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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: May 24, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

    A Top art prize or easy exploitation?

    Laurence Mackin

    There was great news at the beginning of the week when Naomi McArdle, who writes the Harmless Noise blog, announced that she had been hired by entertainment.ie as its new music blogger. This followed a post she had previously put up announcing that she was bringing the blog to an end, because she simply couldn’t afford to keep working on it without making any money. In a poignant and heartfelt (though thankfully no longer) final post, she made some clear points that will strike a chord with many artists and writers.

    The crux of the problem, she wrote, was this: “The fact is that if you’re good at something, it’s really important that you don’t do it for free. I’ve been doing too much for free for too long. If I were a musician I could sell albums but as a blogger, I can’t take money for the posts I write. It’s unethical and not the reason why I’m doing it. I just hoped for other opportunities that never materialised. Since the start of the new year the worry of finding a job has never been more than a thought away.”

    Happily, that other opportunity has now materialised and Harmless Noise will continue to fight the good music fight over on Entertainment.ie.

    There is a notion that art – be it writing, poetry, dance or whatever form of expression you are taking yourself – is in and of itself enough reward. The fact that you get to play or perform a piece of music, or write to an appreciative audience should be payment enough for the hours or practise, labour and thought that go into a piece. This is nonsense.

    Yes, there are plenty of instances when people will work for free in order to get exposure for a wider body of work, out of altruism or out of the sheer love of what they do. This is not a model for producing good art and there are too many people who take advantage of it.

    I had this in mind when a press release for a photography competition dropped through the electronic letterbox (instead of making a little electronic “bong”, wouldn’t it be great if your inbox simulated the satisfying “thump” of a package on a doormat, or the soft, silky slide of an envelope on a tile?).

    I’m reluctant to give it free advertising, but here goes: fuel company Top has launched an amateur photography competition with top snapper Lili Forberg as the judge. The idea is that photographers send in their pictures, and 12 will be chosen for the fuel company’s calendar, with one image making the cover. The cover shot gets a “prize voucher” of €1,000, with the 11 runners-up receiving 11 vouchers for €300. Some 40,000 calendars will be printed.

    As far as I can see, the only person who seems to be winning out of this deal is Top. To buy the rights for publication of an image can be as little as €10 on a stock photography website. However, to buy a good image, in this case in an Irish setting, for a commercial project is much more expensive. For example, the other day I was negotiating with a photo agency for a standard portrait shot of a celebrity it had done a shoot with (it was a very nice image, but nothing extraordinary). I offered €300, the cheapest rate for once-off usage it would sell for was €500.

    Today, Getty Images, probably the largest photo agency out there, quoted me €400 for a typical Irish scene shot for a corporate calendar on a print run of 40,000 in Ireland.

    Out of this competition, Top gets a cover shot and 11 other images for much less money than that per shot, and the price is not even cold, hard cash but in the form of prize vouchers (I’ve put a request into Top asking it where the voucher is for). Furthermore the promoter, according to the terms and conditions, “reserves the right to publish any photos entered into the competition and the names of any entrants/winners in connection with advertising or promoting the competition or the business of the promoter without prior permission from the entrants”.

    There are are two ways of looking at this: Top is simply being a patron of the arts and giving amateur photographers an opportunity to get exposure for their work; or Top is getting 12 photographs for a knock-down price for its annual calendar, while at the same time getting a neat angle with which to grab some publicity from. Innovation or exploitation? I know where I stand on this one.

    • John says:

      Looks like this depressing trend is set to continue what with the goings on of Glenisk recently with their competition to find music for a ready made TV ad with no soundtrack for 2,000 euro prize money of which one would be picked and featured on the ad. A well choreographed online campaign and massive exposure through Today FM and all seemed well for all involved although of course when you lift up the carpet you see whats really going on. It was infact a cynical stealth bomber of a campaign as Glenisk only have to pay a fraction of what they might if they went the usual route. Case in point, although for discretion I wont say who but I know for a fact that a very similar ad recently paid 40k to an Irish artist for the rights to the use of their song who subsequently became constantly referred to as the ‘product in question’ guy. After all, if your running the risk of becoming permanently associated with a product you better make it worth your while and you better be able to live with it.
      So lets look at whats happened, Glenisk got massive exposure on national radio, every musician frantically got people to vote for them online, Today FM bleated out the name Glenisk every day for a month and on the morning of the decision we had to listen on Today FM to three Glenisk representatives drain the lifeblood out of the offered up music discussing whether it meets the specific criteria or goals of Glenisk.
      Depressing, depressing, depressing.

    • Catherine says:

      I must admit, I am a little torn on this:

      “The fact is that if you’re good at something, it’s really important that you don’t do it for free.”

      The inference being if no one will pay you, you should stop doing it?

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks Laurence, it’s not lost on me that good news is rare in these difficult times and I feel extremely lucky to have found a positive resolution to a horribly uncertain situation.

      I’ve always advised caution when it comes to competitions run by big businesses in return for exposure opportunities. Usually the only ones to really benefit from such events are the top tier of organisers, the Guinness ‘Arthur’s Day’ competitions for bands are a perfect example of successfully manipulation bands to garner huge publicity.

      Catherine, if I might clarify the point you question. The following sentence is the important part of that statement. There is only so long you can pursue your goals out of passion and dedication. Nurses and doctors are not expected to work for free simply because they have the knack for patient care. In my case, my family and I were suffering after two years of unemployment. I’d previously been hired in the same capacity and quit from exhaustion and low pay – you might even call it exploitation. I thought that starting up as an independent music writer with a good reputation would lead to better opportunities as a freelance journalist. When this didn’t happen I had to be realistic but thankfully I’ve been very lucky and found genuine appreciation for the work that I do.

    • Laurence, what are the vouchers for do you know?
      I had a pop at RTE recently for similar.

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