My favourite unpublished piece from last year

Taylor SwiftLast year, I wrote an op-ed on the occasion when Taylor Swift stood up for other artists with her open letter to Apple. Since it didn’t find a home, I thought I’d publish it here:

To unfriendly contracts and misguided friends, Love Sue

I’m no Taylor Swift, but I can say I felt a moment of kinship when I read her open letter to Apple As someone who makes a living through creative work, I’ve had reason to feel the same sucker punch that must have sent her reeling upon learning of Apple’s plan not to pay artists during its three-month trial.

For me, it happens every time a web magazine asks me to write something for free, or “for exposure” as it’s put more exuberantly. It happens whenever I’m asked to sign a lousy contract that takes away my copyright, or worse, my moral rights. It happens when I read the clause that my work may be published “worldwide in any other form media or transmission, whether now in existence or developed in the future.” Developed in the future? When I tell them this wording exists, my non-writer friends think I’m joking. To my writer friends, it’s increasingly familiar.

I also share Swift’s conflict over the fact that some of these requirements come from companies whose work I respect, or have even worked for in the past, who have been “my partners” in Swift’s words. I’ve had clients that have suddenly decided to cut my rate in half, or institute a contract that leaves me open to legal liability—”take it or leave it.” As a more workaday creator than Swift, my departure does not cause the writing industry to grind to a halt, and so when I do say goodbye—and I do—I’ve had to watch the endeavor carry on without me.

For creators, Swift’s open letter and the success of her plea is a good reminder of our own power to nudge creative industries towards a fairer position. We may not all be the hottest pop act on the planet, but maybe Swift’s “no” can spur us to change in our own spheres—senior writers can stop a bad contract from becoming the norm for juniors, or refuse to support a new endeavor that doesn’t prioritize fairness to writers.

How do we do that? By asking editors to strike out unacceptable clauses in their contracts. By preparing ourselves to walk away from gigs that pay too little or take too much. Maybe it’s a line, but often when I ask editors about removing a clause in a contract, they tell me I’m the first writer to have questioned it. And sometimes they’re able to strike it.

Although I have and will continue to walk away from terrible contracts, I’m often frustrated by fellow writers undermine my efforts by accepting them. When I ask them about it, they say they want to work for those larger publications and companies, despite being strong-armed. Do you think I don’t? I ask. I admit, the decision is sometimes harder for younger writers who really are desperate for clips, but my question to them is whether this is an ideal client, and whether they might be able to find a better option if they spend their time looking further than writing for so little money.

Another facet of standing up to creative work is respecting and paying for works in other creative industries. As a writer, I feel a kinship with those in the music industry whose work is constantly used without compensation. When friends tell me about their adventures in unauthorized music downloads or share tips on getting around paywalls by clicking on Internet links, or accessing streaming services through secret websites, I cringe. They know I spend my days creating work that I try to get paid for, and yet they try to avoid paying for creative work. When I say something, they doth protest too much—common defenses include the notion that artists receive just a fraction of the profit anyway, that musicians make most of their money on tours (which the downloader will go on as soon as they get a chance), or that no good system exists for payment.

Of these arguments, the last is the most problematic because it is often true. Fixes are needed: newspaper paywalls are clunky, streaming services need to update their content more frequently, and micropayment systems are lacking. But unless I’ve got a fix to implement, as a consumer I work within these existing systems. So, if a band asks me to buy through a service I’m going to go that route as a sign of respect for their creative efforts. If a paywall is put up and I’m a regular reader, I’ll pay. Sure, I’ll go on YouTube to sample a song, but I’m a regular listener I’m going to show my fandom by buying their whole offering.

In addition to becoming the heroes of our writing communities by standing up for better contracts, Swift’s “no” is also an opportunity to take action with these friends—to stop smiling and nodding at their downloading shenanigans and tell them that we sometimes feel greater kinship with the artists whose work they take without payment. Like the artists, writers, and producers that Swift purports to represent in her own social circles, we need to stand together as a creative bunch and push back a bit. To make friends and clients alike realize that if they’re benefitting from creative work they need to support it with dollars not just words.