a spelling and grammar test before being allowed to write picture captions, which would have been fine had the answers to their own test been correct. A further low point was when one major publication failed to provide me with a desk or chair to work at for the duration of my time with them.
So far, so The Devil Wears Prada and at the time, whilst I was a student and embroiled in these experiences, each one did seem important and utterly vital to me ever achieving any success. But were they? No, not all of them. What I found most useful was the free advice I was soliciting from music journalists I was coming into contact with, rather than the free work I was handing out to them. The unflinchingly honest advice one journalist in particular gave me about my writing was more valuable than any work experience could be. Following his criticism I wrote a review that won me a Record of the Day award which proved to be a pivotal advancement for me being able to leave unpaid work behind.
The final nail in the coffin came when a magazine asked me to tally up how much they owed each of their freelancers who had contributed music reviews to their current issue. So when I began writing for them following the end of my work placement I knew exactly how much money I was not being offered.
To those who are currently being exploited or are afraid of backing away from the lure of internships, there are ways one can gain useful writing and media experience without whoring themselves out to the big boys of publishing. Contribute to websites or magazines that you are happy to dedicate time and work to simply because doing so gives you some creative satisfaction. Art for art’s sake and all that. If you’re going to voluntarily take on unpaid work, do so for non-profit organisations where everyone involved is on the same level, therefore no one is exploiting anyone – student newspapers being the perfect example. Thanks to the good ol’ World Wide Web there is now an infinite amount of space available to be filled up with content by unpaid and undervalued creatives and there will always be a corporation willing to exploit you. So if you are going to give work away for free at least bestow it on someone who cares, who is appreciative and not themselves financially benefiting from your efforts whilst you miss out.
What current upcoming writers need to realise is that as scary as the premise of rejecting unpaid work may be is that the success of this movement heavily relies on them as they are the target group companies want and are able to exploit. If people think they have no choice other than to work for free, that’s because they’ve been conditioned to feel that way. Only by a mass refusal to accept the prevalent notion that young, enthusiastic potential employees are not worth paying will any kind of change to the current conveyor belt system of internships be possible. Only by snubbing internships can the joke that such arrangements have become be reversed. Without queues of willing students offering themselves up major magazines will no longer be able to offer unpaid work experience as competition prizes, nor will the stereotype of the feckless intern be perpetuated by faux reality shows like MTV’s ‘I’m From Rolling Stone’, ITV2 and Bauer’s joint ‘The Exclusives’ and Style Network’s ‘Running In Heels’.
By breaking the presently accepted revolving door structure that most publications have in place for their internship programmes they will have no choice but to review and react. Rather than inviting an endless stream of short term interns, why not invest time (and money) into one star candidate who they believe has true potential? If you can’t afford to take on and train new staff then don’t advertise any openings at all. By eternally offering temporary insights into the world of media and journalism young hopefuls are being forced into a carrot and stick situation, forever chasing that elusive promise of eventual payment and perhaps employment. If internship schemes cannot make any guarantees when it comes to payment, future prospects or tangible learning then they should cease to exist.
As Barney Hoskyns has respectfully pointed out, no one has anything to lose by saying no.
Written for Record of the Day's Weekly Magazine