Arts Critics and Exploitation – Part 3 – ‘Profit’

In this third part in the ‘Exploited Critics’ series, we will find that not everyone involved in the new volunteer dominated arts journalism industry, goes unpaid. We will also take a closer look at the broader value of the critic to the arts economy, the ethical issues of unpaid labour, and a better way forwards.

Our story to date may have led the reader less familiar with the digital world of arts journalism thinking that no one gets paid. Indeed it’s a reasonable assumption given we know an increasingly majority of content being published is created for free. However if the history of civilisation teaches us anything, it’s never to underestimate the human capacity to turn a profit.

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Broadway World, the self-professed “largest theatre site on the Internet” welcomes ~5+ million visitors per month to read content, much of which is contributed by volunteer writers. ©

In theQR’s opinion, any study of the current arts journalism economy leads us to an inevitable conclusion. The majority of arts critics and journalists at work in the UK (and presumably around the globe) are being exploited. It’s a strong claim, but exploitation is a simple concept, requiring only that one party is unfairly taking advantage of another. It is unarguable that the arts criticism industry relies on tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of unpaid hours of skilled labour every year.

One part, and only one part of this exploitation stems from profitable outlets ’employing’ unpaid writers, and it does not necessarily arise from bad faith. After all it is perfectly legal to recruit volunteers, and there is no obligation to pay them. Businesses exist to generate profit, and keeping the wage roll to a minimum is good business. However there’s no escaping the fact that thousands of hours of work every year by unpaid writers is generating revenue.

As explained prior, all manner of other stakeholders stand to economically benefit from the volunteer reviewers work. For the creative industries there are ticket sales to boost, and beefed up profiles when making funding applications. Even the readers of this mountain of unpaid work benefit from free, independent advice on where to spend, and where not to spend their hard-earned cash.

In fact, let me state this again, the only people emerging without either wage or any material asset amidst this web of monetary streams are the legions of hobby writers. That’s unfair. That is, in my opinion, exploitation: structural exploitation.

Who then, should pay them? Well where possible, their employers, the publishers of their work, who generate revenue from it. New York based Broadway World, the world’s largest such undertaking appears to be a multi-million dollar operation with a staff of well paid employees. Is it really so very revolutionary to suggest that they extend remuneration to the writers who contribute the lion’s share of their content? (Broadway World have been approached for comment – so far no reply has been forthcoming.)

Most online arts probably make no, or negligible profit…what then?

More modest operations claim to be unable to generate enough advertising revenue to provide wages to their writers, and yet some, like Binge Fringe are able to offer a stipend. Perhaps they are more astute with their management than others; perhaps most others are lucky to cover their website hosting costs, perhaps. Certainly theQR’s revenue has yet to reach the break-even point, so I find this easy to believe.

So if their recruiters cannot pay the writers, then who else should? Venues and productions certainly can’t, at least not directly. The ethical conflict is glaringly obvious and impossible to negotiate. Perhaps however, the major players could bankroll an arms-reach body which provides grants to critics subject to quality establishing criteria. It’s one possibility. Maybe public funding bodies could provide some support, bodies such as Creative Scotland, recognising high quality arts journalism as a creative endeavour critical to the arts economy. Maybe.

However, blue-sky thinking isn’t going to pay anyone’s bills tomorrow, nor next year most likely. What if there’s simply no route to those thousands of unpaid volunteer critics, who have no ownership of the publications they write for, or its content?

“Charities claim that to end the exploitation of interns and volunteers would mean a massive reduction in opportunities for people looking to enter the sector.” – Now substitute charities with theatre review websites.

Then our Arts Industry stakeholders should withdraw access from any outlet which relies upon this unethical, unpaid labour. If those publishers cannot operate without it, then I’m afraid they should close. What would remain would be a relatively tiny number of critics/arts journalists either paid, or with, at least, some legally recognised ownership of their publications and work. Ownership of an unprofitable outlet may not offer immediate financial rewards, but it is an asset with potential value plus rights over its content. A site which takes time to break through into the black will do so, in part, due to high-quality content published prior.

Why not exempt organisations where no-one is paid?

Whilst the risks of direct exploitation by website owners are far lower in this situation, the systemic exploitation by those other Arts stakeholders remains. It is an avoidable act of self-harm to the arts journalism industry to perpetuate this status quo. Yes, it would end a hobby which enriches the free time of quite alot of people, but just because a person can do a thing, just because they enjoy it, does not imply they should be doing it.

Abundant tourism has long risked destroying, or at least compromising holiday hot-spots across the globe. A lack of regulation has allowed the short-term let industry to soak up an increasing % of properties in Edinburgh, and other popular urban centres. In both cases, I’m sure plenty of those involved are having a ball, but their optional activities have seriously negative consequences.

Of course, theatre reviewing, and arts journalism more generally, isn’t about to harm ecosystems or property markets, but volunteering this labour is progressively destroying a profession. It is also supporting a broader industry where a few, lucky individuals are making money whilst most toil for no financial reward. In place of an industry dominated by a privileged class with the ‘right’ school tie, we risk ushering in a replacement dominated by those with the privileges needed to give away their time, and labour for free.

In the next, and final article in this series, theQR will explore the consequences of taking direct action to stop this rampant exploitation throughout our industry, and the fairer, more accessible future we might build afterwards.