Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

March 28, 2014

On the Economics of Creative Industries

Yesterday, Ontario’s major news outlets reported that the provincial government was finally starting to crack down on illegal unpaid internships, starting with a blitz, apparently, of the magazine industry. The reactions from the left shocked me. Progressive people who should have known better bemoaned the death of these “great opportunities” and wondered where new graduates were supposed to get “valuable work experience” now.

I undulated between frothing anger and silent shock all afternoon. From… jobs, maybe? The paying kind? How did we manage to swallow, hook line and sinker, the idea that the first step into the workforce should be unpaid?

We probably swallow it because we of the creative-dependent industries work deep in the belly of starving artist territory. Not only are we told day in and day out that we cannot make a living at our art, but we’re chastised for having entered Humanities programs in the first place, then shamed if we consider “soul-destroying” paid work over pursuing our art. Writers are told not to quit their day jobs, cartoonists give their product away for decades before managing a single successful Kickstarter campaign, and we pay thousands upon thousands of dollars for skill-developing workshops.

Of course we expect people to work for free. An internship, after all, is about education, and we have agreed as a society to pay tens of thousands of dollars a head for those, endlessly, forever. Rational, kind people continue to argue this morning that as long as you’re learning something at your unpaid “internship”, they should be legal.

So why stop there? What separates a “job” from a “learning opportunity” anyway? Especially in the creative fields, where we’re offered jobs for “exposure” and “experience” every day? Or academia, where you publish relentlessly for no compensation whatsoever except a vague CV-padding? You learn something at every good job – why pay anybody for anything?

To further muddy the pool, almost everyone who is associated in any way with the publishing industry works for free once in a while. I read slush for free. The only people who get paid at a place like Taddle Creek are the writers. Rose Fox recently argued that editors need to start asking for a piece of the pie. They correctly point out that “money isn’t thick on the ground” in the industry, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

If the only people who can break into an industry are the people affluent enough to work for free for years at a time, you’re going to get an industry entirely staffed by white, middle+ class, single young people. Diversity and representation you can throw right out the window, because most people don’t have rich parents, savings, supportive, well-employed partners, or 28-hours available to them in a day. You also help contribute to false economics when you fail to factor in all the labour that goes in to your product. Every literary product I have backed on Kickstarter recently has completely glossed over the editorial costs of their book. $5000 will get you ten stories, cover art, printing and shipping costs, and that’s it. The editors, layout designers, promoters and marketers? You’re volunteers. You’re unpaid interns.

We work for free because we want these products to be made, to be available. Given the choice between volunteering to edit something for free and seeing the project die in development, we choose the labour of love every time.

But listen, broadly applied, this is a false dichotomy. The publishing industry is worth billions. If the editors, authors, designers and publicists aren’t being paid, who is? When St. Joseph Media eliminates 20-30 unpaid internships and blames the government, they are being incredibly disingenuous. The Gagliano family who run St. Joseph Communications do very well indeed. CEO Tony Gagliano has donated millions of dollars to cultural projects throughout the GTA – and good for him – he can find $750,000 to pay 30 interns minimum wage.

The money is out there, but we’re never going to see it if we don’t start putting our labour back into the equation. After all, the more of us that are being paid, the more we can pay back.  Hey writers – you know you can claim magazine subscriptions as a business expense, right? Do that. Pay in. Demand it pay out.

4 thoughts on “On the Economics of Creative Industries”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. For two and a half years I struggled through internship, plus full-time day job, plus courses. Even now I only get to take what I learned and the connections I made as an intern and use them because I am lucky enough to have a partner who can make sure our rent stays current.

    I’ll be sharing this around tomorrow. Thanks for writing it. 🙂

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