Should You Ever Work For Free?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to work for free. You probably wouldn’t even believe me, unless you’re also a creative professional. In that case, you’d probably glance over the multitude of offers I’ve had for “great experience” and “exposure” and shake your head in resigned solidarity. Because that is the nature of the professional arts world these days: when you’re selling culture, it seems that no one is willing to buy – at least, not if they have to pay.

It’s easy to see why. Our artistic experiences have changed drastically since the advent of the Internet. It’s no longer necessary to sit in a theater or walk through a museum; we can watch any movie or TV show, download any song, look at any painting by simply clicking a few keys. What used to be a very public, social phenomenon – the gathering together of people to enjoy art- is now simply social media.

And there’s way too much art out there, especially mediocre art. When it comes to the Internet, there are no barriers to entry, which makes art as a whole move available, but also, in my opinion, less impressive.  You become desensitized, unable to differentiate between all of the “amazing” options you could experience, and suddenly it’s a lot harder to find the diamonds in the rough.

What this leads to is the reinforcement of the idea that art is a public right, and one that should be available for free. To some extent, I’m expected to give my services and music away without financial expectation. The never-ending battle over sites  like Spotify and Pandora rages on at every music conference or industry event I’ve ever attended. Some proudly demand to be paid a fair wage, that one can’t pay rent with Facebook likes or live by Tweets alone, and I agree with them. Others say it’s stupid to limit your opportunities – that you’re cutting off your nose (and audience) to spite your face in the name of a few cents – and I agree with them too.

So how does one actually make a living as an artist? The truth is: I’m not sure, but drawing any sort of hard line on working for free may not be the best choice. I think you have to determine your value as a creator, and what you’re willing to do or not do for free. To me, long-term thinking is key – I evaluate every opportunity that comes my way, and weigh the benefits and costs of each individually. If it makes a lot of sense for me to give away a track or play a free live show in my hometown because the odds are I’ll end up cultivating fans that will repay me tenfold later, you can bet your bottom dollar I’m going to do it. If someone asks me to drive ten hours to play a free gig to an empty room that I’m also expected to fill, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

And in the end, the best thing we can do as creators is to value our own contributions and the contributions of our fellow creators – to hold ourselves to high standards and create intelligent, thought-provoking work that is worthy of respect. Because respect can easily turn into admiration, which can turn into infatuation, which can turn into lifelong fans, fans that are willing to pay you the ultimate compliment for your work: cold, hard cash.

Photo by Thomas Hawk

Work for Free

Written by Jenna Paone

Jenna Paone is a songwriter, musician, vocalist, recording artist, and jack-of-all artistic trades. In addition to living The Life Creative, she is the Director of Organized Women at Boston GLOW (Girls' Leadership, Organized Women), a non-profit that provides pragmatic programming, leadership training, and service-learning opportunities to Massachusetts women and girls. For more information about Jenna, visit www.jennapaone.com

Comments

  1. Jodee Redmond says

    I have done it, but (there is always a but)….the opportunity was an exceptional one. It was a chance to grow as a writer and was not be very time-consuming on a monthly basis. I think it lasted six months or so and I wrote something once a month. I learned a lot about myself, so it was a good choice for me at that time. I think you need to take these things on a case-by-case basis instead of saying, “Oh, I would never do that.”

  2. Amanda Roberge says

    I get asked to help other organizations fund-raise alllllll the time. They ask me to come and set up a henna booth, charge money, and fork it over. I do it from time to time, but only when it’s a cause I was planning to support anyways — like my kids’ school PTOs or anything to do with Childhood Cancer Research/Awareness. But I draw the line just as often and tend to give people a royal education when they try to tell me it’s for my benefit — exposure, etc. I only want to “expose” myself to the right audiences and I do that just fine on my own, thankyouverymuch. But like you said, you take each “opportunity” and weigh it out individually. I have pretty much met my philanthropy quota for 2014 and it’s only the first week of February ;-)

    • Jenna Paone says

      I’m with you there, Amanda! I’ve done many fundraising events over the course of my career, and like, I tend to support causes I believe in/am already involved in. Especially when it comes to my own nonprofit, Boston GLOW (www.bostonglow.org)!

  3. says

    Sharing my experiences here…

    If they say: We don’t have the budget for this now, but if this goes well we’ll have additional work for you…Run for the hills because they’ll never have the budget and won’t have additional work for you. This is hard to recognize or see in the heat of the moment.

    But, if there is someone out there you would love to work with, by all means, explain how you can help and offer to work for free. But set an expectation up front. If it’s not money and future projects, you can ask for a testimonial/case study or introductions to other people.

    • Jenna Paone says

      I suppose it depends on the project, right? I’ve gotten involved early on in certain ventures where money was initially tight, but improved over time. I’ve also been party to many an empty “there’s no room in the budget but someday maybe” promises. Especially as a musician – people really, really, really, REALLY hate to pay you for your services. As I said, I think if you can get something useful out of the situation (useful enough to warrant your time), it can work in your favor to take on something that isn’t financially lucrative.

  4. Alyson Weiss says

    Ugh this is so tough! In an ideal world, this isn’t a choice you would ever even be put in the position of making. We need to have larger conversations about the morality of asking for free work in the first place and the options out there for funding “volunteer” work that shouldn’t be volunteer.

    • Jenna Paone says

      Agreed, Alyson. It’s so tough because of long-existing mindsets of what people are or aren’t willing to pay for!

  5. Nacie Carson says

    Hey Jenna –

    I think this is such a challenging question to consider – on the one hand, as a young freelancer I worked for free quite a bit just to get some items in my portfolio. Then I went through a phase were I was like “no, I’m legit now, no more! I need to value myself!” Now, I find myself being inspired by mentors like Mark Carter and others who give away so much of their work purposefully as a way to contribute/come from a place of abundance. Conversely, what I do get paid for now I get paid much more for, so that feels safe in a way?

    What do you think?

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