Across the spectrum artists tend to be crap business people who make other artists’ lives more difficult because of the bad business decisions that they make. Take musicians. Musicians like playing music, so when they get the opportunity to play for the public they take it. The problem is unscrupulous business folk take advantage of that characteristic of musicians and use it to get free entertainment. They’ll say things such as: “Come Friday night, you can play a few hours at my club and get exposure.” The musician is excited. The opportunity to play – yay! The business person exploits the musician’s poor business acumen and the musician pitches up, plays, and then goes home with empty pockets.
Okay, you can say- that’s fine, that’s the musician’s business, he’s “not in it for the money”. But it’s actually not fine. Because now when the person trying to be a professional, a musician attempting to make a living from music, approaches that club and tells the owner that their fee is P3000 for a two hour set, the owner thinks the person is mad, a diva trying to rip them off. See, the owner is used to getting music for free thanks to the musicians that came before this one. It makes it a steep, uphill climb for the professional musician to educate the owner that workers should be paid for the work that they do- all workers. And they should be paid a fair fee.
The same goes for contracts. So many artists will agree to perform without a contract. “We have a verbal agreement,” they say. Verbal agreements mean nothing; they’re usually the beginning of a long drawn out, and often bitter, argument about money. Artists must get written contracts. The contracts should include the responsibilities of each party, and they should breakdown how the money should be paid. For example, if you’re a dancer, you might want a certain percentage before the event, maybe 40%, so that you have money to get yourself there, money for rehearsals, etc. Then the remaining 60% of the fee should be paid immediately after the performance. Any other requirements should also be in that contract. It needn’t be drawn up by a lawyer, just a straight forward agreement, all of the things that were discussed in your meeting to set up the gig, written down on paper, both parties sign it.
The same applies for writers. Writing for free is problematic. It sets up the same situation as playing music for free. It makes editors think that writing is not something that needs to be paid for, making it difficult for professional writers to make a living wage.
Many writers get so excited when they get a story or book manuscript taken for publication they don’t take the time to read their contract carefully. They are overflowing with gratitude and see no reason to disagree with the publisher on anything. There are many places in a book contract, for example, where the publisher has leeway for discussion. Writers must read contracts carefully and consider the long term effect of what they are signing. Where they don’t like something, they have the right to ask for it to be changed. If it can’t be changed, and the writer finds the clause difficult to live with, they can walk away from the deal. Nothing is locked in until the contract is signed, but once it is- that’s it. You need to live with it.
Writers who accept everything, even things that are not good for them and other writers, make it more difficult for all writers. When a professional writer now questions things on the contract or questions the behaviour of the publisher on things such as marketing or timely payment of royalties, they are considered problematic because the publisher only has experience with writers who do not view writing from a professional perspective.
Artists in all sectors must think how their actions affect all of us. Trying to make a living from the arts in Botswana is difficult. If the buyers of our work see us as unprofessional, as people who take art as a hobby, they will see no need to treat us as the professionals we actually view ourselves as. We are the ones who can define the artistic economy in the country, but it will require effort from everyone to improve the situation.
(This column appeared in my column It's All Write in the 7 August, 2015 edition of Mmegi newspaper)