An open letter to artists: know your worth

This week, something horrible and something wonderful happened in our industry.

Know your worth. Image by
Know your worth. Image by

Horribly, a request from an American company was sent to Australian agents and dance schools seeking dancers for a new Kylie Minogue video clip stating that, due to budget constraints, these dancers would not be paid.

There have been many reports in the media about this issue over the last 48 hours – including a segment on Channel 10’s The Project, and articles in the Sydney Morning Herald, ArtsHub, The Daily Mail and more. I urge you to read as much as you can from the major news outlets and while you’re at it, search the hash tag #paythedancers for a look at the commentary on social media too.

Wonderfully, many dancers took a stand and refused to work a 10 hour day on the film set for nothing, refused the exploitation of their skills (thinly veiled as ‘exposure’) and many took to social media to voice their concerns. Facebook and Twitter were ablaze with comments from dancers and artists expressing their distress, disgust and outrage at the treatment of the dancers in this situation. A frenzy ensued and soon the issue was trending. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (the union which represents performers, musicians, crew and journalists) stepped in to ensure all dancers on set were paid and – on the social media front –  artists across the country continued to denounce companies who have similarly exploited dancers on previous occasions.

I, for one, am deeply disappointed but not surprised that this issue plagues our arts industry in Australia. It’s not an uncommon tale, to hear of large companies (often representing big ‘stars’) offering ‘exposure’ as remuneration enough for young, eager performers. Expecting young professional artists to work for free – when other staff are paid – repeatedly and without question is an insult to the craft, to the industry and to those who fought hard for our rights at work. And, it’s illegal.

It’s all too common an occurrence and it has to stop. It has to stop right now.

An open letter to young artists

Dancers, artists all,

I want you to know that you are wonderful. You have trained, you have honed your art and your craft. You have worked toward a goal and you have done so with grace, enthusiasm and passion. Every day you put your heart and soul into your work, put your bodies on the line in a way that many in this world can’t even begin to comprehend. You are strong, talented and amazing.

I know that, while you are taught the ins and outs of your craft in your training institutions, you are rarely taught what you are worth. I know that also, in reality, those outside our industry rarely know what you are worth. I want you to know that I know your worth, your peers and colleagues know your worth, and that many people have fought to protect it.

I know that people ask you what your ‘real job’ is, and I know that while you may work in a bar, a cafe, a retail store on occasion, your real job is your craft. It drives you, it demands your attention. You love what you do and you are passionate, brilliant people.

It is because of all these things that you must never, ever let yourself be taken advantage of.

You are lucky enough love your work, but it does not mean you should work for love and love alone. Love does not pay the bills, wages do. Be responsible for your work. Read about your rights, your award wages and what you are entitled to. Know your worth and never be afraid to stand up for yourself.

If you choose to donate your time to a project, do so for the right reason and always with open eyes. If someone else is making money from a project, and isn’t valuing your worth, then reconsider.

Listen to your peers, learn from those whose work ethic you respect and never, ever, ever undervalue yourself. If you do, others may take the opportunity to do the same – and that is never ok. Not for you, not for your peers and not for the industry you love so dearly. 

With so much love and respect,
Erin James

An open letter to everyone else:

Dear Everyone Else,


and help us stop this culture of exploitation in our country.

Erin James

Erin James

Erin James is's former Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin James

4 thoughts on “An open letter to artists: know your worth

  • Well said Erin. The arts are wonderful as they allow everyone to participate and interact in different ways – young children to adults are able to try dancing, playing musical instruments, dabbling in painting and photography (to name a few). I can’t see people being allowed to try being, say, an architect for a few months, or an accountant or a lawyer.

    As wonderful as this opportunity to participate is, therein also lies the challenge. When someone picks up a guitar and learns three chords and calls themselves a musician, this devalues the worth of musicians. A friend of mine clicks and drags loops on computer, doesn’t know what a C major scale is, and calls herself a musician. Someone jumps around in time to music and calls themselves a dancer. I think it’s too easy to take on the title musician, or dancer, or singer, or photographer. Just because you can do something okay in your own mind, doesn’t mean that you should feel able to assume the mantle of artist.

    I don’t have a solution – I’m not sure if there is one. I don’t want to limit people from having a go, but there should be a clear cut distinction between amateurs and professionals. Professionals should be paid for what they do – yes we happen to be in an industry where we may enjoy what we do, but this should not mean that we are paid any less, or expected to work for nothing.

    I am a musician, so this is where I’m coming from – in order to be really competent on an instrument requires on average at least ten years of training. (AMEB grades from preliminary to A.Mus.A. level). Add 3+ years of tertiary study to that for those that choose to “enter” the profession. Many other professions do not require anywhere near this level of training, and yet obtain far more respect, pay and conditions. Musicians (and many other artists) frequently work for themselves, so there is no superannuation, sick leave, paid leave loading, public holidays, etc. Yes, we may enjoy what we do (although some gigs are anything but), but we also need to pay our bills.

    Next step lies in educating the public. Many “punters” don’t care if they are listening to a University educated orchestra or the guy down the street on an out of tune guitar. As long as they hear some semblance of “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” they are happy. People need to be educated to appreciate quality, but employers will always be trying to save their pennies by hiring cheaper entertainment. Maybe if the public started demanding quality, we would have more quality in the arts industries….

  • Bravo, well said Erin. The same applies to musicians don’t sell yourself and all your associates short.

  • Arts across the board are not respected in this country. In my opinion it’s because there is very little taught at school any more. We don’t all want to go to university. Arts are the heart and soul of a civilised nation, and people within the industry should hang their heads in shame for taking advantage of young talent.

  • Hi Erin,
    Another example recently of a huge world music company wanting actors to do music video clip appearances and sign a waiver which stated they would be paid no money, but the company could use their name, information, footage and anything else, anwhere in the world, ad infinitum. I was asked to perform in this, but once I received this “contract” called MEAA who again confirmed how often this happens and young eager performers are virtually siging away all rights in the hope of a moment of exposure or discovery. I did not do the gig, but I am sure there were hundreds willing to take my place. Yes, they can be reported, but any action against them would just be tied up in legal spheres for years, or result in a small fine.
    Apart from asking artists to value their worth, governing bodies need to make the penalties for companies abusing the system more meaningful.


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