No, you shouldn’t work for free: part 1

I haven’t written for about a month, and at risk of sounding like your typical precious writer-type, not being able to come up with any ideas that had that “must get this down, quick!” spark about them was frustrating to say the least. Ah well, here we are. (And if you thought this bit was too “precious writer-type”, you’re in for a real treat.)


A friend of mine recently answered an ad for a musician to play at an EP launch gig. He sent over some examples of his work, the singer-songwriter who’d placed the ad was impressed, and asked for his rates. The friend gave a fairly unambitious figure, the singer was happy, it looked like a goer. Until a few weeks later, when the singer came back to my friend with “sorry mate, I’ve found someone who’ll do it for free.” It’s probably the infinitieth time this has happened, and it will go on happening for ever-and-ever-amen – but like George Osborne, cinnamon Aftershock and baking with vegetables, it’s plain wrong and it needs to stop.

The main reason I’m not actively pursuing a career as a freelance writer – aside from a pathological inability to stay in one room for hours at a time, quietly concentrating – is because I can’t afford to. I can’t afford to spend months writing for free, building up a portfolio, in the hope that someone will eventually pay me. I don’t think working for free is helpful, actually – if you’re prepared to give away your thinking hours and brainspace and the words and ideas that result from them, why should anyone start paying you? By doing it for nothing to begin with, you’re setting a precedent that will only shoot you in the foot. No-one else.

The thing about the musician incident that really hacks me off is that my friend was screwed over by two other musicians. First, the one having the EP launch: the fact that an EP is being launched at all tells me he would quite like to make some money from his work. Pay your musicians then, mate.

And secondly, the one who agreed to play the gig for free. I can only assume he barely knows one end of his instrument from the other and therefore knows he doesn’t deserve to be paid to play it. Musicians, writers and artists who agree to work for nothing clearly have no respect for their own crafts. Well done, guys, you just make it harder for everybody else.What the singer-songwriter with the hopefully-doomed EP fails to realise is that being an up-and-coming musician – or an up-and-coming anything-remotely-artistic, for that matter – is like being a suffragette. You have to play the long game. You’re not smashing windows and getting yourself imprisoned because it might get you the vote – you’re thinking of your children, and their children. You’re in this together – if you say yes to an unpaid gig, you’re making it OK for the practice of expecting musicians to play for free to continue. You’re screwing other musicians over, and not even really helping yourself. Rent, food and transport don’t pay for themselves, do they?

In these Tory-led, ‘austerity-measures’ times, the Leftie right-brain creative types are one of the groups who suffer most. Funding for arts organisations gets slashed, libraries close, unpaid internships remain rife, and there is literally no point in undertaking a non-STEM degree. But if you think about it for a mere ten seconds, you start to see how bonkers this is. Culture is one of our biggest exports (probably). Doctor Who, Harry Potter, One Direction, Adele, James Bond, Sherlock, Downton Abbey, Ed bloody Sheeran – I don’t have any stats to hand but I know that all of the above have enjoyed success around the world, and they all came from here. I’m not patriotic, really, but when you see artists and writers struggling, due to lack of funding and lack of support, and you look at where the pop culture successes of the last ten years or so have come from, you start to think “guys, what are you playing at? Do you want all this to just… stop?”

All the creativity – all the mad storylines that could only come from well-nourished, hyperactive imaginations and sensitive, curious minds. All the sounds – lyrics that quietly break your heart over and over, voices that send prickly chills down your spine, beats that reset your pulse. All the artwork – from the grotesque to the bizarre to the pieces you don’t understand, you just think they simply look quite cool.

If people are expected to produce this stuff for free – and if their fellow artists are prepared to do so – then that’s what happens. Your local music scene, your local arts scene – they dwindle, they expire. The places where new talent would have found a home, a safe space, a learning curve – all gone. The things that tell the stories of human beings, the things that remind us who we are – all gone.

That’s the worst-case scenario, of course. It will never get to that point, because sadly, there will always be someone for whom making rent is not their biggest concern. Which brings about its own much-discussed set of issues: the arts and creative industries become ever-more unobtainable for anyone who isn’t rich, white, middle-class and upwards. Gawker nails it in this article: “Artists with million-dollar checks in their pockets are telling other artists that they shouldn’t expect to get paid; publications are also telling writers that they shouldn’t expect to get paid; and meanwhile everyone wonders why we can’t get more diversity in the creative ranks.”

There’s more to be said on this, but I’m going to revisit it at a later date.

In the meantime, you need to put down/throw away whatever you’re currently reading, and pick up a copy of Thirst by Kerry Hudson. Dear God, this book knocked me for six with how brilliant it is. Dave, a security guard, and Alena, a Russian girl who has been trafficked and has now escaped her captors, find each other at exactly the right moment, and so the story of their relationship unfolds. The novel manages to be both funny and sweet, and dark and upsetting, but Hudson’s prose is exquisite, and her eye for detail is needle-sharp. Another of those books that you dread finishing because then you’ll have to say goodbye to the characters. Read it.

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