Monday, October 13, 2014

SXSW and its unpaid workforce

I don't remember how I stumbled across this Salon article from February of this year, but I felt compelled to respond to it as it reflects a lot of what I have been blabbering about in this blog.

In short, the article goes on to recount how the SXSW festival went from being a small indy music festival to a 9-day multimedia, corporatized event and how the people who run the festival (SXSW Inc.) now rake in the dough. With the help of a conversation with Eric Glatt, the article's author (somewhat indirectly) posits that, with all of that profit going into SXSW Inc's pockets, the owners of the festival could be paying the thousands of people who agree to volunteer for the festival each year, thereby injecting even more money towards Austin's local economy, but they don't.  Then the author goes on to point out that SXSW is breaking existing labour laws thereby exposing SXSW to possible class-action lawsuits in the future.  I hope it also isn't lost on most readers that, as stated in the article, Eric Glatt is someone who worked as an unpaid intern on the set of the blockbuster film The Black Swan and was attending the 2014 SXSW festival as a guest speaker...

In principle, I agree that SXSW could share more of their wealth and it would no doubt be very nice of them if they would.  One could even argue that it is selfish of them not to share more of the wealth.  No arguments here.  But this idea that they therefore should pay those volunteers, and that those who originally agreed to volunteer for the festival are somehow entitled to sue SXSW for payment after the fact, is where I have to part ways with the author.

As pointed out by the author, SXSW's volunteer workforce goes against Austin's existing labour laws.  What's interesting, though, is that the author fails to address why the City of Austin has seemingly been turning a blind eye to what SXSW is doing for over 25 years now.  Why does the author think that is?  Could it be because those who run the municipality, and the citizens of Austin who vote for them every election, realise that what the festival brings in revenue to the city via tourism, publicity, etc., far outweighs what SXSW Inc. isn't investing in the way of paychecks to those who volunteer for them?  Could it also be because no one is forcing or tricking those people into working for free?  Could it be that those who volunteer feel that being able to attend the festival without having to pay admission, getting to bump elbows with celebrities and getting exposed to and networking with people who have similar interests, not to mention people from across the country and around the world, is worth their unpaid labour?  This sounds to me like a bunch of adults weighing the pros and cons and deciding for themselves whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.  It sounds like people associating voluntarily.

But seemingly the author would have us believe that there is some outside force at play: "Like millions of other interns, Eric – who is in his 30s and now a law student and public interest fellow at Georgetown — had been conditioned to believe that working for free or close to it is simply what you do to break into a glamorous industry."

I wish I could ask the author just who he believes has "conditioned" Eric and the "millions of other interns" to "believe" that?  Is there some corporate conspiracy to brainwash people into unpaid labour?  Were they feeding them these ideas through their iPods?  Or is that what the Chemtrails are for?

But seriously, does the author really think that all or even a significant portion of these millions of volunteers were completely unable to assess for themselves whether the benefits they were receiving through volunteering outweighed the lack of payment?   Does the author think that the thousands of volunteers who worked at the festival in 2014 were under the mistaken assumption that they were being charitable in providing their free labour to a barely-profitable festival, that also happens to run 9 days and attract performers such as Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Kanye? Furthermore, is it so inconceivable that someone might actually still want to volunteer their time even though they acknowledge that SXSW Inc. probably makes enough profit to pay them?

The author then advises us that, as the US Department of Labor is concerned, even the volunteers themselves are breaking the law because individuals “may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers.”  So, as per some words written on paper, sovereign individuals are not allowed to contribute their own physical or mental effort towards a for-profit enterprise, without also personally profiting monetarily from said enterprise. And if an individual chooses not to personally profit monetarily from an enterprise this could ultimately result in a fine or imprisonment.  In other words "you better have received some sort of paper with numbers on it from that corporation you helped, or we might force you or the owners of said corporation to pay us using some sort of paper with numbers on it, or we'll put you in jail."   While there may be such a "law" on the books, it's interesting that the author makes no attempt to analyse whether or not that law makes any sense or whether the people who volunteered for SXSW should be using this law as justification to sue for recompense. He just kinda puts it out there...

Now, before some of you jump to the assumption that I am some neo-con corporate apologist who agrees with maximum profit for those running the show, I again assure you that, in my personal opinion, to simply not pay the thousands that volunteer for you every year even though you could is a dick move.  And I agree with the author that there are even entire industries where employers co-conspire to not pay or to poorly pay entry-level people under the guise of "internships", leaving people who want to get into those industries no choice but to take those positions, because "if I don't someone else will" — the terrestrial radio business is but one example of this. 

But you know what?  If no one applied for these jobs, you can bet that SXSW, blockbuster film producers, radio stations et al, would have no choice but to resort to offering fully-paid entry-level positions in order to keep themselves staffed.

And if you knew that the industry you were looking to work in was also run by a dickish culture like that, why not find a way to break into the industry independently, or consider a different career choice?  Who wants to work for people like that or, even worse, who wants to risk eventually becoming them? After all, decades worth of interns before you didn't put an end to this "unjust system" once they got their full-time employment, so why would you?

And so the system persists...

But you know what? Most people don't even consider just not participating, because non-compliance isn't fair. They don't feel that they should have to sacrifice their own dream career, therefore they would rather take that unpaid/badly-paid position and bitch about the state of affairs than actually take direct steps to change it.  Or worse, they take the matter to the courts, forcing millions of others (i.e. taxpayers) to contribute to a complete stranger's fight via their tax dollars, because it is that person's right and they are entitled to justice under the law.

Do you think it sucks that you aren't being paid? Do you think you are being taken advantage of? Here's an idea: Don't participate. 

SXSW can't run a 9 day festival without people, so if people don't like their unpaid volunteer policy they should stop giving SXSW Inc. their unpaid work hours (and stop buying tickets to attend the festival.) But there are people who find that the perks of attending the festival as a volunteer — the behind the scenes access, experience, and networking possibilities — are attractive, and they are fully aware going-in that the trade-off is doing some work that they won't get paid for in cash, then what is the harm?  No one is being forced into the situation.  Making the assumption that you are entitled to monetary compensation simply because you know that those funds do indeed exist still doesn't explain why the festival runners owe any of those profits to you.  Again, obviously there are thousands of people who felt the trade-off was a good one as it was.  If you're someone who didn't, oh well.  And if enough people really felt the same way, eventually the volunteer work would die off, the quality of the festival would wain, and the owners would either have to consider offering paid positions or let the festival maybe return to a similar size to what it was in the early years (gasp!)
And would that be so bad? Why should it be a 9 day festival?  And if you truly have a love of music, or film or what ever other type of oeuvre represented at the SXSW festival, why would you also want to involve yourself in a festival run by the likes of Miller Lite, Subway, AT&T et al (or attended by Gaga and Kanye for that matter)?  And how do you suppose that the festival makes enough money to attract these big name celebrities and large corporate sponsors? Hmmm... Maybe it's because most of the people involved in the festival are agreeing to work for free?

Which brings me back to several messages you will find peppered throughout the posts on my blog:
  • If you don't like how SXSW treats their employees, stop supporting the festival with your time and money. Just like the Walmart episode of South Park where Kyle teaches the town that "Wall-mart" only becomes a big scary over-encompassing menace because everyone goes to work and shop there.  There is no "man behind the curtain"...Walmart is us...  SXSW is us too.  Do you want all of their workers to receive pay?  Then stop paying for tickets, stop attending as a guest speaker, artist or performer, and FFS stop working there for free!
  • Stop trying to force others to do what you think is right.  If others continue to support something you don't agree with, so be it.  As I said in part 3 of my Government Shmovernment posts: If you believe in freedom, which is to be free from outside control, then for freedom to exist means that you yourself cannot control others. You are not always going to like what other people choose to do, so freedom also means that you can't always get what you want, even if what you want is "right".
  • Be the change you want to see in the world.  Exemplify what you think is right. Show others what is possible.
  • You are not entitled to happiness and your level of happiness is totally up to you.  If you're not finding happiness at SXSW, look somewhere else, or better yet, create an alternative.
Now pardon me while I try to find a ladder so that I can get off of this damned high horse.

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