“Hello, I would like a sandwich please.”
“OK, that will be five dollars.”
“You charge for sandwiches?”
“Yes, five dollars.”
“I wasn’t expecting to have to pay for a sandwich.”
“Sorry, but sandwiches cost five dollars.”
“I got a free sandwich from a different sandwich shop before.”
“Lucky you. Unfortunately, we are not that other sandwich shop. They cost five dollars here.”
“Won’t it look good for your personal sandwich-making portfolio?”
“It certainly will. I’m very proud of every sandwich on the menu. It still costs five dollars.”
“But making sandwiches has to be good experience for you. Isn’t that worth it?”
“This is a sandwich shop. We make sandwiches professionally. I make a living off of my sandwiches. Which is why I charge five dollars per sandwich.”
“How about I post a picture of your sandwich on Instagram? Surely that exposure is worth more than five dollars.”
I’ll end this horror story there.
But needless to say, if you are an artist of any kind, I’m incredibly sorry for triggering the frustration-fueled anxiety attack I just caused. But this fictitious scenario is one that I love to present to people when they ask me for free photos. Or free video. Or free writing. Or free anything for that matter.
Think about it. How absurd would it be if you went into your local deli or café (or for my New Jersey people, a Wawa) and ordered a deluxe sandwich, with all the fixings and accouterment one would expect, only to then suggest to the clerk that you should get said sandwich for free. That alone would be a head-scratcher. But most people take it that extra step, implying that not only should the sandwich be free, but the person making the sandwich should be grateful for the unpaid experience of making that sandwich—as if the professional sandwich maker became a professional sandwich maker without already learning how to make good sandwiches. And before you start poking holes in the scenario, yes, your mileage may vary from sandwich shop to sandwich shop. You could live in Los Angeles and learn to accept Jersey Mike’s as your de facto Italian sub joint. But even a basic foot-long, Mike’s Way, with extra Juice is something most rational humans would pay five dollars for.
Which is to say that I never understood why the simple economic transaction lessons we learn as children, when the Ice Cream Man drives around for some reason, get tossed out the window when we discuss art as adults.
Specifically, art made by independent artists.
Everyone understands that art by world famous artists cost a lot of money. (okay, maybe I don’t understand why a banana duct taped to a wall costs as much as it does, but there’s a general consensus that it costs something.) But how come, when Netflix puts out an ad for wedding photographers to cover the staged marital ceremonies for the upcoming season of I Regret Being On This Reality Show, I am not surprised to discover that these photographers will not be paid for their work? Why does Netflix value the sandwiches they’ll order for lunch more than a working professional’s craft, time, and skill?
I encounter similar situations like this all the time: Instagram DM requests from people asking for free photo shoots in exchange for a post on their platform. I go through the same song and dance as above, and most times they decline or simply just ghost from the conversation. On occasion, there are times that I am able to convince the person to cough up a little money, possibly even some money and a sandwich. But sadly, on the whole, this is an all-too-frequent cliché, albeit one that seems harmless on the micro level.
“It’s just a quick photo shoot,” they say. “It’s just a quick script.”
I say it’s just a quick sandwich. And you pay for sandwiches.
Look, I fully understand there are times as artists that we do work pro-bono. We have our reasons. I love offering photos for my friends and family. I’ve shot and directed music videos for musician friends of mine that I know aren’t making much right now. I’ve written all-new scripts and joke packets for shows that are hiring. I’ve assisted on a large number of student projects for free (in respect of the fact that I have asked many for similar help on my own student projects). As artists, we know that there are times when it is acceptable, or at the very least understandable, for us to lower or completely waive our fees. And I, for one, pride myself in the times that I’m able to help someone out (granted, I’d love to not have to write 30 pages of new material as part of a job application, but c’est la vie.).
For the most part though, situations like these are favors. They are choices we make. And making those choices to give work for free from time to time does not apply to professional commission situations. A sandwich shop sometimes has a sale, or gives away a free sandwich for every ten sandwiches it sells. That doesn’t mean every sandwich has no value.
I’ve always wondered why this phenomenon occurs. Is it because we are hyper saturated with content all the time? I personally believe the Internet is the biggest culprit of conditioning all of us into thinking that new material shouldn’t cost money—that it should be readily available at a moment’s notice. How often do you wake up in the morning and play that new song you love to start your day? And don’t get me wrong; there is plenty of good that has come from the democratization of access to the arts of human history. We have the power now to listen to music, to view paintings, to watch motion pictures from cultures throughout time. We have the ability to learn about the human condition though access to past expressions of self. We further our present society from the building blocks created by the compounding interest of all the art from all the walks of mankind. Hell, nothing brings me more joy than watching videos of young people today experiencing the Beatles (or Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight) for the first time. And the Internet has given us the ability to share this joy with others.
Art should be, and needs to be, accessible. And yet, the very technological marvel that allows for this accessibility has created a paradigm shift in society. The Internet has, over time, convinced people they no longer need to pay for their sandwiches. Ever since the days of Napster and Limewire, Gen Y-ers/Millennials have been searching for methods to circumvent monetary transactions for art. I’m very guilty of it. Between the ages of 12 and 18, I stole hundred of dollars worth of music. Possibly even more. Thankfully, with the evolution of YouTube and streaming platforms like Spotify, there is no longer a need to pirate ripped mp3s.
But the entertainment industry now has a new problem: how to compensate artists for their work when the only money consumers are spending are single-lump sum subscription fees?
And we absolutely should compensate our artists properly. That’s the point of this whole article. But artists can only be paid their worth when media consumers recognize the value of the art they are consuming. It’s basic supply and demand. And the supply is too large to meet the demand right now.
We are bombarded by so much content on a daily basis that even with all of our subscription fees (guys, remember “cutting the cord?” LOL), we still subconsciously consider every individual piece of work to be free. Within the last year and change, during the pandemic, we all consumed, at the very least, WandaVision and/or Loki, Ted Lasso, Bo Burnham’s Inside, two brand new Taylor Swift albums, several Disney movies, and whatever was sitting in our back catalogue cue for rainy day viewing. For me, it was a mix of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Dave on FX, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and so much more. Imagine how much money we all would have spent on entertainment if all of that were pay-per-view. And that’s not even accounting for everything new that premiered in 2020 that I haven’t seen yet, or care to see. There’s too much supply of content for my personal demand. Times that by seven billion people and that is why so many of us expect free sandwiches.
Earlier this month, while I was on a much-needed family vacation to visit other family in Ocean City, Maryland, the entire world found out that I am in $320,000 of student debt after completing my MFA in screenwriting. The larger issues of federal student loans and why higher education costs so much in this country notwithstanding, a vast majority of commenters and Twitter trolls seemed fixated on a single thought. As if the realization that some of us choose to pursue the arts is somehow a big gotcha moment in society. Let me use the words of one such Internet truth-sleuth who messaged me via searching for and discovering my website’s contact-me page:
“Art is worthless.”
There was more to this kind soul’s message of course, but I don’t think it meets the content policies of the Pipeline Artists website.
It was this email that really got me thinking about this subject of late. Here is someone who probably expects a free sandwich everywhere he goes, without realizing how many sandwich shop subscription fees he’s probably already paying.
And that’s the big issue.
There are a huge amount of working, hustling independent artists out there who make a living off of their sandwiches. They put in Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours to learn how to make good sandwiches. They spend hours upon hours on social media platforms as their own PR team, trying to get you interested in their sandwiches. Some of them went to school, like I did, to further study Sandwich Making, and to gain invaluable time trying and failing over and over again in the sandwich sandbox. (I will say, being a student sandwich maker is, in my opinion, the only time it’s acceptable to ask a professional sandwich maker for free cold cuts.)
So many artists work two or even three jobs because the money they’re making at the sandwich shop isn’t paying the bills. And yet, all of us love eating sandwiches. We eat sandwiches every day. We try new sandwiches that we’ve never tried before. We fall back to our old favorite sandwiches on rainy days. We sometimes eat sandwiches without even realizing we are already in the middle of a different sandwich.
We need to do a better job of recognizing the skill, craft, time, energy, and tears that go into sandwich making.
One way that I have started to change my personal consumption habits is by purchasing physical media of pieces that I truly appreciate. I’ll buy a movie on blu-ray if I really love it. I’ll spend $10 on an album, whether it’s a friend’s indie punk band or the latest Bruce Springsteen archive release. Even among my peers and collaborators, I make sure to pay them something every time they come and work for me. Even if it’s only a couple bucks and a sandwich. Cause I value their time and friendship, and I know they’ll treat me the same when I come and work for them.
But for the non-artists here: the next time you’re eating a sandwich, take a moment to appreciate what it is that you asked someone to do for you. With every bite, take a beat and think about how much time went into baking the bread, into ethically farming, growing, butchering, curing, and/or cooking the various meats and vegetables inside. Think about the attention to detail that went into making the cheese, especially if you watched the sandwich maker slice it fresh from the block for you.
Think about the condiments, and how much joy each jolt of flavor brings you. Think about how many different combinations must have been attempted throughout human history before someone discovered the bliss that is the arrangement you’re enjoying. Think about why you ordered this sandwich in the first place.
And if you’re at Jersey Mike’s, just pay the $5 and be thankful you’re not at Subway.
*Feature photo by Lê Minh (Pexels)