Community Collaboration vs. Spec Work

That’s a picture of me at E3 the other day. If you don’t know what E3 is (I’ll admit, I didn’t), it’s a huge annual video game conference. I was there to launch a partnership between HITRECORD and the video game company, Ubisoft, to invite people from all over the world to collaborate on music and visuals that will go in their much anticipated game, Beyond Good & Evil 2.

If you don’t know what HITRECORD is (I’ll admit, most people don’t), it’s a creative community of roughly 650,000 people working together on all kinds of art and media: short films, books, records, podcasts, ad campaigns, videos for the ACLU, an Emmy-winning TV show, a lot of stuff.

This is the first time we’re making things for a video game. And it’s a pretty high-profile game, so a lot of people are hearing about us for the first time. Naturally people have questions, and the questions we’re getting most are about payment. If anyone can be a part of making the game, will any of those people get paid? (The answer is yes.)

In particular, some folks have raised concerns that HITRECORD and Ubisoft are asking people to do spec work. If you haven’t heard the term before, “spec” stands for speculative, and spec work is when professionals work for free in hopes of getting paid later. In this digital age of crowd-sourcing, there’s been a wave of corner-cutting by way of spec work, and freelancers have often been left feeling exploited.

Honestly, this concern was sorta painful to hear. It’s not at all how I think of our community’s creative process. I do think that part of this disconnect is simple misinformation. So in this post, I wanna quickly clarify a few facts. But I also think there’s a misunderstanding about what HITRECORD is and what it isn’t. So I wanna talk a bit about how the company came to be, why I started it, and why I’ve been doing it for all this time. I wanna explain why I think what we’re doing with Ubisoft is different from spec work. And I wanna respond to some of the suggestions that have come out of the conversations I’ve been reading.

FIRST, A FEW FACTS.

  1. HITRECORD pays artists. Some people seem to think we don’t. We do. Since we launched as a production company in 2010, we’ve paid our community $2,776,728.50.
  2. We’re not soliciting complete works. People on our platform work together by contributing bits and pieces, layering remix on top of remix. Finished projects are usually touched by a great many collaborators. We don’t think of it as a contest.
  3. Contributors retain rights to their work, whether it’s used or not. When you upload original content to HITRECORD, you grant our company a non-exclusive license to monetize and therefor pay you for it. You’re always free to do whatever you want with it elsewhere.
  4. Ubisoft is not cutting any corners. HITRECORD’s contribution to Beyond Good & Evil 2 has not resulted in a single job lost. They’re not doing this to save time and money. They’re doing it to allow fans who love playing games to get involved in making the game.

WHAT IS HITRECORD? AND WHAT ISN’T IT?

In 2007, HITRECORD was just a simple PHP message board my brother helped me set up where I was posting little videos and songs and stories. A community gradually formed, and we noticed that while some people came just to check out the little things I was making, a lot of people wanted to make things together, both with me and with one another. And we thought that was really cool. Just watching a video on the internet isn’t too different from watching TV. But people using the internet to collaborate on projects they couldn’t pull off on their own, that felt new.

Collaboration encourages creativity. Of course, solitary individuals can be plenty creative as well. But when people make things together, they can often accomplish more. Folks who might not otherwise have the motivation or know-how start expressing themselves. Artists with a grand vision can find supporters to help them realize it. The mission of HITRECORD is to bring the experience of creativity to as many people as possible.

Over the years, we’ve grown our creative community by facilitating all kinds of collaborative projects. I lead some of the projects, our intrepid staff leads some of the projects, but more and more we’re figuring out ways to empower the community to take on those leadership roles. Some projects fall under the category of art for art’s sake. Some projects generate revenue that allows the company to keep going and growing.

When a project makes money, I firmly believe that the people who worked on it should get paid. However, we never present HITRECORD as a means for professional artists to earn their living.

That said, we don’t just pay scraps. Some people make hundreds, some people make thousands, a few people have made tens of thousands. Oftentimes a finished product will include a large number of tiny contributions, and those contributors can receive tiny paychecks. And we pride ourselves on being very upfront and transparent about all of this.

Our community appreciates getting paid fairly — and, obviously that’s really important. But based on user surveys we know that even more than getting paid, they value being a part of a project they couldn’t have completed on their own.

SO, IS IT SPEC?

I understand the comparison. But I do think we’re substantially different. As mentioned, Ubisoft isn’t doing this to cut costs; they’re doing it to include fans. We don’t pit artists against each other in contests with one winner; everyone is allowed and encouraged to build off of one another. We don’t plagiarize unused submissions; anybody whose work is included or even influences the final product gets credit and compensation. We’re not a marketplace for freelance gigs; we’re a collaborative community.

And speaking of our community, if you’re curious whether I’m full of shit or not, come spend some time with us and decide for yourself. Of course, you don’t have to ;)

I’ve been following the conversations about this on Twitter, Reddit, and Resetera and I did mean it when I wrote on Twitter that I think a dialogue about all this is a good thing. Obviously I disagree with a lot of the criticism. But there are also some good points being made that I want to incorporate into our company.

Some people suggested that everyone who contributes to a project should be paid, regardless of whether the contribution is included in the final production. I appreciate the sentiment here, but this idea would be untenable. As soon as we announced any funded project, innumerable opportunists would contribute useless place filler and be owed compensation. We have to draw a line somewhere, and it shouldn’t be arbitrary. If a project generates revenue, the people who get paid should be the people whose work is included or has influenced the final production.

Other people suggested that artists should be chosen to do a certain job and guaranteed an agreed-upon payment before doing the work. We can’t do this for everything, but for the leadership roles of more ambitious projects, this makes sense to me. We’ve actually been informally moving in that direction for a while now by empowering certain stand-out community members to lead projects. So far, we’ve been committing upfront to paying them, but not specific amounts. Because of this conversation, I’m now committed to formalizing this system as soon as we can. When we identify project leads, we should agree on a fee before their leadership role commences. And I’ll hold myself accountable to that.

IN CLOSING

Well, if you’ve read this whole thing, I’m impressed. HITRECORD often doesn’t map one-to-one onto traditional creative industries. But today’s creative industries don’t always inspire creativity. And it feels weird to me to talk about fairness in artistry while claiming that only professionals should be allowed to contribute to grand scale projects. I think our collaborative process has evolved into a new and fair way for anybody to find and nourish their creative selves. I’m sincerely devoted to keeping HITRECORD on its mission, I think this conversation is an important part of the process, and I’m genuinely grateful to everyone who’s given their time and thoughts to it.

Thanks again <3

For additional information, please visit www.hitrecord.org