In my first full-time job out of undergrad, I made a whopping $21k/year teaching at a private school where parents paid $300/month for their children’s education. I quit that job after a year to pursue my Master’s Degree. I graduated, Master’s Degree in hand, to find a job market that did not really care about my advanced education or my years of experience writing and editing. The job I ended up getting was as a Publications Specialist for $12/hour for the first three months, and then for $14/hour for the year and a half I was there. Are you cringing yet? Does talking or thinking about money make you uncomfortable?
It shouldn’t. This is why: when you owe money in the form of student loans, car loans, personal loans, or credit card debt, companies aren’t shy about demanding it. Why should you feel uncomfortable about the one measure as to how people show how much they value the attributes you bring to the table and the work that you do?
Creative work is work. Full stop. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. As creatives, we tend to hear that there’s no money in art or passion projects. If there weren’t any money in those endeavors, we wouldn’t have professional writers, photographers, graphic designers, artists, dancers, singers, composers, or actresses. If there wasn’t money to be made out of creativity, movies would never get made or novels would never be published.
Creative work is work. Full stop.
When it comes to your creative talents and pursuits, demand acceptable pay. Talk to other people who are doing what you’re doing and see how much they charge. If you need to develop your talent further, see if you can work out an apprenticeship model in which you exchange your time for their knowledge. Sure, this goes against a literal reading of my thesis, but growing and learning requires some sacrifice. If you have someone willing to teach you and you can’t afford to pay them: your time and talents can be a form of currency.
I hear you, scratching your head and wondering, “Then when the hell is it acceptable for work for free and when is it not?” Glad you asked.
When to Work for Free
There’s a tangible opportunity - in writing: Let’s say you’re interviewing for a position and they ask you to provide a writing sample conforming to their prompt. This is work, but it's work that you are doing and time that you are investing in pursuing a hopefully well-paying job. Before you invest your time in this kind of endeavor, make sure that the company or customer that you are doing this for is willing to provide you with fair compensation if a job offer is made. Otherwise, you will have worked for free in pursuit of a job offer that does not accurately reflect your value as a creative.
It’s a close family member: Families. They’re complicated and messy, but most of the time they’re pretty alright. If the person asking for your time and talents served as parent/guardian figure, don’t be an asshole and do it for free. For everyone else, ask yourself if they would gladly donate an organ if you ever needed one. Blood bonds are great and all, but sometimes family members can be the bane of your existence. If these requests are too often for your liking (e.g., working 20 or more hours a month), set some clear boundaries.
It’s a close friend who is like family: See above.
You owe a friend a favor: Maybe they helped you with your resume, helped you move out of your apartment, designed your wedding invitations when they learned you were on a budget, or helped you out with designing a logo. Whatever this friend did for you, try to pay them back in kind. Don’t be a selfish asshole. Also, friends don’t let other friends become selfish assholes. If you think your friend is taking advantage of you, don’t work for free.
When it’s equal (and someone you trust is not taking advantage of you) and it benefits both (or all) of you (collaborative effort): Let’s say you’ve started a group project where if it takes off you will all benefit monetarily. Do it for free. There’s nothing as good as working with creatives in the pursuit of a common goal (just make sure there is a explicit goal and it’s not people doing as they please).
When you can learn something from them: You can develop your talents further, and with exponential results, with a mentor. If someone who could be your mentor is amenable to trading your time and skills with the caveat that they will teach you how to reach new creative heights, grab that opportunity and hold on to it until you feel like you’ve reached your goal.
You can develop your talents further, and with exponential results, with a mentor.
Charities Close to Your Heart: You may not have enough money to donate to the charities that mean something to you. This can be a recipe for self-flagellation, if I ever saw one. A way that you could help these entities is by donating our skills, abilities, and time in a project of their choosing. You can contact these organizations and get a sense of how your skills can fit in a void that they currently have. Once you have completed your project, make sure that you present them with a bill detailing how much you would have charged for this particular project. This bill shows the monetary value of your donation and acts as a reminder to yourself and others of how much your time and talents are actually worth. Side note: You know how you could afford to just send them a check in the future? That’s right: by demanding fair compensation.
When to Demand Fair Compensation
See that list above? Demand fair compensation for your talents if the scenario that you encounter is not listed above.
A Simple Note about Working for Exposure
For the love of Goddess, don’t work for exposure. Exposure doesn't pay the bills. If I could pay off my student loans with exposure, that’s all I’d be doing!
Working for exposure means that someone else is profiting from your time and talents. When you hear that you can work for exposure, translate that in your mind as them telling you “I’m going to profit from your hard work and not pay you a single cent.”
If there’s anything you take away from this article, please let it be this: run away from people who expect you to work for exposure. There’s no such thing.