Fees for freelance photographers, emcees and musicians stagnated for years

Obscura Festival director Vignes Balasingam says it has gotten to a point that not many in the industry can tell good photography apart from bad photography. ― Picture by KE Ooi
Obscura Festival director Vignes Balasingam says it has gotten to a point that not many in the industry can tell good photography apart from bad photography. ― Picture by KE Ooi

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GEORGE TOWN, Aug 26 ― With all the talk about wage stagnation, there is one group of people who also feel the pinch even though they don’t earn monthly wages.

These are the people ― photographers, emcees and musicians ― who work in the niche creative industry.

For the last few years, their professional fees have stagnated and in some cases, slashed to a bare minimum.

At the same time, technological advances have given rise to more competition increasing supply to the point that fees suffer drastic cuts.

“Nowadays, the quality of things is not so important anymore because the value of information is so cheap due to technology. The industry knows it so they are playing us all,” said professional photographer Vignes Balasingam.

The Obscura Festival director said it has gotten to a point that not many in the industry can tell good photography apart from bad photography.

The most basic fee a photographer gets paid for a dinner event is about RM3,500 but now, there are those charging between RM350 and RM250, effectively spoiling the whole market for all photographers.

“The thing with technological advances is that now, everybody can get a DSLR and be a photographer some charging very low fees,” Vignes told Malay Mail Online in an interview.

Those in the market for photographers would naturally gravitate towards the cheaper ones, regardless of the quality offered, and this impacts those who have been in the industry for a long time, he added.

As a way to cope with this, Vignes said a lot of photographers are finding new ways to get an income from publishing books to teaching photography, to doubling up as writers and other freelance jobs.

“Some are working other jobs such as graphic designers to earn extra income,” he said.

He added that one of the reasons he organised the annual Obscura Festival in George Town is in response to this downward spiral where creativity has been sucked out by low fees.

“If we don't do this festival now, we won't know whether we will remain relevant in the future... we never know what will happen,” he said.

Penang-based photographer, who only wanted to be known as Ooi, can attest to the low fees affecting a majority of the full-time photographers both in Penang and throughout the country.

With a family to feed and bills to pay, it is next to impossible to depend only on his photography fees, so Ooi has branched out into other jobs including graphic design, branding, transportation and food exploration.

“Photography jobs are getting very few in between especially when there are rookie photographers offering free services for events and weddings, never mind that they do not offer quality, so I have to look for other means of income,” he said.

Fewer gigs and fees being cut... this has made it difficult for freelancers to keep up with the cost of living. ― File pic
Fewer gigs and fees being cut... this has made it difficult for freelancers to keep up with the cost of living. ― File pic

Previously, he used to have bookings for events on most weekends especially during peak periods but now he is only getting bookings from regular customers once every few months.

“Even some regular customers are bargaining for lower fees and I have to think of ways to repackage my fees to suit their budgets,” he added.

Professional emcees have also suffered a cut in fees. In fact, theirs is a dwindling market where most companies are cutting costs either by slashing budgets for events, or cutting out the need for emcees entirely.

“When companies cut their budgets, the first thing they look to cutting is the emcee and they will get their own staff to be the emcee to save costs,” said Jesmine Leong.

Leong, who has been an emcee for over 17 years, said she cannot survive on her emcee fees alone and had to supplement her income by working as a freelance translator and copywriter.

“Some emcees with an established customer base will not be affected much... I have my own customer base too but it is very hard to increase my fees each year, not even by RM50, because the customer will complain and refuse to pay the increase,” she said.

Even musicians are facing the same problems, if not worse, as most musicians can barely survive on the money they get for each performance.

According to Ayat Ariff, playing in a band and busking can only be a hobby that supplements his income and not a full-time job.

“I work as a civil servant and I play in a band at events, but I don't think I can survive doing it full time because we get paid very little,” he said.

Cities like Kuala Lumpur and George Town are especially expensive... and freelancers really feel the pinch these days. ― File pic
Cities like Kuala Lumpur and George Town are especially expensive... and freelancers really feel the pinch these days. ― File pic

The 27-year-old, who plays for the Must Buskers band, said in the past three years, their fees have not increased because customers refuse to pay more.

“We are still being paid the same now compared to three years ago. For example, our band only gets paid RM1,500 for the whole night and by now, it should be RM2,000 and yet we still get paid the old fees,” he said.

So, to get around this, he said they cut down the hours of performances to commensurate with the fees instead of insisting on an increase in fees.

Another musician, John P., said it is close to impossible for a musician to survive just on the fees from performances especially when customers and the venues that book them refuse to pay more.

“The fees are not enough to sustain a musician... it is worse when the musician has a family to feed so most musicians have to supplement their income with a day job,” he said.

As Vignes pointed out, the downward income spiral for those in niche and skilled fields does not bode well for the whole industry, which he likened to the modernisation in manufacturing back in the 1900s when machinery replaced manual labour in factories.

He warned that it could spell an end to the “old way of doing things” as the value for skilled professional work has become so transient.

“We haven't found a new way of doing things, maybe we just need to find it and we will survive this wave of changes,” he said.

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