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Is ‘exposure’ killing our industry?

Dancers working for free

It’s all too common these days within the arts industry. There’s no avoiding it, and it doesn’t matter how qualified or experienced you are. Sooner or later, the day will come when a prospective client will try to offer you some “great exposure” in lieu of paying for your services. Although the idea of potentially being seen by millions of viewers on YouTube or dancing for a well known artist can be alluring, one needs to remember that, essentially, they’re asking you to work for free. At the end of the day, you are volunteering your expertise to someone who simply just doesn’t want to pay you. We’re not talking about not-for-profit or charitable organisations. We’re talking about businesses or individuals who want something for nothing, promising the world – huge audiences, future paid projects, working with industry heavyweights and alike — instead of recognising your abilities as a genuine paid service.

Often times, it’s younger, less experienced or “naïve” creatives who find themselves being exploited in such a way, but if it sounds too good to be true – it probably is. Gaining work experience at a young age, or when first entering the industry can be highly valuable and certainly recommended; however, it’s important to be mindful of just how detrimental “exposure” can be to an industry that is already considered to be “fluff”.

In a world where society has the power to decide what is a “real job”, when did the arts (dance predominantly) become just the icing on the cake? When and, more so, why did it become necessary for creatives to have a “real job” (the cake) to support our passion (the icing)?

For many of us, the creative arts industry wasn’t so much a career choice as it was an inescapable calling. Perhaps you were born with an incredible talent, perhaps you had a passion for something that inspired you to study and work hard at your chosen craft to “create” a talent. Whatever the case, you have not acquired these skills by accident. Many creatives have spent and dedicated massive amounts of time and effort in becoming officially accredited or qualified in their respective fields.

When someone wants to be a doctor, they go to medical school and, upon graduating, become a doctor and immediately receive a regular salary that is reflective of the time taken to acquire the specialist skills to practise medicine as a professional.

When someone wants to be an accountant, they study at university and receive an accounting degree and become an accountant. What ensues is usually a job at a firm with an attractive salary package, which will have you feeling like all the hard work was worth it.

When someone wants to be a professional dancer, they study (for what is usually) most of their young life, possibly enter a full time dance school, audition (sometimes more than once) to attend a performing arts university or tertiary education equivalent (quite often non government funded) and then study full time for three years or so to receive a bachelor in dance. What ensues are countless hours waiting in line for auditions, being turned away before finally scoring a job (regularly for a once off gig) only to have someone offer them some “great exposure” as gratitude for what was equivalent to a lifetime of dedication. Despite all this, it’s not uncommon for the response to “I’m a dancer” to be “Yes, but what’s your real job?”

For dedicated practitioners of the arts, their craft is not simply a hobby. We don’t regularly see surgeons go through upward of 10 years of training so they can do a triple bypass or two on the weekend for free or for fun. Why then, when dancers have given almost an entire life to hone the skills needed to perfect a quadruple pirouette or a flawless arabesque en pointe, are our careers considered to be lesser?

It’s a skill set that takes significantly more than three years of University to develop sufficiently, and also a career that can be incredibly taxing on our body, and, so, our careers inevitably come with a shelf life.

We are athletes.

We have conditioned our mind and our body to go beyond the usual scope of human ability. We see many sporting icons being thrust into lucrative sponsorship and endorsement deals, signing on to multi-million dollar contracts with their sporting teams and being idolised by masses, young and old, for their athletic prowess. For sporting figures, what is a hobby for most, has become a full time career, and they pursue them successfully with no questions asked. The world does not see them as “fluff”, and yet, as dancers who endure training that is as rigorous and ruthless as that of an elite sports personality, we are paid comparatively less and regularly expected to work for free.

Why is it that the arts is still considered to be a hobby rather than a place to forge a reputable career, pay your bills and maintain a basic standard of living without having to supplement your income with other means?

Our craft is simply taken for granted. Dancers and creatives alike are utilised endlessly in so many ways. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find an industry who doesn’t use us to promote their own. Any business holding a function of any kind will usually have sourced some entertainment. They will hire dancers, singers, roving performers – even contracted visual media or stage, lighting or sound technicians to put on a spectacular and memorable event. You can’t get into a car, walk into a shop or doctor’s waiting room without hearing a song on the radio (musicians and recording artists) or watching the tv show in the background (actors). There are even television shows made specifically to showcase the talent of the local man – So You Think You Can Dance, Everybody Dance Now, Australia’s Got Talent and Dance Moms. All run and viewed by people who are more than willing to applaud and recognise talent and ability with no intention of paying for their time. Most shows require the participants to put forward their very best only to be judged or critiqued by people who’ve never danced a day in their life. We’ll watch it, judge and critique it, but not pay for it. Sure, there may be a grand prize at the end, if you make it that far – but it seems that nowadays, that’s the only way to acquire an “income” that is indicative of the hours of blood, sweat and tears (literally) that it took to win it, and worst of all, only one person can win.

It just doesn’t make sense. Coffee shops don’t let you taste their coffee unless you pay for it. Can you consult multiple lawyers for legal advice and then pay only one? Do architects hand over their blueprints and designs unless you hire them? Then why are artists, designers, writers, musicians and other creatives expected to work for free?

I came across a job advertisement recently that blew me away. It was as follows:

Three 15-minute shows. Seven days at sea. Board and food provided. Rehearsals every Friday between June 10-October 14. Cruise departs from Sydney October 17. Must book own return flights to Sydney. Rehearsals not paid. It is a performing arts cruise, so you get to watch the other acts for free.

Total pay: $100.00… (not confirmed)

As dancers, we need to be paid for the work we do. It doesn’t matter if you’re fresh to the industry or years into your career; work is work, and we deserve to be paid. In the case of this job ad, there are 19 Fridays between the dates required. If we imagine a minimum of a two-hour rehearsal each Friday, that adds up to 38 hours, which is equivalent to a full time working week. Certainly, we can imaging that there will be rehearsals once on the ship prior to the shows, so we can (very conservatively) apply an additional three hours. Baring in mind that we have been requested to source, book and pay for our own return flight to Sydney (this job was advertised in Adelaide), we will also need to account for these expenses, generally in the ball park of $160 with only carry on. The advertiser was offering $100 total pay, which at the time wasn’t actually confirmed, so this could have gone either way.

Now here comes the pitch, the “you’ll get some great opportunities” angle.

The advertiser would have us believe that this is a “paid holiday”. Being a dancer is anything but a holiday. It’s hard work, its perseverance and it’s our job, irrespective of where we do it. Similarly, a painter who’s been asked to paint the inside of the Sistine Chapel would not charge any less for his time or materials just because it’s a great experience.

We are informed that food and board is included on the cruise. This is something that, for all intents and purposes have been attempted to be sold as a perk, even though food and sleep are basic needs to human survival. Furthermore, if you are required to remain onboard the boat for an extended period of time, food, lodgings and travel (or a financial allowance to attain theses yourself) are legally required to be provided.

All in all, this job is looking to include about 21 hours of rehearsal time and three hours performing (if we factor in the time it takes to do hair, makeup and basic pre-show preparation). This is a total of  24 hours working time, not to mention the time spent off shore, which means you are unable to do any other work for the duration of the job.

If the renumeration for this gig remains at $100 total, and we divide it by the total amount of hours, it works out to be $4.16 per hour, less the cost of your return flights to Sydney.

Today, you’re being asked to do this job and “it’ll be great exposure so you can get that credit on your CV”. Unfortunately, whether your CV is full or lacking, saying “Yes! I’ll work for peanuts today so I can work for gold bullion tomorrow!” not only sets your working rate but also devalues and re-regulates the industry for everyone. There will always be clients who are terribly uninformed, uneducated or underhanded about wages, rehearsal time, choreography costs and so on, who are still going to offer you pittance and expect you to be grateful for the opportunity.

If experience barely affects your dollar value as a performer or a teacher, then what have you gained? How have you progressed?

As artists, we are the only ones who can stop thins cycle by saying “No” and standing up for what we’re worth. Too often, we are our own worst enemies. There comes a time when enough is enough, and that time has well and truly passed.

We should not be scared or bullied out of putting forward realistic figures to prospective clients. Our time and skills do not come for free, and we cannot continue to cheapen ourselves for fear that someone else will undercut us.

We need to stop accepting low or nonexistent pay and believing those people who tell us that we are gravy, icing, fluff or a hobby. We are real people, real artists and these are real jobs.

To create a sustainable and profitable industry, we need to work together, conduct our craft professionally and work to maintain a sense of worth. We are worth it.

By Jessie Krieg of Dance Informa.

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