Surely you’ve heard the phrase that it’s not worth working for free.
Working for free or offering your services to an organization, company, or event can be welcomed with open arms, especially if you want to gain experience, exposure, and build a network. However, that doesn’t mean artists should work for free.
No one likes to work for free, including artists, and unfortunately, artists are often taken advantage of or undervalued because people think that working for their passion should be rewarding enough.
5 Reasons Why Artists Work for Free
Friends and Family
Creative work is often given away for free. It’s a fact. Artists, writers, and musicians make their work available to friends, family, or the public without expecting compensation.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be paid. The problem is that in a world where most people expect creative work to be given away, artists often encounter people who ask them to do so – and then some.
- Sometimes it starts with something like, “Would you create something for me for free?” That sounds pretty good. You may say “yes” and feel good about having helped a friend or family member. But then comes the follow-up, “Can you make me a thousand flyers?” Or, “I need you to make a video of my kid’s birthday. And so on.
- Sometimes it feels good to give to your loved ones, but time is also precious, and like everyone else, artists have to make a living. So if you’ve artists in your family, think twice before asking if you ever want your loved one to succeed. And if you’re an artist yourself, sometimes you may have to learn to say no if your priority is earning a living with your art.
Experience and Profile
It’s not uncommon for artists to work for free or just for recognition. Most of us have done it – and will do it again – to gain experience, learn new skills, and expand our portfolios. It’s often a necessary part of the job, but if you’re not careful, you can end up working for free in situations where you get nothing back (or worse, get angry).
So how do you decide when you should work for free? What’re the signs that a project is worth your time? Here are some things I consider before saying “yes” to a pro bono project.
- Look at the portfolio. If someone wants me to volunteer my time and skills, I want to know what they’ve already done. If the person can show a promising portfolio or relevant experience, that might be good leverage for the call when you’re just starting out.
- Look at project history and what they’ve done before as a team or organization: Do they’ve a track record of successful projects? Even if it’s nothing to do with your area of expertise, this will show you if the company has the skills and resources to support your current project.
Unpaid work can be a great way to make a name for yourself and get yourself known. But it can also make you look desperate. If you’re new to the creative world, creating images and videos that are more than just a hobby can be a challenge.
For artists, being able to get recognition without paying for it’s one of the best ways to build their brand. But they also need to be careful not to become “hobbyists” who work for free just because they’ve time and talent. They need to have both – and not just time, but talent – or the free work won’t be seen as high value or helpful to their career.
I’m a community leader and know many artists and young people who donate their time and talent to our community because they care about the cause. We don’t have a budget and operate on minimal funds, but a few donations would be a nice addition to what we do (expand our reach).
The reason we get along well with the artists is that we’re on the same page and in the same situation as they’re.
We don’t see artists as donors, we see them as collaborators, which is very different from organizations that ask for a straight donation to do their work while spending a lot of money on unnecessary expenses to run their cause.
We’re also very transparent about our financial situation and the fact that as a founder and leader myself, I work for free, so they know that everyone who runs our community works as hard as they do to deliver positive messages through art and music.
Artists have often mentioned to us that they sometimes feel abused by charities that constantly ask them to work for free, which I can’t blame them for, even though they do it for us of their own volition. As my husband always says, “Charity begins at home”.
When we started, we weren’t really looking for people to give us money, because we built global projects that benefit from a reputation for leverage. In fact, many artists have benefited more than we’ve.
We also offer our members networking meetings, educational events on social issues and socially engaged art, podcasts, and recognitions, so everyone gets something out of it.
Related: What Does Social Engagement Mean
As a community or charity, if you want artists to work for you for free, consider what they get in return that can help them either in their careers or in their activism. Don’t assume that just because you support social causes that everyone will choose your organization to donate their time.
If you’re an artist and want to give back to society without getting anything in return, make sure you donate your time or work to a cause you truly believe in. I know some artists who just wanted to do good and later found that the charities they were helping weren’t as ethical as they thought.
In our community, we usually encourage artists to support a good cause with their work, but at many events we let them choose which charity they want to donate to.
If you’re a young artist pursuing an art career as an independent artist, be prepared to spend many hours before you become successful in the art world. It may take many years or decades before you’re seen as a professional artist to profit from commissioned work.
First, you’ve to prove that you’re a professional artist and that your artwork will be recognized, and second, it’s expensive because to show that you’re a successful artist, you’ve to pay for each art show you attend if you’re a visual artist, or for your own studio material if you’re a musician.
Once you become a successful artist in the art business, it still could be unrealistic to expect the creative industry to do the marketing for an up-and-coming artist, unless you’re very lucky or well-connected. Most artists have to take marketing into their own hands to advance their careers, and that means a lot of hours of work for nothing.
From graphic design to web design to social media and press releases, artists not only work for free by sharing their art online but often have to pay to market their art.
It also takes time to constantly appear in the latest news on your social media accounts. I find that social media costs the most time, because it’s all about attention, and the return on investment is often very low, and you end up receiving more comments from your fellow artist friends, than engagement from the art market.
What’s the Upshot?
It’s a significant impact on how we value art. It means that we require artists to take care of their own art career – which can take a lot of time – before they even get paid work for their art. It also means that getting an art project commissioned is virtually impossible for people who don’t have any financial resources or the right connections with the art market – which is essentially most people.
It’s quite conceivable that skilled marketers can make more money with their marketing skills than a professional artist can make from his original work! The success of a very talented musician or any working artist makes it an extremely risky way to make a living.
For many, the art business is a world of illusions. The major record companies spend millions of dollars on a handful of artists, not because they’re actually interested in their success, but only because they need a few hits to keep the business going. The same goes for fine art and any creative market.
Underground Artists Often Work for Free or Even End Up to Pay to Work
In art history, it’s not uncommon for an independent artist to work for free, but it can be hard to swallow when trying to break into the creative market where so much money is spent on marketing.
How to Save Money as an Independent Artist
If possible, try to work with a fellow artist who has a skill that can save you time, such as a graphic designer for your social media posts, an illustrator if you are a writer, a writer if you want to spend your time doing street art rather than writing about your visual art.
Should a Creative Person Ever Accept Unpaid Work?
For me, it really depends on the artist’s situation.
Let’s say you’re just starting out and you have a portfolio that’s lacking, or you don’t know where to find clients. Unpaid work could be a good way to gain more experience and expand your portfolio.
However, if you already have a lot of experience, don’t need any more artwork and already have many clients, then most unpaid work isn’t worth it unless the reason is very close to your heart.
The main reason I’d accept unpaid work is to work for charities or non-profit organizations.
Here’s why: I know that the money I’d charge for my work would go to something bigger than myself. It’s not just about lining my pockets. If I can make a difference by using my skills to help people in need, then unpaid work in this case is OK.
Why People Ask an Artist to Work for Free
There are two ways this can happen.
The first is that the freelance artist is paid, but it’s not enough to cover the cost of materials. The second case is that an artist is asked to donate his time and materials because it’s for a good cause.
Some charities usually ask for this because they’ve to justify to donors and funders where their money is going, and their money should go directly to the cause they support, and if the charity has limited funds, it may be difficult for the organization to justify paid work for creatives whose work is not directly related to the charity’s activity.
Other charities have budgets that would allow them to pay for art but instead opt for free work because their fundraisers simply don’t know any better. They assume that a working artist who already donates art can also donate time for a fundraising art project.
Occasionally, some artists are willing to give their hard work away for free or at a discounted price for a good cause, but some charities assume that all artists should feel that way, even though most of us don’t. Being asked to give your time and materials for free isn’t particularly attractive when you’ve bills to pay yourself.
The other reason is independent contractors or companies who’ve limited budgets, or who have the budget but try not to pay for creative services. This is the case with many freelance creatives!
Many independent contractors still don’t realize that the work created by artists and graphic designers has value because it’s not a tangible product that you can hold in your hand. This is partly because the creative industry has been undervalued for so long, and partly because there are many websites that offer free music, images, illustrations, fonts, and design templates.
In order to make a living from your artwork, you have to make sure you’re charging what you are worth and if you donate, make sure it’s worth it too. It may take some time to figure out how much you should charge, but once you do, it will make such a difference in your income and happiness!