Periscope Depth

so you find yourself somebody who can do the job for free

Until very recently, and until she came under a lot of very adamant pressure, Lena Dunham was planning on featuring opening acts on her $38-a-ticket book tour whom she wasn’t going to pay.

Every time this comes up, someone will bring up the tired argument “well, nobody put a GUN to their head and MADE them work for free,” which is true but not a useful observation. Even if the artists performing for free make that argument! You can find a marginal percentage of desperate people who will support anything. Phrase something just right, and pitch it to just the right market, and you’ll find customers. Kevin Trudeau sold nine million copies of Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You To Know About, simply by identifying a gullible audience and putting a lot of weight on the words “Natural” and “They.” Alan Keyes, an insane person, got 27% of Illinois in the 2004 Senate race. There were freed slaves who preferred life on the plantation to life outside, and not just house slaves either; you can find interviews with them in the Library of Congress. And Rob Schneider just sold out the Wilbur Theater.

Also, it’s not a sufficient response to the challenge presented to Lena Dunham, Amanda Palmer, and others like them, viz:

1. Is having an opening act or an accompanying performer of value to you, the headliner?

2a. If no, then why are you asking for one?
2b. If yes, then why are you not compensating this contributor’s value with the commonly recognized means of money?

2a can easily be dispensed with: of course having an opener is of value. Nobody pays $38 to hear a banjo player who’s not named “Bela Fleck”, but there might be several people who would pay $38 to hear Lena Dunham speak, get a signed copy of her book, and then, 45 minutes later, say, “Wait, that was it?” If the evening feels like a cultural experience – a local artist plus Ms. Dunham – the price becomes easier to justify.

(I should add that I don’t think the decision to add an opener was so calculating; see “Here’s Where It Gets Tricky” below)


2b grapples with the beast called “exposure,” not a 21st-century phenomenon but one that social media has helped popularize. The argument is that exposure is not just valid compensation but sufficient compensation, that the steady decline of encomia from “a hefty fee plus publicity” to “a pittance plus publicity” to “one URL and one social media profile on our website” just means exposure is getting that much more valuable, ma-an!

The problem is that exposure is not a monetizable quantity unless you let the publisher, producer, or venue monetize it. You get just as much exposure when playing for pay as you do when playing for free. The audience can’t tell the difference! They’re just as likely to pick up your CD either way!

The exposure naturally happens when you play to an audience. In the economics literature, this is called a positive externality: the kind of free-floating benefit that’s difficult to harness. The traditional example is a bakery that creates the positive externality of “the scent of baking bread” in the neighborhood. The bakery has no way of charging their neighbors for this pleasing scent without getting laughed at. But if the bakery decided to pay its bakers less, on the grounds that they got exposed to the delightful aroma of toasting croissants, we would call for their heads.

If exposure truly were a sufficient substitute for cash, then negotiation should be possible. The artist should be able to say to the producer, “Thanks, but I’d rather just take the cash equivalent of my exposure and call it even.” This is, of course, ludicrous: there’s no way a venue could have live music without exposing the artist playing it, unless perhaps they made the artist play in hijab and blacked out their name in the program, and even then there’d be a certain whispered novelty (“who was that?”).

You can’t withhold exposure from a live performance; thus it’s not a valid instrument of exchange.

Here’s Where It Gets Tricky

I don’t believe that Dunham is doing this maliciously. She initially responded to the criticism that Gawker stirred up with the following Twitter observation:


… which is the worst possible response to charges of exploiting underpaid workers. No one could understand the real complaint and respond in such a way. A “businesswoman” could be excused as a cog in a machine, a functionary in a faceless corporation, an employee answerable to a boss, “sure, I’d LOVE to pay EVERYONE, but my hands are tied.” A “business” has no excuse. Responding with a tone-deaf Jay-Z parody demonstrated that Dunham didn’t really get what the issue was.

Fortunately, the ideas seemed to sink in with sufficient time and weight, and Dunham, like Amanda Palmer before her, came around.

I want to thank whoever it was that got Dunham to really grapple with the idea that she had asked fellow artists to provide something of value in exchange for nothing of value. I think she genuinely believed she was doing these artists a favor, and that the value of this favor was recompense enough. Or – and I believe this moreso in Palmer’s case – that money was only going to complicate things, because then you have to get lawyers and waivers and Social Security numbers involved, and we’re just gonna, y’know, play around onstage! Just jam for a bit. Let’s just have a fun evening sharing art and music with all our friends, like all those cool loft parties you went to after college, except at this party one person gets paid and everyone has to leave when you tell them and it’s $7 for a Budweiser.

It’s hard for me to get really irate about compensation and exploitation and the devaluation of original creative input when the people I’m mad at aren’t assholes. They’re artists (not that the two are exclusive). I’m not a huge fan of either Palmer’s art or Dunham’s, but I recognize the talent involved and the value in what they do. Neither Palmer nor Dunham need to be a villain in order to say they were making the world worse. But, by legitimizing “exposure” as a sufficient means of reward, that’s exactly what they were doing.

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