The myth of gaining exposure when you work for free

I’ll cut to the chase. When you work for free on the promise of exposure, you’re being had.

Do you remember that time you called a plumber and said:

“Hello, I wonder if you can fix a leak in my bathroom, I won’t be able to pay you but I will tell all my friends about your services?”

No, you don’t remember because you wouldn’t dream of asking your local tradesperson for free graft, and yet, creatives get asked that shit ALL. THE. TIME.

In the beginning

When you start your freelance career you’re excited.

You’re keener than the keenest mustard. You also don’t have the kind of confidence that comes with experience so when someone wants what you offer, you’re stoked – you cannot believe they like your stuff. You don’t care that they don’t want to pay! And it would be great practice and ‘exposure’.

As a writer (and musician) I know all about this bollocks

I’ve written for free in the past. Getting published, no matter where, was important. 

Hindsight is a wonderful thing

Personally, I think hindsight is fucking useless.

Having to wait until after a thing has happened to then realise it was a bad idea, is no way to live your life.

“In hindsight, having that 15th Jack Daniels and coke probably lead to me falling down the stairs and severing my spinal cord.”

Ok, we live and (some of us) learn but if you’re always saying yes to offers of free work based on the promise of exposure, it doesn’t seem like you’re making much progress in your career. 

You might be mentally stuck at the start when you didn’t believe you could do it

When you say “yes please!” it isn’t just the person who’s asking for the favour that doesn’t value your work, you don’t either.

Think about this when you get a begging email/DM:

  • What am I getting out of this?
  • Is it furthering my career?
  • Is it opening up doors?

Or, just say no.

You should count yourself lucky (?)

What you do is fun, right?

Maybe you get to use crayons, and you no longer have to deal with a handsy boss. You take fridge breaks whenever you damn well please, and never have to hide the fact you spend most of your day surfing the internet. Why should you expect to get paid?!

If you get a lead and you’re not sure if they’re willing to part with the folding, send them a link to your rates. Don’t waste time asking about money. 

They will almost certainly respond:

“Unfortunately we have no budget to pay you but it will be great PR and exposure.”

Creative found DEAD trying to live off exposure

I can’t use it to heat my home. It doesn’t put food on my table. And if I had a pair of Christian Louboutins for every time I heard that line, I’d be Imelda Marcos.

Hold the press: exposure isn’t currency or luxury goods

At no point did my performing an acoustic set in some pub, mid-week, to an audience of old farts, did it ever secure me paid gigs. Nor did it lead to a recording contract because A&R people don’t hang out in the venues I played. 

If the audience is not your audience people won’t buy from you. And if the brand in question has no influence or reputation, it will do nothing to boost your position within your industry.

All you’ve done is invest time and talent into gaining absolutely nothing for your business.

People who ask for freebies know how good you are

They just don’t value it enough to pay cash.

They’ve probably been consuming all your content. They’ll say nice things and tell you what a great [INSERT CREATIVE JOB TITLE HERE] they think you are. That’s sweet but take it as a compliment and move on with your life.

Sure, people might ask for your services based on some charitable purpose, and it’s your choice if you wish to give up your time for some good cause. You’re still not obliged to do so.

You don’t get anything if you don’t ask

That’s very true, and if people are brave enough to ask me for free work, they probably deserve something for nothing but some copy isn’t what I had in mind.

What you have will benefit them, way more than it does you. And they know that. So don’t be blinded by flattery, and don’t think you’re damaging a future relationship that might/maybe/possibly lead to paid work. 

Focus on the people that not only love what you do but who are more than willing to pay the asking price. Because getting paid for your actual job should be the bare minimum requirement for any occupation.

If you want a free article from me, you’ll find a whole host of them on my blog. Please contact me if you’d like to feature one of those.

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