Whichever way you look at it, creativity is a commodity. In the distant past, artists, poets, playwrights and musicians had to rely on the patronage of wealthy aristocrats to scrape a living. Or better yet, to have been born into wealth themselves so that they could indulge their creative urges without having to worry about where their next meal was coming from.
Over time it became easier to be professionally creative. Entire industries erupted around talent in the 20th century, allowing people to earn a crust by expressing their imaginations. And like any job, you would expect to be paid for any work you did.
Then came the internet age, and suddenly everything changed.
Words, images, music, video footage; anything and everything can be uploaded, shared, distributed and consumed online. And while this level of access is an amazing thing in many ways, the value placed on creativity has plummeted as a result.
With so much content flooding the internet every second of every day, the idea of any creative endeavour being valuable has been eroded. What’s more, freelancers have shot themselves in the foot to a degree by agreeing to work for free just to get their foot in the door. The promise of ‘exposure’, no matter how minor, can be enough to lure newcomers into underselling themselves, and in doing so leaving everyone in their industry worse off.
This has the added consequence of meaning that creative work is something that only people from privileged backgrounds can afford to get into. If you’ve got bills to pay and an empty bank account, working for free for months or years until your career gains momentum is not an option. Are we heading back to the days of creative people only coming from the upper classes, or needing the support of benefactors?
Taking the fight to clients that do not pay freelancers is tough, but some people have stepped up to the plate. The Sh*t List is a great example, allowing creatives to name and shame the companies that have let them down to act as a warning to others.
Why pay someone to design you a logo, create compelling imagery for your ad campaign, or come up with a cool concept for your article when you can appropriate some existing content from the web?
Ok, so the word ‘appropriate’ is a fancy way of saying ‘steal’. And theft is all too common, with brands of all sizes being guilty of purloining the fruits of someone else’s labour.
More worrying still is the trend of the ‘race to the bottom’, which basically means that with so much competition in the freelance marketplace, people are being forced to work for lower rates of pay. Add in expectations of working for free in exchange for ‘exposure’ and the whole climate can seem thoroughly toxic at the moment.
So let’s delve into these issues a little deeper and see if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for people who want to earn their keep with the things they create.
Brands With Light Fingers
The story is a familiar one for people who work in the creative industries. You capture a great photo or develop an intriguing project which you then share via your social media platform of choice. Instagram and Twitter are two of the biggest places to get your work seen, so they also tend to appeal to those annoying ‘aggregators’ who are on the lookout for fresh content to snatch and pass off as their own, or re-post with a minor credit.
If your post takes off, it will attract their attention and can quickly be disseminated globally. Reddit can fuel the fire and bring even more morally dubious individuals and brands into focus. Soon you’ll get other people alerting you to the fact that they’ve seen your work ripped off elsewhere, or stolen wholesale to generate likes and engagement while not earning you a penny for your trouble.
Some people, like photographer Max Dubler, choose to take action when their work is used without payment. But the screenshots of conversations with the people who run the accounts responsible for the repurposing make depressing reading. Many are shocked at the idea you should even charge for sharing content you didn’t create, if the account you’re using to do so is associated with a brand or monetised in any way.
This leads into the next biggest issue; companies feeling like they can afford to underpay freelancers, ignore their invoices altogether or even ask them to work without getting cold, hard cash in exchange.
This dilution of the value of creativity is being catalysed by the sheer number of different sites which urge freelancers to sell themselves to the lowest bidder.
From Fiverr, which makes being creative pay less than minimum wage in most developed nations, to Tribe, which forces creators to come up with content before they have even found a client to buy it, the industry is being brought to its knees by marketplace culture.
So what can you do about it? Well firstly, stop selling yourself short. Don’t work with clients that refuse to value your skills. Only sign up to freelance sites that pay fairly and never ask you to produce content speculatively.
We made the decision from day one that Creatively Squared will never ask anyone to work for free, nor will we pay in exposure, likes, products or anything else that doesn’t pay the bills - it's a core value to us and a central part of our manifesto.
Believe in yourself, but don’t be naive about the realities of the creative industries.