Years and years ago, at the beginning of my illustration career, a veteran illustrator got mad at me, and at a number of my colleagues, for charging too little. We all protested loudly. "But, dude," we said, "we are not veterans like you, with years of experience and stunning portfolios to back us up. We are newbies, and we need to eat, too, so we'll take what we can get. We're not in direct competition with you, so why do you care?" Then, we added, with great smugness, "Oh, and our rates are the current industry standard, so pthbbbbbt!"
Except more than a decade's gone by, and I see that my colleagues and I are now veterans, with our own pretty portfolios and lengthy CVs. We have become the indignant illustrator's direct competitors, and we're not earning that much more than we were at the start of our careers. We're certainly not getting what he did, at the height of his. And we did this to ourselves. Oh, sure, we're not solely responsible. These are hard times, to begin with. Rates would've taken a hit, regardless. But we're not blameless, either. Rates HAVE come down to match what we were willing to work for. This is something I've witnessed firsthand, over and over again.
Why did I do it? Even at the start of my career, I was doing work that, for the most part, thrilled my customers to their boots. This is not said with ego, to imply that I was at the level of a veteran illustrator even then--I certainly wasn't--but to point out that my product was exactly what somebody was looking for, and willing to pay for...and yet, there I was, producing it for what amounted to less than minimum wage. I was even a bit proud of myself, when people were surprised by my low rates, and thanked me for making my work affordable.
There are a thousand excuses. I needed money fast. I lacked experience. There's no single set of industry standard rates for artists, only a loose collection of generally accepted rates, which vary wildly by market. My living expenses were lower, then; I was in an area where a decent one-bedroom could be had for as little as $200 per month. Food was basic, but cheap. It didn't occur to me that my colleagues might be paying ten times the rent I was, for a home too small for their families, or that there was already a recession on, and that artists, furnishing a luxury commodity, would be among the first to see cuts to their earnings--and that my willingness to undervalue my work was not helping. None of these excuses are particularly helpful now, when I find myself arguing with the next generation of people who Just Don't Get It, and probably won't, till it's too late.
DA is now contributing to the problem, in their own small way, with a new commissions widget, which offers artists the chance to sell their services for a maximum of $50, minus a 20% fee. At best, this feature will go largely unnoticed, and will be used primarily by kids and by hobbyists with no potential to become professionals (ie, people who will never be competing for mainstream jobs, and bringing that undercutting mentality to the grown-up arena). The young, inexperienced, and simply oblivious will be exploited--and that's the best-case scenario. At worst, it'll be used by people who are genuinely skilled, but who don't rely on art to make a living, or who have extremely low overhead, in terms of rent and bills. Apparently, DA also plans to present the people using this widget as the artists on this site who are looking for work, contributing even further to the common perception of art as a commodity with little value, and artists as people who should work for peanuts.
On its own, DA's widget is not a disaster. The problem is, it's part of a much larger trend towards rock-bottom prices. A tiny part, to be sure, but a part nonetheless, and we shouldn't let it happen without a murmur. Think of this widget as an ant. When one ant comes in your house, it's annoying. You stamp on it, and you're done. When ten ants come in, it's a little problem. Maybe you don't stamp on all of them, and one of them gets into the strawberry jam. When a hundred ants come in, it's a disgusting infestation, and you'll probably get bitten. When a thousand ants come in, they might actually kill you, or do serious damage to your home.