Quick Post: Should TEDxCanberra pay its staff? (Ping @trib) #Canberra

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: 

In the sea of links that get flicked my way each day, I came across TEDxCanberra’s advertisement for a Executive Director.

TEDxCanberra itself is just one day. Months and months of preparation go into putting that day on, and one of the key parts of making that happen is our Executive Producer. [Source]

‘Holy frijoles,’ I thought.  ‘I know exactly the guy who would be perfect for this gig.  He’s part of the group that coordinates a bunch of arts festivals throughout the year.  Freakishly organised — yet relaxed and friendly — he’s got this incredible knack for getting people inspired about things while also keeping the bigger vision in mind.  If there’s a person in Australia that you wish were running the Government’s arts and culture programmes, it’s this guy.’

TED has become a famous platform for the spread of ‘alternative’ ideas.  Founded in the 1980s, it carved out its niche in the 2000s when the spread of video over the Internet made it possible to reach greater audiences.  It quickly became the industry standard for fast food thought.

Aiming the old crosshairs at TED almost seems like picking a target which is too easy. It’s basically a gathering where a bunch of pseudo-intellectual bourgeois assholes come to listen to self-satisfied pseudo-intellectual bourgeois asshole celebrities tell us how great they are. A shocking number of TED Talks really are just celebrities telling us their life stories. But it’s never Noam Chomsky or Ha-Joon Chang or Arundhati Roy orAmartya Sen or Tariq Ali or someone else whose life’s work is the painstaking collection of useful information and its concise presentation with the goal of reframing how society actually functions. No, all those people tell us too much about the real world. For example, from Turkey, TED Talks have given us members of the creepy Islamist group known as the “Gülen Movement” like Elif Şafak and Mustafa Akyol, but not brilliant people likeHamit Bozarslan or Şeyla Benhabib. But maybe it’s not so much that TED Talks shun clever people in favour of empty-headed new-agey apologists for brutality (I saw your fuckin’ interview about the Turkish protests, Şafak), but rather that one needs to be empty-headed and new-agey to be interested in TED. [Source]

TEDx was created as a way of spreading the direct participation of non-Americans in the TED project.  Local communities could put together their own ‘TED experience’, attracting ‘local’ ‘inspirational’ ‘thinkers’ to produce a ‘wider’ ‘variety’ of ‘content’.  One of these TEDx is the TEDxCanberra.

Each Spring, gather the Canberra region’s best thinkers and doers. Sprinkle in some big ideas and exciting performances from further afield. What do you get? Fascinating concepts. Rich connections. Deep context. [Source]

Under the banner of ‘Then.  Now.  Next.’, TEDxCanberra’s gathered Canberra’s best thinkers are doers, which included five poets, four bands/musicians, and a New South Welsh activist.

To attend this gathering, tickets cost $99-$250.

The guy I had in mind for the Executive Director for TEDxCanberra would have been perfect to help shake up the complacent, white bread, ‘sameyness’ of Canberra’s contribution to the global TED production.  Being the diligent chap that I am, I checked out the details before forwarding it to him:

If you take on the role of EP, you’ll be playing a major leadership role in one of Canberra’s best community-driven, volunteer-run events. It requires a very special person who can manage a crazily diverse team of people, can stay calm in the face of competing, and sometimes weird, demands, and who deeply understands the TEDxCanberra vision for the event, it’s community and what it all means. […]

This is a demanding, volunteer, role requiring several hours a week, with increased demand around TEDxCanberra events.  [Source]

Wait… What?  ‘Volunteer’?  How could one of the largest festivals of ideas on the planet not pay its staff?

That was Stephen Collins, the licensee and originator of TEDxCanberra.  His argument is that TEDxCanberra is a non-profit event, with 100% of the ticket sales going into the conference.

Collins’ comments are consistent with the views of a lot of people in the ‘creative’ scene.  People are happy to work for free, doing it for the love of the event.

It’s barely a year since Amanda Palmer — former lead singer of the Dresden Dolls — was caught in a controversy about her attitude towards paying creatives for their work.

[S]he, in the course of assembling a tour, asked fans to volunteer at various stops to play strings and horns as part of her band, unpaid. This was, technically, just another facet of that intimate connection with the audience — letting them participate in the music-making, a daydream-come-true for plenty of fans. But when you’ve just raised more than a million dollars from fans and sold them tickets to your show, it’s evidently poor PR to ask them to perform for free — and even more unseemly to claim, when criticized, that you literally can’t afford to do otherwise. […]

She’s politely explained and defended her choices at length on her blog, but the forum Palmer chose to unpack her philosophy as a whole turned out to be both the most ideologically friendly and the easiest to mock: She recently gave a TED talk. [Source]

Palmer’s defence was an interesting one:

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Ms. Palmer rejected the criticism. “If you could see the enthusiasm of these people, the argument would become invalid,” she said. “They’re all incredibly happy to be here.”

She said the players joining her band were there because “they fundamentally believe it’s worth their time and energy to show up at this gig.” [Source]

I wrote about this argument at some length, claiming that:

It’s an interesting advance in the field of logic: argumentum ad felicitatem.  Your argument is invalid because the people I’m exploiting are happy. [Source]

The nub of my argument was that we do not conceptualise work in the arts/culture/humanities sector as being ‘real’ work and therefore we don’t experience the same revulsion which large organisations or people exploit the eagerness of people who work in that space.  By employing free labour, Palmer ripped off local musicians who weren’t in the privileged position of being able to work for free.  The guy next door who had bills to pay and was trying to make a living as a musician was shut out of the conversation.

TEDxCanberra is operating in precisely the same way.  By not paying its staff, it means the people who are trying to scratch out a living in this industry are left short changed.  If TED wants to be a non-profit organisation, that’s great but other NFPs pay their staff.  The financial hit for being an NFP should be worn by the organisation, not by the people who work for it.

This has bigger implications.  Getting a TED credit on your CV is a big score.  As it’s well known as a major and successful brand, it makes for a good impression on potential employers.  Because TEDxCanberra does not pay its staff, the only people who can get that credit are the ones who could afford to purchase it with their time.  When you make it so that only the privileged can work for you, you end up getting the sort of humdrum quality of thought that we see routinely expressed at TED events.

As a result of public pressure, Amanda Palmer decided to start paying her musicians [all sic]:

for better or for worse, this whole kerfuffle has meant i’ve spent the past week thinking hard about this, listening to what everyone was saying and discussing. i hear you. i see your points. me and my band have discussed it at length. and we have decided we should pay all of our guest musicians. we have the power to do it, and we’re going to do it. (in fact, we started doing it three shows ago.)

my management team tweaked and reconfigured financials, pulling money from this and that other budget (mostly video) and moving it to the tour budget. 
all of the money we took out of those budgets is going to the crowd-sourced musicians fund. we are going to pay the volunteer musicians every night. even though they volunteered their time for beer, hugs, merch, free tickets, and love: we’ll now also hand them cash. [Source]

Until TEDxCanberra decides to start paying its staff, they are going to be contributing to the broader prejudice that labour in the arts/culture/humanities space is not worth paying for.

[As an aside, if you’re not following the very excellent Be Young & Shut Up‘ blog, you’re missing out.  It is an exceptional collaborative effort.  Although I’m conservative and they’re… not… they always thought provoking and challenging.]

[EDIT: Stephen Collins has responded in the comments with his view on this.  Worth checking out.]

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8 thoughts on “Quick Post: Should TEDxCanberra pay its staff? (Ping @trib) #Canberra

  1. I really need to look up who Amanda Palmer is so I can understand half of your references…at any rate, as an avid capitalist I object to any sort of work for free. If people enjoy it and want to waste their time, all power to them. The other issue is the motivation for these people is (maybe) sometimes to platform themselves, their (obsure) views and their business/products – which again means the hiring process can’t be entirely on merit (as they need to not only have the time/inclination to work for free but also have to want to say something so badly that they’re willing to). I don’t use the TED videos but a lot of people at work do so they can come in with the latest buzz word to a meeting (misuse it) and attempt to sound smart. I prefer journals…

  2. Mark, here I am with my TEDxCanberra licensee hat on (so, in theory, I’m the top dog for the thing). Here’s some insight into putting TEDxCanberra on that you might not have.

    I’ll start with your question:

    “Wait… What? ’Volunteer’? How could one of the largest festivals of ideas on the planet not pay its staff?”

    You’re conflating TED, the conference and non-profit based in the US, who certainly do pay their staff (and quite well; their finances are public on the web because of their NFP status), and TEDx (of which there are many around the world), which are independent events, not funded in any way by TED. Every TEDx around the world operates on the same basis – independent of TED (no funding from them, just some guidance and rules they publish on the web), volunteer run, and non-profit.

    TEDxCanberra falls into the latter. Independent, not funded by TED, put together by a group of locals.

    TEDx isn’t TED. On a whole bunch of fronts. The talks from our event don’t end up on TED.com except in the rarest of circumstances, and we’re not employed by TED in any fashion.

    You also say:

    “The nub of my argument was that we do not conceptualise work in the arts/culture/humanities sector as being ‘real’ work and therefore we don’t experience the same revulsion which large organisations or people exploit the eagerness of people who work in that space.”

    I certainly class what everyone at TEDxCanberra does as “real work”. It takes time, effort and significant expertise. As a group of people, we’re blessed that everyone involved is so good at what they do (which is often quite different to their day jobs). My day job certainly isn’t “figurehead of interesting cultural event”. Our volunteers are highschoolers (well, my highschooler), public servants, geeks, uni students, private sector workers, self-employed people (like me) and so on.

    If the people who put TEDxCanberra together (including me) could be paid for their work, that’d be sweet; hell, I’d love to pay them enough so they could give up their day jobs. However, given the scale of the event, the sponsorship we draw, and the money we charge to come along, the economics don’t add up.

    The folk who help out, putting in a lot of their free time to make TEDxCanberra happen, happily do so as volunteers, much like the people who help out at Corinbank or Floriade or the Canberra Times Fun Run or volunteer for a political party (as I do for The Greens at times). They do it because they dig what we do. The passion they have for the event is what helps us put it together well and make it interesting for the attendees.

    I’ve spoken to folk I know and trust who run conferences on a commercial basis. The economics go nuts pretty quickly, which is why conferences (even the shitty ones) charge anything between $450 and $1500 a day. We’re limited by the TEDx Rules, imposed by TED, to charging no more than $250.

    To pay the volunteers for all the hours they put in to our event, at a rate commensurate with the work they do, and the expertise they provide, we’d need to find a wealthy benefactor to the tune of about $250K a year. If I wanted to hire people even part time, that number would easily double. At that point, we’d be a significant business venture, not a grassroots thing run on heart. It’s not just the economics shifting at that point, it’s the whole motivations for what you do and how you do it.

    And, at that point, we’d fall outside the TEDx Rules, which require your team to be volunteers. We’d have to become something else.

    When the largest sponsor break you ask for (because we don’t want to make any money – we’re deliberately non-profit) is $10K, it’s not going to happen; but that’s what the Canberra market works like. Just one of our top-tier partners this year was a cash partner.

    A quick look at our budget for 2013, gets me this:

    – projected budget, assuming we had to pay cash for everything – $143K and change
    – actual budget, including value of contributions from in-kind partners accounted for (services provided free or at a significant discount) – $135K

    So, we came in under budget, which I’m pretty happy with. The little bit of leftover cash we have will help underwrite our TEDxCanberraWomen event in December, as well as pay for crew to attend TEDx events elsewhere in Australia and NZ. We might even have some seed money to start off next year.

    In terms of cash income, for an event where we have attendance around 610 people for one day (plus another 60-ish involved as crew in some form), we got:

    – ticket sales income – $46K and change (21 people at the $250 level, the rest at the $99 level)
    – sponsor cash income – $38K and change across eight cash partners

    So, that’s about 65 per cent of total budget covered by cash. That money goes to venue hire (3 days = $12K or so), catering ($25K), printing and event collateral (about $10K all up), out-of-town presenter travel (about $8K) and a bunch of smaller things that seem to add up.

    The rest of our costs are covered as in kind from organisations who do things like video (Screencraft), design (Cre8ive), t-shirts (OnTheGo), and so on.

    We give away 10 per cent of the room to students accompanying teachers and anyone who tells us they can’t afford to come. Free attendance (but we still have to cover costs like catering), obviously, for crew, presenters, guests of presenters, sponsors (who each get several seats based on sponsor value). So, paying attendees comes out at 400 people in a room that seats 610.

    At this point, you’ll see why event like us (and Corinbank, the Folk Festival, etc.) rely on volunteers to make things happen.

    I think that explains it reasonably well.

    You’ve made the error, as I note above, of conflating our local event, with the larger event that is TED. Their economics and sponsor pull power is a big deal. Ours, not so much. I’ve used examples of things like Corinbank and the Folk Festival because they’re much closer to what we do in scale (and I rashly assume, economics).

    I hope this clear up your misconceptions.

  3. Hey thanks for linking and endorsing us. It’s actually not every day that we get interest from people with differing political backgrounds than us, but we’re a hard working bunch and we know blogging about politics always gets iffy and divisive.

    I enjoyed this post, especially being of a humanities background myself. You just come to accept that your work will be undervalued and underpaid even though everyone needs writers or designers for some reason or other. I’ve don’t a few unpaid internships with nonprofits that I care about and had amazing experiences with them, but even the best unpaid internship has an expiry date and that’s the day you stop picking up marketable skills and are just working for free.

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    Could you please extend them a bit from next time? Thank you for the post.

  7. Pingback: University fee increases: ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ taken literally | AusOpinion

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