[Update: Just after we posted this, Dunham reversed course and is going to make sure performers get paid. But I am still curious as to why requests like this keep getting made.]
Nothing Lena Dunham does cannot be converted into instant controversy, so it is no surprise that the Internet is grousing over the news that some people performing with her on her upcoming tour to promote her new book, “Not That Kind of Girl,” will not be paid. Random House, Dunham’s publisher, allocated $3.5 million for an advance on the book and have sold 8,000 tickets for the tour at $38 a piece.
Dunham, in the New York Times piece about the tour, characterizes the idea to add other performers as her idea, made the appeal for submissions and selected the artists herself. Given that, she ought to have asked Random House to budget some compensation for other artists into the overall cost of the tour. Artists, no matter how rich, have a collective interest in setting the value of their work as something more than zero.
But Dunham is hardly the first artist to hit the road for performances that involves much-less-famous co-stars who end up taking the stage for free. Two years ago, musician Amanda Palmer netted $1.2 million from a crowdfunding campaign to support the recording of her next album, then took it on tour, recruiting some artists to play with for free at stops along the way. (She was charging money for tickets to the shows, and paying some members of her band.)
After plenty of internet kerfuffle, Palmer began paying her collaborators, explaining that she had come to think ” it’s one thing to decide, independently, that you’ll play for free. It’s another to be a person with a lot of money who asks other people for free labor. Folks in the latter position shouldn’t confuse themselves with folks in the former.”
This is absolutely true. Artists and outlets who can pay for work they are soliciting ought to. (I say this as someone who is happy to be at a publication that now budgets for me to pay guest-bloggers.) And if you cannot pay, I think you ought to consider very seriously what is appropriate to ask people to do for free. But since people keep making these sorts of requests, I think it is important to consider why they might feel comfortable doing so.
For some artists, I think, the impulse seems to be drawn from the shifting economics of the entertainment industry. As Palmer wrote before she reversed course, “The Dresden Dolls lost a lot of money in order to travel around opening up for nine inch nails. and good lord, were we grateful to lose that money…It won us a huge bunch of fans.” One of the long-running jokes about Dunham’s HBO show, “Girls,” is that it is aimed at demographic that would rather swipe their parents’ HBO Go passwords or torrent the show than actually pay for a cable subscription and HBO as an add-on.
In an ecosystem where it seems like no one wants to pay actual money for your product — or at least the amount of money that it takes to produce the darn thing in the first place — maybe it seems more reasonable to ask them to contribute in other ways. If someone does not want to pay for your television show or your album, but is willing to barter their labor for an experience that will carry some benefit to themselves, I can see how that might feel like a reasonable trade to offer.
Even as the economic models for supporting the arts have collapsed, our attachment to the pop culture we love often seems to have spiked in inverse proportion to the amount we are willing to pay for it. We brandish our passions as if they are identity categories, church memberships or party registrations. Creative people increasingly make themselves available to fans, whether they are livetweeting their own shows like the cast of “Scandal” or fielding questions–earlier today, Daniel Lawson, the costume designer for “The Good Wife” helped me track down a sweater from Sunday’s episode.
What better way to make your fans feel like you are all part of a communal effort than by breaking down the thing that divides them from you and bringing them into part of your creative process? In this context, asking someone to get up on stage with you for free is less about widening the gap between you and your fans and more about closing the chasm by suggesting that for a bit of luck and pluck, fans and fellow artists might be in the same place.
As Dunham told the New York Times in a bit of self-deprecation: “I found the idea of a traditional author tour, where you go and stand behind the lectern and talk about yourself, I found it a little bit embarrassing, a little blatantly self-promotional and a little boring…I wanted it to have an arts festival feel, which is why we now have all these remarkable, special weirdos who I found on the Internet.”
I sympathize with that impulse, particularly for someone who has been as intensely scrutinized as Dunham has been. But the headliner is different from the opener. And taking a page from Palmer’s experience, one way to create a community is not to pretend that difference does not exist, and to treat the people who want to work with you better than you expected to be treated when you were in their position.