Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Dangers of Working For Free

As an artist, I've had my fair share of people asking for free work. I try to respond kindly with a thanks but no thanks. Sometimes they reply with an, "oh I understand, thanks anyway". Sometimes the person responds with self righteous anger, balking at the thought that something like a few character concepts should be paid for.

Perhaps you have been in the same situation. It usually consists of promises of unicorns and golden rays of sunshine that will come once the project is complete. "See, we aren't making money yet" the person will tell you, "so we can't pay you anything now but when the project starts making lots of money we'll all share it". Riiiiight...

Let me outline the dangers artists face by falling for these types of projects. First we need to outline the types of people that come knocking. They usually fall into one of the following categories:

  1. They are doing it just for fun with some friends in some basement and therefore aren't serious enough about it to pay for anything. They are doing for the lulz and surely an artist like you isn't in it for money either.
  2. They truly believe they have a guaranteed next big multimillion dollar hit and expect you to bring it to life so that one day both of you can sip margaritas on some paradise island toasting to your new life of luxury even though they have no prior experience in the field they expect to break into (what I like to call, delusions of grandeur).
  3. They work for some non-profit company and hope that they can pull on your heartstrings enough to guilt you into working for free.
  4. Or the worst of the worst- They work for a "start up" publishing company and promise you exposure and lots of future work (not necessarily paid work either) if you agree to work on a few projects for free. Essentially, they want a sucker and a slave. 

Now don't get me wrong, I am not knocking on artists who give their time to charitable causes. After all, there are a few perfectly legitimate times when you may want to say yes to giving free work, but be careful. I'll go into this later.

 Let's get back to the problem here. The reason why people ask for free work in the art industry is simple- they under value the worth of art. There is this false belief that somehow skilled artists are magical people who can just "whip something up" and it's no big deal. They think it doesn't take time, and whatever time it does takes simply isn't worth paying for upfront because art is everywhere.

These "unfinanced entrepreneurs", as comic illustrator Mark Evanier refers to them, simply don't realize or appreciate the sheer amount of work they are requesting for the mere chance of getting paid at a later date. In his words, "Unfinanced entrepreneurs don't have any money — or, if they do, they're not dumb enough to risk it on their own projects. They want you to assume the risk." So true. What's funny is that it's these very people who don't see how true it is.

Imagine for a second the following scenario. You are contacted via e-mail by a guy who claims to have this amazing idea. He starts off by telling you how great the project is and that once it takes off, you will have a share in the profits, all he needs is someone to bring his vision to life. Think for a minute, if it's that great of a project and sure to make money, surely he could front a little of his own money to hire professional work and get his money back when the project takes off no problem. But no, the minute you suggest the very thought of investing in his own project he starts making excuses as to why he can't.  Then he starts throwing out phrases like "couldn't you this or that", "in your spare time", "whip something up" (as if illustrating a complex scene takes only 30 minutes).  So, what he really wants is for YOU to forgo paying projects to spend time on HIS project for free. It's not like he's asking you to put your own money into the project or anything. (Cue rolling eyes). Essentially he's asking you to hold all the risk.

It's during situations above that I want to ask the other person what he or she does for living. My response may be something like this: "Oh, you work in construction? Hey, since we're buddies here, I need a fence hole dug in my yard. I mean I can't pay you, but could you do it in your spare time, like on the weekends or something? When it's all done I may win the monthly best yard award and then I could pay you.  It's only a couple of days worth of work after all. Better yet, why not just offer your services for free to everyone? I mean surely you must be in the construction business because it's your passion. Money shouldn't matter to you, right?" I can only imagine their stammering response.

Perhaps in a perfect world we wouldn't need money. I would love to work for free but I can't eat for free and I can't live for free. What's more, I spent money to go to college to earn a 4 year degree in art. It wasn't some magical skill that just appeared one day that took no time to acquire. When someone hires me, they are paying for my expertise and knowledge and the blood sweat and tears it took to earn it. Don't undervalue your worth. The other guy will always want to get the most they can for the least amount possible. If you don't stand up for yourself, no one else will.

If I could get more people to see the ridiculousness of even asking for something like this artists all around the world would have more time to be productive instead of answering these crazy proposals with another monotonous, "thanks but no thanks".

So what are the dangers of accepting such offers? There are plenty. 
  • Let's go back to the first client example, the guys making a game for fun. You are into to games and it seems like it would be a good match for your portfolio. Also, it does kind of makes sense that if they aren't making money, they can't pay you right now. Maybe you could work it in. I mean, what if it hits it big and you missed on an amazing opportunity to be noticed? You could have been doing the concept art for the next Halo game for crying out loud! 

    Hold on there sparky. These guys aren't professionals. The chances of their game even being finished when it's done in everybody's "spare time" is so remote it's not even funny. And if in the one in a billion chance they do make it big, you better have something in writing or fat chance getting any slice of the pie. You did it for free after all. (Cue sarcasm) Obviously you just wanted to do it on your own so they don't owe you royalties or rights to the characters. If they don't seem like serious clients, chances are they aren't going to take you seriously either. Trust me, you don't want to go there.
  • Now let's look at the second client- the guy who has the golden idea. We've already talked a little about this but let's say it again- most big ideas are not so big. If they aren't already in the field they profess they are suddenly an expert in, tread carefully. Actually just go the other way unless he makes it worth your time. If his idea isn't worth his own money, it's not worth your time end of story. Also remember, all he has is an idea. He's relying on you to make it happen and no doubt plans to pay you a fraction of what he earns because after all it, it was his idea. He wants you to do all the work and take all the risk so that HE can have all the reward. Even if someone like this is willing to pay, be sure you get a solid contract.
  •  Now let's talk about doing work for the non-profit cause client. Be careful here. Just because a business isn't profitable doesn't mean that the business is "non-profit". If you are contacted by a third party like a marketing firm or ad agency working for a charity you are entitled to ask if they in fact are doing their part of the work for free. If they are getting paid, they should have it in the budget to pay you too. Also, if you don't agree with their cause don't do the work. You don't want your name plastered by something that makes your skin crawl. If it's a great cause, and you want to do it, be sure you clearly outline what you are willing to do so that there are no surprises.
  • And lastly- the start up publishing company. They promise exposure, they promise the world, all for the low price of only- your soul. Don't do it. You will become a slave. The companies are in the business of making money and they should know better. "Start-up" or not, if they want professional talent they need to be willing to pay for professional talent. If they don't use professional talent they aren't likely to stay in the business for long. If they promise to pay you at a later date you better have a solid contract that includes a phrase akin to- I'm getting paid regardless of the success of this project on this date. 

There was one common underlying theme from all the scenarios above- don't underestimate the importance of contracts. If they squirm at having in writing getting paid at a later date, RUN. Legitimate project managers and companies have no reason to be scared of a piece of paper. It's the people who want to promise you the moon and throw out words like "trust" or "why bother with contracts" who plan to skip out on you who don't like to be tied down.  I strongly suggest you ask for 50% upfront and 50% once the project is complete.   Most clients aren't going to have a problem with this.

Now I realize there are artists of all levels who read my blogs.   Some of you may wonder if any of the above applies to you.  Here's the real question- if you want to work as a professional artist you need to ask yourself if you are at that level.  If you are, you should be paid for your work.  If you are not, spend your time getting to that level.  If along the way you want to take on some free projects to help boost your portfolio, tread carefully.  You will likely get burned.  Your time is of value.  Don't waste it. 

In the words of Mark Evanier, "You have a limited amount of creative energy. It's finite, if only because there are only so many hours in a day. Value that creative energy. Because if you don't, no one else will."


Anonymous said...

If a cable guy can charge me $300 to show up at my place to install a socket point to fix my phone line then why can't artists with skills that are more refined charge more than "free"?

Some artists get so stuck in their world that they can fall into poverty in a 1st world country. I honestly struggle to understand how that happens.

I think artists need to integrate themselves into normal society. Do other jobs for money and life experience. Sometimes people need to experience the hardship and benefits of other jobs to realise things.

There are as many sob stories as there are artists. It's a struggle that will never end unless people structure the industry. Art is seems celebrity based. Sometimes even controlled by power bloggers/cyberbullies.

The best art related industry to work in is gambling. They pay well and on time and they don't ask for impossible or illegal things. It's like a real office job but you get to do art.

Ashley said...

I used to work as a web designer before I switched to illustration and I see the same thing in that field. The cheap labor and free templates that amateurs are creating dilute the market value of the skills of the professional in the eyes of the layman. It's the bane of the freelance web designer. The biggest way to combat this in both areas is to educate the potential employers and artists about the value of these skills. Thanks for your comment.