Creative Enterprise

Old retro camera on vintage wooden table background

Ryan McDougall on the perils of being a young freelance worker in the creative industry.

Creatives don’t mind doing the odd thing for free if it’s for a good friend, a family member, a charity or if it’s invaluable work experience, and these are all acceptable, valid reasons. But here’s the thing: many, especially those of us who are just starting out are being blatantly exploited left, right and centre.

While the exposure is great and can be a massive help when you’re a beginner, whether you’re a writer, videographer, sound engineer, photographer, artist or anything in between, it can, to put it bluntly, leave you taken for a total fool in the creative industries in the long run.

Let’s just say for instance, you’re asked by someone to put together some form of creative project for them, that will no doubt take you a fair amount of time. Hours, days, a week or longer. You tell said person: “Cool, cheers for asking me to do this! I’ll fire you over my rates!” And you’re hit with: “Oh… ha ha! Well, here’s the thing; I can’t offer you money. I can tell all my friends about you though! I can give you exposure!”

I will stress, while exposure is essential, especially when you’re just starting out, or you’re on a work placement, the same rule doesn’t really apply when it becomes extensive. That’s when it becomes free labour.

Allow me to use the same “exposure” analogy in a different context: A creative walks into a bar and orders a pint. The barman says: “That’ll be £3.10 please, mate.” The creative promptly replies: “I’ll tell all my mates how great your bar is! You don’t need money!”

See, it doesn’t really make sense. Oh lord how I wish I could get a free beer by telling my local bar manager I’ll get my pals to pay a visit.

Let’s just say, you spend hundreds of pounds on a laptop, a camera, equipment, editing software, a website etc. Eager to find work, you spend more money on business cards or fliers, all just to get your name out there and stand out enough in order to get some gigs doing your thing. You finally do get some work, and have nothing to show for it in the end.

Then there’s the flipside of things. You’re offered paid work, you deliver, and your invoice is miraculously never paid. You’re then met with the choice of: “Do I chase this person up and potentially burn my bridges with them? Or do I let it slide and accept their lame excuse, if they bother to give me one?” It’s a tough one, but ultimately, if you rightfully value your own hard work as much as it should be, then you’ll know to choose the first option.

The sad thing is, creatives sometimes let this happen because of the competitive and sometimes brutal nature of these industries. I’ve somehow been lucky enough to have generally always dealt with very fair people, but I’ve got plenty of mates who have told me some absolute horror stories about their experiences. Those who have agreed to do a small task for someone out of the goodness of their heart, it grows arms and legs and they’re suddenly left with shedloads of work that they’re doing for free. Not good.

One of the few occasions of attempted exploitation I remember was at a place I used to work. Rather than being paid with money, I was promised “hunners an’ hunners o’ hours” if I took some promotional photographs for them. Needless to say I never bothered, and was frankly insulted.

I strongly doubt that it’s out of badness that someone would selectively exploit a creative person. Nine times out of ten, they’re giving someone with a hobby a chance to do something cool, and that’s great, but when it becomes habit, it becomes exploitation.

The unfortunate thing is that the only person capable of changing this is the creative person alone. The only real way to do this is to be more assertive, make it clear to people that you’re not just some numpty with a camera, or someone who thinks they know what they’re doing – even try joining a union who will fight your corner in these situations. The National Union of Journalists for instance are great when it comes to helping journalists and photographers.

Explain to people that it’s not just a hobby, but your profession, or livelihood. You’ve got bills to pay I’m sure, just like everyone else out there who works a hard graft each day, and it’s only you who can change the way others might perceive you. Let your passion and professionalism shine through; make people want to pay you for your expertise. Because if you let people take advantage of your skills, you become your own exploiter.

Comments (7)

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  1. Ya'akov Sloman says:

    Do it for “exposure” rankles to an extent only second to “if I had your expensive camera, I could do it myself”.

  2. Freida Dyson says:

    Join the Scottish Artists Union?

  3. Redguantlet says:

    I’m almost 50 Ryan, and you’re right of course, but the only thing that occurs to me to say to you is get used to it, man….

    Grow a thick skin. It might save you from becoming an alcoholic or a drug addict… or a Tory… don’t take it personally in any case…

    It’s never going to change, eh, Ryan? All you can do is change your attitude to it.

    Use the energy on creative things and just try as hard as you can to ignore the rest of the world… that’s probably the most important thing there is for a creative person, eh?

    The discipline at the end of the day is much more important than talent. Talent gets you nowhere. Disciple will always get you some kind of a result…

    Above all, keep the faith: we’re all born to be creative, it’s the supreme goal of life…

  4. tartanfever says:

    Best advice I can give after decades being a freelancer. Don’t be afraid to talk about money and to talk about it up front. Be clear in your head what your rates/costs are. If someone offers you a few weeks solid work, then maybe cut them a 10% discount.

    Remember, there is nothing more insulting that not being offered payment for your graft, it’s a fundamental lack of respect and more often than not will just lead to you becoming frustrated.

    Another consideration. if you accept doing a job as a ‘freebie’, you are effectively undercutting everyone else in your industry and if everyone did that there would be no paid work for anyone.

    Be positive in your skills and ability because if you don’t value them enough to be paid, no-one else will.

  5. Scunnered Creative says:

    Watch the short YouTube clip by Harlan Ellison, “Pay the Writer”. He sums the problem up beautifully.

  6. Wul says:

    Photographer Zack Arias covers this issue in his excellent book “Photography Q & A”. It offers lots of real world, hard won insight for people wanting to make a creative career.

  7. Dean says:

    You have my sympathy as we’re in much the same boat. Just take my advice and stay away from the job bidding sites, as they’re a race to the bottom. People want everything for nothing largely because they think that phone photography is good enough. So our job is to get out there, network and prove that we can do much much better. It’s not difficult. Brexit knocked the wind out of me, creatively and financially, so now I’ve got to really pick myself up and get out there.

    Hold in there and reach out to your fellow photographers. We’re mostly experiencing the same. Follow your intuition. Walking away from a vague gig is never a bad move.

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