Please Kindly Shut Up About Exposure

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Please Kindly Shut Up About Exposure

UPDATE : UCB contacted Paste to dispute two statements in this piece. UCB states that they’ve never promised exposure to performers, and that they don’t charge them, either, clarifying that players “pay for coaches for their teams and UCB gets none of that money.”

Amidst the weekend’s comedy hubbub over the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was a quieter, marginally less stupid hubbub over whether podcasts and podcast networks should pay podcast guests. (Tl;dr: if they can, they should.) It began with a Twitter thread by Paul F. Tompkins, host of Spontaneanation, among other podcasts, and frequent guest on Comedy Bang Bang:

Tompkins begins by saying he is in favor of podcasts paying guests and that he hopes this soon becomes the norm. He covers a few reasons paying guests is complicated, namely that podcasts and podcasting networks generally don’t make big money and the number of guests fluctuates by podcast and episode. Then he says that the exposure provided by podcast appearances is “arguably way more valuable” than the exposure a comic might get at a theatre. Still, he concludes, guests should be paid, just as they are on talk shows.

A few hours later, Scott Aukerman, host of Comedy Bang Bang, co-founder of the Earwolf Network and Chief Creative Officer of Midroll, Earwolf’s parent company, chimed in with a thread of his own:

Whereas Tompkins was forthright in his belief that podcast guests should be paid, Aukerman took a more mealy-mouthed approach. His first point is that “99% of the guests and 80% of the hosts of podcasts do the shows for the exposure – which is infinitely more valuable than a token amount of money they might receive.” While talk shows are covered by union rules, he continues, most podcasts don’t make money, so it would be “very difficult” to set comparable minimums. He envisions three possibilities: that podcasts popular enough to sell ads pay their guests; that networks offer a base fee for each podcast regardless of size; or that nothing changes, because the “majority of guests” are fine with making one-time or occasional appearances for exposure. (He phrases that last one as a question—are they fine with it?—but it’s clear he believes this to be the case.) Then he says that podcasts are great because anybody can start one and rise to the top of the charts, but these are all still very interesting questions. Incidentally, the media conglomerate E.W. Scripps bought Midroll in 2015 for $50 million. Midroll posted $5 million in revenue for the fourth quarter of 2017, while E.W. Scripps reported almost $257 million.

I don’t want to argue the question of whether podcasts should pay their guests. I think The Dollop’s Dave Anthony answered it succinctly last night: “Podcasts that make money should pay guests, regardless of whether or not they are live or in studio. Talent is labor. Labor should be paid. For ages America has believed artists should starve until they ‘make it.’ Time to cram that archaic bullshit in the trash bin.” The logistics of paying podcast guests will be complicated, sure, but no more complicated than anything else in show business, so I blanch at the assertion that this issue is nuanced. We live in a big nuanced world where nuanced people do nuanced things every day. Anyone who calls for nuance in this conversation is stalling: the question at hand is not one of logistics but of priorities. If podcasts like The Dollop, Cum Town, What a Time to Be Alive and Doughboys can pay guests, even if only for paywalled episodes, then so can the likes of Comedy Bang Bang and Spontaneanation. If someone else creates value for you, they should share in that value.

What I do want to argue is the notion that “exposure” belongs in any conversation about whether artists should get paid for their time and labor. It doesn’t. Exposure is in no sense a replacement for monetary compensation, i.e. the normal thing people get for doing work in every other industry, and at this stage in the conversation, when there is not yet universal consensus that podcast guests or improv performers deserve pay, it should certainly not be floated as a complement.

I am not saying that exposure has no rewards—it does. But they are not predictable, they are not fairly distributed, and they are subject to every inequality that affects workers across every industry. Exposure may get you a rudimentary audience for that podcast you’ve been meaning to start, but it will still be years before that podcast makes any money. Exposure may get you a meeting with, let’s say, Comedy Central’s development team, but it won’t make Comedy Central’s development team any more apt to, let’s say, produce work created by women. What exposure will not do is pay your rent, it will not pay off your student loans, it will not cover your Lyft home from the recording or your dinner that night. The material benefits of exposure are in the future, if they exist at all; they are an abstraction. What’s so weird about Aukerman’s thread is that he seems to think it’s the other way around, that exposure is concrete and money abstract. Toy with the thought and you will see just how ludicrous it is. If you grant that the exposure of a podcast episode is “infinitely more valuable” than an appearance fee—itself an arbitrary premise, but let’s go with it—then you must grant the same of every large media platform, for instance, television. That is the nature of infinity. For Aukerman the distinction is that television networks make much more money than podcast networks, which is true but irrelevant: Both make money. A more pertinent distinction is that labor unions have established payment structures for television workers, such that employers cannot make arbitrary determinations about the value they create, determinations like “this platform itself is worth more to you than a small number I just made up in my head.”

No, exposure is not infinitely more valuable than a token fee. It is not infinitely more valuable than anything. What value exposure has is highly individuated; it is different for every performer and every podcast. This is the tell in Aukerman’s argument and Tompkins’ too. The podcasts that offer the most exposure are presumably also the ones making the most money, and they can afford to pay their guests in more than concepts. Exposure is also a stalling mechanism. If you can give your guests meaningful exposure, odds are you can give them money, too.

We must stop talking about exposure because it is meaningless, but also because it is dangerous. One of the worst failures of the comedy industry is how thoroughly it depends on the willingness of artists to be exploited doing what they love. This is the norm, it is rarely questioned, and those who do question it are laden with the burden of proof. As I reported last month, numerous former employees of iO West say that their wages were regularly stolen over the theatre’s 20-year history. They did not report cut-and-dried violations of California law because they were afraid it would doom the community they loved. And those were paid employees—the theater also relied on unpaid interns to perform many of its core operations, such as marketing and security. Meanwhile UCB continues to charge players in its flagship shows who have already given the organization hundreds or thousands of dollars in tuition. The theater promises them exposure, and in many cases the people it exposes them to exploit them just as shamelessly. This is the way of things and everyone knows it. You must suffer before you succeed, if you succeed, which you probably won’t, sorry about that, but at least you’ll fail doing what you loved.

Entire generations of comedians have been conditioned to devalue their work, and worse, to treat as novel any suggestion that things be more just. Our task is now to undo that conditioning. This will be a long and complicated process that will certainly demand great nuance and everybody will have different opinions about how to do it. But perhaps one easy step is abandoning every bit of insincere equivocating language that gives anyone cover to act like paying workers is a taxing, i.e. unreasonable demand. Allow me to suggest we start with “exposure.”

Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.