Working For Free

It’s a compacted, dirt path trodden by many that I tiptoed around it for the longest time because I didn’t want to rehash old material and frankly, I don’t have enough time to research this topic thoroughly to do it justice.

Recently, Desktop magazine published an article on this topic.

Creative director Jim Antonopoulos and junior designer Tim Cruickshank posit reasons for and against working for free. The debate it sparked convinced me this is going to continue to be an issue so I wanted to say my piece. Just keep in mind that this is mostly based on my experience as an emerging/ mid-level indie film producer and writer in the creative sector in Australia.

In my career, I have both worked for free and asked people to work for free. I’m pretty ashamed to admit this but in my defence, it was very early on in my career and it seemed to be standard practice amongst producers in the screen industry. Being on the other end of the stick soon convinced me that this was not a smart move for any creative practitioner. Here are some of my thoughts on arguments I’ve heard given by creative people for and against free work.

Reasons given for working for free:

1. It gets your foot in the door (of the industry)

I don’t believe this is necessarily true. Any studio worth getting your foot in the door will not ask you to work for free in the first place. The ones who will approach artists for free work are usually boutique, indie studios after work on speculation. They’ll usually offer payment if funding for the project goes through. The odds aren’t great but there are personal reasons why you may work for free in this case. You may genuinely believe in the project (perhaps it’s for a good cause), they may be working for free on your project or you may have some other sort of arrangement with the production team in lieu of up-front payment such as IP or profit shares.

2. It raises your profile as an artist

In regards to the emerging screen industry in Australia, promises of film festival distribution or broadcast are usually dangled in exchange for free work. I’d look at the track record of the producer and director before making a decision on this. If it’s a small business, private enterprise or self-proclaimed entrepreneurship (such as online products and apps), it seems silly to work for free. Any start up business that haven’t even sorted out their start-up funding and need to exploit artists probably won’t have legs to see the project and their business to completion.

3. It’s great for experience

It’s not great for experience unless there’s someone on the team that is doing the sort of work you want to emulate. Eg You want to be a concept artist. There’s a fantastic concept artist you admire already working on that project. This would be a great opportunity and it’s not a case of working for free because it’s a mentorship.

I think mentorships work best when you actively pursue artists that you want to work with. When people approach you to work for free and dangle the experience carrot, it’s usually just one of those weedy, purple carrots (I don’t care that’s their original colour. They’re just weird).

5. You absolutely love the project and you want to be involved.

That sounds like a good reason. Since attending art college, I’ve been blown away by the generosity of other artists sharing their knowledge. Inspired by their generosity of spirit, I always try to give back whenever I can if other artists have use of my skills. This isn’t the same as working for free and I think all artists can recognise the difference here.

Reasons for not working for free:

It ruins it for everyone else in the industry by lowering the monetary value of the craft (Why pay when you can get it for free?)
Yes and no. I think there are actually two overlapping marketplaces in question. There is a commercially viable creative industry – advertising, marketing, high-end cultural productions (eg big budget films, television programmes, games). This industry makes a profit; wages are driven by the market and based on cost benefit analysis of end product. This industry will probably not be asking people to work for free. So if you are doing work for free in this industry, then you are doing yourself a disservice and everyone else (exception being mentorships). But there is also a second marketplace consisting of start-up companies, independent small-budget projects, and speculative work that may be experimental or purely for artistic pursuits. These types of projects rely on government funding mostly. If you’re working for free on these projects, it’s not going to affect the market rate because this subset of the industry is not money driven and nine out of ten of these projects won’t make a profit. If everybody insisted on being paid for these projects, these projects probably wouldn’t happen
That’s not to say we should all roll up our sleeves and pitch in. I’ve been burnt pretty badly on these types of speculative projects (broken promises, unprofessional conduct, and unfair distribution of what micro budget there is). Reasons for working on speculative projects go back to personal decisions about generosity in sharing knowledge, passion for project or alternative payment arrangements.

2. It ruins your self-esteem as an artist

I love validation that I am creative. When I work for free for strangers, it makes me feel sad and worthless. Eventually, I worked out that I would rather utilise my other skills and get a job outside the creative industry rather than work for free for strangers on projects that had no appeal to me. It’s an individual choice.

I recently saw this comic from artist Melanie Gillman:

She makes some valid points but one important issue this comic made me question was why this is the status quo. I don’t believe people are naturally mean spirited and stingy. I also don’t believe creative types have set precedence for this behaviour by past offerings to work for free. One of the main reasons creative types are asked to work for free is because the public honestly don’t understand the amount of work that goes into art.

If I rang a plumber to fix my toilet, he/ she can estimate how long it’ll take to fix the problem based on past experience. It is a repeatable, reliable process. Also, fixing a toilet has a describable, measurable, objective outcome. Both the plumber and I will have a shared understanding of what it means to succeed. An artist and a client can’t draw the same conclusion as easily. The artistic process doesn’t work like this. Usually, the client won’t know what they want until the artist arrives at the end product. There are thousands of changes and developments along the way. It would make more sense for artists to bill per hour than on the end product. Unfortunately, society’s value on cultural goods does not allow many artists to bill on time. The main argument against Gillman’s comic is that we don’t ask a surgeon to work for free, because we really need that operation. As in life or death. We don’t ask a plumber to work for free because we don’t want our houses overflowing with shit.

We ask our artists to work for free because art is considered a luxury item. Of course, the right cultural product can make huge profits (again I’m talking about big budget films and games) but for the most part art is a speculative investment.

There’s no correct answer here. I’m just adding my thoughts to the debate. Also, I’m trying to add a visual element to all my posts so here’s a video of my hamster in a ball (for free).


Hamster in a ball from Marianna Shek on Vimeo.

Many thanks to Randagio for the music Shark Tale




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