Should stage owners who profit from the talent appearing on those stages be obliged to pay the talent in something other than exposure?
Two labor disputes over talent and compensation, three decades apart yet eerily similar, suggest the issue remains as vexing as ever.
The more recent concerns whether the Huffington Post should pay its non-staff writers and bloggers, who supply most of the popular website's content for free. Arianna Huffington, who sold the site she cofounded to AOL in February for $315 million, has increasingly come under fire for not paying for most of the content she runs.
Last week the Newspaper Guild called on its 26,000 members to boycott the Huffington Post in support of a "virtual picket line" until a pay schedule for writers was established.
The core of Huffington's justification for not paying is that the Huffington Post is a showcase for writers, and that exposure there leads to paying gigs and greater visibility. Huffington merely — and generously, by her estimation — provides the stage. Mario Ruiz, the Huffington Post's spokesman, claims that contributors are happy to write for free because they "want to be heard by the largest possible audience and understand the value that that kind of visibility can bring."
This was precisely the argument put forth 32 years ago by Mitzi Shore, the owner of L.A.'s Comedy Store, for not paying the comedians whose performances filled her club night after night. At the time, according to William Knoedelseder's "I'm Dying Up Here," a history of the 1970s comedy scene, the Comedy Store was grossing as much as $20,000 a week but the comedians — including rising stars David Letterman, Jay Leno and Robin Williams — were paid nothing.
Like Huffington, Shore insisted that the Comedy Store was a showcase where comedians could get exposure that would lead to paying gigs elsewhere — talent agents and bookers for "The Tonight Show" were in regular attendance, she pointed out. The comedians were unmoved; without them, they argued, there would be no customers. But Shore was adamant. "The Comedy Store is a workshop," she said, "and in that environment the comics don't deserve to get paid."
So the comedians, led by Tom Dreesen, a regular on "The Tonight Show," formed Comedians for Compensation and picketed the club carrying signs like "I'm Funny for Money" and "No Bucks No Yucks." Leno and Letterman walked the picket line, Bob Hope bestowed his endorsement, and in the end the comics prevailed and Shore started paying. The strike ended the precedent — spreading to other clubs around the country — that nightclub owners should expect comedians to perform for free.
Like the Comedy Store comedians, contributors to the Huffington Post have begun to chafe at the no-pay policy. "It is unethical to expect trained and qualified professionals to contribute quality content for nothing," wrote Bill Lasarow, publisher of the Visual Arts Source website that first called for a "strike" by withholding its articles from the Huffington Post, which had been republishing them for free. Huffington responded much as Shore did in 1979: "Go ahead, go on strike," she said, adding that there was no shortage of replacement writers and that in any event, "no one really notices."
The comedians who struck the Comedy Store, some of whom were subsisting on pilfered saltines while playing to sold-out houses, demanded money for their work and got it — not only for themselves but, as Knoedelseder pointed out, also for the comics who followed during the 1980s when comedy clubs sprang up in nearly every city of consequence.
Whether the writers striking the Huffington Post have the kind of leverage the comedians had remains to be seen. Persuading thousands of individuals with divergent agendas, most of whom are unknown to one another, to boycott a popular platform out of a sense of solidarity is a formidable task. Complicating matters is that many of the unpaid contributors are not professional writers but "come from all walks of life," as Ruiz put it, and might be less inclined to sympathize.
The no-pay policy espoused by the Huffington Post is also the Web's fundamental underlying business philosophy — what the stand-up comedy business might have become had Letterman, Leno and the rest not thrown down the gauntlet. The reality is that the complicity of writers and entire publications in serving up endless freebies to the metaphorical Comedy Stores of the Web has gone a long way toward transmuting "writing" done for pay into into "content," consumed for free.
The Comedy Store strike proved that talent could set a price for its worth — so long as the idea of working without pay wasn't accepted by both sides as a plausible business model. As Dreesen, the comedian and leader of the strike, lamented in 1979: "We did this to ourselves — we agreed to work for free six years ago. Now we're trying to undo it."
Three decades later, writers for the Huffington Post are apparently coming to the same conclusion.
Michael Walker is the author of "Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll's Legendary Neighborhood."