13 Reasons You Shouldn’t Work for Free (Even if Oprah Calls)

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard one of these familiar stories:Revolva's reponse to "The Life You Want" Tour

  • “We’d love to have you as part of our event, but we don’t have a budget.”
  • “You’ll be in the newspaper and our flier. It will be great exposure!”
  • “Submit your work to our contest, we’ll feature the best entry at our upcoming event.”
  • “We can’t pay you, but it’s for a great cause!”

Whatever reason they give, the bottom line is the same: they want you to work for free.

They expect you to be excited to see your name in print or on a marquee.

They imagine that you’d love donating your time, effort, and years of training in exchange for a shot at the honor that comes from winning their contest.

Worst case scenario, they want you to market their event in the weeks prior, reserve a big part of your day, drive, park, lug your stuff, pack, unpack, pack and unpack again, and donate the work you’ve poured your heart and soul into for a good part of your life – all for a vague promise of “exposure.”

You might even think it’ll be worth it. Maybe you love the cause. Maybe you think it will increase your standing and visibility in the community.

Besides, there’s always that miniscule chance that some amazing and fantastic opportunity will come out of a random introduction. You can’t really afford to stay home, can you?

Or can you?

Your frustrations are going viral

You’ve probably seen the popular public rants from creatives in response to organizations asking them to work for free:

  • Mike Monteiro addresses designers at Creative Mornings (video NSFW)
  • Writer Harlan Ellison lashes out at Warner Brothers (video NSFW)
  • Artist Dan Cassaro responds to Showtime
  • Indie band Ex Cops answers McDonald’s offer of possible shares and free food at SXSW.

And the inspiration for this article – Revolva’s public reaction to being invited to perform at Oprah’s “The Life You Want” tour.

You can’t help but wonder, “These organizations have money! Tons of it! Why won’t they pay the creators and artists? I bet they’re paying the caterers, stagehands, electricians, wait staff, accountants, plumbers – everyone else, in other words.”

There are actually many reasons, too many to deal with in this post.

So let’s just talk about some things we can actually change… starting with our subconscious beliefs.

The harmful assumptions about exposure that even artists make

It’s not just the general public, hiring organizations, or venues that have preconceived notions about how artists make money.

We creatives are just as guilty of having damaging expectations.

It can be maddening when the people who want art, writing, music, photography, or design value it enough to seek you out – but not enough to pay for it.

Organizations often assume that creatives love what they do so much that they should want to do it for free. They just take it for granted that exposure will allow artists to:

  • make money on merchandise, books, services, and more,
  • gain new fans, customers, and supporters (if they’re any good),
  • grow their lists,
  • build their name recognition and reputation,
  • book more gigs, or find future jobs and opportunities.

The truth is, you probably believe these things will happen also; and in a perfect world, they would.

But in the real world, there’s a lot off effort and preparation that goes in to making each of these results a reality – and it can take time to get all the pieces in place; not to mention focus, commitment, and money.

We all work for free, or for exposure, at some point in our careers.

But there are definite downsides to doing too much work for free.

It’s discouraging, for one thing. You may struggle to pay your bills – or just to break even on your gigs, events, or projects. Eventually, you may get so burned out that you’re tempted to quit altogether.

I don’t want that for you, and I hope you don’t want that for yourself.

The first step is to know the foundation you should have in place in order to really benefit from exposure.

Here’s the problem…

Why exposure doesn’t deliver the results you hope for

Creatives get so excited about exposure opportunities that they will often jump at them, not realizing that they aren’t prepared to make the best of them.

Brendon Burchard, author of The Millionaire Messenger says it best:

I actually have several clients who have been on Oprah and who are, quite literally, broke. They got their fifteen minutes of fame with the best promotional partner in history, but they didn’t have the back-end infrastructure up and running to monetize the attention. This happens all the time. Consider yourself warned, and don’t let it happen to you. Build something real first; then ask others to make it bigger.

As Brendon says, this doesn’t just happen to a few unlucky people, or only on Oprah. It happens every day, and on every level, to just about all creative business owners.

That’s why it’s up to you to be proactive and prepared.

You can avoid the downsides if you learn to think strategically about working for free.

How and why you must carefully evaluate exposure opportunities

It’s exciting when you get a chance to get in front of many new potential customers and fans, see your name in the paper or be featured on television or a prominent website. I get it.

But the people who are approaching you have their own agenda. They want their event, contest, or show to be successful. They want to make money. They want their people to be happy.

They may or may not have your best interests in mind.

That means you have to be smart and protect yourself from people who’d take advantage of you (whether they mean to or not.)

For example, think about the crowd that’s coming to an event like Oprah’s “The Life You Want” Tour. They are on their way to hear their idols speak. They just parked. They’re probably not even thinking about coming early for the entertainment. They’re in a hurry to get to their seats.

There’s no guarantee they’ll love your music or act, your art, jewelry, or woodcrafts, or be a market for your books, if you set up a table.

Transient crowds aren’t engaged crowds. There’s a point at which we can grab people and excite them out of their stupors, but some people you just can’t do anything about: people who are eating dinner are a prime example. People who just ate dinner and who didn’t come for entertainment or browsing merchandise but who just want to go home are another. People who are hurrying on their way to somewhere else? Good luck.

If you’re a blues band at the region’s largest annual blues festival – now that’s a good fit. A writer with a new futuristic space travel novel at a sci-fi convention – that’s a no brainer. You know going in that the audience will love what you do.

So before you jump at the next exposure opportunity, try to find out

  • Are these people here because they love crafts, fiction books, or folk music, or is it a random general audience?
  • Are buyers likely to be there or just browsers and price shoppers?
  • Are they all very interested in a cause or occupation that I can tap into?
  • Do I have the resources to respond to a huge increase in business if it comes?

With a little thought and detective work, you can become better at avoiding situations that waste your time – even high-profile opportunities.

Three questions to answer before agreeing to work for free

Derek Halpern has some great guidelines to determine when you should work for free.

1. You know that giving up revenue today will definitely – with 100% certainty - lead to revenue in the future.

2. You are positive that you will get something more valuable than money, i.e., relationships with influencers or a definite, significant increase in your mailing list.

3. Participating means more to you than money or any other benefit you may receive (for example, if it’s a cause that’s close to your heart.) But decide in advance how much time you’re willing to donate to these types of causes each quarter or year.

How you can apply these guidelines

Let’s look at Derek’s ground rules with some specific tips for you as a creative.

Giving up a paycheck today will DEFINITELY lead to revenue in the future (or at the event)

One advantage that we have as creatives is that we can create multiple income streams. Just because the venue, event organizer, online contest, or fundraiser doesn’t pay us directly doesn’t mean we can’t make money through other means.

With that in mind, don’t take the opportunity if:

1. You don’t have anything to offer your new-found followers.

You need to have something to offer new supporters who find you. Even if you don’t have merchandise, a completed book, or prints to sell, you’ll want to be able to tell folks where your next show or appearance is, or be available for them hire you.

If you have nothing to offer to monetize the exposure, wait until you do.

2. Your craft isn’t strong enough yet.

This is a tough one – and note, I’m not talking about the practice opportunities many of us take when we’re just starting out. Once you are getting paid for your work, you will start getting a good feel for what resonates with people and what motivates them to buy from you. If you’ve been at it a while with few results, look at your craft first and then at your marketing and relationship-building.

If you have stuff to sell, but it isn’t moving, you may have to tweak your offerings and/or your message. Often only small changes help dramatically.

3. You don’t have sponsors to offset your expenses.

Major brand sponsors are nice, but not everyone’s at that level. Charity sponsorships are a real, legitimate, and potentially lucrative stream of income for creatives who are in front of audiences, either online or in person – and you don’t have to be famous already. If you can reserve a few minutes in your show, speech, or class, spare a corner of your table, or write a blog post here and there, you can earn good money and make peoples’ lives better at the same time.

Want to find out more about charity sponsorships? Sign up here.

4. The audience isn’t a good fit for your work and isn’t likely to be interested in buying from or hiring you.

Again, think about the crowd and the event or contest. Will you be lost in a sea of noise or will the audience be captive and interested in what you offer? Can the organizers speak to the quality of the exposure – for example, the number of people who are in your ideal audience? Can they guarantee you a good location and a good time slot? Is it up to you to get all the social media votes for them?

If you’re not positive that the audience will be there with wallets out, excited about what you offer, skip it.

5. You would be passing up a paid opportunity for an uncertain future benefit.

This probably goes without saying, but don’t give up a paycheck today for a gamble.

 On to Derek’s second piece of advice.

You must be 100 % sure you will get something more valuable than money (i.e., relationships)

Here are the basic things you have to have in place in order to develop and build relationships, 1) with your fans, and 2) with influencers.

Don’t work for free if any of these apply to you:

6. You don’t have a website.

People who like your work will want to follow up, learn more about you, and keep in touch. The first place they’ll look is for a website (a real one, not a social media account page). If they’re excited about your jewelry, books, photography, or music, they’ll want to share it with their friends and keep it in mind when Christmas gift giving time rolls around. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been excited to find art, music, or writing I love, and then equally disappointed when I discovered they had no website.

Your website drives your email list growth, and that’s the backbone of your business.

7. You don’t have an email list.

Email is still the most powerful tool you have for building relationships with your fans. Email allows for personal connection, it’s permission-based, and it’s effective. Email consistently drives the most sales for all kinds of businesses (not social media). People buy from people they know, like, and trust, and email is still your best way to nurture those relationships.

If you don’t have a formal email list, through a provider like Aweber, Constant Contact, or Mailchimp, start one today.

8. You don’t have an incentive for people to sign up for your list.

People guard their emails with good reason – they’ve been spammed to, sold to, and marketed to death. Most won’t sign up for “updates” or newsletters anymore. Their email address is valuable and they know it.

Give them something they’ll be really excited about in exchange for the privilege of keeping in touch.

9. The audience isn’t captive.

This point bears repeating because it makes a difference in your relationship-building as well. If you don’t have a captive audience who’s definitely interested in what you do (at least for some of the time), it will be difficult for you to grab and hold the attention of people long enough to make them fans of your work.

Be skeptical of exposure opportunities that aren’t targeted and don’t be afraid to skip them.

10. You’ll have no opportunity to meet or to build a relationship with influential people.

Just because you are invited onto Oprah doesn’t mean that you’ll become her BFF, or that there will ever be another chance to follow up with her or build a relationship. The same goes for local events or national contests where committees handle all the logistics. Learn how to confidently find and follow up on leads, build relationships with influencers, and turn introductions into paid opportunities.

If you’re certain that you’ll get face time or the dedicated attention of someone you admire, then go for it.

Finally, our last decision point –

The cause means a great deal to you, and it’s within your pre-determined budget for free work

Don’t donate your time and effort to a cause unless at least one of the following are true:

11. You would participate anyway.

If you are interested enough in the cause that you would purchase a ticket, pay the admittance or registration fee, or spend money on the free thing they’re offering, then it may be worth it to you to donate your time and talent.

12. You have personal reasons for donating your work.

Maybe the cause is especially dear to you. As long as you haven’t already maxed out your quota of donated work – or even if you have and that’s okay with you – then go ahead and participate.

13. You know you’ll make a big impact.

Maybe there will be so many people involved that one more (you) won’t really make a difference. But if you know that you can significantly influence the outcome and that matters to you, then by all means, join in.

Benefit from exposure and make the work you donate worthwhile

If you’re a creative entrepreneur, you will have people asking you to donate your work. It’s just part of the territory.

But it’s up to you to set your boundaries.

The key is having the tools to make sure that the opportunities you agree to take really do benefit you.

Use these guidelines to evaluate exposure opportunities and requests to donate your talents.

Decide in advance what you are willing to do and what you aren’t – and then stick to your guns.

You’ll feel freedom knowing you don’t have to chase every offer that comes your way.

You’ll stop agreeing to take chances that drain your energy, your motivation, your self-worth, and your bank account.

You’ll have the foundation in place to make the best of big exposure.

And you’ll be one step closer to “pro.”

It will be worth it, I promise.

Like this post? Grab your “Should I Work for Free?” checklist for creatives

About Leanne Regalla

Leanne is a writer and musician and the founder of Make Creativity Pay. She's on a mission to help creatives of all types to pursue their art without going broke, living in their cars, or starving to death.

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this blog filled with essential information for artists. As I read through it, I thought of all the times I have been asked to work for free; and have (more often than not) felt compelled to do so. Some of them were beneficial, many were just a lot of hard work, some resulted in very poor outcomes. I am glad to say that I have learned to set boundaries. This blog does a really great job of stating why artists must set boundaries, and when it is appropriate to set them.

    • Yeah, Donna – seems we have to have a few of those experiences before we get smart. Kind and compassionate people want to help everyone — it’s hard to say “no” to a good cause.

  2. Great article Leanne! I can relate because many of my up-and-coming artist clients are often offered “exposure” opportunities. I have as well, with event coordinators asking me to come speak to a group for free saying that I can sell my books or I might get future clients from it. I’ve learned how to discern if the audience is my target market or not, and this article is a great reminder of how to be even more discerning. Thank you!
    Lori

    • You’re welcome, Lori! Book sales are a great example – authors really do want to get out there and spread the word. It can be really discouraging & frustrating when you have too many disappointing experiences.

      We all will take our lumps over time, but hopefully we can spare the up-and-comers a few of them. ;) Life’s hard enough as it is!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Great topic.

    Everyone I’ve coached (myself included) has faced this connundrum.

    How can I charge money when I need experience?

    ANSWER: It’s called the law of the “Relative Expert.”

    MEANING: If you have more experience / time to focus on the client’s problem than they do, you can and should be charging for it.

    BONUS: When you charge for something (especially if you charge PREMIUM prices), people naturally value it more. It’s a funny little quirk of human nature. We value what we pay for, then we feel more invested in the process and outcome.

    Good stuff. Thanks!

    • I love that way of looking at things, Mike. The “relative expert” makes so much sense – as does simply having more expertise and time to invest than they do. Gold!

      And yes, premium prices do cause people to value the coaching more – and they also help to solidify commitment in the process.

  4. Paul Race says:

    VERY well said. As a singer-songwriter, though, there’s something to be said for occasionally using open mics to try new material on different kinds of audiences, etc. Except that a lot of folks get hooked on that experience and wind up doing open mics as kind of pseudo career and never get around to having a web page, mailing list, or product. So the “do your homework” part is critical.

    • Very true, Paul. I tried to make that clear but maybe should have emphasized it more. Performers must have places to test out new material. You’re also right though that many artists rely on that too much.

      It makes me somewhat sad to see talented people out, out, out all the time, playing and socializing, but not getting paid, and not getting their work out into the world because of it – not getting their material recorded, not growing the list and website…

      Another trend that concerns me is it seems more and more venues are hosting open mics on weekend nights. Although hopefully they are at least paying the hosts.

  5. Jamie Wyatt says:

    Guilty! I’ve spoken for free far too often. You’ve given me more ammunition to politely say “NO!”

  6. Excellent article/blog….really tops….thank you

  7. Scott says:

    Leanne – thanks for this. In my early career I got burned twice. I was “invited” to play at a big festival, was assured there’d be thousands of people, exposure, producers in the audience, etc. As a budding singer/songwriter I jumped at the chance, even though it was unpaid and I had to get myself halfway across the country. Turns out, I was on the main stage (awesome!)….at 8am. Where were the thousands of people? Oh yeah…still f***ing sleeping! My audience were the still stoned sound guys. And my mom. Same deal the following year, except I made sure to ask for a better time slot. They put me on third stage at the same time as the headline act over on main. Same result, except now my audience were the surly sound guys, missing… (I forget who the main act was). Anyway, lesson learned. I lost money on both gigs, and came away from the event with no new fans, no exposure (except sunburn) and a distaste for festivals. If I’d looked at this opportunity through the lens you presented here, I probably wouldn’t still be bitter about it :)

    • Wow, Scott – what a story! I have some of my own too.

      One time I actually got another show because the organizers felt so bad for me, the venue couldn’t stay on schedule and I ended up opposite the headliner. (The other show did go much better. ;) )

      I struggle with 8AM slots for anything – even speaking (although that’s easier, very little setup.)

  8. Holly says:

    Gosh, this is reminding me of a fellow craftsperson who makes truly amazing organic soap. They were approached by someone who does the swag giveaways for the Academy Awards. They made a few hundred freebie packs, which was a financial and work hardship for them. They thought this will be great exposure. I was standing there listening to them, all the while thinking how bad and unworkable their website was (a verbose website with tiny type that flows full screen – horrendous). If their site got any hits, it was unpleasant to look at for very long or navigate. They got no action, just heartbreaking. I can understand getting star struck by this opportunity. I get hit up a lot for charity. My eyes gloss over when they talk about all the exposure, it is a tiny amount in truth. I give because I like their cause, and to make the person collecting happy, no other reason.

  9. John Yeoman says:

    Great points, Leanne. It’s good to see you here! After 42 years as a consultant, I can agree – from too much pain – that there is only one good reason for working for nothing: when you’re just starting out and need testimonials and reference sites in a hurry. I run a fiction coaching program at Writers’ Village and every week or so, I get emails from strangers requesting (even demanding) that I critique their stories for free. One man even tersely asked that I read his entire novel, enhance it and find him an agent. For free. (Though he’d consider giving me a share of the royalties.) Time was, I’d reply sweetly to those emails. Now I delete them. Why should story doctors be expected to work for love when a car mechanic would charge $80 an hour? And our skills are by no means less? Quote a high price and – if you’re good – you’ll find a market for it somewhere. Repeat business too. Quote zilch and you’ll attract zilch clients. (PS: I now quote $1000 per hour, but I’m open to negotiation… :))

  10. At the root of not asking to be recognized is likely a sense that we’re not really worth recognizing – we’re on the way but haven’t fully owned our craft.
    How cool would it be if creatives unionized and recognition was accepted as the required thing? “Good enough to play, good enough to pay” could be the tagline.

    • So true, Andrew! But it goes back to each individual believing they’re worth it. That’s what we can help with. ;)

      There will always be desperate people willing to do anything to get their work noticed.

  11. Anthony Metivier says:

    Then of course there’s the opposite: paying to play. I was blown away when I heard that an opening act for Testament had to pay $6000 for the opportunity to tour with them. Admittedly, this was a rumor, but I believe it.

    Question: Is this the equivalent of paid advertising?

    Thanks for the great post!

    • You’re welcome, Anthony!

      Yes, I believe it too – and it is paid advertising. Hopefully the opening act had enough of their act together to be able to really make the most of that opportunity. You need a great live show at that point, and all the backend in place.

  12. Ann Waters says:

    another side of this is being asked to donate a piece of your work for their cause/auction. They promise the exposure you will get and future sales. Unfortunately, all you really receive is other requests for you to donate more to other causes. I would do it only if the person who asks is a good paying client of mine already and has purchased pieces. But usually the people who ask for a donation have never purchased anything and just want your work to make their fundraising event a success. You make nothing, get nothing but they get revenue.

    • Ann you are so right. I meant to include art auctions in this list – that’s a big one.

      The other problem with auctions is that they devalue your work and art in general – in other words, people become trained to expect to get discounts. I don’t hear many success stories from artists who donate their work to auctions, but many stories like yours.

      Good for you for setting limits, and thanks for your insight!

  13. Fantastic article, Leanne! Thanks for the wisdom. Just posted on Live Music Cares Facebook :)

  14. Tech says:

    I have work for free in some case when I started a new service and offered some free things to get more trust from buyers. That’s a good plan.

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