Is it okay to work for free?

Let’s talk about money. At various points in my career as a videographer I have decided to work for free. However, as someone who is also involved in the music industry, I have always felt slightly uncomfortable about this controversial practice, and to this day I am still split about whether it’s okay or not!

The concern has always been the same; does offering your services free of charge ultimately hurt the industry you are working in? This is a difficult question to answer, but I think it can be argued convincingly that that it does, and here’s the logic…

When you work for free you unwittingly (or wittingly) do at least two things. The first is that you clearly undervalue (in the objective sense) the service you provide – your work is likely not worth nothing! And even though you know your work is not worth nothing, you have certainly influenced the client towards a lower view of the worth of your wares.

And herein lies the second problem; you are not just affecting the clients view of your worth as an individual service provider, you are playing a part in setting global expectations of what things like video or music production cost. In this case you pull the average way down!

Again, the music industry is a great example of how bad these problems can get. It is now completely normal for bands to not be paid for playing shows. Venues and promoters make money, and bands who provide the actual entertainment get the scraps, and regularly nothing at all. They are expected to accept the currency of opportunity or exposure… Unfortunately landlords and energy providers don’t accept this currency when the bills come in.

A company who receives ‘decent’ video production services for free is unlikely to turn around next month and be happy to pay £1000.000 for a product commercial. Why would they when they have been provided with a perfectly satisfactory asset for no money at all! In their mind, surely there are others out there who would be willing to work for less, or even for free.

Both of these consequences of working for free are negative for the industry for obvious reasons. So should everyone stop doing it?!

Well the fact is, sometimes working for free is the only option! When you are starting a new business, or looking to specialise in a particular niche within your current industry, often you need to prove your worth before you expect to be paid what you’re worth. For example, if you’re a videographer who wants to specialise in real estate, then in order to bag a paying client you will need to be able to exhibit what you are able to produce! Very few clients are going to commit budget to a project based on what you say you can do, particularly when your competitors can show what they can do.

The implications are clear, you may need to do at least one or two jobs for free in order to build a portfolio that demonstrates your value. So in conclusion, I think it is reasonable to work for free at times. In many circumstances it is the only option for entrepreneurs who are looking to grow their businesses. I think the key is making sure you’re not being taken advantage of. There are no rules; if a job crosses your path which offers you opportunity or exposure, the value of which surpasses financial gains, then by all means work for free. But in general, once you have a portfolio, once you are able to demonstrate what you can do, start charging what you are worth.