Why I don't write for free – and nor should you

The unedifying topic of artists and 'creatives' working for free has raised its head again this week. It has been reported that professional dancers were recently invited to perform in the taping of a music video for Kylie Minogue, "unpaid but [a] great opportunity and fun". Apparently the budget didn't allow for payment, but the producers promised "to feature as many faces as possible" and it would be great "exposure".

There have subsequently been denials that anyone appeared in the video without payment, along with contradictory reassurances that: "The atmosphere on the set was amazing and everyone involved was thrilled to be part of it". Some dancers were reportedly paid, but only just.

Whatever the truth in this case, the general issue of people being asked to work for nothing but 'exposure' comes up all to often in various creative fields, including writing, photography, public speaking and various performing arts. At the same time, there is increasing demand for young professionals to work unpaid – under the guise of internships – in exchange for 'experience'.

The so-called 'limited budget'

The thing that intrigues me about this situation is that those who offer these 'great opportunities' tend to constrain their offers to people who provide essentially time-based work. So there is no budget for Kylie's dancers to be paid, but strangely there must have been budget for studio hire, for videography, for costumes, for catering and, indeed, for management. (Presumably those asking for free input were happy to be paid themselves.)

The same thing happens often in writing, particularly in the media, with various magazines and other outlets not willing to pay writers while still being able to pay for printing and distribution and/or web hosting and so on.

Of course any creative endeavour has a limited budget. But if funding can be found for some inputs to a project, it really should be found for all of them. Otherwise said project should be adjusted in its scope. The solution to an inability to balance the books shouldn't be the taking advantage of someone's talent.

An undervaluing of skills

A fundamental problem here is the failure to properly recognise the value of a talented person's time – not the time need to perform a task, but the time needed to build up the skills necessary to perform that task at the level required. The countless hours of training, practice and experience that go into becoming a professional dancer, for instance. Or the hours of training, practice and experience that go into being a competent writer.

It's a bit like stealing content off the internet using the logic that downloading, say, a song 'doesn't cost the artist anything and if I couldn't get it for free I wouldn't listen to it at all'. Like offers of 'exposure', this is a selfish premise because it assumes others out there will be willing to not only pay a fair rate but indeed subsidise those who 'don't have the budget' to pay.

To some extent this is a societal problem. We have long undervalued artistic creativity relative to purely economic endeavours. Lawyers, management consultants and CEOs are highly paid because they can readily point to the financial value they add (even if their claims are sometimes dubious). This is much harder to do for the painter, the dancer or, in many cases, the writer.

Which makes it a difficult problem to solve.

Don't work for free

The only thing that can be done is for as many creative professionals as possible to refuse offers of unpaid or underpaid work (with the exception of genuine pro bono contributions) no matter how grandiose the promises of exposure or experience. Creatives need to refuse to be taken advantage of and focus instead on communicating the value of their talent and their work. And encourage others to do likewise.

If creative work is how you make your living, you can't afford to be giving your time away.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please contact me directly, via our Facebook page or in the comments below.

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