Free?? A Controversial Opinion on Why Unpaid Collaboration isn’t a Terrible Thing

There are an awful lot of posts around, from artists, writers, musicians – anyone in the creative industries really – saying that they are tired of being offered work for ‘exposure’ or ‘experience’ or to ‘build their portfolio’. Certainly, if you are a well established professional with a huge customer base and a backlog of waiting clients, having people asking your services for free might seem an insult and a hassle. Yet let us consider that cash isn’t always king. What would you think if approached to spend a day or two working to help the following:

  • A charity, who is doing a big fundraising project for a cause you believe in?
  • A newcomer, who is short on cash, but who you see a lot of potential in?
  • An unpaid job that would be absolutely phenomenal publicity?
  • A brand or service that you really, personally like?
  • A newcomer to the scene, who reminds you a little of yourself, when you first started, who is still finding their feet?

Within the strange and wonderful world of roles surrounding the swing and kink scene, there are numerous figures who rise up in notoriety, success, and even financial gain. There are also many who stay in squalid obscurity. One thing is for sure; it is a small, small world after a little while. There is a lot of little fish in the pond and a very few big sharks.

Is everyone scrabbling with each other to carve their niche?

It happens, certainly. Yet it is largely unnecessary. Does it need to be a zero-sum game? Unless you are in exact competition for the same resource (be it guests, readers, or money in some other way) at the same time, it really isn’t. The little fish need not compete with each other – they waste all their energy fighting for scraps. As real fish have learned, the best thing to do when you are fairly little is to stick together- form a shoal. Collaborate.

That’s not to say that anyone should be taking damage from the hands of another in the aim of co-operative spirit, rather that everyone has something different to bring to the table. One person’s prolific content might be just the thing for another’s avid followers. One person’s unique theatrical skills might be amazing at another’s party event. What do we get if we work together?

We get better events. We get better content. We get a product that is better value for money than anything else out there. We get clients, customers, readers, participants, who want to stay. To support the thing they love. To be part of a community. To come back again. To try new things that are associated with their entry point into the experience. To find names they recognize and trust to provide them with a new experience that they will love. You can’t buy people like that with paid for ads. You earn people like that by putting your pride on the shelf and immersing yourself into a project.

Does this sound like socialism? Maybe a bit. But it’s not a political form. It’s a pragmatic one. If you are a small fish – low on capital, kudos, followers, influence and experience, there is no disadvantage to collaborating with carefully chosen people. As well as raising your profile, it also enhances your skills. It grows your knowledge. It gives you a show portfolio of better quality than you could ever have made alone.

Let’s consider something outside of the arts; say, medicine. Would you expect a doctor to work for free (Doctors without Borders notwithstanding)? Of course not. They make a great rate. Yet they do work for free. They spend years working for free. Once you consider the initial investment into training they make to qualify, the additional hours they put in to gain skills and experience once they do qualify, and the sacrifices made in the rest of their lives to achieve it, you could justifiably say that they spend many years working for free, before they even break even. They aren’t sneering at the opportunity to assist on an additional surgery. Junior lawyers aren’t turning down the opportunity to work on tough cases. Yet it does seem, based on complaints seen, that those in the arts have it toughest. Why charge for your band to play if you’ll need to be practicing anyway? How can an illustration cost so much when it only takes you half an hour?

Clearly, everyone needs to make ends meet. Yet there can be a fine line between balancing the books and just being a hack. Most artists, of any form, love (and in some ways also hate) their art. Should all artists not always be doing what they love for free? No, of course not. If you have a talent and a skill that can be turned to paying your rent then, by all means, this is a sensible right to exercise. Most art has a finite wellspring within the artist. If you paint for 8 hours a day, you don’t necessarily want to paint another four for free to help someone out. The prevalence of people willing to work for free (or the expectation that they will) within the arts is said to reduce the rates others can charge. The cumulative effect is that everyone is working every hour they can spare, for a pittance. I acknowledge all of this.

Is it an insult to be asked to work for free? I would say it never is. If someone has approached you, it means they trust that you are capable to do the job. They think you could do it well. They think you are the best person to ask out of anyone else they might have asked to do it for free. The question is, why does it have to be free?

There can be different reasons. Some people/companies are just a bit cheeky. Some think they are so impressive that the very chance of affiliation with them should have everyone weak at the knees. Some are genuinely small, run in a very generous way to their patrons or clients, or simply don’t have the budget for the project to offer you what they really feel you are worth. Some might be unsure of your value to them, especially if you are not well established yourself. It’s not usually that hard to figure out which is which: The internet is useful like that.

Here’s a flow chart to guide your decisions for pro-bono work and collaborations:

flow diagram for decision making regarding whether to undertake unpaid work as a collaborative effort for experience, advertising, skills development or networking opportunities, considering business factors and sector similarity

Basically, consider working for free selectively. Bear in mind that others won’t usually know whether or not you’ve chosen to work for free. Consider that there is a little bit of business karma in the world, especially with the small fish. Sometimes a collaborative project ends up being as much your own achievement as it is the person who presents the opportunity to you. Little fish survive better together. Even great whites start as tiny fish.

Happy hunting, baby fishies! xxx

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