(Not) Working For Free


#1

I was just having a conversation with someone about that wonderful time that comes for anyone doing creative work when you know you are ready to lend your skills to others. I do music and sound design. This time for me was about five years ago now.

Specifically, we were talking about how choosy you can afford to be when we all need to eat, and there were some sad answers thrown around, which led me to feeling kind of miserable for what us freelancers have to put ourselves up to, and thinking about how much some younger/newer artists can do for free or for “exposure”.

People often ask me why they shouldn’t work for free, because after all, they just want to get some credits and don’t mind it. I just wanted to make a quick thread about why you should not work for free beyond the obvious “I’m not getting paid”.

  1. Even non-commercial projects cost your time, which could be money
    Maybe you’re working on a fan project, something for a charity event, something for a mixtape or compilation or some similar non-profit effort. You can still quote a price for this. The non-commercial nature of a product does not give someone the right to get free work off of you. You could be doing something else for profit. Obviously, if you believe in a non-commercial project and want to support it, that is the exception. I just wanted to get this one out of the way.

  2. You are decreasing your own value
    This person you work for free for? They’ll never pay you. They’ll tell other people you don’t expect to be paid. If people you work for in the future saw a public post of yours saying you would do work for free, they’re going to try to not pay you. Offering free work will potentially haunt you for your entire career. An opportunistic client will sap all they can out of the goodness of your heart until you are tired of it, and then they’ll be off trying to find the next person who will work for free. Which brings me to the next point…

  3. You are perpetuating the problem of people not respecting the value of art
    Once you tell someone that you as an artist will work for free, that really increases the chance that this person is going to try to get other artists to do the same thing. You’ve not only made the future of this work relationship harder for yourself, you’ve made it harder for every artist that is going to have to try to get their dues from this person down the line. Even if you are okay with working for free, really, seriously okay with it, think about others. Maybe just charge that small token fee just to say you did.

  4. Your free work won’t be as valued and respected as something clients negotiated harder to get
    Once you hand over some work for free, the other team members aren’t going to handle it with the same respect and care as something they paid for. Think about, I don’t know, your parents buying you a car as a gift versus you buying a car you spent two years working hard hours at a minimum wage job saving up for. Which car do you respect, value and care for more?

  5. If you’re trying to get your foot in the door, it’s gonna get stuck in the door
    I would argue that no connection you make by doing free work will ever lead you to paid work, especially if you’re hoping to get paid by other people connected to the person you’re doing free work you. They may string you through their contacts network making you do free labor for everyone and then dump you out when they’re done. It happened to me in my early twenties. Like, maybe you do get your foot in the door. You impress someone important with your hard work and asking for nothing in return. But your foot may be stuck in that door, keeping you from going forward, and when you pull it out that door shuts forever. People who take free work have no time for someone who suddenly decided they want to get paid.

Maybe someone needed to hear some of this today. Maybe no one did! I’d happily take any criticism of my reasoning here or further questions on what you should charge, what I think about specific cases, or whatever.

Edit: @SuperBiasedMan mentions that working for free in a situation where there is definitely unique knowledge to be gained from your experience is potentially worth it. I agree with this to some extent. If you can perform the tasks needed while still being able to provide for yourself (or have them provide something for you) opportunities like this could be worthwhile and I wouldn’t dismiss them outright.


Cuphead Devs' Pain Being Put First
Looking to get into music composition/audio design
#2

Yeah this is the greatest lie ever perpetrated by suits.

My path sort of went something like this: I did free work for myself, close friends and family. Posters, logos, etc., stuff that I could put on my portfolio. Then you present that to people you don’t know and ask for appropriate pay.

One other thing I learned: so you don’t know how to value yourself. $25 an hour? $20 an hour? There’s no hard answer to that, it’s the sort of thing you have to figure out and be confident in. If your client agrees, great. If they don’t and you’re willing to negotiate, go for it, as long as the deal works in your favor. But never for free. If your belief is that “they’ll just get someone who does work for free” which Mello has already touched upon, that shouldn’t convince you to work for less than you want.

Art has to be respected.


#3

This is completely different than creative work, but something my Computer Science teacher told my class about a year ago has really stuck with me. A student asked something about internships and he started talking about why there are almost no unpaid internships in programming. He said the reason this is the case is because we don’t take unpaid jobs. I’m not sure if that actually is why but I never forgot that.

I hope eventually art and creative work gets to this point, but it comes down to everyone refusing to work for free.


#4

thanks for posting this! it’s an important thing for artists of all types to remember - and for other people so they realize that asking an artist to do work for “exposure” is a jerk move even if you think you’re being nice.

i think it’s also important to remember not to undervalue your work…i see a lot of freelance artists on social media doing commissions for much less than minimum wage. i guess if you’re a young artist who doesn’t need to pay bills yet that’s ok to some degree, you’re dipping your toe in the business, but once you’re living at least partially on your art that’s pretty bad. a lot of artists have problems with seeing their work as valuable but…it should be at least worth minimum wage, man

disclaimer that i mostly just do art for myself and my only personal experience with online commissions was drawing for people on petsites in exchange for onsite currency when i was like 14 lmao, this is all from my observations of other artists i follow


#5

Yes, I think that doing work for yourself (always be doing things for yourself) and people in your close circle is the real best way to build a portfolio. Your own projects can have just as much integrity and make just as good of an impression as something started by someone else that you contribute to. Actually, more, because you have full control over how the work is presented and dedication to independent work, being a self-starter, is admirable.


#6

Another element to consider is work you do for yourself. You get to decide how much you’re willing to release, in what formats, and what modes of monetization you can use around your work. Something you did for yourself is different than work you did so someone else could profit from it.

But all the same, it’s still work in many many ways, and I really kind of recommend tracking time against it and making sure you know what you’re getting back - it could be practice, it could be enjoyment, it could be money, it could be promotion.


#7

My usual response when people push back on paid work and ask for me to do it for the “exposure” is that in the real world, people die from exposure, lol.


#8

Fiverr-type stuff sucks, and undercutting severely when you’re only actually cutting yourself down is super dangerous.

I currently work at roughly $60 an hour, and I got there by just looking at the amount of hours I spend on something on average and the amount of money I’d want to get paid for that thing, and doing the math. I increase this amount every year as I gain more attention and have less time, and I will eventually hit the real price that I actually want to be paid, lol.


#9

I agree! I really enjoyed the epiphany that I could just start making my dream game soundtrack without the game needing to exist, and add it to my portfolio.


#10

I actually think the “never work for free” advice is really damaging, and only ever comes from already successful people who have a portfolio of work they can leverage.

See there’s always people who have the means and ability to work for free. A lot of places have a strict budget, and would take somebody who is average and free over good and paid.

If you want to work in a competitive creative field you need to be willing to work for free. You have to, because if you aren’t somebody else is.


#11

I have to disagree with this. This almost sounds like some sort of fear tactic to get artists to cut their price to free because they’re worried about someone who works for nothing getting the job over them. Losing creative jobs to people who will work for free is not a problem I or any artists I know who apply for freelance work have ever encountered often enough for it to be “a thing”.

And the jobs offered by people who are trying to get applicants to negotiate down to free are not paying enough money to be worth working anyway.

People do have strict budgets but any amount of pay is an assurance that someone will do the best work possible for you. Paying is something anyone who’s serious about hiring workers is ready to do, unless they explicitly say their work is unpaid upfront.


#12

The only time I’ve ever worked for free is if I am doing work for myself (so Medium posts or my old blog just to get myself into the mode of posting regularly) or VERY limited circumstances where the labor is volunteering because the project itself is also not taking in any income. I’ve done these as favors for friends or because I want to use them to build up my professional experience down the road and the people involved are all not getting paid either. Your mileage may vary but I agree largely with what @2Mello said. Don’t undercharge even if someone will do it for less than you. I say this as someone who’s hired contract artists and writers for various projects.

If you are in the position to hire people to do art or design or whatever work for you, and they themselves undercharge - pay them more than what they asked. Tip well. Budget more money than they are asking especially if you are aware of how much the work should cost.


#13

To be fair, part of the reason programmers don’t take unpaid internships is that the job is valued and in demand enough that it warrants paying even for internships.

I will say that unpaid internships can be different to unpaid freelance, with heavy caveats. It always sucks being asked to work for no payment back. But if it happens to be a workplace where you could learn things and could lead to paid work (based on previous interns from there, and their experiences).

Unpaid work always sucks, but I don’t blame artists who want to take an opportunity that could benefit them and eventually pay their bills, even if it’s unfair.


#14

Yeah! It’s usually pretty clear when people are undercharging themselves because there are industry standard rates for everything and there are rates you will hear every once in a while that are shockingly low. Mind your own budget of course, but make it worth a human being’s time.

A subtle way to let someone know that they can and should charge more is, if you’re selecting them, to just offer them a higher rate yourself up-front without mentioning that you thought their price was low.


#15

Thanks! I’m going to add this to my original post. If it’s a situation where you believe you can gain knowledge in exchange for work, that’s definitely worth consideration and shouldn’t be rejected outright.


#16

Unpaid internships still bother me - they should at least be giving you a stipend, meals, transportation, something. A person cannot go to a job on resume boosting alone. I never took an internship because I was already living on my own during college years and had bills, I couldn’t work jobs that didn’t pay me.


#17

Yeah the world is too expensive for me to not be paid for an internship. I was lucky enough to get one that was paid, but if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to pay rent, which…you know. It only works if you’re being supported already.


#18

Then work for free for yourself or a project you believe in.

What’s the difference between art made for someone else for free and a piece of art you made for yourself? Both end up in your portfolio, neither makes you money but one makes someone else money.

I would never as a programmer do any programming for a company for free. If I want to do something for free I’m going to find a project to contribute to or do something for myself that I put up on GitLab. As an artist why should you not take a similar approach? If you need to build your portfolio find a project to contribute to or make art for yourself.

Anyone who believes lines of “but you will get lots of exposure!” is a fool. What kind of exposure do you expect from an individual or group who is scummy enough to take advantage of another person? You will get used and tossed aside like a tool.

How often have you actually heard of someone getting hired because of some free graphic design work they did for a born to fail startup vs someone came across their art from a social media site the artist or a fan posted to?

Edit:

As an example I along with some others when we were fresh into college contributed our time to a middling game that sold decently where we were promised pay so low that it would come out multiples under minimum wage in the U.S. that was run by someone we thought of as a respectable person and in the end because they burned through so many developers they simply listed for the credits:

“The team has changed dynamically over the years and so instead of listing personal information of those involved we would just like them to know that almost every single developer has a special place in our hearts for their dedication, passion, brilliance, and loyalty. The game is ever changing into something more and it’s the talented team members that deserve most of the credit. They are indeed very much like family!”

Seriously don’t let yourself get taken advantage of. I have had it happen first hand and seen it happen to others.

If someone tells you they shouldn’t have to pay you because others can do it for free tell them to go ask those people then. Don’t let someone degrade your worth. Even things you think are not valuable have value.

As another example I used to let people walk all over me and fix their broken Garry’s Mod scripts for free because I found it kind of fun trying to repair broken code. It sounds silly but there are plenty of server owners out there that will gladly pay you to fix their spaghetti code or make simple addons. The pay isn’t always great but some pay > no pay.


#19

People working for free hurts everybody. I had a successful freelancing arrangement that lasted for months before the company decided to “insource” my role to a pair of unpaid interns. It was writing listicles to populate websites that acted as guides to local attractions. To make matters worse I got the contract entirely as a result of networking and beating the pavement.

I wasn’t outbid, nobody was working smarter, faster, or harder. It was just dumb kids getting taken advantage of, and really, they weren’t going to get anything worthwhile out of it besides course credit. The work doesn’t look good in a portfolio, and while they’re getting some experience out of the deal, their employer is legally stiffing them unless they’re managing to invest more in training the kids than they’re getting out of the deal, which seems unlikely.

If they weren’t a couple of dumb undergrads and I’d have called them scabs. (A little harsh but I’m feeling real left wing for a few reasons at the moment.)

Luckily I found a full time job shortly after, but people willing to work for free, and a culture where it’s seen as okay for a company to ask for that, could have been disastrous for me.


#20

Also, if you’re an independent worker, you should consider looking into the Freelancer’s Union, or a similar org. Their base of power is in NYC, but they can still be a handy resource for finding (paying) work and accessing seminars. They also provide a way to buy health insurance but I haven’t used that myself.

I was also able to set up a sole proprietorship for a few bucks at town hall. It helped me access some business resources and write off business expenses. If you have a local branch office of your bank you can visit, you should ask a teller if there’s anybody there who can talk you through the process.