Monday, 16 January 2012

Should Creatives Work for Free?

Writer and film director Jon Spira recently wrote a piece on his blog about a spat he had on Twitter with Guardian columnist Emma Kennedy. He disagreed with her statement that young writers should not, under any circumstances, do unpaid work for clients who could afford to pay. An escalating row ensued. His post (linked here) focuses mainly on the manner in which the argument played out, and though that side of it doesn't interest me, I am interested in the underlying ethical dilemma.

In my experience there are few illustrators who weren’t asked, early in their career, to work for free by major publishers. My story is probably very common. I graduated to find myself in a blind panic at the sea of talent I was now forced to compete with, and ethics were furthest from my mind in the early days of my career.
I was particularly enamoured of a certain international fashion magazine (I’ll call them ‘Mag A’) - who went straight to the top of my hit list. I dearly wanted my work to grace their pages, I needed their name on my CV. I bombarded them with lovely handmade books and finally the art director called me.
“Hey, we love your stuff! It’s absolutely great! And guess what, we’ve got a full page for you to illustrate.”
Brilliant news. I waited for him to mention the inevitable massive fee I expected from a magazine of this stature.
“One little thing, we’re actually a bit overspent on this issue – you know how it is, we’re all up to the wire so we were hoping to come to an arrangement. Maybe if we give you a really big credit line, including your website address, you’d do this one pro bono? We’ll definitely pay you next time, and it’ll stand you in good stead for future issues.”
Green and recently graduated though I was, I knew this to be unpasteurized bullshit – yet after thinking about it for a while I still took the job. There are no excuses. It didn’t feel right, but I was desparate enough to go for it.
Soon afterwards a fellow illustrator pointed out that by taking that job I had breached an ethical code, and that I had actually helped make things worse in an already tough industry. By giving non-payment my tacit seal of approval, I had ensured that future generations of young graduates would be asked the same question. And, worse, when other magazines learnt that this publication didn’t pay for illustration, this reprehensible practice would spread through the industry like cancer. By taking the job I’d not only devalued myself – I’d shat on other illustrators too.
This is the logic Emma Kennedy quite reasonably espouses in her argument with Jon Spira: creatives must stand united with a zero tolerance attitude towards people with access to budgets who still ask for unpaid work. The only way to uphold this view is to allow no exceptions. She explained to Spira that if he, as an educator, told his students otherwise then he was doing them a disservice.
…Except, of course, to anyone who’s ever tried to get a break in the creative industry this thinking doesn’t exactly describe the real terrain. The world does not, and will not ever, work in this rather wonderful utopian way. There will never be a magic moment when creatives all unite to renounce unpaid work. There’ll always be someone who’s willing to nip in there and take the free job. I take the point about ethics on board and feel guilty about what I did – but still there’s a lingering voice in my head which says, someone was always going to do that job for nowt, why shouldn’t it have been me….?

Shortly after this, I had another, more instructive, insight into the world of professional ethics. It doesn’t involve unpaid work, but it’s an example of what can happen when you are brave enough to take an ethical stand...
It was a year or so later and, ashamed by my previous acceptance of unpaid work, I was determined to make matters right by exercising a more responsible stance. I joined the Association of Illustrators and took delivery of their glossy magazine, featuring a 6 page illustrated feature on a senior member (I’ll call him Illustrator A) whose work was a constant source of delight and influence.
The back pages of the same magazine, focussing on ethics, counselled that a certain national magazine (I’ll call them Mag B) had recently introduced a new and punitive clause in their commissioning document. For no extra money, illustrators who had previously granted a ‘one use, UK only’ licence for their images, would now be forced to surrender entire copyright for no extra money.
Wow. This was a big one. The AOI understandably urged all illustrators to stand shoulder to shoulder and resolutely refuse to work for Mag B under these terms.
I, having completed paying jobs for Mag B six times already, knew a difficult choice lay ahead. I was struggling to buy food and cover the rent, so I was secretly hoping they’d get in touch. But I didn’t want the potential nastiness a confrontation would bring to my door.
Two weeks later, sure enough, Mag B commissioned me. I explained to their picture editor that their new contract was not to my taste – and appealed to their better judgement. Surely a regular contributor like me could be permitted to waive certain clauses? I explained that I’d been advised by the AOI to not sign their new contract, but begged them to negotiate.
“Yes, I can see your point of view” they said kindly, “Let me just talk to the art director and we’ll call you back within the hour.”
Four hours went by and finally I e-mailed to ask their progress.
“We’re sorry you didn’t like our contract” came the response, “but we did find another illustrator who was willing to sign it.”
So I’d lost the job. I could easily picture a recent graduate, someone more desparate even than myself, being prevailed upon to sign this punitive contract which would grant them copyright and allow them to alter and sell the original artwork without consent in image libraries for the ensuing decades. The following week I waited to see Mag B hit the shelves and find out who had taken my job.
It was Illustrator A. The well-known illustrator, a generation above me, swathed in accolades and lucrative ad agency commissions whose work had headlined the same issue of the magazine that had entreated us to ignore the new contracts from that magazine. And I couldn’t afford to buy food that month. Did I do the right thing in turning that job down? I certainly took an ethical stance, but you can’t eat your principles. It sucks.
The moral of my tale is not “Illustrator A is a c***” – far from it. (I can't say that nowadays I wouldn't do the same thing myself). At a certain point, we wake up and realize that we really are sole traders. That’s it.
Returning to the Spira/Kennedy argument… Do I think it’s bad for a teacher to tell students that working for free is actually an option? Actually I think it's a bit irresponsible to do the opposite and paint a picture of a rose-tinted world where creatives all unite in the same instant and everyone triumphs over The Man. Paths into the industry are many and varied - and anyone giving you absolute rules to live by is probably foisting their own biography onto you. Free work for big companies isn’t ethical and I would never ever do it nowadays, but I certainly can’t get on my high horse about it.
Let me once again emphasize here; I don’t actively advocate working for free, and I have nothing but contempt for organizations who don’t value what we do. I would never encourage students I lecture to work for free. But like Jon Spira I would never propagate the ‘if you work for free you’re a disgrace’ line either, that’s all I’m saying.
I do consider that the free job I took early on (which looked great in print and definitely, with no shadow of a doubt, lead to other paid work) helped me on the road to the eventual point where I was able to make a living from illustration. Obviously this is a vile, unpleasant fact I can never feel proud of - and I have even found it tough to publicly admit on this blog. Luckily I am (for now) in the situation where I can tell people who do have budgets, but who still ask me to work for nothing, to go and fuck themselves.
Or, as my friend Mr. Bingo phrases it on his website (under a button labelled ‘Does Mr. Bingo work for free?’):


  1. There's a similar debate over unpaid internships in media fields, but with the added potential guilt trip that only rich kids can afford to take the unpaid work that gets them on the ladder and therefore they are making thing harder for their poorer counterparts. Back when I lived in NYC and I was considering a career in publishing I landed a summer internship with one of the large publishing houses and I was paid roughly minimum wage, not the greatest situation and definitely something I couldn't have afforded to do if I hadn't been living rent-free. But I knew that publishing is so so competitive that if you don't have the slightest toe in the door your odds of making a career in it are pretty much zero. Yeah, it really does boil down to what you said: if you don't take it someone else will. And especially in this economy you have to look out for yourself first. Don't feel bad about taking an unpaid job early on! It wouldn't have done anybody any good if you'd never gotten that launchpad to more work.

  2. Thanks Julia! I know it's true... but I also know there are other creatives who would probably want me horse-whipped through the streets of Brighton for taking on free work...!

  3. Good article, not least as it's cut through with the reality on the ground as Jon argued, less so the rhetoric of the likes of Kennedy.

    I've had quite a few people do internships and the like for me over the years and have frequently had to harangue the HR department to pay for their efforts; I personally think it's appalling that the creative industry at large feels it's acceptable to take advantage of people, but I can't see this changing if agencies, publishers etc are left to their own devices.

  4. Excellent article Peter. It is indeed a tricky one and one that has been the subject of much debate for a while. I think you are a prime example of why this can never be as black and white as certain people presume.

    I don't buy the argument that only rich kids can pursue this as a career. That is what crappy waitressing jobs are for!

    What people are misunderstanding in the debate is that we are not talking about working for free FOR YEARS. It is not a case of CHOOSING to do free work. Of course, if your work is of a high quality and worthy of being published, you should be paid. But, for those newly graduated (for example,) in the absence of art directors queuing up to work with you, the opportunity to take a proper, professional brief and learn how to handle amendments and deadlines etc, is actually pretty useful and really not that big a deal. Perhaps it is better to think of it as a trial run. I would advise students and new graduates to do a few jobs for free (if that is the only option available to them.) As it has been pointed out, there are plenty of better qualified and experienced artists who the art directors could go to if their budgets were higher but they are taking a gamble in using someone with little or no professional experience. At the end of the day, you are adding to your portfolio with a real life brief rather than a student project.
    Anyone who has done the rounds with their portfolios will know that published work at this early stage in your career does really make art directors sit up and take notice. A personal project on your blog does not. Fact. The art directors you show don't know you did it as a freebie but they can see that you have the capacity to handle a professional brief and are more than likely to commission you for a proper paid illustration in the future.

  5. I agree with your points... and in a weird way (terrible to admit) the mags that don't pay are providing a service of sorts for people who might never otherwise get that first published piece in their folio.
    I guess the arguments for doing free work are probably easier to justify in the world of illustration, where a free job only takes a day or two - as opposed to, say, writing scripts for TV (which is, I believe, where the original Emma Kennedy tweets were coming from).

  6. I enjoyed this, in all industries the screws are being put to the worker. I made a mistake 'twice' about refusing work on similar grounds.

    I say mistake as i'm hurting a tad now, and i could have really used those revenue streams.

    Not much poin to this post i guess apart from to express that it's definetly difficult.

  7. It's not just the creative industries where this is an issue, and the ethical dilemma works both ways. As a lecturer, I've been asked by students if they can work for me as a research assistant for free. This puts me in a horrible dilemma: it really would be useful for their CV, and give them the valuable skills that they need outside of a student project, as mentioned in the comments above. But what about the students who can't afford to work for free? So far, I've been able to find money for them (there haven't been that many!), but if I can't find the money, I'm leaning towards refusing, so that I am not contributing to this culture of devaluing skills and conferring advantages on those who can afford to take unpaid work (though again, who am I to judge whether someone can afford it or not?). But the person misses an opportunity, which is my fault. I discussed the situation with colleagues, and some were sympathetic, and others thought me crazy to consider turning the offer down. It's definitely not a black and white issue, and I think that whatever you do, there will always be a small question of whether you did the right thing.