Freelancing for Free?
There it lies in my inbox, another tantalising proposition for illustrators. Carefully written, brimming with enthusiasm and creative aspirations, how this wonderful project will be seen by all kinds of important people…. it all looks very exciting. So I scroll down for the important details: what’s the brief? When is the deadline? And, crucially, what is the fee? But oh ….. how strange, there’s no mention of fees. And then comes the fateful line, usually in small print right in the last paragraph…
“Although there is no fee for participation this will be a great opportunity for exposure”
Well, as has often been repeated, people can die from exposure. And yet nowadays we constantly hear in the creative industry of projects and “opportunities” for artists and other creatives that offer no pay at all, but are, bizarrely, supposed to be good for us. Now, feeding myself and my daughter and maintaining a roof over our heads is good for us, it keeps the two of us alive, that’s for sure. But working for free? Erm, nooooo!
It used to be the case that low fees were undermining the business of illustration, that is bad enough in itself. But now we hear tales of no fees at all! That’s nothing. Zilch!
Generally these so-called opportunities fit into one of two types:
The “Good for Exposure” Project
The client needs creative work, but say they don’t have the budget for a fee. Instead they persuade artists by saying it will be great “exposure” for your work, or a great addition to your portfolio. They might tempt you with “this one is free but it will lead on to other work” (probably also free!). They might add “all our other contributors are doing it for free”. Often they don’t have funds because the business model is fundamentally flawed. Nomatter how well the illustration is packaged there is no respect for the actual illustrator, the project has not budgeted for creative content, only for production. So the printer gets paid, the distributor gets paid, and maybe the publisher gets paid. But not the malleable contributors.
Sometimes the projects are worded as if they are charities, artists are thanked for “donating their services” – well that’s great for philanthropy, sometimes I offer my work for free to a worthy cause I believe in, a registered charity that will benefit people or environments in crisis. That’s my decision, because I want to support the charity. But a commercial enterprise is not a charity. You’re selling a product or service? You pay the printer? Then you pay me!
Good for your portfolio? No it’s not, because if it’s free, the chances are it’s an unprofessional job that will mean nothing to a respectable art director. If you want to improve your portfolio work on your own projects!
The client (especially self-publishers) might suggest a profit-sharing agreement “If the project is successful the contributors will be paid”, or “we’ll split the profits”. If you’re a writer considering this, don’t! – this is dragging your contributors into your gamble. Speculation means risk – only offering payment if the project/product sells is obliging people you employ to take on your risk. Freelance illustrators are not in a position to gamble on other people’s ideas.
It’s not only published material, the same principle applies to speaker engagements – if you’re asked to speak at an event you should be paid, unless it’s a group you yourself is involved with and want to freely volunteer for.
The Speculative Pitch
The other type of “free” work is when major clients ask illustrators for spec work to compete for a job. Juried competitions for illustrators have been around for a long time – freely submitted works are selected by a jury for an important exhibition or a notable prize, the winners get the prize, those rejected – well, better luck next time. I don’t go in for this kind of thing, but I can understand the appeal for others if the prize/award/exhibition is big enough to warrant pursuing. However in recent years this practice has been twisted into use by companies for nothing more substantial than an illustration commission. The word is put out, artists are commissioned or invited to pitch by creating a sample piece of free artwork, the client just picks the one they like, the rest go hungry.
A friend recently shared this fun animation that spells it out very clearly.
I’ve even seen some competitions that require artists to pay submission fees, with nothing more substantial to offer the winner than a poster commission. Not only is this an appauling way to treat artists, it’s an invitation for unscrupulous clients to use whatever they want from the rejected artwork as well as the chosen piece.
But what’s that you say? Having to pay contributors prevents cash-strapped entrepeneurs starting worthy projects? Ground-breaking, start-up initiatives with great ideas will have to sell out to find the funds? Well there are innumerable ways that new projects can raise money, ranging from applying for Arts Council grants to staging benefit fund-raising events, from pursuing selective sponsorship to forging distribution deals. All things that should be established before commissioning writers and illustrators. Attaining backing is not a simple task, no one is saying it’s easy, so many of these start-up enterprises don’t even bother to pursue funding, it’s so much easier to just say “no fee” and push the pain down the chain onto their contributors.
Collectives and collaborations are other ways to approach low-budget enterprises – in a collective everyone pools resources and shares the risk (and the profit if it’s a success), the contributors control the project, it’s a group responsibility. In the same way writers collaborating with illustrators, submitting as a team to publishers or self-publishing as joint authors – it’s your project, not a client’s. Neither of these are the same as asking artists to work for free on a commercial concern they don’t own or control.
I once ran a music fanzine back in my post-art college days. The first issue cost very little to produce, was badly printed and was entirely created and distributed by me, but it sold out with a small profit, which enabled issue 2 to be better printed and have a bigger print run. That too sold out, which funded more improvements in issue 3… and so it grew. Gradually it evolved into a fine little journal, in the end there were other contributors, all paid a moderate but acceptable fee for their contribution. I’m not saying every project should work this way, but it goes to show how new ventures can get going, grow and maintain their integrity, without “selling out”. The trouble is a lot of these non-payers are not interested in looking after their contributors, they regard them as the weakest, most flexible part of the production chain. Or, due to the parameters of the job they are unwilling/unable to put time and effort into growing something from a small acorn to majestic oak.
Unethical proposals have always been around, in the past they were in the realm of unscrupulous outfits and beginners, but nowadays the “unpaid gig” is creeping into every aspect of mainstream creative media and the arts, from small entrepeneurs to the biggest publications and corporations. These practices are becoming more and more prevalent from companies who should know better. And of course they do know the score, but they also know that for all the professional artists who walk away there will be a bunch of young illustrators desperate for work, any work, who leap at the chance to get into print. Paid or unpaid.
No, no, no, no NO! I will not work for free, and I will not stand by and see fellow illustrators taken advantage of. “This opportunity may not be right for every artist” says one no-payer. Believe me, it is not right for any artist, it’s not something we can ignore, free work is undermining the industry, not only for those who undertake such work, but for every freelancer. Free work is sapping the life out of the creative business, it’s not an opportunity, it’s an abuse, and it must be stopped!
So I’m taking a pledge. From now on every time I hear about or receive one of these bad practice “opportunities” I’ll warn all the artists I know, I’ll post on Twitter and wherever necessary. I won’t just let it pass.
Some further reading
There is a lot of material on the web from artists and other creatives standing against no-fee assignments, here are a few good articles: Emmeline Pidgen article against working for free Lauren Panepinto post on the differences between Spec Work, Working for Exposure, and Competitions The Business of Illustration on Working for Free, including a link to Harlan Ellison’s much shared but timelessly hilarious rant Pay the Writer.