Artists, it’s Time We Stopped Working For Free

Features. Posted 2 years ago

Arabella Peterson

Image: remembering that time Broad City’s Abi got ‘free sandwiches’ in exchange for an illustration. Image Source. 

“We can’t pay you, but we can offer you exposure.”

This is the very phrase that induces collective cringes and eye-rolls from working artists everywhere. While it might seem absurd not to be paid for your time, effort and skills, it’s becoming more and more of a standard practice to work on a professional level without any financial reimbursement at all.

Writing, fashion, graphic design, modelling, dance, music, art, photography, performance and film – essentially every job within the creative industries comes with the dilemma of being asked to perform unpaid labor, largely by big companies and largely with the promise of ‘exposure’. Social media has proven to be an incredible tool for emerging artists to gain visibility, but it has also become an equally potent social currency for big businesses. Without a doubt, followers can lead to opportunities, but more often than not – they won’t pay the bills.

Realistically, unless you become one of the Cindy Shermans, J.K Rowlings or Banksys of the world, entering the creative industries is unlikely to earn you millions of dollars – most people know and accept this before deciding to pursue a creative career. After all, it’s a trade which relies largely on the passion, enjoyment and inspiration of the creator – but this by no means they should be undermined, undervalued or forced to work for free. When you first start out, unpaid work is expected, and in a lot of cases necessary to gain experience and a foot in the door. Internships and unpaid projects can be great for your portfolio, CV or show-reel – but where is the line drawn between experience, exposure and downright exploitation? Within what’s reasonable, I tend to believe that this line should be drawn by the artist when and where they feel comfortable.

People study costly degrees and courses to gain the skills to hone their craft and offer quality products, but if the expectation is to never get paid for these skills, young artists will be discouraged to invest in developing their expertise or even enter the industry at all. It’s disheartening for the arts, which is instrumental in the diversity, dynamism and vitality of society to be tainted with a collective distain and be frequently underappreciated.

I’m not referring to local platforms or publications who are trying to build their own brand and, like the artist, genuinely have little or no budget for themselves or the contributor. There is a distinct difference between collaboration and commissioned work by a company. Collaboration generally suggests that those involved enjoy and admire what the other party does, share a similar ethos and will mutually benefit in some way. A collaboration will also usually be devised by two artists, publications or collectives who legitimately don’t have the funds to finance a project but can offer something else to make the experience reciprocally valuable. Perhaps in some cases large businesses in fact don’t have a budget for creative campaigns, but a compromise has to be made, or they will continue to benefit disproportionately from unpaid work, and a damaging precedence will continue to be set.

This issue seems to be something that almost everybody has encountered at some stage, so I spoke to a few artists about their thoughts and experiences with free work.

“When I first started out in the creative industry I had the dream of being able to make what I love doing into a living. It wasn’t so easy at first; I understood that in order to build my portfolio there would be times that I would have to work for free. As time went on and I started to build an impressive portfolio, I knew that these big companies asking me to work for free was just outright exploitation. This isn’t an isolated incident, it happens to so many people I know and needs to be addressed. Every time a money generating machine tells an emerging artist that it will be “good for their portfolio”, it kills that dream of being able to make it as an artist and able to pay their rent on time.” – Rachela Nardella (Rahkela), photographer and creator of Lola Ziggy zine.

“The idea that an artist at any level (emerging or professional – in any creative industry) should be “making art for the love of it” and is thus exempt from the widely accepted system of payment for goods and services is total bullshit. Would you accuse a doctor or maths teacher of not loving their job because they expect to be paid for their time and effort? Probably not. At the end of the day, it’s highly plausible that you will actually land some more paid or unpaid work from these “time for exposure” gigs, and if you don’t do it, somebody else will. But unfortunately it contributes to a wider culture that undervalues and devalues the work of artists. It also creates a cyclical problem – when people who can provide payment no longer have to – what motivation is there to do so in the future? It is surprising to me that a culture that seems to hold the idea of creativity and artists in such high esteem can be so reluctant to back this with a currency that allows their survival.” – Amy Summer, Sydney-based visual artist.

“I’ve been asked to work for free on multiple occasions for exposure and publicity and these requests always come from big businesses. When I’m told there isn’t a budget I’m like, “your exposure doesn’t pay my rent, it doesn’t pay my HECS fees, it doesn’t do anything except contribute to the idea that my industry is worthless, especially when there are guides and industry standards”. I’m starting to wonder whether I should just name and shame big companies that ask artists/myself to do work for ‘exposure’ – or do we not do that in the risk that people won’t work with us? How are people held accountable for this? How do we leverage and instil that we are valid, valuable and legitimate?” – Amrita Hepi, dancer and activist.

So, what can you do about it?

While one of the most discouraging things is the fact that they may well just ask someone else to complete the project if you ask to be paid, you’re not always at the whim of company. Don’t undervalue your skills, if a client likes your work enough to want to associate themselves with it, they (hopefully) should be willing to make some sort of compromise. If a company offers you a price which is genuinely unreasonable, don’t be afraid to negotiate. A collective shift where artists start demanding fairness will mean the industry benefits as a whole. Once they have offered you reimbursement, contracts are crucial right from the get-go. If a job is commenced without a written agreement in place, companies can refuse to pay you, change the direction or pull out at any stage of the project.

While situations differ greatly and there can be plenty of challenging circumstances to navigate, if there’s a shift in the way artists respond to opportunities offered by large companies, it can in turn change the way that these companies approach artists and view their craft. Because at the end of the day, artists deserve to spend less time being ripped off, and more time creating art.

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