Working for “Exposure”

I’m part of a couple writing groups on Facebook, and at least once a week, someone posts an article about someone (be it a freelance writer or graphic designer, a comic, or a well-known animator or artist) who was asked to do work for free because it would be “good publicity.” One of my favorites was the open letter that Revolva wrote to Oprah after Revolva was asked to work for Oprah’s tour for free. Oprah. The woman who makes $10 a second couldn’t pay for variety acts for her national tour.

Another great one that just surfaced is when Rian Sygh turned down someone asking him to work for free (he says it was an overly-violent man-pain revenge story) and got this in response:

re: work offer

good sir,

im very sorry to hear that. this could have been a great opportunity, for you as an unknown to get your work out there. I understand the lack of upfront monies is unsatisfactory for craftsmen of higher calibers, but i had assumed – I suppose wrongfully, that your dedication and passion for your craft would supercede your base desire for monetary compensation.

Perhaps you would like to think on the subject longer? I am not heartless my good fellow. I’ll give you another chance to accept my offer, a do-over response if you would like, but should you decline again I will walk away from this encounter to someone else and you will never see a moments reflection of the magnum opus that could have been again.

Do you still decline? or will you take the red pill with me and join this epic adventure, sir?

With great regard,

(Name redacted,) author.

“This will be an unpaid gig, but think of how much theoretical money you could gain!”

These are not uncommon occurrences in the art world. It is honestly baffling. Would you ask your doctor to see you for free because “I’ll tell all my friends I go see you and you healed me and it’ll get you lots of exposure?” How about walking up to your favorite fast food chain and expecting free food because “if you put it in a bag with your logo on it I’ll carry it around town while I eat and it’ll be publicity for you”?

Of course, when you’re an artist, and you’re just breaking into your field, it either seems like a dream come true (“Wow! Someone wants to publicize a nobody like me? This could jump-start my career!” ) or really scary. (“How do I tell them that I expect to be paid when no one knows who I am? What if this is the only job offer I get?”)

So, my new and old artist friends alike (and those who ask artists to work for free, if you’ve bothered to get this far), let me run through a couple points on working for free.

1. Exposure is not payment.

“Exposure” and “good publicity” are really, really empty words. They are promises that no one actually has to deliver on. It’s the promise of “You’ll get your name out there! It’ll be a good way to get even more customers!” but the company or person you’re doing the work for doesn’t have any way to ensure that you’ll actually get more customers. Where are these customers coming from? Who cares? Not them! They don’t have to do squat after you work your magic for them.

2. Family and friends should be case-by-case.

“After that, I want one of my other cats, too. All individually. For free, of course. You can do that, right?”

Let’s say your mom wants you to draw her something pretty for her desk at work. It can be anything you want. Okay, sure, you should probably do that for free. She’s your mom. But let’s say your Great Aunt Lisa wants you to make a picture of her cat Louis, and you hardly ever see this woman or her cat, and to be honest, you’d like to keep it that way. You probably want to consider charging Great Aunt Lisa for your services. Sure, maybe you give her a discount because she’s technically family even though she married in and again, you never see her. And if she doesn’t want to pay, she doesn’t want the picture of her cat very badly. No matter how much your family pressures you into giving it to her for free.

Let’s say the conversation goes as follows.

“Your mother tells me you’re very good at art! She showed me the picture you made for her desk at work.”
“That was a lot of fun to make, I’m glad she asked me.”
“I want something like that of Louis. My cat. Something dainty, maybe black and white.”
“Oh, absolutely! A picture the size of my mom’s picture would be about $7. More if you’d want me to come to your house and paint Louis in person. If you’re looking for something larger, I’d be happy to discuss prices with you!”
“I am your family. I shouldn’t have to pay anything! You should do it as a gift to me!”
“Well, I’m sorry that you think my art has the value of “free,” but at least that tells me how much you actually value my art.”

Maybe not the most diplomatic way to put it, but you don’t owe Great Aunt Lisa diddly squat.

3. “Good practice” should also be on a case-by-case basis.

“Good practice” are also two dangerous words to fall into, but not as dangerous as, say, “exposure.” If someone comes to you asking for your services for free so you can get some “practice” out of it, the answer should almost certainly be no. Not unless you are able to keep the rights to whatever you do for them and sell it elsewhere. (As a print, as a short story in a collection, whatever.)

However, if you’re asking someone else to let you do something for them for practice, it should probably be free. Example; my sibling is coming home from college this weekend, and I asked her if we could do a photoshoot so I could practice not only portraits, but lifestyle photography. Will she get something out of it? Yes, she’ll get (hopefully) beautiful pictures to show her friends and use however she wants. But I’ll legitimately get practice out of it, too. She’s doing me a favor. Another example? The lady who introduced me to lifestyle photography has offered up her children as subjects if I ever wanted to practice. It wasn’t a “you should do it for me, let’s see, how’s this weekend for you? We could do it then! And it’ll be good practice for you!” No, it was a “if you’re ever interested, feel free to give me a call and we’ll set something up.” I totally have a clear choice in the matter, and if I don’t want to, I don’t have to.

4. You know what it costs to produce your work.

Whether it’s supplies, time, rehearsal, set up, or travel, you know how much your work costs you. Most people don’t. They assume it didn’t take you long or cost you much of anything, and so they expect your prices to be cheap (or, y’know, free.)

A few years back, I faced something similar with my photography. I’d opened up a little online store that really did nothing but handle the PayPal and storefront end of things. I still had to get the prints myself and mail them out myself, and handle any return issues myself. And on top of that, the storefront took a cut from each sale, since I couldn’t pay a monthly fee to keep it open. But it was cool. My work was finally out there, for the public to buy if they wanted it. I put the link to the store on a couple social media outlets.

Basically what it looks like when you’re barely breaking even and someone tells you your prices are too high.

A friend of mine from college messaged me about it. “I think your print prices are too high,” she told me. “My friend was thinking about buying one, but photography really shouldn’t cost that much just for a print. And what’s with the shipping cost being so high? You’ll never get customers that way. I would never charge that much for one of my little chibi drawings that I do.”

I went off at her. I had to pay for the prints, I had to pay for more expensive shipping than normal so that I knew the prints arrived undamaged. How dare she compare her art to mine, when she clearly valued her work so little? Did she spend the same amount of time on her two-minute drawings as I did taking the pictures, paring them down, running them all through editing programs to make sure the colors were as beautiful as they could be? My rates were comparable to those you’d see at craft shows, aside from shipping, because you didn’t have to worry about shipping when you bought in person. I told her I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, that it was making me angry and not really helping. But she just kept going. Maybe I should try lowering my prices. Maybe I should sell digital copies. Maybe I should consider working as a stock photographer. She was just trying to help, you know, she was just giving free advice. She said all this like she knew how things like this worked much better than myself. I don’t think I’ve spoken to her since that day.

Can your prices be too high? Yes. But that’s only if you’re making a huge margin off of your work. If you’re just barely breaking even, your work is not too expensive.

5. Being unknown doesn’t mean you should give in.

Breaking into a new art community is hard. It’s scary. It’s risky. People and companies feed on the difficulty and the fear of not making it. They target artists, new and old alike, saying “you’re a no one. We can help you. Just do this one thing for us, and our entire customer base will know your name.” It’s the carrot dangling in front of the donkey’s nose, edging him on. Let me ask you something. When was the last time you actually saw the name of the artist who did promotional work? Do you remember the name of that random-ass band that played at your high school pep rally? How about the student DJ who was in charge of a couple school dances?

Most people won’t remember your name, if they hear it or even see it.

Moral of the story? “Free” has it’s place. What gets to be “free,” however, should be up to the artist, no the one who wants the art.

Since I’ve talked about it so much, here is my photography Facebook page in case anyone got curious.


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