Seven Reasons Artists Shouldn't Work for Free

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Free-Art-Sign.jpg
A scant number of actors, painters, dancers, comedians, writers dancers, magicians, musicians or mimes (those are still a thing, right?) devote a full day to their crafts. Most have day jobs or night jobs. It's hard out there for an artist. Maybe there just isn't enough money to go around.

But when I hear an artist, musician or writer say they work for free, I wonder what's wrong with them. You mean zero money? Love of the craft, they might reply, besides my day job pays my bills. It's not about just the money because it's entirely about the money. I'm not talking community theater or passion projects. I'm talking real professionals who "volunteer" their time. I think it's a bad idea, and I have seven pretty logical reasons. Disagree? Comment below.

Professionals Get Paid
It's the subtle distinction that makes you a professional. Like always, Mark Twain said it best, "Write without pay until someone offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this as a sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for." Sure, if you're an amateur or an intern then you might find yourself working for next to nothing. If after a few years of polishing and improving, you're still not getting paid, it might be time to take up other pursuits.

Accountants Wouldn't Do It
I think the obvious counter argument here is that art is a joy and accounting is a slog. But if you want marketing/finance/legal advice, you're going to pay for it. You can't walk into H&R Block and say, "Hey, new friend, want to do my taxes for free? I'll post about how awesome you are on Facebook."

Free Work Spawns More Free Work
If blogs have taught us nothing else (doubtful), they've shown us that when people will work for free, it's hard to find someone who will pay you. Last week, The Dallas Morning News' NeighborsGo asked a friend of mine to donate a weekly column. Sure, they didn't use the word "donate," but they weren't going to pay him in cash, check or bit coin.

Quality Work Slowly Dwindles
The people who will ask you to work for free will claim it will help you get your name out there. Sometimes they might be right, but be wary. If someone's asking you to work for free, they probably don't know much about your craft. This means two things: You shouldn't be flattered; you won't improve while working for them.

No Money is Actually Negative Money
Unless they provide all necessary food and refreshment and you walk away from a project or performance rejuvenated or at least as stress-free as you were before, then you're losing money. You need to eat, sleep and take care of yourself in your time "off," so that you can get up the next morning and earn an income.

Nothing in Life is Free
If they're selling tickets to the show, if the company is paying rent for the space, if a magazine sells advertisements, if the bar where you play guitar sells drinks, there's a monetary exchange somewhere. You should be a part of it.

They Weren't Paying You Much to Begin With
Musicians perform for bar tabs, actors perform four-week runs in professional theaters for as little as $200 (maybe less), dancers perform for cigarettes (just a guess), but that's more than nothing. The next time someone asks you donate your time, ask them to donate to your wallet.


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4 comments
d-may
d-may

Supply and demand.

Accounts don't have to work for free because the market for accountants is such that if you want an accountant you have to find one then pay one. Supply low, demand high. You have to pay accountants.

Musicians on the other hand work in a market that is flooded with people competing for the few gigs that there are. Supply extremely high, demand extremely low. Therefore, musicians are free. If you demand to be paid like an accountant, you had better be able to explain to me why. Otherwise I'll just go on to the next guy.

bvckvs
bvckvs topcommenter

There's an episode of Mad Men that addresses this issue damned well.

A graphic artist at the firm is talking to a beat poet who was trying to bum some cash from her.  In the course of asking for a handout, he criticizes her for not being a "real" artist.  She snaps back that her art is real and  that she gets paid for it because it appeals to adults, while the beatnik's stuff only appeals to children.  Then she gives him a couple of bills for charity and tells him that if HE ever wants to become a real artist, he'll have to grow up.

I have to agree with that sentiment.  If you're a grown up who wants to be a real artist instead of a poser, you have to make the kinds of grown-up decisions that real artists like Mozart, Angelou and others make.

I once heard James Hefield of Metallica put it very well.  He said, "Yeah, we sell out - we sell out coliseums and stadiums and record pressings.  But we didn't just sell out - we bought in.".

james8394
james8394

@d-may  and you'll get what you pay for. Interesting, original music (photography, painting, poetry, you get the idea) will generate more patrons to your club, gallery, venue and you will sell more tickets, drinks, commissions. Crap is crap and exploitation is exploitation.  

d-may
d-may

I don't disagree at all. But it's up to the artist to convince the owner and demonstrate their ability to bring increased revenue. The artist can't just demand higher pay just-because-so-there.

Look, you convince me (a pretend bar owner) that you can sell enough drinks to pay your fee and not cut into my profit, then I will pay you what ever you like.

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