Whether it’s a budding photographer toiling unpaid on set, or a stand-up comedian being handed a crumpled drink ticket at the end of the night, artistic types have long been saddled with the assumption that since they love what they do, they’ll just do it for free, right?
For many recent graduates, these opportunities are simply too tempting to pass up. With well-paid creative work as scarce as it is, building up a portfolio with unpaid commissions can seem like a necessary investment—just part of the age-old industry practice of paying your dues. But beyond being hard on the ego, the trend of offering payment in “exposure” or “networking opportunities” creates major barriers for people who can’t afford to work without a paycheque.
So how does a young creative know which projects are worth eating ramen for? We spoke to three creative professionals about their experiences working for free to figure out when it’s worth it, when it’s just exploitative, and how to tell the difference.
When Working for Free Goes Well
Lizz Hodgson is an independent filmmaker and podcaster who’s faced her fair share of annoying requests for free videos. But for Hodgson, who’s operating in a networking-heavy field like filmmaking, taking unpaid opportunities has occasionally been worth the gamble. “Connections are hard to pass up, and being on some of the sets I volunteered on were some of the most valuable experiences I’ve had,” she admits.
When Hodgson was fresh out of film school, she was approached to work on a webseries—“before webseries were a thing”—without pay. The opportunity was risky on paper, but Hodgson was won over by her director’s sincerity and creative vision after they took her for coffee to explain the project. In the end, the bet paid off hugely: the webseries received an influx of online donations and was purchased for television broadcast, and the director actually shared the proceeds among everyone who’d contributed their time for free. Plus, she made lifelong friends and professional contacts from her time on set. “There was great camaraderie,” she explains. “Ten years later, I’m working with the same people on most my projects.”
According to Hodgson, if you get a positive feeling from the client or company, and are interested in the creative possibilities of the work, it could be a similarly good experience for you—even if the actual exposure doesn’t materialize. Just tread carefully: “We have to be very careful where exposure is being promised,” says Hodgson, “Those are difficult waters to navigate because so much of it is determined by the finished project. The only thing you can go on is your gut, and who you’ll be working with.”
When it Doesn't
Toronto-based musician RD is highly critical of what he calls the “cash-grab” mentality of the music industry, where young performers are often promised exposure, then end up hustling for ticket sales on behalf of organizers. “I used to perform for free at festivals and showcases where there was no vetting process for performers. That’s a big red flag, because it means the organizers just want anybody to fill the stage, anyone that can bring friends who’ll buy drinks,” he explains. “They tell you hundreds of people will be there, and then you find out you’re required to sell a certain number of tickets yourself. You’re seeing zero income from those sales, but the more you sell, the better your time slot. I’ve been to so many festival shows where there’s nobody there except for the friends leftover from the opening bands.”
Instead of toiling at unpaid showcases, RD now focuses his attention on more organic opportunities for exposure—like playing smaller paid gigs at local venues and sharing his music on social media—and on trying to make the quality of music that can get him proper bookings and proper paychecks. “People shouldn’t blindly accept that they’re going to get exposure out of something,” advises RD. “Your time is really better spent honing your craft.”
RD places the blame for these cash-grabs squarely on opportunistic organizers, but thinks there’s a lot that emerging artists can do to educate themselves and avoid exploitation. “A lot of younger musicians still fall into these traps, because a lot isn’t communicated in advance, or the event is held at a venue they’d have no hope of playing at if it was a regular gig and they’re blinded by that,” he says. “If they’re not willing to explain exactly what they’re offering you in exchange for your work, they’re probably trying to take advantage of you.”
How to Tell the Difference
Illustrator/graphic designer Emmie Tsumura received international attention for her drawings of clueless clients’ demands for free work. While she’s been lucky to avoid requests quite as ridiculous as the ones she illustrated, Tsumura’s faced her own share of shoddy client behaviour. “I was contacted to do some animation under an extremely tight timeline where I’d basically have to drop everything else for two to three weeks,” explains Tsumura. “The client had no clear budget in mind, but assured me that once the video was finished, it would win awards and I’d be compensated accordingly. I gave a reasonable quote of what I expected to be paid at that time, and never heard back from them again. I used to take that kind of thing pretty hard, but in retrospect, I probably saved myself a lot of stress and unpaid hours.”
These kinds of experiences have left Tsumura highly suspicious of any claims to bolster her career through unpaid work, especially when the clients don’t offer much on specifics. “Exposure can open up networks or bolster your portfolio, and for me each project can have different goals,” she notes. “However, being asked to do work “for exposure” makes me wonder what the client’s priorities are, and where their money is allocated if they don’t have a budget for advertising or design.”
To protect yourself in these situations, Tsumura suggests you accumulate as much information as possible on the project before you make a decision. It’s also critical to know exactly how much you’re personally giving up for the opportunity—your time, effort, and materials all have value, even if a client doesn’t automatically recognize it, “I can’t stress enough how important is to take time to understand the value of your work,” advises Tsumura. “It can be as simple as getting into the habit of logging your hours and keeping receipts of supplies and software. Just by doing that, you quickly realize that a lot of paid work won’t even come close minimum wage.” Need some extra help? The Urban Worker Project, an advocacy organization for freelance and self-employed workers, has developed an hourly rate calculator to help freelancers price their work.
If you still have uneasy feelings about whether an unpaid gig is worth taking, remember that you don’t actually have to play this game at all. Tsumura reminds us that digital platforms like Instagram and Tumblr have opened up boundless opportunities for creatives to share their own work on their own terms. Plus, artists that focus on their own self-directed projects are able to maintain artistic control—and not be defined by a portfolio of cheesy corporate promo videos. Rather than chasing after freelance work, “I’m finding the most satisfaction and creative freedom in producing my own work, and then letting it loose and seeing what happens,” says Tsumura.