In my decade of experience in music writing I have found that contributors, especially those working for little to no money, are incredibly flexible as business professionals. The way people are able to find the energy to create brilliant observations before or after committing their time to a job or other interests that often provide much more fruitful returns is something that has never ceased to amaze me. Your favorite writer has probably been one of these people at one or more point in their life, scraping together whatever they can from the volumes of work they create in hopes of one day finding regular pay that is good enough to support themselves (or, for the real dreamers, a family). I know I’ve been there my fair share of times, and I am almost certain I will find myself there again before my time in this business has come to an end.
While it is true most contributors are able to put up with a lot when it comes to developing their careers in this business, the one thing no one has time for are false promises of payment that never result in writers actually being paid. This goes for everyone in writing, by the way, and not just those who have only recently begun their journey in music. Publications of all sizes have been called out online by frustrated writers looking to be given the compensation they were promised for words already written, but despite a consistent outcry from writers everywhere the amount of hurdles that often need to be left over in order to actually see the money owed to a writer can be substantial.
And make no mistake: Writers understand that finding money to pay for creative writing is harder and harder to come by in the modern age. Social media and the splintering of consumer behavior in regards to new consumption in the digital age has created hundreds of niche audiences that are served by a wide variety of sites and blogs who are all competitions for the same shares of an often quite small market. The only publications able to make real money are those who are able to cultivate a community around their content offerings, and even then convincing a major brand to advertise takes business skills few in the world of music journalism possess. Still, we (contributors) need to be paid.
When you promise to pay a writer, or even better sign a contract guaranteeing payment, it is your responsibility to make good on that deal. Not when it’s convenient. Not after they have asked for it for weeks or months on end with little to no response. You need to pay them when you agreed to pay them, and if some reason that is beyond your means you need to be open with them about this fact. You may have other bills and costs piling up, but a deal is a deal. You need contributors as much, if not more, than they need you, and rest assured they will be vocal about any wrong doing on your part. There may be thousands of aspiring writers in the world, but only a couple hundred are doing it in any real capacity, the cream of the crop – the ones who really matter and maintain some semblance of influence in a time where ‘everyone’ has been given a voice online – only work for the places that make good on promises. They not only talk to one another, but they have an audience of writers at every level following their every thought on Twitter.
It’s simple: You are trying to build something – a site, zine, magazine, etc. – and you are looking to others to help you accomplish that goal. Bringing on writers is no different than hiring on a construction crew. Both work when the money is good, and they stop when it’s not. Make good on your agreements and everything will be fine.