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Jon Spira

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Why My Words Are Worth Not(h)ing

Posted: 12/02/2012 23:00

I really like those blogs/articles/speeches/songs which begin with the author recounting a character-defining piece of knowledge which was passed on to them from their father. Those are great. Wisdom passed down from generation to generation. Maybe I like it so much because I've never really experienced it. I didn't grow up without a father, my father just isn't very wise. He's a lovely bloke and a brilliant dad but... you know. My mum, on the other hand - super intelligent. A professor, no less. Genetically, I therefore fall somewhere awkwardly in the middle of the spectrum. I'm just about bright enough to realise how little I know.

I ask a lot of questions because, although I have an intuitive intellectual response to most issues, I constantly worry that I just haven't understood the discourse. I rarely speak seriously in absolutes and get frustrated when arguments are broken down into defined opposing camps of which, if I don't choose one, I'm unwillingly placed into one to help someone else make their point.

I'm going to bore you with one more piece of biographical context before I get to the point of this blog. How I came to be here. How I came to be a Huffington Post blogger. The truth is, I know very little about HuffPost besides the correct way to abbreviate it. Until recently, I just knew it was 'bad' - that it exploited its contributors and was part of an evil mega-corporation. It was accepted knowledge, I'd never actively found out about it, but that was the buzz that seemed to surround it.

I was very happy blogging away on my Grumptimism blog, which got a few hits here and there but generally was untroubled by interest. I don't consider myself a blogger. It's not listed on my business card. I keep the blog to get stuff off my chest, keep my writing muscles well exercised and see if other people feel the way I do about things. I've never considered it a potential living, I hold no ambition or aspiration for it. I just enjoy it. My day-job is any number of things around the theme of films - I make films, I teach film-making, I critique scripts for a literary agency. I don't have much money but don't live the kind of life that requires much.

A few weeks ago, on Twitter, I saw a self-proclaimed 'high profile woman on Twitter' write:

Every single time you say "I'll do it for free" you're actually saying "I am worth nothing" Don't work for ANYONE who won't pay

I voiced disagreement - having taught screenwriting for years, I'm aware that in this industry, you have to go through an initial period of giving it away and being screwed over before you're experienced and valued enough to earn a decent living from it. Indeed, the experience alone is often more valuable than money in terms of education and exposure.

What followed was a few days of public nastiness in which, apparently unable to debate her position, she resorted to making public baseless accusations of harassment which were entertainingly contradicted when I published her private correspondence with me. In those few days, my blog got more hits than it had got in all the years I've been doing it. The argument got so muddied it became worthless but at one point she mentioned The Huffington Post being exploitative and I agreed.

I realised quickly how stupid that had been as I really had no actual knowledge of it, so I did some reading and subsequently rescinded my comment. The irony of the whole kerfuffle was that this bought me to the attention of The HP who read and liked my writing and offered me a position (unpaid) blogging for them. The offer sounded good to me. Although they weren't offering pay, they weren't expecting anything of me. I wasn't to be a journalist, so wasn't working for them, they were just happy to publish my views whenever I wanted to offer them. I could submit as often as I liked, they wouldn't censor or interfere, they held no copyright and I was welcome to publish the same posts anywhere else or even sell them. What did they get out of it? Content. What do I get? A platform where my writing can be seen by an audience of over three million readers. What's to lose there? At the point where I've just self-released my first feature film, I could use a bit of platform.

The seemed to divide my friends of both the real-life and internet varieties. Half of them were happy for me that my talent had been recognised and was to reach a wider audience, the others (who were mainly writers/bloggers/etc) politely mocked me.

Today on Twitter, I found myself politely arguing with a gaggle of Tweeters all of whom I really like and respect. (@LFBarfe, @angusbatey and @brokenbottleboy) they're all published writers, excellent wits and far more eminent than I. That said, I just couldn't get with their contentions.

Again, I'm hearing people talk about getting paid for a fair day's work. I didn't understand people's issues with HuffPost because it was entirely voluntary. They weren't forcing me to work long hours and pay me miniscule wages, they weren't claiming copyright over my work. They were just saying 'you give us content, we'll give you exposure' - seems like a fair swap to me. Nobody is going to their site specifically because I blog there. I'm not bringing much to the table. Am I saying "I am worth nothing" like that high profile woman on Twitter has warned? Yes. Yes I am.

Because here's the important divide; there is a difference between the value of art and the commerce of it.

I'm not saying my writing has no intellectual or cultural value - it does, I'm brilliant - I'm saying it has no commercial value as nobody has ever heard of me. And I'm fine with that. Perhaps one day the HuffPost exposure will lead to my work having commercial value. That would be lovely.

I totally get where the Twitter lads and even the high profile woman on Twitter are coming from. They're in a different position to me. They're established professionals who are suddenly seeing a huge change in the media, people who have made a living from writing who are unfairly getting caught in a landslide of inexperienced people like myself happy to offer content for exposure rather than money. That sucks, it's really not fair on them (except the woman - sod her).

But then, life isn't fair. Three times, as a professional, I've had similar things happen to me.

The first was when I was 12-years-old and started my first business. This is true, by the way. I found out that a computer games manufacturer was offering a wholesale fire sale deal. For £50, I could buy a box of computer games with a retail value of £300. I could sell them in the playground no probs. I reasoned with my parents as I begged for investment that at the very worst, if I couldn't offload them at the 600% mark-up, I was hardly likely to lose money. When the box arrived, it was full of less-popular games for older formats. I barely sold any. Certainly couldn't pay my folks back.

21 years later, I had to close down my tiny chain of two indie video shops because, well, people no longer rented videos. They bought them from supermarkets for cheaper than we could buy our copies in, they illegally downloaded them, they joined Lovefilm. To me, paying three pounds to see the film once was a good, fair price, apparently time had rendered me wrong.

In the last few months, I self-released a film I made (did I mention? www.acpgthemovie.com) this seemed sensible as it was a documentary about Radiohead, Supergrass, Ride, Foals and some other huge bands, featuring new interviews and never-before-seen archival of all of them. I made it completely independently, own it 100%, worked my arse off on it for almost five years - having to give up paid work from September until now just to deal with finishing it, touring it, publicising it and doing all of the mail orders from my house. How much money did I make after five months hard graft? Nothing, I'm still in debt.

Each of those three things were done for the thrill of doing them and I'm so glad I did all of them. Maybe it's my love of doing something that gets in the way of my ability to monetise it. Maybe a complete lack of business acumen. Most likely, I'm just one of those idealists who is unable to accept that there is a huge difference between a thing of cultural value and financial value. Who knows. All I know is that at each of those three moments in my life, confused, depressed and skint, I found myself at some point sat quietly with my dad, throwing my arms up and shaking my head, saying "I can't understand how I've still got no money" and on each of those occasions, he said the same thing to me -

"Something is only ever worth what somebody is willing to pay for it"

Clever bloke, my dad.

 

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