Why Should We Work for Free in the Arts?

This article was originally posted on MouthyMoney.co.uk on 28th August. It is reposted (with some slight expansion) with the permission of the website.

When I was 15, I did two weeks of work experience at Sugar magazine. I filed agony aunt letters, I picked up their coffees from Pret, and I was paid in pictures of the cast of Dawson’s Creek.

When you’re 15 and learning about the world of work for what is essentially a school project, you expect nothing in exchange for your labour – whatever you’re doing will never be as bad as double maths! As a grown up I have learned that nothing will ever be as bad as double maths…

When I graduated from drama school, I had high hopes of being the next companion on Doctor Who, but as I searched the pages of The Stage and various internet casting sites (I’m looking at you CastingCallPro), the similarity of the wages became very clear. It was essentially work experience.

“It’s not just the acting world. In many creative professions people seem to think that, because you’re using a natural talent or doing something that you don’t hate, you don’t deserve to be paid a fair wage”

“Build your cv.” No thanks, I just spent 3 years doing 2 shows a term to fill my cv up nicely.

“We can’t pay you until it takes off.” Check the crystal ball again, and give me an ETA on when that will definitely happen, yeah?

“We’ll see what we can pay once we’ve covered our costs” I’m a cost. Sorry, I know you wouldn’t want me doing brain surgery with my degree, but I’ve studied to be a professional, and I deserve to be paid for that.

It’s not just the acting world. In many creative professions people seem to think that, because you’re using a natural talent or doing something that you don’t hate, you don’t deserve to be paid a fair wage. My partner – who features in a lot of my blogs because, well, I live with him and he’s a free source of inspiration – is an artist. People frequently don’t want to pay him for his time and effort, even though they’re getting a product from him.  I used to be an actor and I have many actor/singer/dancer/designer friends. In all walks of creative life somebody wants something for nothing.

“This is considered acceptable; the cost of having a desirable career is that you don’t deserve to earn a living wage.”

Imagine this: you hop into a taxi and ask to travel 30 minutes to somewhere fancy. “But” you tell the driver “I can’t pay you – you’ll be doing it for experience.” Or “when we get there, someone might give me enough money for my night out and enough to pay you – so if that happens, I’ll pay you.” It wouldn’t happen. That’s a crazy scenario and the taxi driver would throw you out. In the creative world though, this is what is expected.

Boutique dressmakers can produce the most wonderful, bespoke gowns, but countless times they are asked “can you make a copy of *£10,000 designer gown* for £100?” It’s crackers. That dressmaker will have to work hours cutting, sewing, measuring, fitting – £100 won’t even cover the material! Yet this is considered acceptable; the cost of having a desirable career is that you don’t deserve to earn a living wage.

I honestly don’t understand why this is so prevalent in creative fields, so I’ve tried to think of some advice, as I’m all too familiar with getting burned in this environment:

Set yourself a deadline. Do you actually need the experience? The answer might be yes (particularly if you’re new to the scene). Set yourself a deadline as to how long you will work for free.

Stick to the deadline. Once that deadline has passed, do not work for free (unless it’s for yourself or for fun). Your time and talent is worth paying for. Obviously if there was something you were desperate to do (I, for example, love the online news site The Pool, and would write for them for free in a second just to say I’d written for them) you might make exceptions, but make them clear exceptions!

Research. Do your research around what other people are charging in the market, and decide on a pricing structure. If you ask the person what they want to pay, the answer is probably “experience”. You may want to pitch higher that your actual ‘ideal’ price so that you can be bargained down. I recently spoke to a journalist who I love and asked her how she felt that she would always be concerned she had pitched too high or too low on rates. I feel like that is my destiny too…

Carefully agree your contract. When you take on a contract, formally agree how much they will pay, when they will pay it, and any specific conditions (will they pay before the product is delivered or after, for example). I can’t stress this enough – get everyone on the same page about your terms before you do one second of work for them. This will save you hours of stress down the road.

Get things in writing. Write down said formal agreements and both sign them. Take two copies. Put one copy in a locked box (I’m like 65% joking about the box…) At the very least, get it in email. Even if you think the person is super trustworthy, it’s worth getting things in writing. Again, future you will say thank you for the stress saved!

The golden rule though, that I feel should be the mantra of any creative person: just because you’re doing something you love doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paid (unless you choose to). No one would expect a professional accountant, teacher, business manager or doctor to work for free, so why should a professional artist?

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