When is it ok to work for free?

“There are some things worth having, but they come at a price, and I want to be one of them." 

- From the movie, Out of Africa 

If you are a professional in any industry, then you should be compensated for your work. That compensation can take many forms. You can choose to donate your services to benefit a charitable cause. When you are training, you can work in exchange for course credits or as part of an internship that leads to accreditation. As an artist, you can choose to sit in with a band – for fun or to gain exposure – and that’s your choice. If you are approached to do more than that, then you have to ask yourself, if those seeking your talent don’t value your service, why would you give it away? 

It’s easy to hold the line when you are established, but becoming established poses a chicken and egg dilemma. Professionals are experienced, and it’s hard to get that experience without already being professional. Getting started is the time when artists can and should make compromises. When I began voice acting, I asked colleagues if they’d like me to record their companies’ phone messages. I also recorded the phone message for my employer at the time. In each case, I asked for a dollar. The talent seeker was usually amused by my fee and happy to help. Now, I was getting paid for my work! I was a professional, and the more work I did, the more work I was able to get – at rates that reflected my growing expertise. 

Since joining SAG-AFTRA, my rates are set by the union. I can’t give away my voice acting services, even for projects I’d love to support. New voice actors will volunteer or work for very little to get experience, just like I did. This cycle puts downward pressure on wages. So do websites like Fiverr, where voice actors offer to work for as low as $5 per recording. (You really do get what you pay for). Fortunately, there are talent-seekers who continue to hear and value the difference that experience brings. Without them, voice acting will cease to be a viable profession and will eventually be brought to us by artificial intelligence. As artists, all each of us can do is believe in ourselves and ask for what we’re worth. 

Live performing doesn’t fall under union guidelines, so what I get paid as a singer depends on what the market will bear and what I’m willing to do. When I go to hear other musicians, it’s an honor and it’s fun to get up to perform with them; I do it for the love of music. Sometimes, if the audience is really responding to you, proprietors will try to take advantage. That’s when I draw the line. A few years ago, I was eating dinner with a friend when a young piano prodigy took over from the paid performer. I was asked to sing with the 11 year-old, and it was great fun for all, including the other diners. The restaurant manager saw their reaction and asked me to keep singing. I sang one more song, and he asked me to sing yet another. His request was unfair to the paid performer who had to step aside for us, and it was also unfair to me and to my friend. We were paying customers there to enjoy dinner, and my food was getting cold. Politely, I said no. 

More recently, after sitting in with some great musicians at a new venue that I came to support, I was approached by the booker to perform for an evening there without pay. Again, I said no. Singing doesn’t just happen. It takes hours and hours and years of learning, practice and preparation, as most professions do. Would you ask an architect to design your building for free, or a lawyer to handle your divorce pro bono? Like most industries, the world of music is small, and people know each other. If word gets out that you work for free, then you’re going to have a hard time making a living.

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