Established creatives lecturing younger creatives to never work for free seems to be the hippest trend to hit the streets since health goth. One blatant example: a headline on sportswear designer-turned-Shark Tank-investor Daymond John’s blog reading Why You Should Never Do Work For ‘Exposure’ Instead of Pay. Similarly, Big Bang Theory actor and frequent blogger Wil Wheaton turned down an offer from the HuffPost to publish one of his posts “for the exposure” by writing on Twitter: “ANYONE who makes something. You. Deserve. Compensation. For. Your. Work.” Wheaton’s posturing has since made the rounds on the internet, garnering support from creatives of all stripes, as well as dissent from a brave few. His takeaway from it all: “I…feel good about standing on principle.”

Actor/Blogger/Nerd Wil Wheaton

Of those who criticized Wheaton’s post, entrepreneur Damon Brown was the most levelheaded, writing that although he does not approve of the HuffPost’s business model, he nonetheless believes that “making a blanket statement like ‘Never work for free’…can be perhaps more dangerous than actually doing something for free.” He admits that while it may not make sense for people like Wheaton—with 3 million Twitter followers and a day-job on network TV– to give up their goods for “exposure,” oftentimes—for those of us not lucky enough to enjoy such fame, it is a good business decision. As he explains, “money is cheap, but experience is expensive.”

Entrepreneur Damon Brown

For any aspiring artist, no matter the medium, there is sure to come a time at which you will be asked to have your work used without compensation. Perhaps you may even be asked to produce an original work for, yes, free. When that happens, how will you decide? It’s worth noting that most advice out there is written from a perspective which may not be speaking to your situation. As I previously noted, Wheaton is a celebrity, while Brown has been lucky enough to have his previously free work turn into a well-paid career. The advice of each, therefore, must be taken with a grain of salt, as it is likely that neither has your exact aspirations, social status, or even line of work.

With that in mind, let’s get real about this “exposure”. As a keyword for “we’re not going to pay you,” the term has been much maligned. Check out, for example, the Twitter handle @forexposure_txt, which posts snapshots of offers received by artists to work “for exposure,” with the intention of humiliation. The difficulty is, exposure needn’t be such a dirty word. In fact, exposure is frequently just what an artist needs to get started. As Stacy Huckeba, coincidentally at the HuffPost, notes: “How the hell is anyone supposed to find you if they don’t know you exist?” The question is: how can we separate the real, authentic and useful “exposure” from the misleading, useless, and frequently exploitative offer of “exposure?” Here are some keys:

  1. Get it Quantified— For established creative John Acuff, “exposure that can’t be detailed …is fake exposure.” So ask for numbers. If they can provide figures for their mailing list, pageviews, subscriptions, etc., then you can decide for yourself how worthwhile their “exposure” is. If your Instagram has more followers than their blog, chances are it’s not worth much.
  2. Get it Linked— Getting exposure essentially means one entity will show off your work in order for another, different entity to see your work and, unlike your exposer, pay for it. The key here is making sure that the connection between these two steps is as short as possible. In that vein, just crediting your work may not be enough. Getting a link to your site or online shop posted alongside your work is much more likely to lead to sales or hirings than simply having your image out there—even with proper accreditation.
  3. What’s the Niche?— Not all eyeballs are created equal. Find out not only how many people will be seeing your work, but what kind of people. A good example is the story of Max Dubler, skateboard photographer. When an established boarding company used his photo without paying for it, he told them to take it down. When they told him they were giving him great exposure, he responded that he “[doesn’t] need any more exposure in skateboarding. I need you to pay me. (emphasis mine)” While Dubler is, by no means, famous enough to turn down all offers of exposure, he knows that in this particular niche, skateboarding, he has as much exposure as he can get. Now is the time to turn it into cash.
  4. Will You Brag About It?– Getting your photo published on HuffPost isn’t worth much unless you’re WILLING TO TELL LITERALLY EVERYONE ABOUT IT. I’m talking resumes, cover letters, interviews, even casual dinner conversation. If all you’re being offered in return for your work is being affiliated with a popular brand, then make sure you are hella affiliated. If you’re the type to be modest about your accomplishments, don’t bother.

In addition to these pragmatic considerations, there is also, as Wheaton put it, the “principle.” Although there are many formulations of what this “principle” is, it is surely something along the lines of: art should be valued more highly than it already is, and, by agreeing to work for free, you are only cementing the notion that art should not be compensated. Selena Razvani at Forbes, for example, writes that “the effect of not getting paid extends beyond you.” To work for free, in her mind, is to devalue not just your work, but the work of all other creatives in your field. Scott Timberg of Salon echoes this sentiment when he writes that “when ‘free’ becomes the way creative work gets assessed, it undercuts the market for everyone, famous and obscure alike(emphasis mine).” The conclusion is that you, aspiring creative, must resist working for free, regardless of the exposure, in order to refrain from discrediting your entire industry, as well as art itself. 

My advice to you: ignore these cynics and get your hustle on. It’s easy to write an article in Forbes decrying that free work is ruining your livelihood; it’s a lot harder to get that job in the first place. If you don’t take the exposure, someone else will (if this wasn’t true, so many outfits wouldn’t attempt the offer in the first place), and they’ll get the position at Forbes, NatGeo, Vice, etc., like Ms. Razvani herself.

While I understand that creative work is underpaid and that by working for free, artists only make this problem worse, the solution is not to demand that aspiring artists turn down unpaid gigs which may open doors for them. As for Mr. Timberg, he’d love to make waves with his bold, theoretical proclamations as he attempts to sell his book “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class,” which I’m sure delves deeply into these issues. As someone with so much knowledge on the difficulties of surviving as a creative, one would have hoped he’d have a more nuanced and helpful take than discouraging young artists from turning down any job that won’t bank them some cash. After all, as our old friend Stacy Huckeba puts it: “If I was in it for the dough, I would go back to marketing and PR.”


Images by Michael Hollander and NeonBrand

This article is excerpted from “The Brunch Issue,” Fall 2017