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May 17, 2006

Money, Honey


To be honest, I had questioned whether or not to come to the NAJP bash in Philadelphia because I thought it might be too depressing. After all, people are losing their jobs all over the country, freelance rates (which were often insultingly low to begin with) are getting lower, and the very program sponsoring the conference had been put out of business.

So I'm frankly amazed to encounter the febrile triumphalism, a kind of crazed good cheer, about blogging and its innumberable joys and possibilities that has characterized so much of this conversation. I get that it's fun -- I've had a great time doing it all week. But maybe it's a function of growing up and living in New York, but I've never lacked for smart, interesting people with whom to discuss my ideas. Maybe it's because I mostly write about popular music and teach, but I'm used to interacting with people much younger than me, as well as my age or older.

And maybe it's a function of growing up working class, but I've never had any particular enthusiasm about working for free. I've done it when I've had to or as a sort of pro bono thing, but it's never been something I've wanted to do all the time. And I've tried to instill that ethic in others. As an editor at magazines and of books, I've always tried to get writers the most money I could -- and I've always tried to get paid as well as I could myself. The self-interest in that is obvious, but it also has a broader effect. Once editors pay someone a certain rate, they can't go back, and it's harder to deny others that same rate. I've been on both sides of that negotation, and I know it's true.

The (joyful!) willingness of writers, however, to work for nothing or next to it has finally come home to roost. I remember someone at a record label asking me to write liner notes for an absurdly low fee. When I refused, he said, "I thought you were a fan." I was a fan, but I also wanted to get paid. I asked, "Why would you assume that I would write because I'm a fan, when you didn't ask the photographer if he was a fan. You didn't ask the person designing the booklet if she was a fan." But fabulous lovers of the arts that they are, writers have always been willing to work for very little pay. It's almost a point of pride with some people. I've heard the hurt surprise in editors' voices when I've simply asked what their budget was or -- heaven forfend! -- insisted on getting more. I've even asked editors what they're getting paid, and if their freelance rates reflected that. Think of someone like Don Forst at the Village Voice (may it rest in peace) making more than 300K while cutting the paper's already ridiculously low rates.

Look, I've done very well for a long time and, by the standards of our profession, at least, continue to. But I am concerned about our future. So, to paraphrase Muddy Waters, blog on, my little honeybees, blog on. But know that it's likely to be its own reward for a long time. If you're doing it to promote yourself or as a way of lining up paying work, get it while you can -- those jobs are going, boys and girls, and they ain't coming back. If your ideal world is a utopia of enlightened amateurism -- meant in the best possible sense, as someone said earlier -- welcome to it. But if you want to make a living, hard times lie ahead.

Posted by at May 17, 2006 8:51 AM

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