When I still had hair, I played in a band. One of the things we ran up against again and again was ‘pay to play’, a pernicious racket that exploited people who liked making a racket.
With pay to play, concert venues would offer new bands a gig on the basis of selling X amount of tickets. If you didn’t sell X, you were expected to pay the shortfall out of your own pocket. More often than not, bands didn’t sell X. They paid up again and again because the gigs offered ‘exposure’.
As a vocal critic of pay to play, I spent many years arguing with promoters that they were exploiting bands and that their promises of exposure were nonsense. Pay to play venues weren’t real venues with real audiences; they were venues where bands got ripped off for the privilege of playing to their mates.
Only a masochist went to a pay to play venue if they weren’t a friend or relative of one of the bands, and no wonder: most of them were terrible and the venues weren’t much better. If it weren’t for bands paying up, the venues would have lost money every single night of the week. They were businesses run by people who shouldn’t have been running businesses. ‘Contribute to my website’ is the new pay to play.
The following examples have all been taken from GorkanaPR – a media jobs site – over the past three weeks. They’re all advertised as jobs or internships, but the remuneration is zero.
In exchange for lots of writing, a restaurant review site offers a “fantastic opportunity”; an online men’s magazine offers a “fantastic and unique opportunity”; an adventure travel site offers “an ideal chance to … showcase your talent”. A slimming site promises “contacts and a bit of exposure”. Two shoe retailers don’t appear to be offering anything at all.
These are not training positions, where you’re swapping your labour for skills you’ll be able to use in the future. These are not charity efforts where you forfeit your fee to help the greater good. And these are not profile builders, where you offer your expertise in order to put your name – or more likely, your firm’s name – in front of movers and shakers.
These are positions where you’re expected to contribute in exchange for absolutely nothing: publication on obscure web pages in lieu of wages. You’d be better off opening for Satan Deathface on a wet Tuesday night: at least then you’d get a couple of beers.
In the age of social media and user-generated content, suggesting that your name on someone else’s website is “exposure” is like suggesting membership of the HTML Writer’s Guild will boost your chances of getting a well-paid agency job.
Writing for a pale imitation of a mainstream magazine where nobody appears to understand how to design, edit or write will not advance your career. The result of your effort will have no more weight than an Amazon review, a Flickr comment or a Facebook update. It’s not exposure. It’s exploitation.