Working for Free: Helpful or Harmful?

Working for Free: Helpful or Harmful?

Working for Free: Helpful or Harmful?

"Work", CC by Billy Wilson on Flickr

Ta-Nehisi Coates had an interesting article recently in the Atlantic about being asked, as an emerging journalist, to write for free. He got his leg up in the industry that way, and he makes the argument that there’s no ethical problem with asking people to write without paying them (as in, for the exposure). Obviously, there are strong feelings on both sides of this issue, and I found myself pondering the question anew in relationship to composing, though really it holds true for any artistic endeavor.

The more I think about it, it seems you can make an ethical argument on either side of the debate depending on if you see yourself primarily as an entrepreneur or a professional. That’s because the arts are neither businesses nor professions in the true sense of either word, and neither model fits that well—whatever path you choose, it’s going to be a compromise. In my own case, I always try to get paid and I usually succeed, but if it’s a project I really care about, I don’t let a failed grant application stop me.

Professional vs. Entrepreneur

For a professional, working solely for the exposure means taking a loss: income that you might have earned otherwise is being replaced by free work. The non-artistic parallel would be someone like a lawyer or a dentist. You might offer your professional services for free occasionally as an act of charity, but you wouldn’t do it to build your client base: you get new clients through your reputation for good work, you pay for advertising, or both. But even when you advertise, you don’t do it by doing work for free, you list your services somewhere that you hope will attract the attention of people who might be interested in them.

Part of being a professional is that your services are both rarified and generic: there are lots of people doing exactly what you do, but that’s okay because those services are hard to perform and there is a large demand for them. There’s also usually a strong barrier to entry in the form of professional certification, so when people see DDS behind your name, they assume they will receive a certain degree of dental competency (usually): dentists don’t have to do a free filling for every patient to prove they know how to drill.

For an entrepreneur it’s a different story, and the issue of working for free becomes unimportant. Time devoted to free work is an investment in your reputation, your professional network, your skills, your business plan. Entrepreneurs concern themselves with building a critical mass of interest that will lead to huge demand for their work some day. But until they get to that point, they’re perfectly happy to work for free or even at a substantial loss; after all, that’s why the entire culture of venture capital and angel investors developed around Silicon Valley. As an entrepreneur, you might advertise in addition to working for free, but basically all of your activities are designed around building a name for yourself. And in fact, working for free is usually better than advertising, because people want to see you can deliver the goods before they give you their money.

That is because entrepreneurs are working in largely undefined markets, providing services that are specialized and designed to meet a potential demand. There is no certification to show that the product or service will meet the buyer’s need, and in fact, the buyer may not even be aware of the need in the first place. (The Nest thermostat is a good example.) The only way to get people to commit their money is the “try before you buy” approach. Once you succeed in building a critical mass, you can ramp up your production and realize economies of scale that lead to massive profits.

Choosing an Approach for the Arts

Artists can follow either of these two models, but neither works that well. You can’t sue another composer out of business because s/he didn’t get the right academic degree, and you can’t automate your creative output so that you’re cranking out 100,000 hit songs a day, so the expected goal for both models doesn’t apply to artists. Sure, there are a few professional composers who command enough demand that they can simply wait for the commissions to come in and not do anything else. There are also a few entrepreneurs who start ensembles or concert series or solo acts and manage to build a paying career around that. However, most artists following either model end up failing, because the arts is a winner-takes-all market: the successes are exceptions that prove just how bad of a fit the models are to begin with.

That said, being an artist is intrinsically interesting to a lot of people so they keep on trying to do things for free or on a shoestring, despite the sky-high failure rate. That’s part of the intrinsic nature of art-making, and it’s the reason we continue to have an endless supply of starving artists no matter how much subsidy goes into the sector. For the same reason, you shouldn’t let someone guilt you into not working for free if you want to. Your decision to create doesn’t have any impact on their ability to earn a living making their art, because this is not a supply-and-demand industry and there is no corresponding downward wage pressure.

It’s also worth noting that whatever your model or your career, when you engage in work outside of your discipline, it’s almost always unpaid. Lawyers aren’t usually paid to write journal articles or serve on the boards of professional associations. Entrepreneurs aren’t usually paid to appear on TV or guest author blog posts. Similarly, while the types of writers Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses may feel morally outraged to write for free, I’ve never had any expectation that someone would pay me to write this blog—I do it for my enjoyment and because people seem to be reading it. Yet according to the professional model, I would have to conclude that my blogging is undermining the work of paid journalists and that I should stop doing it.

In the end, I think the issue of getting paid or not to do artistic work is irrelevant. At some level, you need to earn a living, but the income doesn’t need to be connected to your art, and even if it is, it won’t make your art any better and it won’t necessarily make it any worse either. Why? Because being a professional or an entrepreneur has never been closely tied to the act of art-making. Art comes from some pre-economic facet of human evolution and serves needs that are not monetizable. Some people get lucky and fall into successful professional or entrepreneurial careers in the arts, but most have a day job to supplement their art-making, whether teaching their art form at a university (e.g. professor of composition), giving piano lessons, or working in a non-artistic role.

What we can learn from the whole culture of blogging and writing for free is that what you get paid is not a reflection of the value of your work. There are lots of great blogs I read that are written for free; I don’t respect the authors less because they don’t have salaried journalists’ positions. And sure, many types of work require capital investments—not everything can be done for free and I would never want that to be the case, because we would lose a valuable body of work. But that doesn’t mean the work done for free isn’t also valuable. As Coates says, if you have something to say that you think is valuable, you should say it.

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