Why Do Employers Lowball Creatives? A New Study Has Answers

New research from Duke University demonstrates that people find exploitation more justified if a worker is passionate about what they do. (The Gender Spectrum Collection)

Larissa Archer has been asked to perform for free so many times she's lost count.

Despite her years of training, impressive resume and credibility as the founder of San Francisco Bellydance Theater, she often finds herself turning down invitations to dance for a few wrinkled dollar bills. 

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As Archer explains it, event producers "can't cut corners on how much beer costs. They can't cut corners on the rental of the venue." But many can, and often do, skimp on the take-home pay of the talent that attracts showgoers in the first place.

And it's not just small clubs. As KQED first reported in March, despite reaching a valuation of $1 trillion last year, tech giant Apple doesn't pay the artists performing in its stores, compensating them with low-end merchandise such as AirPods and AppleTVs instead.

Following our report, we heard from graphic designers, musicians, muralists and comedians who say they're frequently asked to work for "exposure" by companies large and small, sharing tales of missing payments, false promises of paid work and full-time jobs disguised as unpaid internships.

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In the arts, working for low or no pay has long been an industry standard for all but the upper echelon. But as workers in other professions prone to exploitation organize for a living wage, including teachers and rideshare drivers, creatives are questioning why event producers, venue owners and companies find it acceptable to pay below the minimum wage for their work or subject them to subpar working conditions.

New research from Duke University has some answers.

Passionate Workers Are More Likely to Be Taken Advantage Of

Recent Duke Ph.D. graduate Jae Yun Kim, Professor Aaron Kay, University of Oregon Professor Troy Campbell and Oklahoma State University Professor Steven Shepherd studied the ways that workers' passion is increasingly being used as a justification for their exploitation in today's labor market.

On one hand, passion for one's work can lead to greater satisfaction. But the researchers' new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, "Understanding Contemporary Forms of Exploitation: Attributions of Passion Serve to Legitimize the Poor Treatment of Workers," lays bare the unique ways passionate workers can be taken advantage of in a culture that encourages us to find our life's calling at work.

Through eight different studies with over 2,400 participants, researchers discovered that people find it more acceptable for managers to ask passionate workers to work extra hours without additional pay, sacrifice sleep and family time, and take on demeaning tasks outside of their job descriptions.

Larissa Archer and San Francisco Bellydance Theater perform at the Contemporary Jewish Museum's 10th Anniversary Gala.
Larissa Archer and San Francisco Bellydance Theater perform at the Contemporary Jewish Museum's 10th Anniversary Gala. (Gary Sexton Photography)

The participants in the studies varied from randomly selected individuals, Duke students and managers from various fields. Not surprisingly, they found requests like the above more appropriate in professions associated with passion, such as artists, animal trainers, social workers or ecologists. Furthermore, when reading about a graduate student subjected to verbal abuse and unreasonable deadlines, participants rated him as more passionate than someone who didn't experience mistreatment.

"When people read about the exact same job but learned that the person enjoyed their work, they think it’s more fair, or less illegitimate, to have them do things that would objectively be considered approaching exploitation," says Kay. "Meaning having them do things they're not paid for, or the company getting more benefit without giving people more of the profits."

"Passion, or expected passion, out of that work can be seen as compensating for poor treatment," Kim says, adding that in his native South Korea, young professionals refer to low-paying gigs as "passion wages."

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Kay explains that there's a common misconception that if someone loves their job, they would prefer to work instead of doing other activities that contribute to a fulfilling life, which he says can be a slippery slope. "A graphic designer who works for a cool website and gets to make cool art may love their job, but they may not want to miss hanging out at their kid's softball game over the weekend," he says. "Forcing them to do more of it assumes it's more joy for them, when you gotta realize that, like everyone else, they're trying to balance their lives."

In the Arts, Passion Exploitation is the Norm

Artists know passion exploitation well: because they take pleasure in performing, taking photos or writing, onlookers see the opportunity to do this work as a privilege in its own right—and use that reasoning to justify a lack of compensation or benefits.

Samantha Hines, an online student at the San Francisco Academy of Art, says that she took an unpaid internship at a boutique PR company and found herself doing work typically reserved for a paid, in-house graphic designer, with none of the supervision or educational aspects legally required of an unpaid internship. Her boss required her to work more than double her agreed-upon hours, persuading her with the promise of paid work after six months. That paid work never came.

Hines says that in her industry, "passion" is often used as a code word for exploitative conditions. "Almost every single internship that I've looked at says, 'If money is the only reason you want this job, walk away. We're looking for people who are passionate,'" she says. "That’s insane. You're allowed to be passionate and want a fair wage."

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Oakland jazz bassist Caroline Chung, a longtime advocate of fair wages for musicians, says that musicians' passion often works against them. She says a typical jazz club gig pays about $20-$40 per person in an ensemble, which factors out to less than minimum wage when accounting for rehearsal time, not to mention travel.

"There are definitely places I've played where they almost use their ability to book you or not book you as a power trip," says Chung. "We're basically kissing ass to try to get a gig. And I think that dynamic creates that power shift where they can feel they can take advantage."

Chung attempted to organize a jazz musicians' boycott for a fair wage in 2011 and found that even if more experienced performers hold out on gigs, there's always a new crop of up-and-coming artists eager to take low-paying gigs to get their names out there. She proposes that local legislation that rewards businesses for paying artists fairly may be a more effective way to make change.

"The city should give tax breaks to businesses that support the artists in some way, whether it's art shows or music," she says. "They have to have some sort of incentive."

Meklit Hadero.
Meklit Hadero. (Ronald Davis)

Singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero says that spending time educating event producers and companies about what her performance fees entail has helped her negotiate better wages. "People think they're paying for the hour that you're on stage," she says, "But you're paying for the fact that in order to get to the stage, I have to spend hours composing, hours arranging, the logistical time it takes to be a band leader, the phone calls to arrange rehearsals, all the time it takes to deal with the PR."

With so much competition in live music (with profits from album sales in decline, indie acts and global superstars alike are constantly on tour), she suggests that a beneficial strategy for artists could entail moving out of the free market and into the world of grants from foundations that support the arts.

"That has to do with two things: one, being aware of the social context of my work, and, [two], understanding why it's important outside of just me and being able to articulate it," she says.

Overworked and Underpaid

Kim, Kay, Campbell and Shepherd's passion research gives insight into a new kind of exploitation in an era where Americans increasingly view work as their life's purpose—or at least are expected to. A Craigslist search for the word "passion," for instance, yields over 2,600 job listings in the Bay Area alone for gigs not typically considered life callings, including line cook, caretaker in a nursing home and hardware store associate.

"This idea that people might be getting exploited was super intuitive for a long time to artists," says Kay. "But as there's been this cultural emphasis on finding your calling at work or blending the lines of what you enjoy and what you do for work, it’s becoming clear that it’s happening in wide range of professions."

Meanwhile, legal protections for workers are on the decline. Since the 1970s, American companies have moved away from hiring employees, replacing them with contract workers who are legally considered self-employed and aren't entitled to the same rights as staff. According to a 2018 NPR poll, contract workers and freelancers could make up half of the U.S. labor pool in the next 10 years.

Labor expert Veena Dubal, a law professor at UC Hastings, says that this increased expectation of one's work to be one's passion is becoming the cultural justification for an economic trend to undercut worker protections. The idea of passion underlies the "be your own boss" rhetoric of gig companies like Uber and Lyft, who often depict the work as a side hustle for passionate people pursuing bigger dreams, and therefore not really a job. 

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"From my research, I’ve shown that people in those positions are controlled in the exact same way as people who are considered traditional employees," Dubal says. "Nothing changes in their lives except they don't get unemployment insurance, or they don't get worker's compensation. ... They don't get the minimum wage."

How do artists and other workers get out of this predicament? Dubal says the first step might be changing the cultural narrative. "A recognition that we're getting swindled is a huge first step in pushing back in this phenomenon," she says.

"And a bigger second step is for people who have the privilege of having higher paid jobs to work less to create a culture in which working all the time is unacceptable," she continues, "And for workers on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum to organize, to form unions, to form worker associations in which collective norms like working less for higher pay becomes the goal, the aim, the normal state of affairs."

All in all, the fight for fair wages is an uphill battle—not only for artists, but for all workers currently bearing the brunt of wage stagnation and rising costs of housing and education.

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"It's not saying passion is not good for the worker," says Kay. "But it isn't a reason to pay someone less."

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