When to Work For Free (And When Not To)

Oregon Trail: You Have Died of ExposureOver the past year, the general public has become increasingly ravenous over stories about the new economics of music and other creative fields.

2012 started off with news of class-action lawsuits that may bring an end to illegal unpaid internships. High-profile public conversations emerged when musicians debated when they should and shouldn’t work for free, and it appears that we’re at the beginning of seismic shift in the conversation surrounding creative rights and artists’ compensation.

These are growing preoccupations that seem to transcends disciplines. Just this past month, investigative journalist Nate Thayer called The Atlantic to task for asking to run one of his recent stories without pay. His spontaneous, off-the-cuff complaint became one of his most widely read pieces of writing to date.

His was a scathing indictment of business ethics at one of the most profitable publishers around today. To give some sense of how hot-button these issues have become, Thayer says that his viral little blog post attracted greater attention than when he tracked down deposed dictator Pol Pot in the jungles of Cambodia.

The Atlantic went into full-on defense mode for the better part of a week. While the publisher did offer a series of justifications and half-hearted apologies, neither a real admission of wrongdoing nor concrete word on an official policy ever emerged. Chances are, they’ve become just as confused about what’s ethical and tenable as the rest of us have.

Conversations about compensation of creative work may always be difficult. Most creative workers are driven to the point where they have no choice but to sing or to write, to sculpt images, words and sounds, with pay or without. Truth be told, not all of us will ever make a living doing these things – no matter how ethical or fair our systems become.

Still, it’s become clear that creative workers are eager to come to a renewed understanding of where the appropriate boundaries are. At what point does exhibition turn into exploitation? When is “free exposure” a valid reward, and in what doses does it turn lethal?

When To Work For Free: #1) Because It’s a Non-Profit, Charity or Community Group

There’s a simple question at the heart of the free labor issue: Is the work being done for a commercial business that stands to profit, either directly or indirectly?

If the answer is “yes,” then there’s about a 98.9% chance that you should be getting paid something, even if it’s just a token. (We’ll get into some of the rare exceptions to that in a minute.) But when it comes to non-profit organizations, all bets are off. Feel free to volunteer to your heart’s content. That’s what they’re there for.

Have no real professional experience, but want to build a portfolio? Non-profits are a great place to do it. Want to make lasting and meaningful contacts in your field? Go volunteer! Want to contribute something meaningful to the world in some small way? Get on it. You can volunteer for anything, from a research group working to cure to cancer, to a favorite cultural institution. Anything you’d like to donate your own money to is fair game: You can advocate for poor families or for stray pets, for bike lanes or for building casinos on the damn moon.

If your experiences are anything like mine, chances are you’ll get more high-level work experience at even a cash-strapped non-profit than you ever will by picking up coffee and dry cleaning at a major media firm. And why should a commercial company profit from your work without paying you, when you can spend the same energy helping a favorite charity do its job or get its message out?

But just because a group is a non-profit, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should work there for free. Many non-profits want to give back to their communities as well as their cause. And an increasing number are beginning to realize that spending more money on staff and fundraising can make them more effective – even if it does make some overhead-obsessed donors get all uptight. Great non-profits, just like great commercial firms, know that you will rarely get the best results by cutting every corner.

Non-profits often hire outside firms to do production and design work, too. There’s nothing unethical about getting paid to help a good cause, particularly if your contribution really does help them grow. However: If you find that one of these subcontracted for-profit firms asks you for help on a job that they’re getting paid well for, you might want to think twice about the arrangement. Shouldn’t your time be part of their budget? Or should you consider it a part of a donation that you’d like to give to the non-profit itself? It’s a decision only you can make.

Of course, some types of non-profits rely almost exclusively on paid labor. Universities and hospitals come to mind. Some might argue that tenured university professors are often expected to contribute to academic journals “for free.” But the catch there is that they are in fact being paid for that work – via a pretty bitchin’ salary with benefits. Publishing papers is just part of that job description.

When To Work For Free: #2) Because No One Is Making Any Money

An activity doesn’t officially have to be “non-profit” to be an acceptable avenue for free work. So many of us have played in bands, put on house shows, worked on art projects or helped our friends build something, simply because it’s fun or because we crave the outlet.

Maybe a good friend runs a DIY zine, podcast, or makes quirky little art films and everyone is in it for the subject matter or the experience. Some things are worth doing, just for the fulfillment of having done them. If everyone is on the same page and a project either can’t feasibly make money or never intends to, then just do it if you can justify the time.

Scientist itself started out this way. When no one was making anything, I felt completely comfortable asking people if they wanted to contribute or help out, just because it would be a potentially awesome thing to do. But as soon as we started taking ads and earning revenue, the rules changed. We had new responsibilities: If I was making any money, then so should contributors and editors, even if it’s just a token. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night any other way.

When To Work For Free: #3) For Legitimate Promotional Purposes

Ah, “exposure.” One of the smarmiest, scammiest-sounding words the human mouth is capable of making.

This concept has been around since the first caveman figured out how to get his bachelor pad painted for free, and it will be around when the last two people negotiate terms for the great end-of-the-world jubilee and turn the keys of the kingdom over to our new robot overlords.

“Free exposure” has lured many a would-be starlet into a super-creepy and compromising photo shoot, and “free exposure” has been the softly-whispered promise of the internet age. In each case, they forget to tell you that exposure is something you can die from.

Still, there are some very specific situations in which exposure is a valid form of compensation. For instance, when you see guests on talk shows plugging their films and books, chances are that they are not getting paid directly. But they do get something meaningful out of the arrangement: These appearances can have a real impact on sales by exposing a brand new work to a wide audience. Everybody wins. The guest gets honest and useful exposure, and the show gets free guests.

(Not to mention that appearances on the talk show circuit are often written into the guest’s contract. So in a way, it’s part of the job they’re getting paid to do.)

A similar arrangement is sometimes at play in newspapers in the form of book excerpts or columns that serve to promote a recent work. And when a Warren Buffet or a Donald Trump writes a newspaper editorial with the goal of advancing a pet political cause, their writing is often unpaid as well, perhaps reasonably so.

For musicians, the exposure of performing on stage with a more popular artist can be a real reward in its own right. Are you getting up on stage for a duet, a guest solo or an extended, impromptu noise jam? These are totally valid reasons to work for free. Of course, if it’s a fairly profitable concert in front of a sizable audience, some form of compensation is usually given anyway. It’s only polite – and fair.

But what if you land a gig where you perform as a sideman or backup singer throughout the majority of a show? No. That is not “exposure.” That is work. If the main artist and the venue are making money, then you should too. (And if they’re not? Who cares! See Rule #2.)

Mixing and mastering engineers may occasionally work on free sample tracks to help win business from a new client. This can be considered a form of “promotion” as well. Most often, the sample work will be paid for if it’s actually used in some kind of commercial public-facing release. (Yes, this includes putting it up on your website.) Without explicit agreement, to do otherwise would generally be considered a “dick move.”

But in the overwhelming majority of cases, “exposure” is not a valid form of compensation. When an editor at The Atlantic asked Nate Thayer to rework his recent article on basketball diplomacy and run it on their multi-million dollar website for exactly zero dollars, plus “exposure”, it was the opposite of a fair deal. In Thayer’s case, there was no book to promote. The article was the product. So what exactly would he be getting exposure for?

If you think that merely having a byline in The Atlantic is good exposure, take a moment to remember that it’s not some college paper or non-commercial alt zine you write for out of love so that some day, you will have enough “exposure” to get into the big leagues. The Atlantic is the big leagues.

When To Work For Free: #4) Because It’s Family

Unless you’re an employee in some kind of full-on family-run company, if you charge your mom for a job, then you are not a human being. You are a cockroach.

Siblings, cousins, doting aunts, creepy uncles and brothers-from-other-mothers? Up to you. Every case is different.

Of course, just because you share blood doesn’t mean you treat each other like slaves. But there are plenty of ways to reciprocate and show loyalty without getting money involved.

Doing a serious job for a family member does not preclude payment, but it does not necessitate it either.

When To Work For Free: #5) As An Investment

However great your family is, the best person to work for free-of-charge may be yourself. Think about it: Your family wants to see you succeed and feel fulfilled in life, and investing sweat-equity in your own projects can be one of the best ways to do it.

Want to get a great reel or portfolio together? Make it so. But why work for free on someone else’s bottom-dollar, half-baked project when you can create something of your own? Why add to the bottom line of a huge media conglomerate by supporting a classist, opportunity-eroding system of unpaid labor, when you can be the architect of your own destiny?

When it comes to others’ projects there’s also the option of “Spec” deals, in which you work under contract for a share in future revenues. Keep in mind that the vast majority of spec projects will never make a dime for you to share in. But if a project has a low startup budget and you believe it has future earning potential, you might aim to secure a share future earnings. (In writing.) That’s one way to justify low- or no- pay arrangements without devaluing your own work. Just don’t count on it to put food on the table.

In general, working free for a commercial enterprise can only really be justified if 1) they have little-to-no capital or revenue, 2) it’s for a pre-determined period, and 3) you are investing your own time toward creating a job that doesn’t yet exist.

That’s exactly how I got my start writing for pay. I offered to write three free articles for SonicScoop, which was a very small and very new publication at the time. Our bargain was that if they found my contributions were adding enough value to the company, I’d do more work for some kind of modest fee. If the articles failed to bring any value, I’d have created a professional portfolio that might help me land other gigs, while they wouldn’t have lost a thing. It’s another win-win: They got to try their hand at high-risk development without the whole “risk” part, and I got to build professional credentials from scratch with an honest incentive to do it.

Fortunately, those early articles did attract enough attention that I was asked to begin writing once a month, for pay. When those articles did well, I was asked to write twice a month, and before long, once every week. Since I began contributing, their publication has grown 300%. (Of course, that’s not all because of me — But I hope my articles didn’t hurt, either.)

If you’re thinking of pursuing the same kind of arrangement, it’s crucial to put parameters in place to keep them ethical and sustainable. Free contributions should be limited in both time and scope. Plus: it’s one thing for an absolute beginner to write a free article or two for a tiny, burgeoning publisher to help build experience and credits. It’s another thing entirely to work for weeks or months on end, or to do the same kind of thing for a major, cash-flush publication.

When NOT To Work For Free: #1) Because It’s “DIY”

“Do-It-Yourself” enterprise can be a great excuse to work free of compensation. But not always.

If you’re growing your own tomatoes, home-brewing beer or doing your own oil-changes, there’s really no reason to pay yourself cash money. First of all, it seems a little superfluous, and second, there’s the very real risk of getting topsoil, beer and grease all up on your Benjamins. Nobody likes that.

Today however, the term “DIY” is used to describe more than the things you literally do yourself. It has come to connote the act of starting up a business with limited resources of personal capital. This used to be called “bootstrapping” back in the dizzy, but you know: New generations, new words.

If you’re a middle-income person starting your own business without a ton of capital, and relying heavily on the help of family, close friends and a few hired guns, then fine  you get to call yourself “DIY”, too I guess. (Although it really takes a lot of liberties with the definition of the word “yourself.”) But bear in mind that whenever a “DIY” business is a money-making operation, then the same ethical standards apply there as everywhere else.

Most people realize this instinctively, so most “DIY” venues already to pay people for things like playing shows, covering the door, running sound or tending bar. This is partly because they aren’t actually charities, but also because they need responsible workers, and the people involved usually like to see folks in their community earn an honest buck, too. Most of us do.

In the creative culture, we’ve been primed to associate the word “DIY” with a kind of pure and noble approach. But it’s precisely because the term is so front-loaded with sanctity that it makes for a great marketing buzzword – one that can be used and abused for fun and profit. The term has been so eagerly twisted by people and powerful companies, that out in the real world, “DIY” can be a mixed bag, just like anything else.

The big thing to watch out for here is “Fake DIY.” This an increasing popular trend in which really, really rich people fund their own money-losing vanity projects or secretly profitable businesses, and then expect a whole bunch of people to work for them for free because they’re really “stickin’ it to the man.” You know, just like you guys! Steer clear.

Using considerable resources to start a crappy business that cuts corners and doesn’t compensate people fairly is not the same thing as “DIY.” If wealthy and well-connected people with access to healthy amounts of capital want to twist the term to market their businesses, then fine. That’s within their right of free expression. But it’s also their responsibility to compensate people appropriately for their work. DIY does not equal free labor.

When NOT To Work For Free: #2) Because It’s An “Internship.”

We’ve covered this one before. The truth is that in the majority of cases, unpaid internships are not only unethical, but illegal. Even at their best, they are corrosive to both equal opportunity and economic mobility, and when you look at the effects, it turns out they’re just plain bad for business, too.

Case in point: When recording studios take a pass on paying young people $10/hr to clean toilets, they soon find that the kids grow a little older and begin charging $20/hr to do the very same work the studio used to get $100/hr for. All of a sudden, studios find themselves lowering their rates to $60/hr, for a net loss of $30/hr. And to add insult to injury, they have fewer bookings to boot.

This happened to studios on a large scale, well before the music industry collapsed. They should have hired the damn kid! (In hindsight, many professional studios would have fared far better by investing money to building additional little rooms where talented young engineers could work on low-budget clients for slightly higher rates than they might get by themselves.)

This is business strategy 101: Whenever confronted with a threat, figure out how to turn it into an asset instead. You can’t do so as easily once your revenue stream has taken a tire-iron to the kneecap.

A similar dynamic unfolded along with the rise of unpaid internships in publishing. The lack of entry-level positions caused a great exodus of smart young people, who started their own blogs or moved into the higher-paying tech sector.

Soon, publishers were confronted with increased competition, decreased loyalty from their future consumer base, as well as a shortage of innovative, forward-thinking young minds, capable of anticipate new trends in consumption and distribution. To make matters worse, those young minds went on to be employed by the other side, which had a business model based almost entirely on tearing the publishers’ model apart. If that sounds like it might be a hard battle to win, just look at the state of publishing today.

I’ve stressed the business end here once again, because the harm on this front has been so under-recognized — even though it’s so easily predicted by basic microeconomics. Still, the unpaid internship is obviously a raw deal for the intern as well. That’s why it’s illegal, and that’s why the kids are beginning to sue.

Based on our current labor laws, there’s basically one scenario in which companies can take on workers without paying minimum wage: If they are putting those prospective employees through regimented, unpaid training.

This does not mean “The kid will learn the ins and outs of the music industry while they pick up my dry cleaning, make copies, runs cross-town errands and answer phones!” Nope. That is called a job. You get paid for those. Even if you have a lot left to learn.

Legal unpaid training is the kind of thing where an employer sits down with new trainees and actively spends time teaching them a job. In fields where not everyone can successfully learn the skills, an employer might have to bring in more trainees than they have jobs for. But the basic idea is that the trainees that do pass get hired.

If you’re still confused, the Department of Labor has a six-factor test that can help you figure out if your unpaid internship is illegal. Here are the three that are most commonly ignored:

  1. The internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern and
  3. The employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern (and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded).

In any case where an intern does work that adds any kind of value to a for-profit company, they are legally entitled to the same minimum wage as everyone else. This includes making coffee, answering phones, making copies, proofreading, taking phone calls, or anything else that an “assistant” is generally hired to do.

One fair compromise is to pay an intern a stipend to finish all their required chores, and then allow them to hang around afterwards. At a recording studio, you might pay a part-time intern for three hours of cleaning, organizing, running cables and sorting invoices, and then say “feel free to hang around quietly in the back of the room and watch the session go down if you like.”

As long as they’re not required or expected to do gopher or assistant work during that period, there’s no exploitation going on, and everybody wins. It’s a really nice perk for what might otherwise be an un-rewarding part-time job.

Some former interns develop a kind of Stockholm syndrome, empathizing with huge for-profit companies that have exploited their labor and used it to eliminate honest entry-level jobs. They might say that an unpaid internship allowed them to makes contacts, see what goes on behind closed doors, and gave them the incentive to learn new skills. All that may be true. But would it be any less true if they were paid minimum wage?

And if you’re considering an unpaid internship, ask yourself this: Why would you want to “break in” to a company or an industry that can’t even afford to pay minimum wage? That’s what they pay at fast-food restaurants. Your time is better spent elsewhere.

When NOT To Work For Free: #3) Because Everyone Else is Doing It

This is blend of two common logical fallacies: the “self-fulfilling prophecy” and the “false consensus bias.”  Don’t fall for either.

Wrapping it Up:

It’s become common knowledge that income for the huge majority of Americans has stagnated, even as national productivity and corporate profits have continued their meteoric rise, barely interrupted by the great recession of 2008.

Today, the American overall economy is recovering, and unemployment has fallen to its lowest point in four years. But one group is increasingly left behind: Young workers here and the world over are facing record levels of unemployment. At this point, we need to restore more creative-sector and entry-level jobs – not reduce them further by reinforcing this new and toxic culture of unpaid labor.

There will always be legitimate reasons to work for free: For family, for charity, and for yourself. Hobbyists shouldn’t necessarily feel compelled to seek profit from their pass-times, and we all know that sharing can be its own reward.

But when you find that commercial enterprises are profiting on your work or leveraging the aggregate creative output of your community without giving anything substantial back – maybe you don’t have a hobby after all. Maybe you’re just getting shafted.

Justin Colletti is an audio engineer, journalist and educator who lives in Brooklyn.

This entry was posted in April 2013, Featured Stories, Industry Trends, Most Popular, Rants and Raves. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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