The Cost of Working for Free (and why “Exposure” makes for shitty compensation for your skills)

Hi.

Incase this is your first time reading this blog, let’s recap:

I am a filmmaker, writer, blogger, former webcomic writer and currently-on-hiatus-until-I-get-my-shit-together podcaster. I am also the lead creative director, owner, and sole trader of a small-time production studio here in Sydney.

I also work freelance a lot of the time for a lot of people who need a guy to do a thing. As of this year, almost all of these gigs have been paid, except for one I did for local band Shanghai, whose musical director (Hi Luis!) I get free shit from all the time, so it kinda evens out and even if that wasn’t the case, I’ll be happy if I never get paid a cent from these guys because they are friends first, and pseudo-clients second. Plus I get to test out new setups for my gear, which is a bonus and takes less fucking around than doing so on a proper film shoot.

Of course, I just hope if they ever end up becoming stupidly famous and playing in packed-out stadiums and ending up on the cover of Rolling Stone or somesuch shit, they remember that guy who shot all that shitty, grainy concert footage for them over the years.

As of six months ago, the freelance side of things has become my fulltime job. I have an ABN, am looking to register a business name so I can sic lawyers onto anyone who wants to name their company “PUKED!” or “Fompound Ciasco Productions”, and -since putting an ad up on Metro Screen, my workload, word-of-mouth advertising, and thus, cashflow so I can pay rent, bills etc. has jumped exponentially. Basically, at the point, I don’t need to follow the naysayers usual catcall of “get a job”, because this is my fucking job. I barely ever work for free these days (I will, however, work for a cut rate, which-while not ideal- fills me with glee because it pisses Centrelink right the fuck off).

Between the years of 2010 through to 2013, I have been on many, many shoots where I have worked for free, or deferred payment which never got sent. Why? Because I doubted my skills, needed the experience, or it was a friend I owed a favour. I’m not bitter about it these days (at least as much), because I have set prices for my skills, know what I can do, and can just say “no” if I want. Because I know that I have a safety net, and -if things keep going the way they’re going, there’ll be another well-paying gig around the corner anyway.

I have also asked other people to work for free, simply because I didn’t have the money to pay them. They agreed, and I’ll probably be giving out a few-grand-worth of handouts once I’m living pretty comfortably.

I think -at least starting out- working for free is just a necessary evil. If you’re still honing your skills and not confident with what you do, best way to get your hand it and keep it firmly planted there is just sign yourself up to some cheap, shitty labor. Jump on the gig, accept the dubious payment for “exposure” and “for your portfolio”, leave at the end of the day knowing there’s at least ten people you no longer will want to work with because nine times out of ten, low or no-paying gigs are a clusterfuck.

But the established? The professionals? The ones doing the thing they want to do and getting paid for it? You’d better damn well expect a paycheque.

Thanks to musician/actor friend, possible secret understudy for Tori Amos and all-round cool chick, Helen Perris, I’ve been reading more and more about professionals getting asked to work for free. More disgustingly, they’re being asked by prominent, well-known businesses, who have the cashflow to pay people.

First up is Castle Hill Myer, who Helen approached to see if they were keen on her music. Though this has since all been sorted out from the sounds of things.. So kudos, Myer.

Next up? Oprah Winfrey, with her net-worth of 2.9 billion, asking performers to play during her tour, “The Life You Want” on a stage nowhere near Oprah, for free. I guess the bill for all those free cars finally came through.

and Opera Australia, doing a callout for dancers who -again, aren’t earning a paycheque.

All of these organisations have plenty of money to go around. This isn’t another case of a purely independent artist like Amanda Palmer asking people to work for free (though really, that’s still kinda shitty), and this isn’t like they’re bringing on people who are still honing their skills. These guys are loaded and can afford to pay some folk, and the people they’re asking are talented, skilled, and probably earning a bit of cash on the side.

Outside of Helen’s facebook page, I have recently learned my girlfriend, Kim, was not compensated for her work alongside a prominent opera singer, and that her reward was “the opportunity to work with me”, which… well, call me biased, but that’s the biggest load of shit I’ve ever heard in my life.

Don’t get me wrong. Exposure is nice and all. But it simply isn’t enough of an excuse or form of compensation if you’re going to recruit people to work for you, and you have the cash to pay them. Even in my situation where I’m living week to week, most people are pretty chill if you work out a payment system and mututally-acceptable rate with them. Hell, just tell ’em you’re poor as shit and be upfront about the fact you can’t pay them. These people are human, and humans are capable of rational thought, compassion, and understanding (unless they’re Liberal, or voted Liberal, anyway). So long as you’re upfront, honest, easy to work with and nice about it, you can usually get away with murder without looking like a jerk. Just remember that every person you ask has every right to tell you to go fuck yourself (and probably will).

The problem with exposure is that

a) it rarely follows through with that almost-always-promised “paid job down the line”,

b) it’s usually un-needed if you market yourself enough and have enough portfolio-filler.

Portfolio-filler has it’s own share of demons, being that usually, the projects aren’t that good, or well-polished, or are just downright unusable. It also is a bit different for people working in entertainment because that next album, next film, next book, is your portfolio-filler most of the time and with services like YouTube, Vimeo, Bandcamp and WordPress, it’s getting simpler, cheaper, and easier to get your work out there.

To me, the whole concept of “working for exposure” just cheapens one’s craft. Like, think about what that says in regards to your respect for the person you want to collaborate with; You absolutely LOVE their work, but don’t love it that much to pay them? Nice.

It’s probably worth mentioning that most expenses go unpaid ontop of the lack of a fee. So once you put rehearsal time, their skillset, practice, years and hundreds of dollars of training, and now the poor bastard has to pay for their own fuel to get to your shitty job? Congratulations, you’ve just made every sweatshop in China go “jesus that guy has some issues”.

Also, from the standpoint of hiring people to work for free, people simply give less of a fuck about it. Take it from a vindictive, misanthropic bastard of a filmmaker, folks. It’s easier to get people back in line, arrive on time, learn lines, rehearse, and work without complaint if you threaten them with their paycheque. But that’s just me. I tend to rule through fear.

I know some of you out there are calling “BULLSHIT!” and saying that artists have a choice to work for free or not. They do, and they exercise that right pretty fucking often. However, for every two artists that say “no”, there’s three newcomers who haven’t figured out that their newfound recruiter is basically exploiting them. It makes it harder for legitimate, professional artists to get paid for their work. Not to mention, you get what you pay for, nine times out of ten.

Perhaps you’re also saying “BUT THEY COULD HAVE GAINED LIKE, SOOO MUCH EXPOSURE FROM THAT! IDIOTS!”. Also true, but last I checked, exposure isn’t a form of legal tender, and it’s hard to pay rent with IOU’s (trust me, I’ve tried).

And for the select few assholes who want to yell “GET A REAL JOB!”? Go fuck yourself. You don’t deserve to enjoy art. Burn all your CD’s, all your books, all your movies and ram the molten  remnants up your goddamn arse if that’s the attitude you’re going to go with. Imagine the world today if some cock-headed loudmouth jerkass yelled at say, Kurt Cobain, or the dudes from Metallica, or Quentin Tarantino, or the Matt godddamn-motherfuckin’ Groening to “get a job”, and they did. You and people like you just destroyed some the few good things about the 90’s. Well done.

We, as artists, consumers, and recruiters need to set a precedence that not only asking people to take time of our their day to work for free -when no other trade really encounters this- is a shitty exploitative practice, and that getting a paid gig shouldn’t be something to be cheering about, but something that’s damn-well par for the course.

If you take anything from this post, just remember that being an artist is also a job for some people, and if you’re so adamant about how exposure is a good form of compensation, tell a tradie that you’ll tell all your friends about him if he fixes your house for free, and get back to me with how far you get in your spiel without being punched in the head.

 

Till next time.