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”.
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.
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…
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.
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?
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.