As a freelance writer, I get my share of sneaky requests for me to do stuff for free. Some of these make sense: appear on a podcast I admire to promote a recent piece I wrote and my upcoming book, help a talented friend with a promising book proposal. Now, I’m not saying everything I do must include some clear payoff for me and only me. I’m not even saying that you can’t ask me to do something out of the goodness of my heart. But more than anyone else, freelancers in the arts must set boundaries. You cannot imagine how much the world wants us to give for free. I teach writing, I edit, I help people launch their writing careers, and I write … for my job. This seems fair to me. I am good at what I do, and I believe that I provide valuable services to the world. If it weren’t for people like me, all of this stuff would probably still get done, but it would be done a lot crappier. If only hobbyists write your books and articles from now on, please expect a noticeable downtick in quality. And if you’re willing to hire a non-professional to teach you writing or consult on your writing career, I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, and neither do you.
I can see this difference most clearly with my chosen hobby: singing and playing guitar. Because I’m an overachiever, I practice pretty regularly and am determined to perform in public as a way of furthering my skill and making “use” of it. But the thought of someone paying me for what I do does not enter my mind because I’m not that good. I actually don’t plan to be that good. I mean, maybe someday someone will pay me in free drinks to do a regular set of covers in the corner of their bar or something. And I’m planning to start hosting an open mic soon. But I am not a professional. I do not dedicate the majority of my time and educational resources to being a skilled musician. I believe very strongly in paying people who do this, who put in the work and will bring you a professional performance. These are the people who will have all of their own sound equipment, will know exactly what they need to make things great, will be able to take requests or improvise on the spot or perform their own material. I know several of these people, and they are great at what they do.
To be clear: There’s also definitely an in-between area, in writing and music and many other fields, where people are highly skilled and do get paid for this even if it’s not their main profession. My partner, Jesse, gets paid for some of his serious photography work even though he’s a full-time programmer. He should. He’s put in the work and it’s great. Lots of people write articles on the side about their area of expertise, like psychologists who write self-help pieces or books. I know more than a few people who have jobs to pay the bills and put on excellent musical productions or rock shows for money as well. It’s the sad reality of being an artist that you often need a day job.
That’s exactly why we need to pay our skilled people in money. If you want art in the world, you need to pay someone for it. (Taylor Swift agrees.) Here are some things that are not money that friends have been offered in exchange for their services, as they noted in comments after I posted a Facebook rant about this recently: nothing at all (singer-songwriter Sean Skyler, who is excellent), “an excellent opportunity for exposure” (photographer), T-shirts (stagehand), internships (stagehand).
My photographer sister also noted that people often post online looking for a “photographer/volunteer.” Nope, that’s not a thing, not if you want real services. Please pay for services. In money.
And one more thing: I’ve realized while writing this post that the people I’ve ended up giving services (editing, consulting, etc.) for free all offered to pay me first. They let me be the one to offer it for free. Just a tip.