If you haven’t heard yet, Taylor Swift wouldn’t allow Apple Music to stream her latest album. For the first three month free trial period every user gets, artists would get no royalties, and Swift took issue with being told to work for free. Apple capitulated in record time.
In our last book club session, when we’d run out of Goblin Emperor things to talk about, a friend mentioned that he thought Harlan Ellison was a bit of a dick. From what I’ve heard this is not an unusual sentiment, but he brought it up because on one of the commentary tracks in the Babylon 5 DVDs (Ellison is an SF writer and contributed quite a bit to the Babylon 5 TV Series) Ellison said that originally when the producers were putting together the DVD release they asked him to record a commentary track for free. He then went on a bit of a rant about how insulting it was to be asked to work for free. Ellison and Swift are both basically are saying “Fuck you, pay me,” although Ellison was (apparently) a bit less polite about it than Swift. My friend takes exception to this, because these are both jobs that most people would LOVE to have. Many would (and do) literally do them for free. And as such, these people should be grateful they’re so damn successful and not be such jerks about being freakin’ rock stars.
I’d made a similar point before, comparing profession writers to male porn stars, but I couldn’t quite agree with him. Obviously anyone in a profession that people would love to do for free is going to have their wages seriously depressed. It would be stupid to expect to be paid simply due to effort, and I find claims of “I am an artist, and art is important, so I deserve a living wage!” to be just as infuriatingly self-important at the next guy. OMG those idiots make everyone who actually tries to make art look bad, and I hope they lose the ability to talk until they’ve learned what douche-waffles they are.
On the other hand, that’s not what we’re talking about here. This is an outside party saying to someone who produces art “Hey, you should give me your work for free, which I will profit from.” And while my friend protested that “They aren’t being compelled to work. They can just say “No” and walk away without making a huge deal about it and being such dicks” I am inclined to disagree. It’s one thing for me to put out my work for free, or volunteer my labor for free. But for someone else to come to me and make that request is insulting. It doesn’t imply that my work is worthless, as they intend to make a profit. Rather, it implies that my work may be valuable, but I am of so little worth as a human being that I don’t deserve to accrue any of the profit from that work, and I should be happy to let someone else take it. That isn’t just offensive, it’s downright degrading, and I feel anyone is absolutely justified in getting angry and making a big deal over it. That someone is such an asshole as to be willing to say that to me (or anyone else) is a good reason for me to stand up and say “Hey everyone! Look at what an asshole this guy is!! Don’t be like him!”
I understand fan or student projects that do not intend to make a profit asking for volunteer help. I do that with my podcast. Hobbies aren’t commercial ventures. But if I was working on something that I intended to sell for cash, you can bet your ass I wouldn’t be approaching professionals without some sort of offer in return.
And seeing how most people have no ability to negotiate with Apple or major producers, it’s a damn good thing that there are people with some amount of clout like Ellison and Swift willing to stand up and say “Hey everyone, these guys are being exploitative assholes. They will take your labor, make a profit, and give you nothing. Screw them.”