Why do we expect artists to work for free?


“Welcome to the metaphor café,” the tired waiter says, handing you a menu and leading you to the best seat in the house. “What would you like today?”

“Bring me one of everything you have. And then I will try it all. I may eat it all. But I will pick one, maybe two items and pay for them. In merchandise. And love.”

That mean response, my friends, destroys the lives of creatives. You absolutely would not stand for it if people regularly walked into your café, even your metaphorical one, and offered love and ‘a good word’ for their meal. Even so, creatives are encouraged (expected, even) to work for free on the future promise of potential earnings. There are so many competitions out there to draw comics, to design logos, to write short stories… all with the tantalizing payment of ‘exposure’ rather than something you can pay the electricity bill with.


Artwork: Melanie Gillman

A photographer walks into the metaphor café and sits in a table opposite you. I have met her, once. She was the photographer at a friend’s wedding. Rather cheap, very good. She spent the whole day on her feet capturing moments that would stay with the couple for their lives and pass down the generations. She even spent time taking family portraits of various guests, giving them as much attention as she would if they had booked her time and her studio and commissioned portraits that they could hang on their living room walls and send to aunts in Australia.

She worked so hard, and was so cheap, on the promise of the ‘exposure’ the event would bring her. There were two hundred people at the wedding. Some of them would be planning their own events. Surely they would hire her?

But her main selling point, despite the fact that she was lovely and professional and went out of her way to get the perfect picture of a drunk Maid of Honour without missing a minute of the newlywed’s reception, was that she was cheap. And anyone who approached her at the wedding, or in the aftermath, would expect the same low price she had set for her services. Oh, and ‘exposure’.

The café is slowly filling with creatives who work hard for nothing. Musicians who are told that they are reaching a new crowd when they play a stranger’s birthday party. Makeup artists who get scoffed at for charging real money for the mere application of some lipstick and mascara. Graphic designers who are told that designing the logo for a huge brand will make their career whilst they inadvertently undercut the costs of other designers whose careers (already made) still do not pay the bills.

The waiter hands back the menu and invites you to pick what you want, and you both know that you will pay what the meal is worth or get out of there.