THE BLOG
09/13/2012 09:02 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2012

Will Work for Compensation: Amanda Palmer, Interns, and Entitlement Culture

Flickr: theNerdPatrol

So Amanda F*cking Palmer has gotten herself in the middle of a shitstorm, again. Not surprising, as she appears to like controversy (like many artists). This time it's about her request for "professional-ish" volunteer musicians from each town she tours in to be part of her show, in exchange for beer, high fives, hugs, and merchandise.

For the most part, I think that it's bad form not to pay musicians for their work when you're doing a paying gig.

Just as I think it's not cool to have interns you don't pay when you're using them as free labor vs. actually inconveniencing yourself to teach them the trade, which is what an internship technically is (otherwise, believe me, I'd have an indentured servant-I-mean-intern).

Just as I think it's unfair to expect sex educators to put themselves in debt in travel/housing so that they can lecture/teach for free.

Just as I think it's unfair to expect that people will fix your computer, or design your logo, or give you rides for free.

It's awesome if people volunteer, or if they offer, when you say, "It would be super helpful if you can maybe do this," and then you are really grateful, offer a trade of services, make sure you're available when they next move house or need a babysitter. That's community, and that's rad.

It's less awesome when you become yet another cog in a machine that acts like you should be the grateful one for the opportunity, especially when everyone acts that way. It burns out the generous. And if you're making money at a show/gig/conference/etc., then you really owe the people who help make it happen some cold, hard cash, or, at the very least, travel expenses to get to/from that gig. Actually, it's an expression of class privilege to expect that people have the time/energy/resources to do things for free, particularly if that involves things like gas money or multiple meetups. As Amy Vaillancourt-Sals, a manager of her local branch of Classical Revolution, says:

We have unions that stand for us, but they can only do so much. Artists are feeling desperate. I confess, I have found myself giving free performances in order to get ahead and perhaps have something notable to put on my resume. You'd think that this would help, but it doesn't and in fact it's made my position worse. Volunteer opportunities have effectively lead to more volunteer opportunities. Very very seldom have I found it leading to compensating gigs. As a result, my desire to share my craft and my feeling of self-worth have waned, while people around me are mocking, saying "yes, but aren't you happy you get to create music?" Not while I'm starving, stressed and frantic... no! I can only imagine the clever and snarky retorts that you would tell those (insert expletive and plural nouns here) that approached you with that sort of BS. In fact, it makes me blush just thinking about it!

My friends and I are looking to bring back the respect that musicians deserve. As a personnel manager for my branch at Classical Revolution, I've been working towards assuring that my musicians are compensated for their talents and hard work. So, looking back at your ultra successful kickstarter and your request... Here you are, and you've raised over $1 million for your tour and album release. Here we are as musicians on foodstamps, maxing out their credit cards to keep the lights on, are hoping that we have enough money to pay next months rent, and have instruments that are in need of repair, need to be replaced, and even need to be insured. We are looking at you now and your request for musicians to come play with you for free, and most of us have even fallen in love with you and your music, and how do you think we'll respond? We're f*&king perplexed, agitated and disheartened, to put it mildly! What would you say to you if you were in our shoes? I have a pretty good guess.

People need to eat. Many, many people are struggling to make ends meet, are in crippling debt, and are working themselves to the bone. Creative folk in particular struggle, because often they have a crap job that they hate (to barely stay above water) and the desire to create in a country that doesn't care to support artists. Even $50 would be something to many people. People like to help each other out, especially artists, but they will end up unable to make rent because no one ever wants to pay them for their work. "You get to be in my presence"/"You get exposure" is not really good enough and does not get groceries at the store. Additionally, Amanda Palmer did just raise a shit-ton of money in a Kickstarter campaign, so this looks kind of bad (here's the breakdown of where the money goes, and frankly, it looks like she could still afford to offer $50 to each performer). I mean, she's not playing for free, is she? And it's particularly ironic is that she had her own blog entry about how people ought to pay the artists -- but perhaps it's somehow different asking the fans to pay directly vs. paying collaborating artists?

Had she said, "I really want to highlight local talent!" or, "I'm eager to collaborate with my fans!" I expect the response would've been kinder, but she didn't. She said she couldn't afford to pay these people, which left a sour taste in the mouths of many artists. Worse was her response on Twitter, something along the lines of "People just love to hate me!" No, it's really not that. Most of the people I saw commenting were the musicians she was looking for, and they're hurt. They love her, and they feel betrayed by her entitlement, not just as fans but as fellow artists. It's also frustrating that a lot of really excellent critique is getting lost among the sexist "bitch" and "cunt" comments. Really, guys? There's no need to stoop to that when you have such a good platform for commentary based on behavior.

But she's not the only person who has ever done this. This is not, in my opinion, just a backlash against Amanda Palmer but against a whole cultural phenomenon. In fact, we live in a culture of entitlement, where people are expected to work for free and be grateful for the potential "opportunity" all the time. I rarely get paid to speak at conferences about sexuality, for example; many presenters go for years at their own expense to "make their names" before they get fed up. It's become an expectation. I've had to check my own entitlement when planning events and make sure to budget in paying for things, particularly things I want done by a specific time or in a certain way, and definitely if making money that will line my pocket. It's so common to be expected to do things for free, that you'll be desperate for the exposure, that many people feel ashamed to ask for compensation.

‎"They want everything for nothing! They wouldn't go for five seconds without being paid, and they'll bitch about how much they're paid and want more. I should do a freebie for Warner Brothers? What, is Warner Brothers out there in an eyepatch with a tin cup out on the street? Fuck no!" (Harlan Ellison)

It's not just within the alternative communities, either. Many of my friends have done unpaid internships that are, in fact, illegal. An internship should really be a pain in the ass for the hiring company, not free labor, and yet so often the unpaid interns are the ones sorting mail, answering emails, and doing other menial administrative work. No one tells them that they are actually being used. Here's a quotation from a legal company warning employers how they should work interns into their workplace:

First, employers should attempt to maximize classroom and/or training experiences rather than simply assigning more traditional "work" projects to interns. Second, employers should attempt to provide interns with experience practicing more "general" skills rather than assignments or duties specific to that employer's operations. Additionally, in order to ensure that an intern is not viewed as "displacing" regular employees, the internship should be designed to minimize independent work by the intern and should instead revolve around close supervision and "shadowing" of other employees. Employers should also take great care to ensure that interns are not performing more "menial" tasks such as filing, clerical work, data entry, or other tasks that might indicate they are displacing other employees or are working merely for the advantage of the employer. Further, employers offering fixed "stipends" should take great care in determining the amount of any stipend so as to reasonably approximate the intern's expenses rather than giving the appearance that the payment simply an attempt to pay less than the minimum wage. Finally, employers should ensure that internships are not used as simply a "trial period" for regular employment, and thus should always have a definite beginning and ending date.

If it is determined that an employer improperly classified an internship as "unpaid," the employer could be liable for violations of federal and state labor laws for failing to pay at least the minimum wage, failure to properly provide wage statements, and meal and rest period violations, among others. Accordingly, it is vital for all employers, large and small, to design any unpaid internship program with these factors in mind and in close partnership with human resources and legal counsel to ensure that the employer is avoiding potential legal liability.

In the United Kingdom there were accounts of jobseekers being told to work for free for up to 30 hours a week at various businesses or lose their jobseekers allowance. To give you an idea, jobseekers allowance is about £56 ($90) a week, not enough to survive on as is; 30 hours a week for a total of £56 is certainly less than minimum wage. Again, these are not jobs requiring training, or jobs offering these workers valuable skills or even a job; the companies involved only had to promise an interview, not paid work. According to The Guardian:

Cait Reilly, 22, is completing three weeks at Poundland, working five hours a day. Reilly, who graduated last year with a BSc in geology from Birmingham University, found herself with five other JSA claimants last week stacking and cleaning shelves at Poundland in south Birmingham.

She says there are about 15 other staff at the store but, unlike them, she will receive no remuneration for her work. "It seems we're being used as some free labour, especially in the runup to Christmas."

Reilly says she told her local jobcentre in King's Heath, Birmingham, that she did not need the experience in the store as she had already done plenty of retail work.

Despite DWP rules, Reilly says she was told by the jobcentre that she would lose her benefits if she did not take the Poundland placement. The DWP says jobseekers should be told about the cooling-off period but was unable to comment on individual cases without being given personal details."I was told [the work experience placement] was mandatory after I'd attended the [retail] open day," she said.

And of course there's the issue with large distribution centres, many stories of which have come out and horrified readers, like this one from Mother Jones. Mac McClelland gets informed that emotional abuse is pretty much expected, but don't protest or you won't have a job at all:

"DON'T TAKE ANYTHING that happens to you there personally," the woman at the local chamber of commerce says when I tell her that tomorrow I start working at Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc. She winks at me. I stare at her for a second.

"What?" I ask. "Why, is somebody going to be mean to me or something?"

She smiles. "Oh, yeah." This town somewhere west of the Mississippi is not big; everyone knows someone or is someone who's worked for Amalgamated. "But look at it from their perspective. They need you to work as fast as possible to push out as much as they can as fast as they can. So they're gonna give you goals, and then you know what? If you make those goals, they're gonna increase the goals. But they'll be yelling at you all the time. It's like the military. They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be. So they're going to tell you, 'You're not good enough, you're not good enough, you're not good enough,' to make you work harder. Don't say, 'This is the best I can do.' Say, 'I'll try,' even if you know you can't do it. Because if you say, 'This is the best I can do,' they'll let you go. They hire and fire constantly, every day. You'll see people dropping all around you. But don't take it personally and break down or start crying when they yell at you."

Yet we still buy our stuff from Amazon and similar places. We've grown to expect free shipping. It's just another cog in the machine.

This is part of consent culture, too, and why I use the term "entitlement culture." People who end up fucked over by these schemes or crappy job situations tend to be people without a lot of power, without the ability to fight back legally or refuse the job. And it starts small. It starts with a person on a tour asking for musicians to play for free, and it trickles all the way up to big corporations violating the rights of marginalized people. We need to be a community and remember that it's a give-and-take, that no one owes us, and to be incredibly grateful and gracious to volunteers. We need to break this entitlement for all of our sakes.