“When you’re trying to climb the ladder, don’t let people walk over you. Because that’s just what they’ll do.”
- Sloan, “Autobiography”
I doubt that singer/songwriter Janis Ian remembers meeting me over 20 years ago, much less changing my life with a word of advice.
It was December 31, 1993, my 21st birthday, and I was an intern on Howard Stern’s classic ‘New Year’s Rotten Eve.’ I had gotten the gig through connections I had made as an intern at K-Rock in New York. I loved my job immensely and spent most of my time at the station, or at station-sponsored events. Although I had spent more time at the radio station than I did at college, or at home for that matter, I did not have the dubious honor as many of my friends and compatriots — I hadn’t earned a humiliating nickname, which was fine with me.
However in the frantic, fast-paced days leading up to the big show, it was important for the contestants, television production staff, celebrity guests, etc. to be able to identify us all, quickly and easily.
In the absence of a pre-existing call sign, at some point over the course of production I came to be known simply as ‘Matt the Intern.’
It worked well enough, to identity me and reach me over walkie-talkies when I had to wrap up a meeting with Debbie Tay the space lesbian because I was needed in Sherman Hemsley’s dressing room to pick up pants he needed to have dry-cleaned. It was a simple, useful appellation — and of course, it was true. I was an intern.
After a pre-show rehearsal, I met Janis in the stairwell where I was taking a smoke break and she had just come from a rehearsal of her musical number. It was a parody of her own classic ‘At Seventeen,’ tweaked to make fun of Jerry Seinfeld who, at 39, had a seventeen year-old girlfriend, Shoshanna Lonstein.
Janis said hi, and I told her that she had sounded great. She laughed and said “Yep, this show and Edward R. Murrow, the two most important television events in history.”
We talked for another minute or two, then she asked me “what’s your name again?” I reflexively answered “Matt the Intern,” and she looked me in the eyes and said “That’s not your name. Don’t call yourself that.”
I asked her why, and she responded “You’ll never get paid.
I was floored. Such simple words, delivering such incredibly wise and valuable advice. I knew pretty much immediately that it had been a life-changing moment.
For the duration of the production I kept my utilitarian nickname, up until the after-party. As I celebrated my 21st birthday, I danced with Debbie Tay, who asked me “what’s your name again?”
“Matt,” I replied.
The next time Debbie and I got together, it was over coffee to celebrate my new job as a full-time disk jockey at K-Rock.
Although I’m much happier as a voiceover artist, or voice actor, than I was as a radio personality, that lesson still holds true. If you’re good at something and you know it, you have value. No matter how much you love your work, the idea that your client is somehow doing you a favor and you should be thankful, is dangerous and potentially toxic to your career.
If you’re offered a $200 fee for a radio commercial with a budget of $5,000, don’t do it. Moments like this will come, particularly if you’re just starting out in the industry, and they will define you. Taking less money than you’re worth is a sign to producers and casting directors that:
1) You are not as talented as you truly are — otherwise, why charge less than your peers?
2) When they want a job done cheap, and they want the savings to come by means of undercutting the talent — they’ll keep you in mind.
This can have disastrous and long-lasting repercussions on your career, not to mention your own sense of self-worth. The way you see yourself and the way others see you are linked, so remember that you are valuable and assert yourself whenever someone tries to treat you otherwise.
The so-called ‘Uber economy’ that opens up freelance workers and the self-employed to exploitation is not new, it just has a new name. I’ve been reading about the exploitative ‘perma-lancing’ that Uber drivers and others are subject to, but I first heard the term in the early 1990s. It was when I was hired as an announcer by a television network that was known for its music content back then, and was owned and operated by a gigantic media conglomerate. All of their jobs, from on-air talent to production assistants were perma-lancers, I was told. All except vice-presidents and above. This meant that you could work from anywhere between 5 and 80 hours a week, get a paycheck with tax deducted, but you had no insurance and no eligibility for unemployment if they decided to cut you loose for any reason.
There will always be people eager to exploit you. Don’t let them. Decide what you’re worth, and live by your choice.