Should I work for free…

Art by freeimageslive / creator is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Art image by freeimageslive / creator is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

This might get me a whole lot of hate, but it’s a handy chart that I feel I should share with every musician, artist, photographer, writer or other creative who has ever been asked and even sometimes expected, by complete strangers, to work for free.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t work for free, but stressing that it should be your choice, that you shouldn’t be pressured in to it and do not need to feel guilty if you refuse. Would you ever expect a builder or lawyer to work for you for free?

Example: I have been asked before (by people I do not know) to play 15 minute slots on the harp (not an easy instrument to transport) for absolutely nothing, for profiting festivals and offered only a 5% discount on the cost of a ticket in return. Obviously, my answer was no.

Music is a skilled job and those choosing the profession should be paid accordingly and not exploited.


Feel free to share your stories and let us know how you responded!


9 thoughts on “Should I work for free…

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Hannah! There’s a really similar feeling amongst newly qualified archaeologists and heritage specialists as well. It’s difficult for us when there’s such a well established volunteer culture that is only getting stronger in the current economic climate. Heritage and entertainment tend to be the first things that people chuck out of the window in times of hardship, but really, they’re probably the things we ought to be keeping alive, if only for the sense of enjoyment and hope we can get out of them.

    Goodness I didn’t even know I had my soap box with me today…

    1. I agree! Arts, culture, music and history are all the more important in a recession whether they’re to boost happiness or teach us! There’s a lot that we can learn from history!

      One point I have noted recently is that in previous cases where political parties/rulers have consistently allowed the rich to become richer, while the poor become poorer, the usual result is some kind of riot or civil war. I’m hoping we can avoid that and advance to a stage where everyone is equally respected and fairly paid for the work that they do.

  2. I feel it is up to the artist. I happen to have watched artists actually grow a bigger fan base for volunteering. I just went to a 3 hour free concert thrown by Amanda Palmer and no one got paid, not the theatre, the four bands that played, not Amanda Palmer. But these bands have now gotten about 200 fans give or take in less than 24 hours because they played for free. I understand your point. But as an artist, you’re asking people to buy into you and what you do. Promoting yourself is just as important as producing your art, unless you are stuck with a day job. Check out Amanda Palmer’s TED talk. Also think about kickstarter. I’m not to that point yet where I expect any type of pay for my work. But there is a new movement happening for artists that frees you from the monsters who decide who gets to be recognized and funded and allows you to build funding and giving back and forth with your fans.

    1. I love that you mentioned Amanda Palmer and wish I’d been at that gig too! I was tempted to write a post featuring her TED talk, because she has some brilliant ideas about the way the music business should work, and how she’s made it work for her. I love the idea of creating and releasing music using crowd funding, pay-what-you-want downloads and under creative commons (non-commercial) licensing. The ninja (and not-so-ninja) gigs are a great idea too and even better because she chooses to do them and loves connecting with people. It is free choice, nobody is trying to exploit her and she genuinely wants the people who work with her to do well and actively helps them.

      My main issue with working for free isn’t the work in itself, but the expectation of a tiny minority who feel it’s fine to exploit artists and musicians. I just believe that we need to value art and appreciate the people who make it, and part of that includes fair pay.

      1. ❤ She is a revolution waiting to happen. But I agree with you. She featured a band that not only was not getting paid to play but they had to pay themselves to be showcased at SXSW in Austin. Huge event for artists to be recognized. This band spent $800 usd for 3 showcases, rented a fan (more $$$$), paid for gas ($$$$$$$$), drove a long way to find—–(wait for it)—- No gig. This was a band of college aged kids and one High School kid that spent a couple grand just to be seen so that they could promote and get their name out there. A member of the audience jumped on her phone and started sending messages to get them some gigs and spots for the rest of the weekend. They hadn't slept. Hadn't eaten. It is horrible the way people feel they can take advantage of others. Whether it is to use them or to steal from them. I think that the changes that are occurring are going to build protective walls for artists that will allow them to express their art, see a profit, and avoid exploitation. (Fingers crossed). I was happy to see you touching on this topic. I am fascinated with this subject and would love to hear more from you on it.

  3. The chart is a real eye-opener, not just for artists!

    For me, the main question I ask myself when asked to work for free is this one:

    How does it make me feel when I consider to do the “job”?

    Does it feel like fun, a great experience, a chance to grow? – Ok, let’s talk about it.
    Does it feel exhausting, dense and draining? Does just thinking about it already make me tired? – No thanks.

    Great post!

    1. Thank you!

      I really like that way of thinking about it. Often I’m not initially given enough information to know how I feel (especially in the context of gigs), but generally if there’s a good chance to meet and play with lots different musicians, I’ll be quite enthusiastic. I’m never keen on doing solo gigs for free, although I do find busking is a really nice way to practice new material on a sunny day (and you learn a lot about the music tastes of the people passing by)! 🙂

      Sometimes I don’t know until the day whether a gig is going to be a lot of fun or hard work and little things as small as the weather, or the presence of a few really lovely people, can change the feel entirely!

      1. I hear you regarding the need for more information! Yet, I noticed even when I don’t have all the facts my intuition usually already gives me a feel of “hell, yes!” or “oh, no!” – it only took a bit of practice to hear and listen to it. Still, there is no harm in asking for all the facts one needs to know before making a final decision. 😉

        It is true that there are many unpredictable factors that can have an impact on the experience we finally have. But what I’ve learned for me is that my own attitude on how I approach these experiences is the most important factor on how I perceive things, eventually. (Although there are, of course, cases of “s*** happens”, at times.)

  4. Well said! I’m not a musician except that I sing with other singers but I am totally with you here. No job should be done for free but I know from my musician friends that they are often asked to do just that.
    Thank you for choosing to follow my blog. You, too, have a new follower.

    Do you ever travel to Cornwall to play at weddings and if so, how much would your fee be?! I ask on behalf of my wedding couples who may wish to book a harpist, you never know. I already offer my choir and we do sing at weddings…

    All the best to you 🙂

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