We all have probably encountered this scenario in our lives: After months of nothing you finally get an opportunity to work with a business or individual that needs some creative work done and after the first coffee you both really get each others vibe, but when you pop the big question of monetary compensation, they look at you like you just butchered the collaboration with a knife.
“You’re gonna get so much exposure man, you know the economy is tough right now, but I’ll tag you under all the social media posts and even on our website so every one of my business friends will know you did it!”
But the problem isn’t that much working for free — albeit there is a horrible trend that has been going strong for years now, where free work is regarded as a normal and necessary step to becoming a creative professional. That though isn’t the big issue, it’s for whom we do the free work that really matters.
If some contractor or small business operates only on free creative work, not really exploiting the artists they “employ” but not really giving them much in return for their time, guess what kind of business friends such people keep in their company! The exposure such people promise will most likely look like even more people with even more promises of exposure.
All one has to do then is invent a machine that turns exposure into food and rent payments and all will be fine.
But the probability of you doing a job for free under such conditions — where you can tell they decided not to pay a cent from the very beginning they said hi in the email — and that job actually leading to them paying you the next time is slim. Very slim.
And their business acquaintances will very likely be similarly inclined too, so of course the best way to not fall into the pro bono trap is to start charging fair prices. But what if you don’t have a strong portfolio to back up your claims or if you know your work could use a bit more polish?
Before ditching the idea of free labour entirely, why not contact the 50 best painters, sculptors, designers or their studios in your town or even in your country and just try to work for free for them?
Why not try to get as close to the fire as you possibly can and give your time to someone who really knows what they’re doing?
Your social network, work ethics, skill and time management will increase just as a side effect of working for a person with years of experience and you may form priceless friendships along the way. And if you end up hating them after a month or two, you can just leave and find a better, more suitable place to learn — there are no contracts, no obligations, you did it for free anyway.
If you have to work for free, you should work smart and allocate that time and energy you are willing to put into your profession and skill to the people or companies that can deliver the best odds for your success.
And this isn’t like an internship — the second it says internship on the public call for applications, you know they never expected to pay anyone anyway. But if you just contact them or show up at their door with 8 hours of free time and a willingness to learn and work, the people that will be right for you will appreciate your enthusiasm and commitment more than just the new coffee delivery boy that started his internship at some big design firm.