Do You Work for Free?

What is the value of a picture, what price to put on a design? What if you are pitching and don’t want to spend the money because it is a 1 in 10 speculation?


You could call me and say:

‘If we win the job we’ll employ you, but before that can you design our pitch for free?’

 ‘Sorry, I don’t work for free’, is my response.


But a recent event got me thinking – is that true?


The other day on Twitter I entered a brief chat with Lloyd Cole (ye of an older age will either swoon or snarl – he was the Marmite of 80’s (pretty) intelligent pop), and he was not currently happy with Spotify – or, as he called it, Shopify – and the stuff they ‘stocked’ of his.


You do hear many negative tales of music artists being quite disgruntled with the give-away of their arts via such servers. But us, as users, often hungrily consume the output without a thought. But he got me thinking, about my ‘Point of Actual Value’ [PAV]*. Do I really fully control the paid-for relationship I have with all my users?


My own creative work can be found on my website [www.mikebell.eu] it’s how I tell people about what I do – visually. Sometimes with a bit of text explanation, but it is mainly pictures and videos. It’s what my fee-paying clients want at the end of the day – to see if I can visually sell their ideas – with my style of pictures, my designs, as part of a fee-contract. My PAV is accepted by the would-be client. So we end up collaborating, they brief me, I design, then they sell. I bill. Then I get paid, even if they do not. All on trust.


Same as my ‘shopfront’ – my online portfolio. Pictures up there on trust. But they can be stolen. I am sure they are – the web is so huge now they could all exist on a parallel site somewhere out there, making someone else money. My shopfront content may have been nicked (or ‘downloaded’), but I have not noticed. I do not lose sleep about it. If I found actual theft I would take action. But, like any shopkeeper, I have to let any bugger in and out of my store on the basis that they may spend once ‘in’ there. Some loss will be incurred, some pickpockets will get a percentage.


Lloyd Cole, and his fellow musicians, have to do the same, or similar. They promote through exposure. They choose, not always their choice, what to put up on their sites, and what to give away. This includes the server-bea(s)ts of Spotify and Google. Musicians now have to go there because we, as consumers, fans, music lovers, want some of it for ‘free’, want to test it out, try it on. And we sometimes justify it in our heads by recalling the oh-so-expensive-hugely-profitable CDs we used to buy (and cassettes if you are ore enough to remember Mr Cole’s earlier successes), and how it used to work, so we have kinda helped them along already. But it is the younger generations who now expect the fruits of the songsters’ tree to fall for free into the laps – those whom are thinking ‘online’ is the new ‘on tap’. The musician’s PAV seems to not exist.


Its a visual, aural, sensory competition out there.


We all need to compete by showing our wares. It is no different to the record store with headphones and listening booths? It is necessary to share, to give away a slice in order to get a bigger cake. It is how it works. Is it?


As Mr Cole looks at the downloads versus income figures he may be in disagreement. But he doesn’t work for free – fans still go to his gigs and pay at the door. They may pay for the CD and t-shirt on the way out. Therein lies the rub. His live audience are recognising the need to pay. They are obliged to pay, or else they don’t get in. Mr. Cole has a PAV – a point at which he gets recompense for being there, doing it now, and having a back catalogue which he pulls out during the paid-for live gigs. But that isn’t the gig he first got into thirty years before. Art has shifted into the grip of free-servers.


I don’t work for free. I charge for my time, as you may do in your salaried work. I often over-deliver and discount rates for pitches – but that is part of an ongoing relationship with my customers.


But we both, myself and Mr. Cole, do sometimes work for free. We have to self-promote, we have to ‘be there’ in the digital world. And in doing so we are giving something away every day by ‘being there’.


Whilst it is up to the consumer, the client, the fan, the grazers, to be honest about what value there is in the relationship, in this free-for-all digital landscape the PAV, when we are offered a proper return at a fixed point in time for all of our art, that will slowly erode and become history – like the cassette. Then who will work for free?


*’Point of Actual Value’my definition/term – meaning the realised moment that someone has to pay with money, rather than a longer-term subscription to a third party.