exposure woes: working for "exposure"

Art and business. Paintbrushes and spreadsheets. Passion and job security. Not components of making a living one would typically pair together. But as we’ve all learned in recent years, to be an independent artist is to be your own sort of business manager as well. We have to build our own careers as one would build any business. We work on marketing, networking, and branding. We sign contracts, NDA’s, and work with agents and lawyers to negotiate pay rates and royalty agreements. An artist is a full-functioning independent business. We weigh the risks versus the benefits of any given project all the time. So, let’s talk about a little risk versus benefits situation we’ve all encountered called, “The Exposure Deal.”

Look, I’m just going to level with y’all here. When I first started this article, I was fully confident that I was going to lay down some serious truth about these kinds of agreements. I was totally going to show off my writing skills and my hardcore business savvy side and lead our readers to some huge, remarkably poignant self-realization about the way we pick and choose projects and value ourselves as artists. When I first started, my stance was firm: entering into an exposure deal is always a bad idea. Think about it, you would literally never go into Target and ask the cashier if you could just tag them on instagram instead of paying for your e.l.f. Mascara, would you? Of course not. But as artists we’re asked to give our product, our talent, away in exchange for nothing more than a twitter shoutout all the time. And with the deeply entrenched hold the power of social media has over all of us, these modes of “payment” are becoming more and more common.

Exposure deals can be a tangled mess of compromised artistic integrity and not-quite-right business ethics intermingling, so to sort this all out let’s start with the basics. How exactly do these motherfuckers work?

Part one: the talent does not get paid for his or her work in real, cold hard cash.

Part two: the talent is promised, in lieu of actual money, to receive some sort of intangible payment. Usually this comes in the form of recognition, be it on social media, websites, or other platforms. Typically this is presented to the talent as doing them a sort of favor, helping the talent on the path towards fame, yada yada, more bullshit, whatever.

So why would an artist ever agree to one of these deals in the first place? My immediate thoughts went something like, “Because we’re desperate to work. Because we’re not sure if they’ll keep us if we demand to be payed. Because we have no choice when we run into commercial breakdowns that say they won’t even look at us unless we have 50k+ followers online.”  Those looking to save a few bucks understand that the LA market is oversaturated with artists, and don’t waste a second exploiting that to cut costs. And a lot of us, for the reasons I just listed on top of hundreds of others, accept it as a means to an end. We know we should be getting paid, but have halfheartedly accepted these kinds of deals as a necessary sacrifice for networking opportunities and write them off as “valuable learning experiences.” But the truth is, every time we take an exposure gig, we’re contributing to a problem that’s really fucking us artists over right now.

At the end of the day, we can’t eat on favors. We can’t put gas in our cars with “learning experiences.” We can’t pay rent on instagram shoutouts. And every time someone takes an exposure deal, it makes it more widely practiced and accepted. So, mystery solved, right? Exposure deals are always a bad idea...or so it would seem. But there are always multiple sides to every story.

I was ready to pat myself on the back for making this truly groundbreaking statement on exposure deals when I was reminded of one tiny, miniscule, basically irrelevant fact (please note my sarcasm here). A fact that makes me feel like I just may be the world’s biggest hypocrite for writing a piece slamming those who don’t pay artists. And here it is: I work for no pay with my friends all the time. I have asked fellow college alumni to collaborate with me and we don’t even discuss payment because we know there is none. It was then that I realized, I had left out a very important, very large chunk of the people who accept work for no pay all the time: the everyday, struggling, collaborative artists. The artists out there who are just like me, who aren’t trying to prey on other artists desperate for a break in today’s oversaturated market, but instead simply want to connect with creatives around them and make something meaningful together, even though we can’t pay each other. What separates those kinds of artist-to-artist deals from the company-to-artist exposure deals presented to us all the time by commercial campaigns or music video producers? This is where all of the black and white lines between right and wrong started to blur and everything just looked more like gray area.

I have taken solace in the one difference I can see between the two: intention. Collaborating for the sake of creating, where neither party makes money but brings something beautiful into the world, where both parties find joy and fulfillment in doing so, feels vastly different than a company exploiting young or inexperienced artists, and profiting off of that individual while providing them no compensation whatsoever.

But still, I ask in earnest: If I’m not paying my collaborators, regardless of if I’m a cheapskate company executive looking to rip someone off or a completely broke grad student trying to bring art into the world for the sake of art, is there any difference?

Basically, after all of that, I’m still full of questions. I’d love to hear your thoughts and get a real dialogue started about this very present shift in our industry. Have you ever taken an exposure deal? Do you feel it helped or hurt you as an artist in the long run? What is your stance on artist-to-artist deals and how should we be compensating one another? To add your two cents shoot me an email with your thoughts to taylor@thecreativemagazine.com and help us keep the conversation going.


Taylor Byers