Don’t Work for Free — or Even Cheap — for Rich People

Lena Dunham, the New York Times revealed Monday, was not planning to pay the seven artists she selected via YouTube auditions to open for her on her Not That Kind of Girl tour. As Gawker points out, this is particularly outrageous in light of the fact that Dunham not only earned a $3.7 million advance for the book, but also makes something like $6 million annually, and tickets for the tour in question have sold for $38 apiece.

It’s all reminiscent of the controversy that surrounded Amanda Palmer in 2012, when the musician raised $1 million on Kickstarter and then issued a call for “volunteer” horn players. Both Dunham and Palmer ended up resolving to pay the performers they recruited — and to the former’s credit, she addressed Gawker’s piece just hours after it went live, (backhandedly) thanked the site for the “good note,” and said she had “ensured that all opening acts will be compensated for their time, their labor and their talents.”

In fact, I don’t believe that Dunham ever had any ill intentions here. Opening acts aren’t exactly a standard feature of book tours, after all, and Lena Dunham doesn’t need anyone’s help to sell 8,000 tickets. What looks to cynical journalists like a rich person wringing free work out of struggling artists surely sounded to the Girls creator like a successful artist using her fame to give lesser-known contemporaries a platform. As ever, Dunham’s problem doesn’t seem to be the lack of a conscience or a desire to exploit so much as a frustrating obliviousness to certain realities facing people who were not born rich (or white, or in Manhattan) — namely, the need to be paid real money for their labor.

The point here is not that this is one more piece of evidence supporting the popular hallucination that Lena Dunham is evil. No, this is about what we — as artists and writers and musicians and developers and anyone else who does creative work but hasn’t made it big yet, which is most of us — need to learn: that we should never work for free for rich people. Or even for cheap, really.

Many of the journalists I know take a hard line on any kind of unpaid labor. Emails in which writers shut down these requests go viral. Editorials like this one pop up every few months. “Don’t write for free” has become something of a mantra. I respect this point of view, but as someone who’s both written for free and asked others to do it, I think there are exceptions to the rule. If no one’s making any money on a project, if everyone involved is in it solely for the love of what they’re doing (and likely with the awareness that it’s not a viable commercial pursuit), there’s nothing wrong with donating your time and talent. Unless, of course, there’s a rich person behind that passion project who could easily afford to pay people for their work on it but prefers not to.

Because here’s the thing: this isn’t just about unpaid labor. One reason people, especially young people with creative aspirations, work for free is to form valuable relationships that will push their careers forward. But you can’t form a valuable relationship with a rich person who can afford to but won’t pay you a reasonable wage, because your entire relationship with that rich person is based on their failure to acknowledge the value of the work you’re doing for them.

A friend of mine learned this very early on in his professional life. The summer after he graduated from film school, several years before the Great Recession hit, he went to work for a wealthy real estate guy who had begun to dabble in filmmaking. For well below a living wage, he coordinated that guy’s festival submissions, trafficked his prints, secured music rights, and performed all kinds of inane and/or ridiculous tasks that fell far outside his job description. It sucked, but it was a foot in the door, he figured. An opportunity to work in a hard-to-break-into industry, for someone who actually had the money to fund interesting film projects. And maybe if the guy’s venture took off, he’d finally start paying my friend enough to make rent.

Of course, that never happened. Instead, the rich man pestered, yelled at, and overworked my friend for six months. He taught my friend nothing but empty business clichés. Then he fired him for some vague reason involving a malfunctioning piece of office equipment. The rich guy had never valued my friend’s contributions or appreciated the fact that he was working so hard for so little money. And in retrospect, it all seems pretty inevitable, because he either never realized or never cared that he was exploiting someone in the first place.

Again, in the case of Lena Dunham, the problem looks to be ignorance rather than malice or even just selfishness. But it still comes down to a failure to acknowledge work as work. Dunham mistakes the act of asking someone to perform for free as a favor she’s doing for them, rather than vice versa. No one should ever work for someone like that. So don’t work for free — or even cheap — for rich people.