Why Working For “Free” Isn’t Always Working For “Free”
Since I’ve had this discussion so many time with so many people, I thought it was about time I just wrote an entry here that I can refer back to in the future. As a freelance artist, I do a lot of work for “free”. You see it all the time: people soliciting talent but with no budget and promising experience, exposure, a good time, etc. I’ve seen more and more artist friends protesting against this and saying that we shouldn’t work for free and that we must value our own talents or no one will.
Now, let me first say that I absolutely do not disagree with these sentiments and I’m not here to argue against them. I just don’t think that it’s nearly so simple or black and white. As an actor, I’d say %95 of what I do, I do for “free”. Now I use that work in quotes because it’s misleading. I mean that I do not receive monetary compensation for it. I do however receive many benefits that I think are worth something and I think this can apply to many freelancers whether you’re an artist, web designer, photographer, writer, etc. I have been an actor/musician for most of my life and a professional (in some sense of the word) for 25+ years. For the last 6 years it has been a large part and sometimes a majority of my income. What do I get from “working for free”?
A) It’s like going to the gym. I get to practice my craft, keep my skills honed and my “acting muscles” in shape. I did over 40 projects in a 3 month period (only 1 of which ended up being not worth my time) and I could definitely feel the benefit. I remember specifically going in for a feature film audition and feeling like I was able to tap into some places much more easily because of some of the “free” projects I had recently done that allowed me to explore some places where I had less experience. I don’t see it as “working for free” as much as I see it as “training for free”. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars for classes, I’m actually acting in real world projects. Now I’m not saying it’s necessarily a substitute for classes (especially for newer actors), but it’s still a form of free training. More of a companion to formal training.
2: I love what I do and I would always rather be working than not. The people I know who have decided that they weren’t working for less than X amount, tend to work a lot less than me. Now maybe they make the same amount of money as I do for less work. I don’t know but I want to work and be involved in as many projects as I can because it’s almost like the lottery, the more you play the more chances you have to win.
Γ- This business is definitely far more about opportunities and the people you know than strictly talent (which is sad, but true, I believe). I have made so many great friends and fostered professional relationships through these projects that never would have happened if I refused to work on free projects and you never know where those roads could lead. Some have indeed led to actual paid work that I would have never had access to otherwise. It has led to many people actually writing parts specifically for me. It has led to me being cast without even auditioning. I’ve been in some awesome films that went on to win awards at film festivals and such. All because of my working for “free”.
π} It can come back to you in all kinds of ways. Several years ago, my friend, Lars, and I set out to film some scene samples from a feature to try and get some funding. We had to actually produce a detailed budget to submit for grants and such. We filmed on the RED ONE, had a full crew and grip package, etc. By the budget, what we produced should have cost $15,000. It actually cost around $2000 because of all the talented, wonderful people we had met while working for “free” who believed in us, liked working with us and knew of our talents. These people wanted to be part of our project and donate their time and equipment largely because of all the “free” work we had done together. I know that if I finally get into a position to throw some money around, the first people I’m going to involve are those that I’ve worked with and love working with and who have lent me their talents in the past. Even at the point I am at now, I am always recommending my friends and throwing opportunities their way whenever I can.
As I said, I do think we need to value our talents, and I would certainly like to see more respect for actors. I’ve been on so many projects where the crew is being paid but the actors are not because so many people want to be actors and so many people think that the on camera jobs are the fun and glamorous jobs, but that’s another issue altogether.
There is no one correct path and you have to do what is right for you, but don’t be deceived. “Free” work can very much be worth it. Yes, I’d love to be making a living doing what I love but the important part, to me at least, is the “doing what I love” part. I believe the rest will come. And so far, I’ve been mostly right.
Now, anybody got any good jobs for me? 😉
I just started a pretty dreamy job making more money than I ever have, doing very cool creative things for a video game and feature film project with extremely flexible hours to pursue acting and auditions and such, and this job came about directly because of all the free work I’ve done with these folks.