To Work for Free or Not To Work for Free – That is the Question, but it Shouldn’t…


I don’t pretend that this post goes under a “career advice” tag, but following my last post from December, and since this is my blog, I know this is a very debated topic, at least in a lot of artist’s minds. This may also concern extremely low budgets, like the payment being what you should earn in a day or two of work and not for the whole project. This is my opinion only, you are more than welcome to disagree.

So… the pros and cons list? What it is obvious is that you will always learn and you will always gain experience. That is undeniable. I worked many times for free and I almost totally regret at least half of them. Here is why…

Time is money. I really really love my craft to the heart. I do. But I don’t own a comfortable account and I do need to eat, pay rent, bills and I also enjoy an occasional beer. And – very important – I appreciate very much to be respected and having my craft and work respected along. I don’t deny a helping hand to my no-budget best friend’s project but that is because I know of his / her reality and aspirations. But when it comes to “cool people” that want to do something that will take you days or some weeks, that will much likely have no profit from it, I advise to forget it. Again, this is my personal opinion on the subject, I’d love to hear yours if you have other idea. What happened most of the times was that enthusiasm shrunk after a few days of working. Because it takes time, it takes so much time to do things like we like to, make it perfect. And in the end, I would have earned more during that period working on a “less interesting” job. It sucks, but bills would got pay and one wouldn’t be counting the little coins to buy essential needs.

Do you want to be the cool guy or the professional guy? It doesn’t mean that if you are professional you can’t be cool, but this is how people will remember you. Also, if you make sure you set your cost at a daily or hourly rate, you bet they will be much more organized and you also save time instead of standing doing nothing for half of the day.  If you are the professional guy, the team you are working with will always have present that more work means more pay. And for us, professionals, we avoid getting bitter over time, as what happens so frequently is people think you can be perpetually involved on their project and they will keep asking for more.  And this will be a hard circle to escape, once you accept poor conditions, very difficultly a fair payment for your work will arise.

But it’s my name on it! Yes, that is when things started to get really confusing to me, delivering something that still needed adjustments and I wasn’t at all proud of, or give it more days, put aside my real and personal projects, my personal life, wasting money and time… it is a very tough decision, because it’s a horrible feeling to have something that is simply not finished. I will later cut that off from my CV and pretend it didn’t exist. So, why did I do it anyway? Of course, it could go well, but it usually doesn’t.

Aside really close friends that I worked with and still do, I have a clear notion of the lack of respect there is for the sound crew that comes from the people that don’t want to pay. It is a good lesson, but it’s not something that makes me happy. Don’t fool yourself with the “this will look really well in your portfolio” speech, those people will never get back to you with a pay gig, they will probably never understand your work and respect it. And because we are working for free / on an extremely low budget they will push you even further to come up with miracles. I have this experience with live music, games and film. I also have the experience of being asked to do some recordings and being offered meals and “the pleasure to meet the wonderful people in the event” as payment. That denied, I set up a price and they obviously accepted because they needed my work.

Where do we get experience from also comes into mind when thinking about this. School is a great place for that, when there’s that chance. Our best friend’s projects are as well. I don’t deny some projects might be worth specially if you are beginning your career, but we should be really careful choosing the persons we are working with.

A more balanced way in those cases is to set up strict deadlines and make sure they are aware you have limited time to dedicate to their project, need things to be organized and that you are in no position to have expenses, so they can provide transportation and meal costs.

Setting the cost for your work also means you are being ethically correct to your peers. When a lot of people work for way less than they should, even if they are not that good, business will always prefer them, putting aside who works hard and sets a fair price for their job. We  need market sustainability for our own good.

Play fare and moderate, don’t get abused!


Feel free to share your ideas and experience, we always learn from each other!


5 thoughts on “To Work for Free or Not To Work for Free – That is the Question, but it Shouldn’t…

  1. Great article! This is something recently graduated students should read. There is a mix of “low self esteem” and anxiety for building a portfolio in junior sound designers that is swiftly used by producers to lure them into freebies or extremely low payments. I’ve been there (a lot more than I should admit) and neither more work nor higher reputation came from working for free in a situation I should have been paid.
    Keep it up Melissa! 🙂

  2. Great article Melissa, you wrote everything. Every single ongoing professional should read that all over again and again.

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