Some fellows from Staten Island—that cultural transition zone where New York becomes New Jersey—once observed, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me.” The entertainment industry, along with the suburban demographic to which they market, interpreted the hook as yet another rap celebration of the material, and a hit was born; the same year Kurt Cobain cleared his head with a shotgun.

I knew lots of kids that bumped “C.R.E.A.M.,” but looking back, I wonder how many of them understood that the song wasn’t a celebration. It was an indictment.

Cash. Bread. Whatever you call it. Most people—including myself at times—base a fair amount of their decisions at least in part on how it will affect their cash situation. Everyone is more or less familiar with the stereotype of the greedy finance guy who knowingly torpedoes the pension fund of some Middle American municipality because it will mean profits for the firm and fat bonuses for his bank account. Or the drug dealer who makes their living off the suffering and desperation of other human beings (obviously I’m not including weed dudes in that description—carry on, you brave and noble souls).

But what about the artist who continues to work a job that makes them miserable and barely pays enough to pretend to survive?

The choice made by the artist isn’t on the same moral level as the choice made by the crooked investment banker or the heroin pusher. In fact, according to the accepted standards of our society, the artist is being responsible, because “a job’s a job” and you’re supposed to work because there’s bills to be paid and groceries to be bought and so on and so forth.

But what does that meager paycheck cost that artist (or musician or photographer or whathaveyou)? Low-wage service jobs are draining and often demeaning, especially for creative people. The company is trying to get as much out of you for as little compensation as possible. Your coworkers usually hate their job as much as you do. And you’re expected to maintain a false friendliness to people who range from condescending to insulting.

While all this is happening, you are making the company more in an hour than you make in a day or even a week, and when you finally clock out, and get home, you’re lucky if you can muster the energy to really pursue your true dreams. And that’s where the money trap gets particularly insidious.

Our hypothetical service-worker artist probably has friends—let’s hope—and those friends might have use for the particular talents of our artist, or know someone who does. Now, if those friends have cash to pay our artist, the situation resolves itself pretty easy. But maybe they are service workers themselves who are barely keeping afloat, and just don’t have any extra money.

A good number of artistic people I know would reluctantly refuse, because we’re taught that if you want to make any kind of art your profession, you can’t work for free. And if it isn’t something you would do on your own accord, it’s work.

And I respect that principle. Part of the reason creative skills have become devalued in the digital age is the practice of offering young artists “exposure” in exchange for free content. I got caught up in one of those situations early on in my writing, producing close to 3,000 words of content per week for compensation that was supposedly based on click traffic (I never saw a penny).

But there’s a difference between something like that—or websites like Huffington Post that create their profit margins by bilking their reporters and columnists out of fair compensation—and a situation where a worthy project is on the table but the money just isn’t there to compensate the artist.

Our service-worker artist would be completely justified in passing on the project, especially given how much of their energy they already have to give away at work. And if the project isn’t even going to help them get by, then the decision seems pretty clear. Pro Bono is a luxury of those who have already made it. Like I mentioned, I know plenty of people that have made that decision. Hell, I’ve made that decision before.

But in those circumstances, the opportunity cost of that shitty little paycheck becomes even steeper. What if that uncompensated project led to something bigger and better, either because of the work produced, networking, or some combination thereof? Or became a conduit through which our service-worker artist finally found an opportunity to make their ambition their profession?

Real life doesn’t always allow us to up and quit our jobs so we can focus on our true ambitions, and the day-to-day struggle for survival rarely leaves much energy to devote to uncompensated work.

And that is the nature of the trap.

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