Crowdsourcing and Unpaid Workers: When Worlds Collide

A while ago I wrote about crowdsourcing, which is becoming more and more interesting to me as an organizational theorist. Crowdsourcing bypasses traditional organizational structures and processes by creating what organizational theory would likely identify as a “networked organization”, Crowdsourcing creates a network of supporters around an artist or a project, and that organization can be temporary (for a one-time-only project) or ongoing (when the artist calls on those supporters whenever they have something new they want to pursue).

Thanks to the lively minds over at The Afterword, I was recently alerted to a situation that we might call “crowdsourcing gone wrong”. Amanda Palmer holds the current record for the most money raised for a musical project via the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter  – her fans ponied up $1.2 million to finance her new record, “art book” and tour. However, last month she sent out a call for “professional-ish” horn and string players to play at each show on her tour – for which “we will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily”. However, it appeared that these musicians….would not be paid.

This request, perhaps not surprisingly, caused quite a fiery backlash. You can read some of the criticisms in detail here and here, but to summarize, they go something like this:

  • A million-dollar (and then some) project shouldn’t be asking anyone to do anything for it for free.
  • The budget for the project, as posted on Palmer’s blog, seemed to have lots of places to find $35,000 (the estimated cost for a three-piece horn section to travel on the tour for least some of the shows).
  • In addition to the $1.2 million raised through Kickstarter, Palmer would be getting revenue from the sales of tickets to her shows (sample of ticket prices here); that’s another source of money that could be used to pay musicians.
  • Palmer herself wasn’t playing for free, so she shouldn’t be expecting other musicians to do the same.
  • And, more broadly, asking any musician to play for free sets a bad precedent and lowers the value of live music in the marketplace –  especially problematic when many musicians are already struggling to earn a living.

Palmer’s initial reaction to the criticism (somewhat condescending, in my opinion) pointed out that she herself has played for free, or even at a loss, and still plays for free to support other artists or when she feels like it. But this week she backed down and announced on her blog (again rather condescendingly) that she had reallocated some of her project funds, and the local musicians joining in on each show would be paid.

Even when there’s a lot of this around, there may not be “enough” to pay everyone. (Credit: Creative Commons/flickr user “images_of_money”)

At the same time that this drama was unfolding, Andrew Langille, who runs the excellent website Youth and Work, Tweeted a link to a truly eye-opening website listing unpaid internship “opportunities” in industries such as fashion, theatre and publishing. This article from the Economic Policy Institute outlines some of the many problems with unpaid internships – not only are they often illegal, but also

(a) some of the organizations relying on unpaid labour pay their executives six-figure and higher salaries

(b) unpaid internship opportunities unfairly favour candidates who are able to afford to live without a salary

(c) unpaid internships deprive government of payroll tax revenues, because no salary means no payroll deductions, and

(d) if unpaid interns are doing work experience for post-secondary credits, it’s a double whammy for them because they have to pay tuition while not getting any income.

Obviously, unpaid work is a much bigger problem than Amanda Palmer’s one-time request, and the whole issue of unpaid internships is much bigger and complex than I can fully explore here. However, it strikes me as exceptionally unfortunate, and also unethical, that any organization of any kind would balance its books by not paying some members for their contributions. In Palmer’s case, yes, she has and she does perform for free. And yes, unpaid interns get industry experience that may help them get a paying job. But  requiring people to work for free if they want to participate in an organization is very, very different from workers volunteering to participate for free – and suggesting that the two are somehow the same is disingenuous at best.

After the criticism she received, Palmer changed her mind about not paying musicians. Getting employers to have a change of heart about not paying interns is a much bigger challenge – but, with interns getting mad enough to file lawsuits like the ones described here, maybe public attention can eventually have a similar effect.

(I encourage anyone interested in regular updates on the struggle against unpaid internships  to follow Andrew Langille on Twitter. He does a bang-up job of calling out and shaming organizations that solicit unpaid interns, and he regularly shares links to news and events around the issue.)

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