Giving it away for free.

Joni Mitchell sings:

“Now me I play for fortune
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free

Not many poets get black limousines. You might get moth-eaten remnants of a velvet curtain on the wobbly stage in the corner of a pub. What we often get is the expectation that we’ll perform our original work for free.

Why is that? And why do almost all of us feel guilty about asking if there’s any kind of recompense for performing at a pub, club, poetry group, cafe or festival?

I think a lot of it comes down to a lack of confidence in our work. We know we’ve put hours and days into finishing a poem. We know that some people at least will get great pleasure from reading it, or hearing it performed. We know that we have an above average ability with words. We know that when we perform we often bring a few friends and fellow poets along, who will spend money on drinks or food which the venue would not otherwise get.

And whilst many organisers do their best to make sure that the guest poet gets at least a few free drinks, or a free meal, or a book voucher, or even cash, there are still plenty that don’t even consider the idea of paying a poet to read at their venue or event.

In some cases, it’s worthwhile to perform for free. At a writers’ festival, where there will be a large crowd, publishers and media present, you would jump at the opportunity for exposure.

In some cases, you’re happy to do it, because it’s for a friend starting out a venture, or it’s a school or it’s for a good cause, or it’s a group of other poets who all want to hear each others’ work, or it’s just a fun gig that you do because you have a great time doing it.

When you’re starting out, and nobody knows your work, you snap up every chance to strut your stuff to people who’ve never heard of your name. But at what point do you say “hang on, I’ve been doing this for nothing for long enough. At least give me some indication, some token of appreciation , to show that you acknowledge my time, my effort and my art.”

I’ve just had an experience where I was invited to be guest poet at a cafe in the Adelaide area.  It’s not a McDonalds and its not silver service. It’s the sort of place where, in an evening, you’d easily spend $30-40 per head on food and wine. I was there last month to hear a guest poet read, and got up in their open mic session to read a couple of my poems. The organiser liked what he heard, and asked me to be guest poet at the next meeting. I later emailed him to enquire as to whether there was anything like a couple of free drinks, or a plate of dips or a bottle of wine, for the guest poet. This was the first time I’ve ever raised this question. I’ve always done what most of us do, which is to go along, read my stuff , be grateful if the organiser has taken the bother to arrange something for the guest poet, or gone away muttering under my breath if nothing was given.  The response from the organisers was basically that I should be honoured to be invited to be guest poet, and no token of appreciation would be given, not even a complimentary cup of coffee or glass of wine.  Now I could have gone along, sat with a glass of water all night, read and gone home, but that would have been petty and vindictive (which I can be if I want). Or I could have gone along with several friends, and between us spent $150-$200 at the cafe, and tried to enjoy the night. But I know I would have felt resentful at what I regarded as their lack of appreciation. So I pulled out. I told them “Sorry, if that’s your attitude, I’m not going to appear”.

Getting back to Joni. You can be sure of one thing: that “one man band by the quick lunch stand” would have had a hat at his feet for people to drop money into. Maybe that’s the answer – pass the hat around for donations. Or hang a sign around your neck “Poet with wife and six children to feed. Please help”

So what do you think? Should we give it away for free, and be grateful for the odd scrap thrown in our direction?

Or should we try to change this attitude that you pay musicians, you pay bands, you pay singers, you pay waitresses and chefs, but the poet who entertains your clientele, well she/he is just a poet, and you can get them for free.

8 thoughts on “Giving it away for free.

  1. For a start, most poets are not rich. They don’t expect to make money out of poetry, particularly in a country like ours where only sportsmen, politicians and plastic surgeons are perhaps a little overpaid. But speaking on behalf of another cafe venue that stages a monthly entertainment consisting of poetry and music, we make no distinction between the two arts – both of them are entertaining as well as moving and thought-provoking. We have a guest poet and/or musician every month, and while it’s not up to the cafe to provide free food or drink, they feel as much as we do that a guest deserves to be acknowledged with a gesture of some kind. So we compromise – we offer a small free meal and/or a free drink. And we make that plain when we invite the guest. After all, he/she is a draw card for the evening, as well as deserving a reward for their talent plus their goodwill in taking the trouble to come to the venue. If we were generously funded, we’d offer payment, just as some venues are able to pay their musicians a decent fee.

    Because most poets are not rich, it’s perhaps a bad idea to stage open mics in expensive cafes. You wouldn’t get a representative cross-section of poetry-writing public. And you’d never get a one-man band performing.
    When you come as a guest poet to our venue, Mike, you’ll get your 15 minutes’ worth in food and beverages, that’s a promise! (-:

    • That’s in line with responses from other people I’ve spoken to Julia. A ‘token of appreciation’ such as an entree or a couple of drinks, is enough to keep most poets happy. We’re not in it for the money, but we like to feel appreciated.

  2. Interesting blog Mike, very thought-provoking. I certainly feel guest poets should be paid, whenever possible. I’m glad that the poetry readings I’m involved in, Gawler Poets at the Pub, always offers payment to our guest poet.

  3. I agree, Mike. You can probably count the number of Australian poets who get paid for all of their appearances on the fingers of one hand (and still have enough fingers left over to give your detractors one or two fingers.) I’m happy to work for free if it serves my purposes and interests. I resent it if it’s a money-making gig & I’m offered nothing. If it’s a new gig just starting up (eg, Word Box, SPIN) I don’t expect anything. Friendly Street always makes a small payment to its guest readers. But I know I’ll never get rich. If you want to make money, poetry is the wrong game. I’m just in it for my own selfish interest!

  4. Listened to the joni mitchell. shes amazing isnt she ? Totally agree with you. You need money to stand up and put yourself out there and stress yourself. glad you showed them what it is about. Just difficult though. maybe you could say ….yes Id love to come along. my fee is 35 plus expenses and a glass of wine thanks. Ran the half marathon in my new trainers on sunday. 2hrs 20 mins. Up a few steep hills. also down a few it has to be said !! scottie biked with me the last 4 miles ! love liz xx

    Date: Wed, 27 Feb 2013 06:48:36 +0000 To:

  5. An on-the-money post (so to speak), Mike. 🙂

    When we run our own businesses we charge rates (hourly, project-based, whatever), and even then it takes a belief in one’s own expertise to be able to stand by those rates when dealing with new clients.

    It takes courage to expose our poetic selves. For the less assured among us, asking for a fee might feel like asking for a valuation of our creativity or a validation of our worth as a poet.

    At what point in our development as writers do we cross the line between putting ourselves out there because we love to do it and putting ourselves out there because someone is paying us to do it? When we think we’re good enough? When someone else thinks we’re good enough and will pay us?

    I realise I’ll not make my fortune in the poetry genre, that’s for sure! That said, I would think it quite mean of a venue or organisation not to offer even a token gesture of gratitude – for entertaining poetry, for precious time, and for all that additional booze and grub they’ll sell.

  6. I’ve been on both sides of the fence often over the years. Last gig I did I was paid out of the raffle money, which was constructive, and a member of the audience bought me a coffee and I sold two books ($50). Okay – but I drove a long way to the event and it cost me three-quarters of a tank full of juice. So maybe I drew level on the deal. But did I have a good time? Certainly. And all were happy there – I met other poets, both established and on the way up, and was asked to do a nother gig, w3hich I think is a paid one. But if it is a major Festival or a Workshop, I do ask for money.

  7. I keep coming back to this post. Even at the music open mikes and sessions I used to hang out at (when I was younger and could stay up late), they gave the musicians a free pint for their trouble. Most musicians get paid, although a local folk music festival, true, relies on the kindness of volunteers. Most poets, from what I can tell, don’t. You don’t even get a pint out of it.

    So I guess poets are supposed to do it out of the love of it while musicians get paid. I’m low enough on the food chain at this point that I’m okay with that. But if I were invited to a function to read — sure, getting something out of it, dinner, a drink even, well that just makes good sense. If for no other reason than goodwill.

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