When Should You Work for Free?

Never. That’s when. You should always work for something. Never work for free.

When Should You Work for Free?

In my bestselling book, Real Artists Don’t Starve, I made the argument that creative people should never work for free, and this has to be one of the stickiest point of the book for many people. Some of my mentors and fellow creatives (like screenwriter and popular podcaster Brian Koppelman) called me out on this, saying it just wasn't true.

So, is working for free really a bad idea? Is it necessary to occasionally do a gig for nothing in exchange for exposure? Or should you always charge for your work?

Like most things, this issue is a little too complex for a simple cliche. So let's take it one piece at a time in this article. First, let's explore why working for free is a dangerous precedent to set and why you should avoid it at all costs if possible. Then, we will talk about the difference between working for free and working for nothing, and why you should always get something for your work. And finally, I’ll share when it’s okay to work for “free” (but not for nothing).

Confused yet? Don't worry. It will all make sense soon. Not only do I want to share my thoughts with you in this post, but I also recorded a special episode of The Portfolio Life to expand on these valuable lessons. You can listen below or read the article.

Listen to the podcast

Why you should never work for free

To start with, I’m sticking to my guns here, saying I don't think you should work for free. Ever.

But here's what I mean. Working for free means you are doing your best work—making your art, writing your poems, composing your music—for absolutely no compensation whatsoever. And that's a bad idea. Here’s why:

  1. People won’t value your work until you do. Usually, the best way to make others take your art more seriously is to charge for it.
  2. Getting paid will give your work greater dignity. We tend to value the things we pay money for. So not only will charging for your work cause others to take you more seriously. It will cause you to take you more seriously.
  3. You will be able to support yourself. It's no surprise that we all have bills and financial responsibilities. Making money off your art will allow you the freedom and flexibility to do more of the work you love while paying the bills.

The difference between free and nothing

Recently while speaking on a panel with a couple of experts in the music industry, I heard one of them explain the difference between working for free and working for nothing. I liked that. Another way to say it is you should always work for something, and that something needs to be more than “opportunity.”

So many creatives chase opportunity without knowing their real goal. Is it an introduction to a gatekeeper or tastemaker? A new addition to the portfolio? A testimonial or referral? They usually don't know. As a result, these talented makers, artists, and creatives give away their best work for no apparent reason, ultimately setting a precedent that their work is, well, worthless.

As Steven Pressfield poignantly puts it, “Opportunities are B.S.”

If you do not value your work, neither will anyone else.

Jeff Goins

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If you do not value your work, neither will anyone else. This is why we charge what we’re worth and always work for something. Because the work is worth it, we’re worth it, and this is the best way you can get people to value your work and therefore take it seriously.

But, on occasion, it makes sense to not ask for money for your work. This isn’t the same as working for free in the sense that you’re not getting anything. It just means you’re not being compensated with money. Let’s talk about that.

When to not charge for your work

So when does this make sense?

When is it better to not receive cash for your efforts but instead charge something else?

Here are three times when you shouldn’t charge for your work:

  1. When you can barter your services or products in exchange for items of equal value.
  2. When you can legitimately leverage an opportunity for future opportunities.
  3. When you want to simply be generous.

A final thought

Stuart Brand once said that information wants to be free. I think in many ways art wants to be free too. Most of the Internet supports this theory. That's why most great works of literature, music, and art quickly get pirated. Information wants to be free. It wants to be a gift to the world.

So this is bad news for artists, right?

Maybe not. Because even when it’s free, your work is not worthless. We understand there is inherent value to creative work. At least to good creative work. Otherwise people wouldn't want to pirate the work in the first place.

But we as creatives are constantly fighting this increasing expectation that our work should be available for free. So what do we do? Fight the trend and swim upstream against the status quote? Give up and give in and go broke?

No. We do neither. We don't fight it or give into this reality. We dance with this tension between art and commerce and use the expectations of the market while at the same time subverting a system that so often takes advantages of genius. We give away some of our work, but not all of it, and though it may seem as it we are doing this for free, it's not for nothing. Never for nothing.

This is where the idea of a freemium comes in: give away a part of your work in exchange for an opportunity to follow up with a potential client or customer. Use your work to earn a new fan.

Noisetrade. Blogging. Story Cartel. These are all examples of ways in which creatives are trading their art for attention. It looks like they’re working for free. But they're not. They're doing something far more clever and strategic than that.

Money isn’t the only currency. You can trade your art for the attention to spread your work even further.

Jeff Goins

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They're letting you download their music or writing or art in exchange for an email or a phone number or another chance to sell you something later. It’s not free. It’s worth something. And that’s all I’m saying. Always work for something. Your art deserves better than being a mere freebie on a toothpick at the grocery store. You deserve better too.

So that's it. Never work for free. Always work for something. And always know what that something is.

You can learn more about the value of your work when you pre-order the paperback version of Real Artists Don't Starve. In addition, you can pick up some extra bonuses available for a limited time:

  • Artist edition of the RADS workbook
  • Writer edition of the RADS workbook
  • 7-week book study Facebook group
  • Exclusive discount on Real Artists Don’t Starve Course ($70 off)

Get your copy of the book and claim you free bonuses here.

Do you value your work? Let me know how in the comments.