Monday, March 3, 2014

Collisions With The Piecework Industrial Complex

Knowing people who work in creative or media-related fields has one inevitable side effect: you get asked for advice on all sorts of matters. That's not surprising, because when we're all asked to "Party Like It's 1911" (economically speaking), your financial options are limited to...oh, one from Column A, or Column A.

D'you prefer to get shot, or stabbed? D'you want Tweedledee or Tweedledum playing sneaky panther games with your lives for another two, four or six years? D'you fancy a 22 percent annual percentage rate on your bloody credit, or will 20.99 percent suit you better?  The Evil Of Two Lessers marches on.  And so on, and so forth.  And so on, and so forth...wash, rinse, repeat. 

Exploitation comes in all shapes and sizes. However, it's no secret that the media industry has undergone a column inch tsunami of epic proportions, with plenty of blood shed on the cutting room floor. If you're lucky, you get to hang onto your current lousy job by your fingernails for another year or so, while your equally sad sack employer frantically switches from Blue Cross Michigan to Blue Cross Pennsylvania to Blue Cross Illinois and back again...all in the hopes of squeezing another buck or two off the little that he's spending to keep you around. And so on, and so forth.  And so on, and so forth. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Or so he claims...the battleship-sized SUV in the parking lot tells a different story, though, doesn't it? At any rate, if you're unlucky, you're sent off to pasture with all the other unlucky sheep or goats that beat you to the punch...but don't worry! There's a solution ahead. Hell, in your less discriminating might even mistake this one for Column B.

At any rate, with so many journalists scrambling for work, it's heartening to know that some evil mustache twirling flimflam man out there has figured out a solution to keep them busy for another year or two...and it's coming soon, to a town near's The Digital Sweatshop! Lots of different contract work sites are popping up like mushrooms, and while I'm not going to single out any one of them, they all tend to leave equally grimy fingerprints on the gun.

The rates are rock bottom, by industry standards (anywhere from $3-$25 per piece, based on what I've seen)...which doesn't stop the operators from wanting to own all your rights forever, "by any mediums that may yet be printed or discovered, yada-yada-yada" know the drill, right? You don't get laid, you barely get paid, with nary a vacation day or benefit in sight...but you sure get to work hard...and talking back isn't on the agenda.

Whatever happens, don't you dare speak up, lad, or that Column B choice will evaporate (along with the few coins tossed into your cup). And so on, and so forth. And so on, and so forth.  Wash, rinse, repeat!

I call this setup, for lack of a better description, The Piecework Industrial Complex, and its demands are getting more outrageous by the day. Recently, a friend of mine explained the travails of applying for a financial advice site that needed people to churn out copy by the pound.  There was only one hitch, though, as he explained.

Apparently, the conversation went something like this:

PIECEWORK POOBAH (PP): "Before we begin the contract, we'd like you to do a trial story first..."

MY FRIEND (MF): "OK, fine, what's the going rate?"

[CUE: Awkward silence, as the "Jeopardy" theme music plays softly in the background.]

PP: "Well, there isn't one, unless we agree to use the story. Otherwise, you don't get paid for it."

MF: "Hmmm....OK, well, how long would this endeavor take, in your estimation?"

PP: "To meet our standards?  A truly well-written, well-researched story would probably take you about eight to 10 hours."

MF: "Hmmm... [CUE more 'Jeopardy' theme music, followed by the sound of crickets chirping in the wilderness.]  I'll have to get back with you on that."

PP: "You can think as long as you like, but we'll have to review your credentials more closely, based on what you've told me earlier...we'll get back to you."

And so on, and so forth.  And so on, and so forth.  Wash, rinse, repeat!

Not having much experience with these sorts of arrangements, I asked my friend to sit tight and hold fire, while I made a contact or two on his behalf...sad to say, though, the agencies tasked with (quote-unquote) "protecting the general public" didn't seem terribly interested in giving me advice on the matter.

In particular, I contacted the California Department of Industrial Relations -- the specific sub-agency's name escapes me at the moment -- but, after a week of hearing those damnable crickets chirping in my ears, it's safe to say that nobody there seems to care. Or, let's be charitable -- they're just elegantly overworked, perhaps.

After a bit more thought, I've since reached a few conclusions:

1. One person's content farm is another person's (quote-unquote) "upstanding outfit." For every company that gets called out for its practices, remember this -- there's loads of others that never get named, but operate in the same way (sign it all away for a fraction now, son, or you won't get the work) -- just on a bigger scale.

2. The reason these little games continue (wash, rinse, repeat!) is because, for every person who flips the bird, 100 chumps elbow each other for their passport to the bottom. And these situations will never change until a bit more '77-era-punk-style awareness spreads more widely than it has, in a long time. Yes, times are tight, but there's never a convenient moment to upset the applecart.

When people stopped believing in the East German Communist paradise, it withered away, just like yesterday's papers. The same thing will happen when people stop feeding the daisy chains of content mills, no-pay media and all those other dubious models that promise endless exposure...but fuck all else for your time and trouble.

3. The exponential growth of self-publishing options appears to promise some refreshing options to the aforementioned problems, too, but your bullshit detector still needs to be humming at top speed -- because all too many seem poised to take your money, even as they nickel 'n' dime you for every service that you want 'em to undertake on your behalf. 

It reminds me of the major-versus-indie-record-label chestnut that went round and round during the '80s and '90s...for all the bitching about who sat behind the desk, 99 percent of those aspiring hopefuls still got cheated at an alarming rate. 

4. There's an old saying in business: "You don't get what you dserve, only what you negotiate." More collective action is needed -- whether we call it an association, a guild or a union doesn't matter. The point is, The Piecework Industrial Complex only wants to deal with you individually, because that way, you don't threaten their power...and you lack any real ability to improve your own lot.

Imagine what like-minded people could do, if they stopped thinking of themselves as mere cogs in the wheel, or so many grains of sand on a beach...and got together to take the high ground. Again, I realize that we're struggling to keep our heads above water, but if we don't start thinking a bit more long-term, we'll never accomplish much else. 

The struggle may be messy, and a better tomorrow is hardly guaranteed -- but it has to start somewhere. That's how I see it, anyway.

At any rate...after talking with my friend...he's not taking up the trial offer. From my perspective, this ending is equally unusual....someone who actually took my advice!  

I suppose I'll file it next to the last noble business I encountered.  And so, and so forth...and so on, and so forth. Wash, rinse, repeat! --The Reckoner


A Word From David Byrne:

"Slaves Of The Internet, Unite":

"So Who's Paying All Those Unpaid Writers?":

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