It’s Always Been a Gig Economy for Creators

The following originally ran in Issue 2 of HUBRIS: The Journal of Cultural Horror, December, 2017. 

Once I had a roommate that aspired to be a writer. At one point he found himself between jobs, so he used the free time to write a short story. Just one. He sent it off to a magazine. Again, just the one. He was so assured of his own brilliance that he knew that they would buy it. It was a major magazine, too. Not one that you’d expect to see a first-time writer’s fiction in. He’d never sold a story before, he’d never even submitted a story before, but he was confident. He kicked back and waited.

Now, while he was waiting, I was working a full-time job. I was the one paying the bills and buying the groceries covering his ass. Oh, I was also spending my evenings writing, and submitting and collecting rejection slips. All that proved to the roommate was that he was smarter than I was. What a sucker I was, working so hard trying to peddle my words to tiny markets.

Don’t worry about his half of the rent, he’d tell me. When they buy his story, they’ll pay him a lot of money. He didn’t know how much, because he’d done no research, but he was certain that it would cover all of the back rent, and the future rent, and he’d buy me something pretty. Okay, he didn’t say the last part, but it would have been tonally appropriate if he did. By which I mean, creepy and exploitive and likely abusive if you think about it too long.

During the time he was waiting for a response (which, to my knowledge, he never got) he wasn’t working on the next short story to submit somewhere, or shopping the first story to other markets. He had this idea that one short story was going to cover six months’ worth of expenses. Because, you know, he was brilliant and it was a popular magazine and things in life are just that easy.

I sold a story to a very small niche market for an amount that covered lunch out one day. Soon afterward I landed a regular column at a magazine that folded a few issues after I started. I moved out and kept writing. He moved back into his mother’s basement and developed a deep and abiding hatred for how unfair the world was being to him.

***

Following the announcement of the changes to Patreon’s fee structure, an article began circulating on social media. It detailed how very few creators are actually making a decent living via Patreon. Most are barely scraping by, or not really making any money at all.

My opinion on this essentially boils down to “well, duh”.

This opinion made me wildly unpopular with some other creators I talked with, but let’s be honest about things. In this regard, Patreon really isn’t any different from YouTube, Amazon, Etsy, or any other site where creators can sell or otherwise monetize their work. Some people are able to leverage a platform well and make a lot of money, while most continue to toil away in obscurity. This often has less to do with creative talent, and more to do with a knack for self-promotion and a health dose of luck.

While I acknowledge that this is innately unfair, that’s the way it’s always been. This is not new. The internet has changed what the hustle looks like, but you still have to hustle. Very few people make a thing, sell it for a fortune, and retire.

Most creatives, whether they’re artists, comedians, musicians, writers, actors, or whatever, don’t live in mansions, appear on talk shows, or get gossiped about by tabloid media. Even successful actors go on auditions to land the next role, even if they’ve been in a successful TV show or movie. Writers might sell a book, but they still need to pitch the next one and hope that the publisher bites again. Musicians play some lousy venues hoping to get discovered by record labels that might put them under contract, or attract fans willing to buy their merch. Comedians fight to get booked in clubs, to get better time slots, and to be allowed longer sets.

When I decided to go all-in and pursue being a professional writer, I didn’t go back to school to get my MFA (Masters in Fine Arts). I went for a business degree instead. With an emphasis in marketing and entrepreneurship, to boot. There are some astonishingly mediocre writers out there making a lot of money. While I want my writing to be good, and always want to be better, I also like being able to pay rent and buy groceries. Knowing how to sell my work was more important, at that stage of my career, than improving the quality of the work. That’s the reality of the situation.

So while I do use Patreon, I have three different projects running there aimed at three separate audiences. I also have my written work, including this zine, up at Amazon. My games are available from multiple online retailers. The podcast can be streamed on YouTube. I don’t put all of my eggs in one basket and expect that to be enough to support me.

The creative people that are successful don’t start off doing just one thing for one venue. No one goes on one audition, submits one manuscript, plays one club, and expect that to be all that it takes. They don’t say “well, I made one thing and put it on that one site, now I can sit back and wait to become famous#. They hustle, and keep hustling, and when they’re tired and burned out and ready to quit, hustle some more.

Because being a professional creative is a job. It has always been a job. It takes hard work and dedication. The odds have always been stacked against us. There have always been people trying to exploit our work for their own gain. We struggle to get paid the royalties we’re owed. People steal our work. They don’t want to pay us what we’re worth. We get told that creative work is a hobby, and they we shouldn’t expect to get paid. Amazon changes something and it screws authors, YouTube alters something and screws content creators, Patreon alters its fee structure and screws everyone. Yet every time, creators act surprised as if this isn’t a pattern and practice by large companies, toward creators.

Does it suck? Yes, it sucks. It is unfair? Terribly so. Should it change? Yes, it should. But until it does, we still need to pay the bills. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t fight to make things better. I’m not saying roll over and take it when people try to make your life harder. What I am saying is, while you’re crying in your oatmeal about how other people are making it difficult for you to make a living, and how people should just throw money at you because you’re astonishingly brilliant and this creative thing should be easy, I’m putting my creativity to work looking for new ways to continue making a living.

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