Are You Working for Free

A hula hoop artist (I’ll wait)

A hula hoop artist named Revolva (ok, I’ll wait again)

A hula hoop artist named Revolva recently wrote an open letter to Oprah. Oprah’s people asked Revolva if she would like to perform as an opening act for Oprah’s tour. After her initial excitement, Revolva learned that she would be performing on a stage outside, not actually with Oprah, and would not be paid for her performance. She declined and instead wrote Oprah a letter.

Internet outrage erupted. How dare Oprah, she of the millions, ask anyone to do anything for free?

When this subject erupts, I always feel a little conflicted. On the one hand, as a writer, I’m part of a group that is frequently asked to do things for free or less than a living wage. On the other hand, as a content marketer, I frequently work with writers who willingly create work for me for free. On the third hand, some of the groups I write for most frequently, small business owners, entertainers, and wedding vendors are among the most abused by the idea that people should work for “exposure.” On the fourth hand, I’ve seen that exposure really pay off for some people.

I completely understand and support anyone not feeling like they should work for “exposure.” I’m thrilled that this woman managed to turn an offer to work for “exposure” in to much more exposure than she would ever get if she had accepted the job. But I don’t get the Internet’s collective outrage at this.

If Revolva had been a musician with a CD to sell, that she was allowed to sell at the event, accepting this job for free might have been worth it. If Revolva had been offered a chance to perform on Oprah’s TV show, even with no payment, the “exposure” might actually have made sense for her. I am not a big Oprah fan, but there is no denying the “Oprah” effect. If Oprah blesses you, it is worth a lot of money.

Revolva was made an offer. She (rightly) decided that this offer wasn’t in her best interests as a professional. Most of us have been offered jobs that we don’t want, for salaries we don’t want. Yes, it stings a little. It stings a little when people don’t realize that your career has passed the point where you need that kind of work. It stings a little when people don’t offer you the big bucks. But I fail to see how that sting rises to the level of insult.

Revolva didn’t want that “job.” She didn’t take it. You can bet someone else who thought it made sense for them did take it. Is it really working for free if you actually do stand to gain something from it? Revolva was quite right that she didn’t really stand to profit from the job, but is that true of every artist?

I noticed on Revolva’s blog post that she has 198 comments, most of them thanking her for writing what she wrote. I also noticed that her blog has a “Tip Me” function allowing people who like her writing to pay her for it. I’ll be curious to learn in coming days how many of the people who feel so strongly that Oprah should pay Revolva paid her themselves.

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