It's a complicated thing: What is "work"? What is "free"? I always have a problem with this sort of thing because I basically believe that all art should be free but I also live in the real world. Problem is either way you cut it, money determines what people can do.
I have only rarely been paid for my creative "work", and generally where I have it has been connected to compromising what I do. I exchange creative control for money, or I exchange time that could be spent creating but now will be spent doing admin for money.
I have "lost" a lot of money over the years doing creative things. And I generally channel any money I do from such stuff into making more stuff rather than my daily life costs. I have always worked full or part time in a day job to allow me to spend all my free time making creative stuff.
I have, over the years, been repeatedly called a cunt by people who are angry with me for asking them to "work for free". The first time I remember this happening was a sound producer who answered an advert I posted that was looking for producers to join a democratically run music collective called Apples for Everyone. His emails to me grew heated in response to my repeated statements which explained that I wasn't paying the producer because they would be an equal member of the collective and any proceeds we made would be split equally between all band members where possible but probably would be funnelled back into the band in the short to long term to pay for recording etc...
His final communication with me with a very nasty and personal attack. The parting shot said that I would never be able to find any music producers interested in this sort of exploitation. It accused me of living in a fantasy world. Shortly after that 2 different producers joined our music collective and were both happy with the terms.
I have always tried to pay performers where it was possible, from back when I was helping to produce music nights till now when I am running the Stand Up Tragedy variety night. I've never used any proceeds from a night I've run to pay myself, unless you count that one time where I paid myself back some of the expenses I'd had to pay out in advance, and I only did this after lots of persuasion from close friends. I have always sought to offer as much added value to performers for performing at my nights, especially when I haven't been able to pay them.
I have dealt with scumbag promoters in the music scene and I understand why people sometimes see me as the same as them.
The ways I am different from them are these:
- I care about the nights I run. I programme them with the aim of making a unified and entertaining experience that will be interesting and fulfilling for audiences and performers alike.
- I book acts I believe in regardless of how many people they will, or won't, bring.
- I don't ever get performers to pay to play.
- I worry that ticket prices are too expensive for audiences and would prefer to only produce free entry nights. In fact I worry a lot about what is fair, what is moral and what is ideologically appropriate.
- When I can pay performers I pay them regardless of how many people they bring.
NB - There are plenty of non scumbag promoters around. I meet them all the time.
I do understand why performers, audio producers, graphic designers et al mistake me for one of the many people out there who are trying to exploit them. I am sure at times in my life I have made similar mistakes.
But the binary way things seem to go in relation to work and free and art is frustrating. With many people being exploited because they keep saying "yes" when they should say "fuck off". And many people saying "fuck off" when they should either say "No thanks" or "that sounds great!" I feel like people turn down fantastic experiences and collaborations because they feel they have to be paid for everything, and that people fail to ever get paid for making stuff, because they feel they don't have enough stock to ask for it.
This diagram is a pretty good starting point for changing your approach to this stuff.
But I also think that whilst artists need to eat and we have to tolerate the market getting all involved in our shit we should remember that art came first. We were making art before the market, not just historically but in our own lives, we didn't start making music or writing words, or performing, or whatever to make money. We do it to express ourselves and to comment on the world, we do it to connect with others, to have shared creative journeys with other people, because we are compelled to, because we love to.
For me these are the biggest criteria when choosing "should I work for free":
Can I afford to do it?
If Yes (see next question)
If No - Don't do it.
Is this something that would be creatively fulfilling and/or interesting to do?
If Yes - Do it! (unless the terms are so horrible and exploitative that it out weighs your gain.)
If No - Don't do it!
(This post is a reaction to this blog by Seth Godin)