Working for free; is it ever a good idea?

Work for free

Working for free…

As both a performer and an artist I have come across the expectation/‘opportunity’ to work for free more than a few times.  Artists already tend to undervalue themselves and I have recently seen an increase in people selling cheap and adverts for unpaid work.  It’s a controversial subject and one that I can see both sides of.  But we all need to pay the bills…

When I graduated from performing arts school, there were many auditions for profit share shows and ‘expenses-only’ work that a lot of performers (including myself) saw as possible golden opportunities to get exposure.  Despite struggling to pay London rent and maintain my expensive biscuit addiction, I was still bursting with bright, bushy-tailed, naive enthusiasm and performed in these shows without really questioning the choice and how it may be negatively affecting myself, my fellow performers and our industry.

If you are lucky enough to be asked to do something creative that you enjoy or that is a talent, then surely the fulfilment alone should be enough?!  The privilege is the payment, yes?  Erm…no.  Not at all. 

Exposure is not a currency

…and is not accepted by landlords, energy companies and supermarkets.  It can therefore not be used as payment and this seems to be widely misunderstood. 

Controversy

This subject has divided all creatives for a very long time and as someone who is relatively new to the art world, it has recently begun to concern me when I see people offering work for free or artwork that is SERIOUSLY cheap.  Along with this, the never ending stream of costly online art competitions/ exhibitions adds to the confusion when it comes to how we should or should not spend and earn our money as artists.

Exposure

Clearly this is the biggest selling point when working for free.  Exposure is a very attractive prospect when you have just begun and are keen to get a foot on the ladder.  It can be useful but, in my experience, only if it is to the right people.  Far too many jobs and exhibitions use the word ‘exposure’ as a hook.  I’ve found it’s important to spend a little time researching into the audience that you will be exposed to, and whether it is actually likely to provide real opportunities.  Often, it’s not.  

I have donated free original pieces of art to good causes and charities as a personal choice .  This fulfils me greatly and provides me with some sense that I am doing the small amount I can to help the issues I care about.  Despite this, I am currently sat on one side of the fence with this subject in general (although I frequently take trips to the other…it’s a difficult moral dilemma!) 

Devaluing others art

We now have instant access to hundreds of thousands of customers, who in turn have hundreds of thousands of artists to choose from.  The internet has totally changed the world of art marketing.  

Despite many positive elements to this, the downside is the sheer enormity of competition.  Covid lockdown and the spare time it has created has led to a surge of new creatives utilising these online platforms…a fantastic way to spend our unexpected extra time! 

In a desperate attempt to get noticed above the excess of other options, so many people are selling for near to nothing and offering free work.  I am baffled by some of the prices of art prints on Etsy, for example.  It would seem that undercutting other artists in this way not only devalues art in general but creates a culture of customers who will expect to pay very little for artwork, putting those who simply can’t afford to sell for cheap out of business. 

It can also be a big turn-off for customers to see artists selling cheap; if you think your art is worthless, so will they.  It is not selfish to ask for payment.

Personal choice

It goes without saying that the choice to work for free is entirely your own, and everyone that does has their reasons for doing so.  If you are lucky to receive useful exposure through working for free then great.  

However, there are a few questions to ask when considering it; will it affect my reputation as an artist?  Will it affect the reputation of other artists and art in general?  Am I actually gaining exposure to the right people? Will I get referenced? What is the value of my time? Will I be taken seriously as a business if I don’t charge from the outset?

You wouldn’t expect any other professional to work for free, so why should artists? We all need to pay bills and working for free long term seems to undermine and cheapen the whole profession.

With the foreseeable pressures of the post-covid world coming our way, I think it is all too enticing to drop prices in a panic to keep sales moving, but never has it been more important for us to maintain the value of our art.  

I doubt people will ever stop working for free and I still have not found the answer to my question: Should we totally stop working for free?

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