I was unusually savvy for a young jazz trombonist/food writer. Creative people are frequently exploited, but I was having none of it. I refused to sign onerous contracts, and backed out of jobs at the first sign of ill-treatment. I turned down more gigs on principle than most people ever apply for.
I'd love to say that the music and writing gigs I stuck with were ones where I was well-treated, but they were just as bad. It's just that, for some reason, I never quite got around to storming out of them. I was often paid a pittance, disrespected, and denied most basic human courtesies, all for crappy enterprises with which I felt queasy to be associated. And, again, these were the ones I'd stuck with. The crème de la crème!
But thanks to those ventures, I managed to built at least something of a name for myself in my two fields. The crappy free newspaper I started out with, where I was edited by a back-stabbing clown and paid practically nothing, was read by a few million people. I suspect a sizable number of Slog readers first read me there and have stuck around. These are also the people who seeded Chowhound.
Same in music, though I never had my breakthrough "BoneHound" equivalent. Playing with crappy bands in crappy venues for crappy money got me heard, and I gradually built a reputation. With a reputation, there are possibilities!
Friends of mine took this to an extreme. Larry Goldings and Peter Bernstein played for free (for free!) at an unfriendly pub on the upper west side several nights per week for years. The surly owner openly mocked other bar owners for paying musicians, bragging about how he had top talent working for free (he treated them, needless to say, like crap, too). Both are now stars, and they can trace it all back to their time at Mr. Surly's nightmare bar.
I keep stressing this to young people (and to older people attempting to switch careers): be exploited! It's a natural part of the process. The only way to ensure an immaculate record of non-exploitation and unblemished dignity is to do absolutely nothing with your life.
Now I view it from the other side, as I find myself recruiting people for my own schemes and projects. Many can't help but set their jaws and strike an adversarial posture. They assume, against all evidence, that I'm a sharpie aiming to squeeze them dry (it got a lot worse after The Social Contract came out, and people learned that us curly-haired, silver-tongued idealistic visionary entrepreneurs are always out to screw you*). The more easy generosity I display, the more they suspect a Big Fix beyond the facade.
There were two people, in particular, who I spotted and immediately appreciated. I brewed up cool projects to work on with each of them, to help them escape brutish dead-end jobs. But while they loved my ideas (I've got to admit; they were pretty good), and genuinely liked me, both got their backs up and dove into pugnacious negotiation at a point where eagerly gleeful dreaming should have been happening. I haven't spoken to either in several years. I know neither's doing much. But, hey, at least they avoided being exploited.
* - This absolutely says it all: The Social Network's tragic exploited victim Eduardo Saverin, who appears to have been little more than a hapless drag on Facebook's early operation, is worth $5 billion. That's a better position than can likely be achieved by astutely side-stepping traps.
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