Sunday, 4 May 2014

Why Artists Will Always Work For Free

Artists often complain about having to work for free. Here's my take on it.

This week I compiled a list of what I’m working on to help me better manage my time. The list included screenplays, short films in different stages of completion, various smaller projects and of course, this blog –none of which are paid. 

Across the internet there's much talk and lamentation for and from the poor, struggling artist who is abused, taken advantage of and disrespected by an industry that seems to expect them to work for free. While that does happen, I have another take on working for free or, as I think we should rebrand it, working for potential.

I’m currently living and working in arguably, the most competitive market in the entertainment industry, Los Angeles where the potential rewards are high but the market place is also very crowded. To make your mark here, you have to innovate and it’s for this reason that you’ll find actors turning to stand up, writers directing their own work, painters going into set design and all the other ways people try to expand their creative reach to launch their professional, artistic career.

I’ve seen many a Facebook meme, open letter or blog rant about how artists shouldn’t be expected to work for free but I think many scenarios are being lumped together when this topic is discussed. This banner of 'working for free' seems to include everything from copyright theft to labour of love projects. So with that in mind, let’s unpick what it means to really work for free – or for potential and what we should look out for so that it can be mutually beneficial and artists can still feel as though their time, effort and energy is valued.  

Know your value
Just because someone asks you to work for free it doesn’t mean you have to. Decide what your value is and base your assessment of a work offer on that. If you do go ahead with the job, make sure the terms of your engagement are clear. Ironically, it’s when no money changes hands that hours often extend unreasonably, so make sure you’re clear about what the agreement is. Often, unpaid gigs are labours of love for the people creating them and so whilst you want to support them and help them realise their passion, make sure they keep up their end of the bargain by not abusing your time, talent and commitment. Perhaps if they can’t pay in cash they can pay-in-kind by putting some money towards your travel or providing snacks and food.

Medea - I've just realised, killing my kids might have been a bad idea
If it’s a short film, ask them about getting an IMDB credit and a copy of the finished product. Also, think laterally when assessing the project. Though it may not be financially rewarding, there may be other benefits. For example, when I first started acting, I found myself doing more and more children’s theatre which wasn’t the path I wanted to take. To re-calibrate, I took a lead role in a fringe production of Medea. Though it was unpaid, I gained valuable experience. It was a great showcase and it gave me a useful credit  so that people casting the type of work I really wanted to do would take me more seriously. My next job after Medea was a paid role in a fantastic play called, Yellowman. I’m certain I was a contender for this because of my work on Medea
Yellowman at The Everyman, Liverpool

Never say never
Having said all that, even though you need to be clear as to your value, of course you may still want to do people favours, help out developing artists with your time, expertise or simply gain practice or experience in an area you’ve become rusty. In stand up, even the multimillionaires still lend their name to good causes or bolster the bill of a fledgling comedy night to help promote. All for free. Knowing your value isn’t about saying no to unpaid work.

Sometimes the person you’re working for, for free, is you. Often the most successful individuals in competitive markets are the ones that don’t wait for the perfect opportunity to land in their lap, gift wrapped, they go and create it for themselves. It’s unlikely Warner Brothers will give you $100million for your first feature so if you want to direct something, why not get a group of friends together and shoot your own film. It’s a low risk way of generating experience and as you learn more, you can take on more and more ambitious projects. Writers, don’t wait for a commission or to sell that one precious script you love so much it’s become an extension of who you are. Set it aside and start working on something new. You are not that script (or film, performance, painting or stand up routine), you are the source of it and the more practice you get at tapping into that source, the more prepared you’ll be for when people are paying you to do it to their schedule and not your own.  

People often think that success is down to luck but luck is simply opportunity meeting preparation so get ready! And if that means generating your own opportunities, do it. Don’t make yourself a victim, lamenting that your agent isn’t doing their job or no one wants to fund your short film. Stop being a moaning minny and just get on with it. Spielberg was making films from childhood with a Super8 camera his parents gave him and that worked out OK.

Labour of love projects vs cheeky blighters
In terms of 'working for potential', there’s a difference between an independent artist who is making a labour of love project they’re financing from whatever funds they can raise and a business that has simply decided they will try and engage artists for free or try to avoid paying for their material. There’s a now infamous email circulating from a disgruntled musician which is a reply to a request from a successful production company asking to use his music for free on their project. The musician in question rightly inquires as to why everything else on this project seems to have been budgeted for (including the production co-ordinator who has the bald-faced cheek to email him), except his music. He then proceeds to dress down this person, pointing out that they were the ones who created the budget so why wasn’t there a line in there for music when it’s cost him time, money, know-how and creativity to produce it in the first place. His answer to her request was a resounding and permanent foxtrot Oscar.

Breaches of contracts and copyright theft
The above leads on to this - when working for free becomes uncool. Some people and employers take liberties. I recently saw a post about a BBC production which reneged on the crew’s contract. They’d agreed to give them per diems and accommodation for a location shoot but then changed it to a 250GBP/week payment i.e. They expected them to eat and accommodate themselves for this amount while on a 6 day/week shoot on 12 hour working day. Not cool. And whilst it's not "no pay" it is unacceptable corner-cutting from an organisation that should be paying ALL it's staff the going rate what ever that may be.

Equally, using someone’s material without their express permission is also uncool. There's an open letter doing the rounds from a graphics designer to Spike Lee complaining that the marketing company for his recent release Old Boy used his work without paying him. Rather than investigate, Spike Lee dismissed the designer as a chancer. Now, if this story is true, then karma is a sweet mistress because the film has disappeared without a trace with two star ratings and 42% rating on

Being asked if your work can be used for free
We have to use our judgement when deciding to allow material we own, i.e. music, video, photography  etc to be used for free. It shouldn't necessarily be no every time. What about those self-generated labour of love projects for example or student pieces where the budget is probably smaller than Jeremy Clarkson’s list of black friends?

During the making of Britiam, our editor found a still that worked perfectly with one of the lines of the poem but the still was copyrighted material. We wrote to the photographer explaining the project, how his work would be a huge contribution to our short and how eternally grateful we'd be if he allowed us to use it. He said yes and every time I see that image, I’m so delighted we’ve been able to include it in the final piece. 

There are many artist who are only too happy to give their work away for free. Famously, Moby has made much of his back catalogue available online.

Asking for someone’s material
There is a skill to asking to use people’s work for free or asking them to work for free. One is to acknowledge what you’re asking for. Just because being creative is one the ultimate pleasures in life, it doesn’t mean we should assume people love it so much they’ll do it regardless of whether they’re paid. Therefore it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not a given that there’s no budget for this person. Even if it’s for a charity event, always offer the acknowledgement. It makes the giver feel like they’re not being taken for a chump. Also, verify your credentials i.e. let them know you’re not some chancer, that you'll have a professional approach regardless of whether money will change hands or not. It let's the giver feel that their time and effort won’t be wasted or their work associated with a crumby project.

Also, be humble, be grateful and as I once heard it described, be graciously assertive. Don’t push, but hope for a positive outcome and let them know that a no is OK. That’s an important part of the request. No one likes to feel guilted into doing something. I said no to a chugger once and as I walked away he shouted after me “People are dying!”. Oh well that'll make me give you money.

Working in the creative arts is the most liberating, frustrating, magical, confounding, exhilarating, confusing, rewarding industry you can work in and, alongside sports, is probably the most competitive.

Sometimes artists have to work for free and whilst it’s not ideal what with the small matter of bills to pay and a roof to keep over our heads,  it’s a necessary part of the business. It weeds out those who are not serious for one. Quincy Jones said of struggling artists, “If you can do something else, then you should” – the business can be that demanding.

The benefits and rewards can be great, and, aside from people willfully stealing or abusing artists, working for free is a necessary part of the process of creative growth. To make it in this business you need a mental toughness that not getting paid, being broke but working as through you weren’t furnishes you with. If every artist were paid for everything they did, I promise you, there'd be a lot of shit on TV, in theatres, in galleries etc but because people need to have passion and drive to make it, those strong enough, talented enough and resourceful enough thrive and those who, perhaps aren’t quite suited to this life, will, more than likely fall by the wayside.

As fun as it is, it’s a tough business but one that if you’re willing to put your heart into it, be authentically you and create joyfully, letting go of your idea of how things should turn out, embracing the flow, a rich life awaits you.

Dedicated to Adam, my most excellent friend and fellow adventurer on

Similar posts: What Are You Up To in 2014?, Fight For Your Writes and From The Desk to The Dance


  1. You mean you expect to get paid fir working? What madness is this? :-)
    Another interesting blog Andi.......keep up the good work.

  2. Great piece!


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