Buskers and Hawkers

If a musician plays music at home, he does it for his own pleasure. If he’s invited to a party, to play with friends, he does that to entertain his buddies and himself. He wouldn’t expect to be paid for it. He might go out onto the street and busk. Perhaps for some exposure or coins, but he’s not expecting to make a fortune. His greatest pleasure will come from the brief smiles and positive comments of those passing by. If he’s invited to play in a café, there might not be payment as such, but he’d expect to get something from the takings at the door. Maybe a meal and drinks. Any venue with a stage has an obligation to pay him for the music he plays for their audience. In the music industry that seems to be obvious.

When I started blogging for Overland it was because I’d just been to the Overland Master Class and had made friends with a few of the people in the group. I started up a blog because of those buddies and a few weeks later Maxine Clarke asked me to help out on the Overloaded project. So for me it’s always been more or less like that musician getting called to one party or another. It’s always been a pleasure.

It does seem different when a position is being advertised, submissions are being examined and applicants have been given an outline for the kind of work that will be required of them. Clearly, for unknown writers looking for their voices to be heard, writing for the ABC in whatever guise, would be a wonderful opportunity, but if a venue like The Prince of Wales put up an event like this, even for amateurs, wouldn’t they be bound to make some kind of nominal payment? The ABC is a lot more like the Sydney Opera House though, and not some local Melbourne bar. What Overland’s own obligations are should be decided by what kind of stage they are offering their prospective writers.

There’s different kinds of blogging and most of them have an off the cuff approach. Little research is usually required and it’s more about opinion than it is statistics and fact. However we decide on its ultimate merit, a blog post is an effort to entertain and enlighten, even if it’s not always of the refined standard that you’d see in print. Weeks may have gone into the calibration, correction and polishing of a piece committed to print but years of craft and knowledge often go into a few quick sentences dashed off for a blog.

There’s the daily nature of blogging to be taken into account. With a flowing blog a literary magazine doesn’t just disappear for months on end until it resurfaces with a new issue. With this kind of blog a magazine remains ever present within public awareness. It maintains and can develop readership. With a blog about books it becomes a powerful tool for promotion and a gauge for what’s generating interest. It allows a public broadcaster to directly assess its appeal with its audience since the audience become an evolving part of shared knowledge and feeling. The bloggers are not merely writers here but facilitators of a public forum.

To create parallels between internship programs and blog writing is not easily accepted. Interns will never find content, develop an idea into an article, proofread it and publish under the masthead of a magazine’s online presence or a broadcaster’s site. There’s no apparent mentorship and the ultimate gains in profile for a writer are highly questionable, if blogging in general, isn’t considered to be real writing. In fact, it might be detrimental to a writer’s career to become too well known as a blogger.

Money will always be a problem in Australian literature but the argument that an opportunity is being provided for unpublished or emerging writers, so that payment can be foregone, could also be applied to all areas of print media. Why pay a writer for their first few pieces in a magazine like Meanjin if they’ve just been granted the prestige of a publishing credit in such a fine literary journal? Why pay a first time author for their debut novel when it’s well known almost no first novels actually make a profit?

The industry does pay those kinds of writers because a service is being provided and it goes directly to whatever profits have been garnered, be they large or small. The profits of good blogging still seem abstract. When someone plays that kind of music, it’s just the kind of thing we hear on a street corner as we pass by. Not many of us think that it’s worth more than a few coins. Those that walk past us, might wonder why we even bother. The answer is always, that it’s about the music.

Alec Patric

AS Patric is the award-winning author of The Rattler & other stories (Spineless Wonders, 2011), Las Vegas for Vegans (Transit Lounge, 2012) and Bruno Kramzer (Finlay Lloyd, 2013).

More by Alec Patric ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Alec, this is a fantastic post!

    “…It might be detrimental to a writer’s career to become too well known as a blogger” – this is something that I have pondered from time to time also, especially in the context of how ‘legitimate’ blogging is seen as a form of writing. A few years ago now there was an outcry when a (print, professional) declared blogging to be amateurish and unskilled, as ‘untrained writers’ couldn’t possibly do restaurant reviewing justice. I think it’s too easy to make assumptions about blogging (that it’s easier, that it’s off the cuff, that research isn’t required) vs writing for print. I’ve written several print articles that conform to those definitions, and many blog posts that don’t.

    A final point, you note that “the profits of good blogging still seem abstract”. I agree. But when you are blogging on behalf of an organisation then that organisation is receiving a benefit – perhaps not financial, but in regards to building their audience, reach and profile. Those profits have a huge value, even if it can’t be measured in dollars.

  2. This is a really well thought out post.

    I agree with the point about profits from blogging being abstract and harder to measure. I guess that’s why it seems easier for organisations to get away with not paying bloggers even though there is certainly a benefit to them contributing.

  3. How do you measure this in monetary terms? How do you measure the value of cultural production?

    Overland is a not-for-profit organisation. They are offering the opportunity for writers to raise their profile in exchange for raising the blog’s profile.

  4. This is a problem for the web in general. Measuring value is not just an issue for writers it also applies to designers, programmers and essentially anyone involved in producing a website.

    I’ve worked on numerous local government websites that have done nothing other than push their paper content online. And because they have large online or specific marketing budgets, they paid the company I worked for very well.

    I wonder what would have happened if the ABC had asked for unpaid web developers or designers to be profiled?

    The other issue here is the operation of not-for-profits. I’ve volunteered my technical skills for organisations that could not afford to pay me because I believed in what they were doing. But other people in those organisations were still being paid.

    I guess what makes this really hard is that writers earn less than other professions.

  5. Well, I don’t know.
    Editing and event management are, to use two obvious examples, are occupations no less worthy than writing. Should we not use volunteers in these areas? That’s an argument that would pretty much wipe out most literary journals and quite a few literary festivals.
    Alec says: ‘Why pay a writer for their first few pieces in a magazine like Meanjin if they’ve just been granted the prestige of a publishing credit in such a fine literary journal? Why pay a first time author for their debut novel when it’s well known almost no first novels actually make a profit?’
    It’s a fair enough question — but, of course, the answer’s more problematic than he allows. Actually, many small press journals don’t pay essayists or poets, and many small press publishers don’t pay novelists (or, at least, not properly: how many novel publishers in SPUNC can afford to give advances?) For years, Overland didn’t pay writers. The only reason we do now is that we have Oz Co money specifically for that purpose (the vast majority of our funding goes to author payments). If we lost our funding, we would — like, say, Arena and other similar magazines — go back to asking writers to write for free.
    I’m not saying that’s a good thing. I’m just saying that small not-for-profit publications have real financial issues that can’t be wished away.
    Let me put it another way. I thought the idea of volunteer interstate correspondents on the blog to be a good one — or, at least, worth trying. But I’m open to being convinced that it’s not. If it’s perceived to be exploitative, well, obviously we won’t do it.
    But say we found some way to free up some revenue to pay bloggers. The money would have to come from somewhere else. We can’t, in other words, spend more money than we already do — our only choice would be to reallocate resources from another area to this.
    The only way I could see it happening would be to build blogging into staff hours, which is, as I understand it, the Meanjin model. That might be a goer, I guess. It certainly seems to work for them.
    I am a bit reluctant to go down that track, partly cos the staff are already overworked and partly since a blog exclusively written by paid staff would be quite different from what we’ve had to date.
    Clearly, though, there are real issues. We’re thinking now that, once the Meanland site is fully functional, we might try to host a forum on some of these topics there.

  6. Interesting analysis Alec.

    A busker sets up outside a store, after being invited by the owners to busk there. He turns up every day and is an excellent musician, but chooses to busk outside the cafe because it’s hard to get gigs and lots of people pass him when they go into the quite busy store. The store notices an increase in clientele. People come in and buy a drink to have while they stand and watch. The store puts more chairs and tables outside and even more people come to listen, sometimes dining as well. The busker finally asks the restaurant for ten dollars a day to play his music. The store says ‘We are giving you a huge listening audience, and besides. all the money we have, we use to pay the staff that actually work here. Anyway, the store is our core business.’

    It all hinges on how good the busker is I guess, how much the joint wants to attract people in. Cause once he realises he’s hot shit, it’s the Opera House for him. He’d be mad otherwise, wouldn’t he?

    Maybe the boss could shop at cheaper markets, or charge ten cents extra per coffee.

  7. Jeff, having interstate correspondents is great idea b/c most, if not all the bloggers on Overland are from Melbourne and there’s a lot of politics happening in other states that would be worth raising on the Overland blog and discussing. This would raise Overland’s profile in other states and consequently increase revenue of the print journal. Obviously this increased revenue will take time to flow through to Overland but a really great, high profile blog Australia wide will take Overland to new places. Maybe you could advertise the blogging roles as no payment now but with the intention of paying them in the future? I don’t think a writer expects to make as much money for writing a blog article as they would a print article. You could pay them 10% of what they would make in print but at least it’s a start.

    Having Overland staff blog is entirely different b/c you are adding another task to their existing roles rather than having writers dedicated to blogging on Overland. Overland previously did have their staff blogging. You could probably compare the stats of the blog then to what the stats are now.

    1. Hi Koraly,
      Just quickly, we have a set contributors’ budget, largely determined by the funding we receive. We could only offer to pay bloggers 10 per cent of the print rate by reducing payments to journal contributors accordingly. Which is not to say the idea is impossible but just to point out the constraints we work under. Bear in mind, too, that we already pay writers for the journal at a rate less than that most newspapers offer.

  8. i think that benjamin hit the proverbial nail when he said that we volunteer our time, expertise, energy etc to non-profits that we believe in. overland is not a business. neither is triple r or red cross or medecins sans frontieres. they’re collectives of people who, for little to no money, work together to bring about a positive outcome in some area. they do the work that ideally government or the private sector *should* do but don’t. there’s some nobility in that.

    but of course, the exploitation of volunteer labour is a very real problem – who do you think is running half of the australian open as we speak? and that’s a bloody mega-business! i think we need to adopt a kind of marxist approach here – to each [org] according to its need etc. only it’s not just its need that you consider, it’s what you care about and want to commit to.

    i’ve worked for overland, in both a volunteer and paid capacity, for nearly five years, and i probably always will. in some way or another, i’ll be part of the magazine and be on call to help, because it’s a project i value deeply. i love it! for the beautiful, infuriating, vast, monstrous, sensitive, courageous litte thing that it is. it’s real to me and i chose it.

    i don’t give my time and energy to every project i care about, just like i don’t give donations to every charity i care about, but everyone makes their choices. if you want to write for us, you’ll be published, read, supported, and challenged. you may be linked, forwarded, frustrated, ridiculed, applauded, or even paid in the future by someone who sees your work. if you don’t want to post here, just stick around, be a collegial commenter, and let us know what you want from the blog. because it’s yours too.

  9. courageous LITTLE thing. and if anyone is offended by my gross lack of capitalisation, i’m sorry. but you may be placated by my INCORRECT usage of capitals to RAISE MY “VOICE”.

  10. Lovely bit of gear, Alec. There’s not much in here i’d take issue with, which some might find surprising given my rant about the ABC’s unpaid blog slavery at The Book Show. But I think your metaphor of the stage is a useful one. Overland and the ABC are two very stages, with two very different funding models. Does it matter if a small lit journal runs blogs by younger authors for free? Nope. Not as long as the relationship is not entirely exploitative. For instance if the blogger has other commitments that clash with delivery date, then screw the blog. It doesn’t get written and there’s no big deal. Also, I’d be uncomfortable with an unpaid arrangement that went on indefinitely. It’s not good for either party, but also, if the free blog is really about giving new voices a platform, then presumably they should vacate the stage when they’re no longer new.

  11. I’m kind of late to this debate, and not at all qualified to comment- but the idea of such a large organisation as the ABC advertising for unpaid writers provokes mixed feelings.

    I live in France and I’m fairly sure that if the main TV stations/media outlets did the same the writers/journalists unions would jump on them faster than you can say “unpaid traineeship”.

    And yet isn’t that what loads of companies do, offer unpaid work experience? The problem is then experienced workers being undercut by bosses/organisations exploiting the “trainee” system (perpetually hiring first timers on work experience), which we all know is always a risk.

    There are mutterings about Liberation (left wing daily)using readers’ personal photos of news events on their websites and blogs…unpaid…professional photojournalists aren’t happy about it at all, and I think some people are even talking about a crisis in the profession due to this practice, and the proliferation of blogs.

    Cultural/arts organisations don’t negotiate with the electricity company for bargain rates, or pay their photocopier repairman less, so why should they do so with writers and artists? – I’m a translator and this regularly happens to me when dealing with a client in the arts world.

    Perhaps ten years in France has changed my point of view- I see the issue in more black and white terms of labour and a fair exchange for a service.

    1. Hey Screamish. You’re in France…. Déjà vu???

      C’mon people – it’s supply-and-demand free enterprise. The Marxist Dream is just that – a dream.

      I think Alec makes some excellent points and the ABC/Opera House vs Overland/Tote(I gigged there for no payment back in the 90s) analogy is right-on.

      Anyway, busking is now virtual and can be executed from my laptop – check my myspace page. No more midnight bums cadging coins from me outside the Bourke St Hoyts as I shred Sympathy for the Devil and no more corrupting teenagers by getting them to sing along to Add It Up outside Vic Market. Of course, I haven’t figured out my revenue model yet but profit is just a t-shirt away.

      And where does vanity publishing fit into all this? Writing and music are art forms and art is primarily about the practitioner’s vocation and passion – their market/audience is secondary. Ask any ‘artist’…

      Of course, blogging can be reporting and reporting is ‘not art’ – or is it??? Is its utility more important than its ‘excess’?

  12. I have a feeling that this will be an ongoing discussion point in coming weeks and months. The next few years will only see this medium grow. Some suggest that blogs already are the prime movers in what we read, watch or listen to. How significant blogging will become in broader social change is an interesting question, but it seems that however we value the practitioners of this new medium, they should be considered as a species of writer, not merely as disposable apprentices with the potential for graduation as ‘real’ writers.

    Oh, and Karen, I also love the ‘beautiful, infuriating, vast, monstrous, sensitive, courageous litte thing that it is.’ If I can be part of a constructive process of self examination, I think I’m serving Overland well.

  13. “…it seems that however we value the practitioners of this new medium, they should be considered as a species of writer, not merely as disposable apprentices with the potential for graduation as ‘real’ writers.”

    Alec, YES!

  14. I’ve been reading about this all over the place, and it’s taken me a long time to feel I’ve gathered my thoughts enough to consider responding. And even now, I’m not so sure I have yet. But here goes.

    The main reason for my reluctance to join in this debate is that I’m just the type of writer who is likely to apply for these roles. I’m young, I write, but I haven’t been published much. Undoubtedly, that leaves me in a position where I will possibly be taken advantage of. Sadly, this does happen to some.

    But still, I’m likely to apply for both The Book Show Blog and the Overland blog. Why? Because, yes, as you mention Alec, it is about the music. I love to write. But my writing is sporadic, uncertain about what risks to take. Often, I don’t have what I consider a reasonable excuse to write about books or politics, because I don’t think anyone will care what I think. I’m young, what do I know about politics, or literature, despite a keen interest in both? I don’t have what I consider a reasonable excuse to seek out literary events (beyond the large and looming writers’ festivals).

    But lack of ‘reasonable excuse’ (whatever that is) is, well, not a very good excuse. Having a commitment to a weekly contribution, paid or not, and knowing that I have some kind of readership will make me work harder. It will give me that reasonable excuse. Hopefully, it will make me a better writer. To me that’s some kind of payment.

    Of course, I agree with Karen. As someone considering a role like these ones, I’m unlikely to go for something that I don’t care about. Overland is a project I want to be involved in.

    All that said, I do think that this blogging thing needs to be re-thought. I’ll be honest: my blog at the moment is fluff, mostly. I’d like it to be more than that, but I’m not sure how to go about it, partly because a lot of people I know consider blogs in general to be fluff, and partly because of that aforementioned uncertainty about which risks are worth taking with my writing. I think it’s a shame that people have such a low view of blogs. In my view, there’s so much potential there.

  15. Hi Soph,
    Thanks for that. And yes, I think you are right, the blogging thing does need to be rethought. Hopefully, we can make some contribution to that rethinking through a Meanland event. We’re also reconsidering exactly how the Overland blog will work, in light of this discussion. I’m not going to change the call-out (cos it’s already out there and can’t really be recalled) but we are trying to take some of this on board.

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