Lena Dunham Doesn’t Have To Pay

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It’s hard to think of a public figure more inexplicably reviled than Lena Dunham, the young actress/filmmaker/author whose every thought, word, and deed seems to stir up digital vitriol on par with that enjoyed by Kim-Jong Un, Saddam Hussein or Gwyneth Paltrow.

It seems that Ms. Dunham is doing an 11-city tour to promote her new book, and rather than just read a chapter and then sign copies, as is the norm for book tours, she decided to make it more of an event, and through her website solicited audition videos from performers to join the bill and perform, presumably as opening acts.

But as Gawker was quick to point out, the performers chosen were not going to be paid for their performances, thus setting off the biggest wave of online finger-pointing since the last time Lena Dunham did something in public.

Gawker’s piece included a breakdown of Dunham’s finances: $3.7 million (for her book advance); $300,000 (in ticket sales for the tour); $6 million (her annual earnings); $38 (price of ticket). And lots of people quickly chimed in in the comments, on the Gawker piece and across the Internet as the piece went viral, to denounce Dunham for taking advantage of her fellow artists and being a cheapskate and for being too ugly to do nude scenes (not relevant, just part of the territory with Lena Dunham).

I for one agree: it’s appalling the way Dunham is sending her gestapo out into the night to raid poetry slams and open-mic shows and kidnapping performers and forcing them at gunpoint to perform for free.

Except that’s not at all what’s happening. The performers all volunteered, knowing they would not be paid.

Once this situation came to light, Dunham quickly realized her error and tweeted that she would compensate the other performers $100 for their trouble, prompting the Internet commenting community to retort that she’s too ugly to do nude scenes. But for the sake of argument, let’s say she hadn’t done that, and these performers were still going to be unpaid.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but if I had a chance to play this gig I would take it in a heartbeat. Almost everything I do as a performer is unpaid, and the reason for that is nobody knows who I am. I am very proud of the songs I’ve written and audiences seem to like them most of the time, but the fact remains that my name does not sell tickets. The majority of the performing that I do is 7-to-10-minute spots at ad-hoc comedy shows, thrown by other comedians, in front of handfuls of people that did not pay to be there — most of whom are in fact waiting their turn to perform, none of whom are being paid. I got paid $20 for doing three very well-received songs at a comedy show recently and considered it a triumph.

The only way I’m ever going to make any money as a performer is if people know who I am and like my work enough to seek me out. The only way that’s going to happen is if people see me perform, and the only way that’s going to happen is if I do any show that will have me for whatever they’ll give me, which usually ranges from bupkus to a drink ticket.

Maybe I’m alone in this but I doubt it: the opportunity to perform in front of hundreds of people would be payment in itself, particularly as it would come with the tacit endorsement of Lena Dunham herself, a very talented person with a very dedicated following. If even 1% of that audience remembered my name and came to see me in the future it would be well worth it.

Maybe you think, “Performers have to eat too, how am I supposed to make a living if I perform for free?” Shit, I dunno. I certainly don’t make a living at it. I have a day job and I bartend on Saturday nights. Maybe I should think more highly of myself but I’ve never considered, even for a moment, making performing my whole and only source of income — and I’m a pretty good performer if you catch me on the right night. If you can make it work, my hat is truly off to you, but I would remind you that you have the right to refuse to play for free, no matter who is asking.

There was a similar fuss last year after the Super Bowl, when it came out that Bruno Mars was not paid to do the halftime show. In fact, no one gets paid to do the Super Bowl halftime show. Not Madonna, not Tom Petty, not Prince, not Bruce Springsteen, not Beyonce, not the Black Eyed Peas (though if I’d had the option I’d gladly have paid the Black Eyed Peas NOT to play). The reason for that is obvious: The Super Bowl is the biggest media event of the year every year: 115 million people watched last year. Even huge famous performers like Beyonce have a chance to reach people that don’t know them and turn them into fans — I have never bought a Beyonce album or listened to her on purpose but I still thought hers was the best halftime show I’ve seen.

In fact, the NFL is reportedly now demanding that this year’s halftime performers pay the NFL for the privilege.

The people who are going to see Lena Dunham on her book tour are going to see Lena Dunham on her book tour. If it had no opening acts on the bill it would sell just as many tickets. Take her off the bill and the show would be in one of the basements and backrooms I’ve come to know so well. It may well be that the warm-up acts she’s chosen will make the show better, but make no mistake, she would sell just as many tickets either way, because people know who she is. Her name sells tickets. You can complain that she’s reached that position through nepotism or hasn’t sufficiently paid her dues or or she’s too ugly to do nude scenes or whatever but the fact is, it’s her gig. I’m glad she’s agreed to pay the performers, it’s certainly cooler than not paying them, but $100 each is still a nominal amount, a mere drop in the bucket if the tour is, as reported, grossing over $300,000 in ticket sales. It will make almost no difference in the performers’ lives. What might make a difference in their lives is if they are able to pick up ten or twenty or fifty or a hundred new fans. That is a gift that she’s giving them, one I’m certain they all appreciate, so I don’t think we need to get upset on their behalf.

And, by the way, if you don’t want to see Lena Dunham do nude scenes, feel free to exercise your right to not watch her show.

One Response to Lena Dunham Doesn’t Have To Pay

  1. ace says:

    Yep, lots of us are well familiar with the fact that we’re supposed to shut up and appreciate the “opportunity” to do our art for free, which we will presumably jump at the chance to do, because after all we should all be doing it for the love if we’re “real artists.” It’s a race to the bottom right now in all forms of the arts. Make no mistake that the artists who leap at the chance to work for free ARE diluting the value of their art for EVERYONE.

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