Let’s say your bathroom sink started acting wonky. It suddenly only put out freezing cold water. No hot water to be found anywhere. So you call up a plumber.
“Hey,” you say. “I need you to fix my sink. It has no hot water.”
“OK, I’ll email you an estimate of how much that will cost you,” replies the plumber.
“Oh, I can’t pay you! But I’ll be sure to tell anyone who asks that you’re a great plumber. And the experience would be great for you!”
Would you say that? Of course you wouldn’t, because you’re not an idiot or a jerk.
Now imagine you’re a filmmaker and you need to hire a composer to write an original score for your film.
“Hey,” you say. “I need you to fix my film. It has no music.”
“OK, I’ll email you an estimate of how much that will cost you,” replies the composer.
“Oh, I can’t pay you! But I’ll be sure to tell anyone who asks that you’re a great composer. And the experience would be great for you!”
See what I’m getting at?
“But Megan,” you might protest, “plumbers are necessary! Art isn’t!”
In that case, I suggest that you go live in an alternate universe with no films, no music, no video games, no visual art of any kind, no cool architecture, and potato sacks for clothing, and then tell me that art isn’t necessary.
“But Megan,” you say, “if someone truly loved art, they would do it just for the art! Anyone who refuses to work for free clearly doesn’t have good motives. They’re only after money.”
Ah, yes, because if someone wants to make money in this world, the obvious path to do so is to become an artist!
Let me explain why I, personally, won’t work for free. I love composing for film more than anything on this earth. I live it, I breathe it. I want to devote as much time and energy as I possibly can to being a film composer. Sadly, things like food, water, shelter, musical instruments, and cat maintenance aren’t free. And yes, I could go get a “real” job. But in my experience, having another job that I have to devote time and energy to chips away at the creative energy and motivation I need to create music. So, when you pay me to write music for you, you’re paying for me to be the best composer I possibly can. And believe me, if you could see where I live, you would know that I’m definitely not getting rich off of these payments. And that’s okay! I just want to be able to survive while doing what I love and providing the best music I can for the projects that filmmakers love.
“But Megan,” you say, “I have another job/I have a trust fund/I’m a hermit and I live in a cave. I don’t need money! I do it because I love it!”
Yes, but this is about more than just you. You may feel that your time and energy aren’t worth payment, but would you say that about other artists? Because when you work for free, you are essentially telling the world that art isn’t worth anything.
Consider, also, that many (although not all) people go to college to learn their craft. And if, like me, they’re in the US, they probably have some student loans. So they went into debt to learn how to create the best product possible for their future clients. The least anyone can do is help them out a little.
A tiny Megan Carnes, blissfully unaware of the debt in her future.
Now, I am not completely unsympathetic to the other side. I am aware that many people aren’t swimming in cash. Especially when you take someone like a filmmaker working on their micro budget dream film. I have lowered my rates significantly to work on beautiful projects that I really believed in. I have let filmmakers who have given me past work use my pre-existing music for free.
And this is going to contradict what I have said already, but there are circumstances when I think it’s okay to not get paid for your work. They are as follows:
1) You’re just starting out.
I’m going to talk about this in terms of film composing, but it probably applies to basically every field. When you’re an artist, you’re basically selling a product (whether you like to think of it that way or not). And nobody is going to buy your product if they have no idea if the product will be any good. So, in my case, while I was in school, I scored some short films for free. School was the perfect time to do it, because while I was learning music theory and history, I was also teaching myself how to make these things work in the context of film. I minored in film and befriended many student filmmakers whose short films I scored. I also met some aspiring filmmakers online and wrote free music for them. Then, by the time I got out of school, I had a decent reel and filmography, and people started offering me money for my services.
School is the perfect time to get experience and make connections. But if you’re not in school, no worries! Take some time to find people who are willing to have their work done by a newb, practice your craft, and build up a reel or portfolio. I’d say set a time limit for how long this will take you, and after that point, start asking for payment. For me, it was about 2 years before I started getting paid, but I’d imagine you can do it in less.
2) There’s a trade involved.
So the person simply doesn’t have the money to pay you. But they have skills that could be helpful to you. Maybe, if you score this film, they’ll cut together a reel for you. They’ll design your wedding invitations. They’ll teach you some CSS so you can improve your website. They’ll, I dunno, give you a sweet haircut. You get the point. If they can do something you otherwise would have paid for, in exchange for you doing some work for them, I think that’s fair. I wouldn’t do it all the time, but I think this is fine for friends. You should still make sure you can use their thing on your portfolio/reel though. Actually, you should make sure you can use things you work on for your portfolio/reel as much as you possibly can.
Side note: I hate it when people act like experience and credit are payment enough for working for them. This may be news to some people, but I also get experience and credit on paid projects!
3) You really, really want to work on the project and they really, really can’t pay you.
This project is so amazing, so beautiful, that a dark depressive cloud would follow you around for months if you passed it up. And you’ve determined that there truly is no payment to be had. Well, artistic fulfillment can sometimes be payment enough. Just keep in mind everything I said above. And maybe explain to the client that this is a one-time deal because you truly love the project. You don’t want to be known as the free guy. And, of course, make sure it’s something you can use on your reel.
I was going to put a beautifully shot money related stock photo here, but I’m broke and can’t justify spending the money right now. So here is a free image of an 1888 German coin from archive.org. See? It’s a trade-off.
This blog post is in no way directed towards anyone I have worked with, paid or not. Every filmmaker I’ve worked with is so amazing, and I’m grateful for the opportunities they offered me. And, truth be told, I haven’t been asked to write a custom score for free in a long time (possibly since I’m so open about thinking that working for free is BS).
This is, though, directed towards some people I’ve seen making comments throughout the internet about how anyone who refuses to work for free must not really care about art. On the contrary: we ask to be paid for our work because we value art so highly. You should think about doing the same.