Why I Won’t Work For Free (And Won’t Ask Anyone Else To Either)

Sam King, Photo Credit Davide Luciano
Sam King, Photo by Davide Luciano

This is a reblog from Fieldhouse artist, Sam King. To learn more about Sam, check out his artist profile here.

Source content published on March 1, 2015 on samkingtv.com

It’s nothing new. Freelancers, artists, musicians, creative people in general, more often than not, undervalue their work. A lot of times we say we’re just more interested in creating history with it than monetizing it. The trouble with that is if we don’t value our own work why should anyone else? And if no one values it, then you can never make a living off of it.

Now I’m not even talking about the enormous levels of success most people think of when they think of their favorite musicians. I’m talking about making a living in terms that any responsible person might. We all need to eat. We all need a place to live. And we all have a desire to take care of those closest to us. To me, success in my job is happiness with what I’m doing and being able to provide for myself and my family.

So when you look at it that way, being a successful musician might not be so far off after all. It doesn’t have to be this barely achievable, 1 in a million dream that so many people make it out to be.  But just because I can define my personal level of success in smaller terms than that of the huge stars, doesn’t mean that I value my work any less.

I’ve heard a lot of people compare the work a musician does to that of other special trades like being a plumber, electrician, or lawyer. The common argument is that you’d never ask anyone in those trades to work for free, so why should you ask a musician to do it? We’ve all put in the hours and investment into our unique approach to our craft and thus it should be valued. I don’t disagree, but I do think there’s another way to look at it. Let’s be honest, if your toilet isn’t working, and you can’t fix it, you need a plumber. And he probably won’t show up for free. But if you don’t like the music you’re listening to, you can just change the station. Music is a product, not a utility. It is precious, but we can look at the value of a musician’s work differently than that of another tradesman.

In terms of ability to sell product, of course famous artists can sell more tickets, or merchandise, or just about anything than I can.  But put in terms of big business/small business, the value of their product doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the value of mine. Take any chain store and compare it to your local, independently owned equivalent. Sure, the big guys have a much wider reach and they dominate the majority of the market, but that doesn’t mean your local shop can’t still be successful. Moreover it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll pay less for the offerings at the local spot. In fact, more often than not, I pay more for a hand crafted product at a local shop than I would for something mass produced. And I’m happy to. I understand that the small shop probably can’t get the same kinds of bulk prices the big store can because they aren’t moving the same numbers, and I appreciate that they are likely putting in so much more effort resulting in a more personal and meaningful experience for me. So when it comes down to it, I’m probably paying only a small percentage more for something much more emotionally valuable to me in the end. And I know that that small bit extra I pay will equal a much more powerful contribution to an independent business than it would to a huge corporation.

So back to music. If you’re looking at digital music sales, which you might consider the most common product a musician sells, I can’t argue with my ability to sell my music for the same $0.99 as the big guys. The power of digital platforms like iTunes and Spotify isn’t much different for me than it is for them. But the product a musician provides is more than just recordings. Live performance is a huge part of a musician’s product. It’s not just an advertisement for their latest record. It’s a unique experience. Just like going into that local shop and interacting with people who care about what they’re selling. The experience is the reason a consumer will stick with a business long term. And that experience is valuable; it is worth paying for.

Every musician I know has been approached at one point or another and asked to play for free. Maybe they’re offered the opportunity to play for new potential fans, or the chance to sell some copies of their latest record, or promised of the importance of whoever might be in the audience. Honestly, I’m not so much bothered by being asked. What I’m bothered by is the presumptuous attitude that whatever non-monetary compensation I’m being offered is more valuable than actual financial compensation for the work.

Advertising is a big part of business. There’s no denying that exposing your product to more people is necessary to increase your sales and growth. But as a musician being asked to work for free, I have to gauge whether the opportunity for advertising that I’m being offered is actually as valuable as the service I’m providing for whoever is asking. Are they making money off of my time and effort? Am I actually helping my business grow, or am I just boosting their credibility by increasing the perceived value of their product through my performance? The difference is important. If I’m there as an advertisement for my own product, it makes sense that I consider it time well invested. But if I’m actually just there to help someone else sell something, then essentially, I’m just endorsing their product and should be compensated for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to donating time for a charity I support or to someone I want to do a favor for. There are times where I will work for the chance to advertise to a new audience, and I love playing music for the fun of it. In those instances I get something in return whether it is personal satisfaction or potential sales down the road. But most of the times I’m asked to work for free, it’s less for my own benefit and much more for that of the person asking. To save them the money. To make their event more interesting for the people attending. Or even to help them make more money by drawing a bigger crowd for their product.

So at risk of sounding like I’m ranting, I’ll finish up with this. I am a small business. If I work for free, I go out of business. If you want to support artists, if you truly believe in their work, it takes more than promises of exposure or opportunity. Pay them for their time. Buy a download. Pay entry at a show. We can’t pay our bills with promises.

To wrap up on a lighter note, I’m the type of artist who always gives back to people who support me. It means so much to me, so I’m happy to do what I can. Recently a fan came to a show, brought a friend, paid for entry, and bought my new record. She also gave me a big bar of chocolate because it was a few days after my birthday. I was so happy about the genuine support and kind gift, I decided to return the favor with some music. I Skyped her and her friend and sang them a brand new, unreleased tune. Here’s the video. I hope you enjoy it.

See you next time!


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