An open letter to the creative industry: Beginners are not free labourers

For the last 15 years I have fulfilled several different roles in the South African music industry. As a sound engineer, club manager, DJ, agent, promoter, and radio show host I have had to reinvent myself and prove my worth many times to be taken seriously and earn the money I deserve. 

I finished high school when I was 17 years old, but due to responsibility deflection and procrastination I missed the intake window for the course I wanted to study, and as a result, I was forced to take a gap year. My parents humoured my unemployment for the first few months, but eventually, I was told to find a job. No industry was out of the question at this stage, my parents didn’t want me to waste the expensive education I had received.

A moment of awakening occurred after I interviewed for an assistant position at a real estate agency. I think I would have gotten the job, however, the agent I interviewed with felt that I was too young to be in a position to earn the kind of money that came with the role.

The following year I went on to study Sound Engineering and entered the exciting world of music. And while I have managed to achieve longevity, it has been the most difficult journey of my life.

The trap we fall into by being young, new or inexperienced while trying to launch a career, is the assumption that our infancy has no value attached. The infamous feedback loop of needing some sort of experience to get a job and vice verse is how vultures stalk their prey. We leave school and are flung into the real world filled with anxiety about succeeding and desperation to be accepted as valuable members of society. Anxiety feeds nightmares, while desperation encourages bad choices.

The music industry is not unionised, it is largely ungoverned, and everyone makes their own rules. This is problematic because without a system there is no accountability. And because our predecessors had to hustle and accept bad terms for employment, most of them continue to perpetuate the cycle because they see it as “paying your dues”.

My first job out of college was as the house engineer for a dinner theatre. I earned R2000 a month. I did that job for a year because I needed the experience. I then moved on to manage a live music venue, the hours where longer and the job was more demanding. The pay wasn’t any better, and the bartenders made more money than me. But I stayed because I needed the experience. My first residency as a DJ had me playing anywhere between 3 – 5 hours once a week at a club in Cape Town. The club owner refused to pay more than R500 for the night. I had that residency for more than 2 years, and again, I stayed because I needed the experience.

I worked to pay my rent and hustled to build my career for the first 5 years before I caught the break I needed to launch me on the trajectory that I continue to stay on. Although I was often paid badly, I never played for free.

Dear artists, agents, promoters and venue owners, here’s my advice to you:

  1. If you hire an artist to entertain your patrons, they are part of your staff for the night and must be financially compensated for their work. A drinks tab or a meal does not pay for petrol, taxies, instruments, music purchases or any other costs that have been incurred by them performing at your venue.
  2. Paying someone with alcohol is bad practice, society has a tumultuous relationship with alcohol abuse and trading off a person’s skills for an addictive substance is setting a dangerous precedent. You are sending a message that their skills have no value above intoxication.
  3. People care more about what they do when they are valued, you are investing in quality by acknowledging the role someone plays in your business. If you are not willing to pay for someone’s services, then you have no recourse when they do not deliver a standard that you expect.
  4. Being able to make a career out of your passion is often discouraged because it is seen as financially unviable, allowing someone to hold you ransom in the name of experience will quickly douse the flame inside you and will force you to abandon your goals.
  5. Most young people are students or have just finished studying when they start pursuing their careers, which often means they have student loans waiting to be paid. Expecting them to invest time and effort into your business without financial compensation contributes to their crippling debt by occupying the use of their skills without allowing them to be able to pay back what they owe.
  6. As much as you may want to deny the value of young people, they are the ones with fresh ideas and ambition. Their creative input is essential for hastening the progress of an industry that often finds itself stagnating.
  7. Building a strong economy in a sector like the entertainment industry must be spearheaded by business owners. Investing in artists helps them grow, which in turn helps nurture the industry. When the industry is strong your business will thrive, which is a return on your original investment. You have the potential to be a talent incubator that will strengthen the industry and contribute to the longevity of everyone’s careers.

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