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Nobody does what you do. So if they want it, make them crawl for it.

Should Artists Ever Work for Free?

I’m an artist. I am well paid to do my job. And I am way, way rarer than I should be.

There are a lot of historicaleconomictechnological, and cultural factors that keep the perceived value of art lower than that of professions that require comparable education and practice. Unfortunately, there ain’t shit you can do about historical, economic, technological, and cultural factors. But you can refuse to contribute, on an individual level, to the devaluation of your chosen industry.

The easiest way to do that is to refuse to work for free. Here’s why.

Clients (and expectations) breed

When I was a student, my work was free. My clients were very happy with my work and referred me to more people who wanted work done for free. I created or sustained my clients’ expectations that this was the correct price for work of this quality, and when I moved on, this is probably what they offered the next artist they worked with.

When I was a young professional, my rate was $15/hour. My clients were very happy with my work and referred me to more people willing to pay $15/hour. I created or sustained my clients’ expectations that this was the correct price for work of this quality, and when I moved on, this is probably what they offered the next artist they worked with.

My rate is now $100/hour. My clients are very happy with my work and refer me to more people willing to pay $100/hour. I create or sustain my clients’ expectations that this is the correct price for work of this quality, and when I move on, this is probably what they will offer the next artist they work with.

Free resources are the easiest to waste

I use the example of the McDonald’s napkins quite a lot. Have you ever seen someone go up to one of those free napkin dispensers and grab a MASSIVE fistful of them? They take twenty when they need two. When they’re done with their tray, they sweep all those unnecessary napkins into the garbage.

They do this incredibly wasteful and irrational thing because the napkins are free. If each napkin dispenser had a little penny-slot on the side, forcing you to pay the item’s worth in order to actually get it, I guarantee napkin consumption would plummet. Affixing a price to something is a statement of worth and value, and also a counterincentive to over-utilizing it.

When you set your price at zero, you are implying that your worth is zero, and you are inviting Greaseball McNapkin-Waster to come along and waste you too.

More on how that whole shitstorm can be avoided:

Humanity is expensive

Art requires human authorship. (Or elephant authorship, but only if you are that elephant who paints for literal peanuts in that YouTube video. I am torn between viewing this elephant as part of the problem and conceding that peanuts may be a valid form of elephant currency.) Human authorship don’t come cheap, because it requires a human being, and those are very expensive indeed. You must feed, clothe, house, and transport a human. Moreover, this particular kind of human also requires education and sustained cultural enrichment.

When you accept an unpaid six-hour photography gig, you are not only throwing away the dollar value of the final photographs and the opportunity cost of the paid work you could’ve pursued, you are also bleeding the money you need to be human—to feed and clothe and house and transport and educate and enrich yourself.

Show off elephant.

Remember your industry

Writers can go their whole career as a lone wolf. Ballet dancers will never perform as anything but part of a collaborative. But in either case, the price they set for themselves has a huge impact on their industry and their peer community. The price you set for yourself is an opportunity to elevate or debase your chosen field.

Some artistic communities have begun to coalesce around the issue. Many unions, like Actors’ Equity, and professional associations, like AIGA, take strong stances on unpaid or underpaid work. You can alienate yourself professionally or even be kicked out of membership in these associations if you’re caught partaking in it. This is an incredibly serious step to take in organizations that thrive on membership—and they do it because they view it to be a truly grievous threat to the community they fish from. After all, no one can afford membership fees if everyone’s broke. Everybody’s got an angle.

Intangible benefits

When’s the last time you looked at a photograph, or heard a jingle, or seen a logo, or read a blog and said “I MUST KNOW WHO MADE THIS SO THAT I MAY SEEK THEM OUT AND THRUST PAID WORK INTO THEIR HANDS?” Yeah. Never. It’s not a thing that happens. Contests, spec work, prestige, exposure, and further paid work are all evil mirages in the desert of nonpayment. And the clients who offer them often don’t understand that they’re lying to you.

If you need exposure, create a referral incentive by offering a discount to the (paying) customers who already use you. Or just seek out legitimately high-profile clients. (My old resume used to list very prestigious corporate clients, then a few “just for fun” names of bands and comedians. I was ALWAYS asked about the bands and comedians. Nobody cared about the corporate stuff. So there’s a little tiny something to that.)

If you are just starting out and trying to build a portfolio, be your own client, and commission the kind of work you want to get. Pick a piece of artwork you don’t like and redo it the way you would’ve done it had it been your assignment. The results will be more imaginative and impressive, and potential employers will view you as a self-starter.

On moms

Fine, fine, you can do genuinely free work for your mom. But even when you’re doing it as a personal favor, try to extract some kind of payment. I’ve designed wedding invitations and save-the-dates for friends, but that creative labor is my wedding gift to them. I’ve brushed up design resumes for beers and promises of future dog-sitting. Come up with some arrangement that isn’t a hardship on either party, but still reenforces that this work has concrete value. If you don’t, you’ll be mobbed by tiny, ill-considered requests that waste your time and strain your relationships more than an outright refusal.

Always remember this: You. Are. Worth. It.

Every fucking penny.

Not everyone can do what you do. You live in a culture that worships what you do. We bathe in art. It’s so ubiquitous that some people assume it must be easy. It’s so romanticized that they assume its creation is its own reward. But nobody does what you do. If they want it, make them crawl for it.

You're worth it.

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4 thoughts to “Should Artists Ever Work for Free?”

  1. Fuck yeah to this. As an artist, it pisses me off when people try to shortchange my work. It pisses me off even more when other artists condone such behavior because “it’s the only way”.

    As an example of getting something of value other than money for your work: One of my very awesome friends recently agreed to buy me groceries in exchange for drawings of their original characters. This friend is a blessing and I treasure them dearly, and I sincerely hope more people find a friend like this; not one that buys them stuff necessarily, but one that values them as a person, and doesn’t use them as an opportunity for free art.

    1. That’s a great idea, offering other forms of value if money isn’t in the equation! Friends don’t let friends undervalue their work.

      I’m not an artist, but I do commission art sometimes, and sometimes from people that undervalue their own work. I try to help this issue from the other side, by paying them what their worth is work as best as I can tell. Maybe I don’t know exactly what that is, but I know it’s more than what they’re charging, and I can ask how many hours it’ll take so I can at least pay them minimum wage.

  2. I yell this to artists all the time; industry standard when I stopped freelancing as a Digital Artist was $16 an hour- and I charged every penny of it. Did I miss out on clients? Absolutely. But they were always clients who wanted to take advantage of me… And trust me when I say that their business isn’t exactly a loss.

    Don’t be a doormat. Your time and energy are valuable; if you perform ANY sort of service, always seek imbursment of some form.

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