GIVE IT UP

Rich People Want You to Work for Free

Remember when people volunteered to help the poor? Nowadays the poor volunteer to help the wealthy.

10.20.14 9:45 AM ET

In recent weeks, the Ritz-Carlton hotel company, the NFL, and the Smithsonian Institution have all made news by asking people to do work for free. Such practices are hardly surprising in themselves—working for nothing seems to be a key building block of the new economy. But the fact that these requests come from such huge organizations with deep pockets raises troubling questions.

I could give many other examples. A few weeks ago, designer Dan Cassaro publicly shamed Showtime for its attempt to get free creative work from professionals as part of a “design contest.”  Santa Anita Park recently  called for volunteers to work at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships—an event that gives out $25 million in prize money to its well-heeled participants but wants folks in the neighborhood to serve as unpaid staff. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, part of the Block Communication media empire, is now asking writers to submit 750-word essays for no payment. I note that this newspaper is unionized, and its parent company reportedly paid Ted Nugent more than $50,000 to play at an event for a sister newspaper. But now it wants writers to donate their services?

These are not start-ups or struggling new media companies, but established businesses in old school industries. The trend is ominous. Web startups made it cool to build a business model on unpaid labor, but now cash rich companies with highly paid senior management want to play by the same rules. 

In some cases, the requests for free labor are modest ones. The Ritz-Carlton has launched its “Hemingway challenge” with an invitation for people to write tweet-sized short stories about their luxury hotel chain and post them on the web. They only want a few words, more a haiku than a work of fiction. Even so, someone should point out to them that Hemingway didn’t write for free, and the real “Hemingway challenge” in the current day is how to pay the rent while giving away your talents.

I am even more troubled by the NFL’s audacity in booking its Super Bowl entertainment. This mega-billion-dollar business with an antitrust exemption has long demanded artists perform for free at the half-time show, but now it allegedly wants entertainers to make a financial contribution for the exposure—perhaps even give a share of their post-Super Bowl tour income to the sports league.

Hey, bands, can you help NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell out? He only made $74 million during the last two years. 

And how should we respond when the U.S. government shifts from supporting artists and scholars to asking them to work for free. I recently got asked by an administrator at the Library of Congress to do unpaid labor for its website. Yes, I am familiar with people asking me to do time-consuming projects for free—I get at least one such request every day. But I was dumbfounded to get hit up by a federal agency with an annual budget of $750 million.

Yet clearly my experience was not a random event.  A few days later, the Smithsonian launched its Transcription Center, which relies on unpaid volunteers to digitize 75,000 pages of documents. I applaud this effort to preserve our nation’s heritage, but I also am puzzled why our overseers in Washington, D.C. can’t pay minimum wage for this project. They wouldn’t ask people to work for free at other government agencies, so why are arts and culture projects the exception?

The worst offender, however, is not the government, but Google—a company that has done more to impoverish musicians and other creative professionals than any entity on the face of the planet. Google was once a struggling start-up with little money to spend, but that was a long, long time ago … before the music died. In case you didn’t know, let me point out that Google is now one of the most profitable businesses in history—with a market cap of almost $400 billion and more than $50 billion in cash in its coffers.  But what started out as a search engine has evolved into a search-and-destroy machine. 

When I ask people why they don’t pay for a music subscription service or (heaven forbid!) purchase physical albums, the most common response is:  Why should I? I can get almost any song I want for free on YouTube. I’ve even had people laugh at me for my naïveté in considering any other way of consuming music. And who can blame these freeloaders from taking advantage of a “free” (if sometimes legally dubious) source for almost any song ever recorded?  But the highly paid Google execs who run YouTube need to be at the top of any list of the culprits who destroyed the economic conditions for musical artists. 

What a strange turnabout! Remember when people did volunteer work to help the poor? Now the poor do it to help the wealthy.

The rapid spread of this economic model is what I find most troubling. We are all aware of the new class of digital serfs slaving away for little or no pay. But now the bricks-and-mortar world is embracing the same concept, with luxury hotels, spectacular football stadiums, and fancy racetracks all demanding the same exorbitant terms: everything for us, and nothing for you.

What can we do about it? Let me propose five simple rules of etiquette for this ugly new beggar-thy-neighbor economy:

(1)  Only charities and non-profits should ask for unpaid workers to staff their operations or undertake time-consuming projects.

(2)  If a creative professional wants to volunteer to help a for-profit business, that is permissible. But the professional initiates these relationships, and the business should not request or expect it.

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(3)  Businesses that ask creative professionals to work in exchange for “exposure” should be publicly named and shamed.

(4)  When an organization built on free labor starts making money, it needs to start paying for work.

(5)  The wealthy should never ask the poor to work for free. 

Pretty simple, no?  All this is really just good manners and fair practice.  Remember that old marketing line: “Wealth has its privileges”?  The time has come to update it.  Let me suggest: “Wealth has its responsibilities, too.” Paying the people who help you make your millions goes at the top of the list.