When you’re asked to work “for the exposure”

Freelance Freedom Comic #321

Getting asked to do gigs for free? It’s a very common thing for artists and generally any skilled professional. I’ve learned to take advantage of these requests rather than let them take advantage of me, mostly by two general approaches I’ll explain in detail: marketing must have value, and free has no guarantee.

Marketing must have value

If you were paying $1000 for marketing, what would you expect to get?

In the past when I’ve had direct request to “do something for the promotional value” I start by saying, “that’s something I occasionally do” and then explain the full dollar cost of what they’re asking for. Then I ask them to say how much of that dollar value they think they can justify in marketing value. Sometimes it’s just a no-go and it helps them realize what they’re asking for. Other times I’ve ended up negotiating a fair deal of part dollar compensation, and part compensation in marketing that has actual value. This method has been really effective on three levels:

  1. Client respect. The person asking respects my business and capabilities more, and starts thinking as a client rather than pretending to be a special opportunity.
  2. Money. Usually, I get paid at least half of what I would usually charge. If necessary, sometimes you may need to coach the new client on how to generate more money for you. For example, if you’re a musician at a restaurant or bar:
    1. Is there a cover? Maybe we could raise it by $X, and we get that additional $X at the end of the night.
    2. No cover? What if someone at the door collects a voluntary “band appreciation” donation?
    3. How much does the bar usually make (gross not net) on a night like that without live music? How about we take 50% of all proceeds beyond that figure?
    4. They don’t like any of those options? Hmmm, does a fixed rate sound a lot cheaper now?
  3. Better marketing. I always get much more marketing value than they were originally proposing, because they’ve realized that mere “exposure” isn’t of any value. Suddenly they’re actively looking with me for more ways to make up the remaining cost. If you’re a musician, some examples could be, from easier to harder to negotiate:
    1. Promotional material put on every table in the bar or restaurant during the act.
    2. Your own posters or promo material in prominent places for at least a month before you perform.
    3. Have your band’s night announced during all acts during the month before it.
    4. Staff helps with CD sales — specifically request that the serving staff, door people, bar staff, everyone help with promoting your CD sales. Requires a bit more organization though.
    5. What kind of advertising does the bar or restaurant do? Radio, newspaper? Maybe you can negotiate being a part of that advertising for the month before your appearance.

Free has no guarantee

Free work is not the same as paid work.

Sometimes you might actually want to offer your services completely for free. Why? Rarely because a gig is both an amazing marketing opportunity and also unable to pay you. Instead it’s usually because you want to test out new material:

  • A web developer looking to add a new skill to your portfolio. Maybe you’re struggling with the vicious cycle of wanting to try out a certain visual technique or back end technology, but because you don’t have it in your portfolio already, it’s harder to convince clients. Of course you can just make a site for yourself, but you’ll learn more and it will have more sales power if it’s a client.
  • A band looking for a venue to test out new material on real audiences. Maybe it’s a little raw and you want to get a feel for how audiences react before you add it to your paid gigs.
  • A band or dance troupe training new members who are already great, but could benefit from experience in performance with the rest of the group.

So I have two important principles for work that I’m doing for free: it’s not the same product, and there’s no guarantee. You can’t always do both but you use at least one:

  1. It’s not the same product. If you’re a photographer, maybe it doesn’t include the use of your more difficult to transport equipment, or of your photo studio. If you’re a musician, maybe it’s only your new material, or maybe they only get half of the band. Or maybe you’re giving your new replacement drummer practice actually performing with the band.But don’t screw it up: However, never offer something sub-par, because the work is still representing you. If you’re trying something out, you still need for it to be good. Just not necessarily the top of your game. In fact part of the game of sales is to offer something explicitly as “not the best we can do” and then to be so amazing that they hire you to get the best you can offer.
  2. There’s no guarantee. Tell “clients” when you’re doing unpaid work that only your paid work offers any kind of guarantee about work being done on schedule or done at all. So you’re clear with them that while the quality will be good, you’re doing it on an “assuming I find the time” kind of basis. This is crucial because a big part of paid work as a professional is a commitment to making sure things happen. Your drummer injures her left arm and can’t play? You find a replacement somehow. Another better-paying gig comes up? You stick to the commitment you made. But if you’re doing something for free, you can’t afford that kind of stress or potential revenue loss to be included in the deal.But don’t screw it up: The “no guarantee” applies more to the situation of a web designer, photographer, writer, etc. If you’re a performer, realize that flaking on an advertised gig is a huge no-no. You still need to do what you can to make that promoted performance great — but you keep control over what you actually present. And if you’re in a profession such as law or engineering, be careful about your legal and moral liability for negligence.