Now that I’ve gotten your attention with what I expect to be a controversial article title, I thought I’d address an issue that’s been widely prevalent since the Oprah/Revolva incident transpired last week. I have seen at least a few dozen times on Facebook individuals (mostly artists I believe) saying various forms of this statement, including this exact quote:
No artist should ever work for free.
While I’m all in favor of artists getting paid their value, I’m also not going to lie. I think that sentence above is a laughable statement, one that is wildly missing the mark in terms of the reality in which we live and what I consider to be reasonable dynamics between us all.
For one thing, I’m not much of a believer in the idea of “should” as we use it in (US) society today: a means of shaming other people into action; a passive aggressive way of manipulating people; and, from my perspective, a means by which one individual or group oppresses another.
For another, there are some very legitimate reasons to actually perform for free, but it we don’t talk about them openly, people will continue to fall prey to those whose intent is not in the artist’s best interest.
Furthermore, I’d bet most professional flow artists have performed for one or more of these reasons for free at some point in their career. For this reason alone, I find it incredibly hypocritical for artists to say some version of, “Every artist should get paid always” since I’m pretty sure most of us have given it away at least sometimes.
The irony of the title of this article is intended as a jibe in direct response to the quoted sentence above. I had thought it may be better titled as, The Only 8 Reasons Any Artist Would Work for Free though I’m not sure I won’t think of another few reasons to add to the list later, so I hesitate to be that bold.
Instead I present you: 8 Reasons Every Artist Could Work For Free.
Given that we all have agency; given that life is a grand playground in which anything can happen; given that spontaneity creates some of the most amazing experiences and opportunities; given that serendipity is waiting in the unknown; we need to have the freedom to choose, moment to moment, what makes sense to us. Choice is our basic liberty and without choice, what do we really have? Freedom is at the core of the the nature of an artist in so many ways — either the quest to give voice to ones experience more freely or to be caught up in the rapture of freely expressing the inner world. To ignore the drive of freedom is to deny our very nature.
Passion and Purpose
I consider the spread of flow arts in the world (universe?) to be not just something about which I am passionate, but something about which I feel an actual spiritual calling — a purpose if you will. I believe, just as flow arts have empowered countless people currently in the practice, these tools hold that gift for countless more. I am deeply committed to expanding the reach of flow arts intergalactically, though perhaps more imminently here on Earth.
As someone impassioned by purpose, I find with frequency that sharing the work itself is my compensation. No, it’s not cash, but are we now – as artists no less – to say that money is more important than living a life from passion and purpose? To say, “no artist should ever work for free” is as bad as discounting artists who work because they can not imaging being alive without working. Who are any of us to diminish their experience by reducing it to something for which they should get “pay,” especially if that is not what they seek?
I have many friends to whom I’ve been blessed enough to offer the gift of performance, something incredibly personal and powerful. Yet, is it a gift if I demand they pay me? What if I simply want to give my performance as a gift?
Just as someone may want to give a gift of their performance to people they love, they may also want to freely offer their performance as an act of service to the world around them. If performing for some kids in a cancer ward brings more joy to their lives, that might be something that is rewarding enough to not require payment in cash.
Community Contribution & Activism
Similar to gifting and acts of service, one may wish to donate their performance for true non-profit events in an effort to support a community or specific cause as a performer activist. In a sense, this is part of the civic contribution we all could make into the world simply because we want to be the change we see in the word, which includes more art being shared with more people. The Fire Dancing Expo has long been going for this very purpose and all the artists have donated their time to creating the event.
Maybe I’m just too old-school to understand how people break into performing these days but when I started performing, there was this moment between “I have enough skills to perform” and “I am confident enough as a performer to demand money” that’s a fairly nebulous period of time in which payment was, at best, clear as mud. This is the time when artists have done a few performances but haven’t gotten paid or haven’t gotten paid much. Or maybe they have spent time getting into events for free in exchange for performances but haven’t been bold enough to ask for money and/or willing enough to not do the gig if they didn’t get the money.
Best as I can tell, this happens for all of us in our career of “going pro” at some point. It is natural in this in-between period where you’re not certain what to charge, to also value the experience more than the money itself, whether you call yourself a “semi professional” or “professional” artist.
It used to be with some careers that you worked as a journey man or apprentice for the experience of it, not the pay, before you actually got cash to do it. We don’t necessarily have programs that support that mentoring process for flow artists so what then is someone “going pro” to do between the moment of knowing they think they can perform and the time when they have the confidence necessary to command pay?
I say the simple answer is that if you can’t ask for cash yet, then you haven’t earned it as that is part of being a performer, so continue to perform for experience. It’s no different than a child not being able to move out of his parent’s house if he can’t afford to support himself. It is very much a right of passage to get to the place of confidence to demand payment. If you’re not sick enough of performing for free, maybe you haven’t done it enough to have earned the money.
Of all the reasons to choose to do a gig for free, this one is the most subjective I think. Where the others are very much about a specific outcome that is internally based and about how the artist feels (and therefore something you can measure independently of another human without anyone else’s interaction), this particular reason is about what an artist projects the performance will garner them later as a result of giving the performance away today, like investing in a stock for a company. It could go belly up, but it could also pay big dividends. Aside from the obvious lack of clarity, there are two other main challenges with this.
First, there’s the idea of what is valuable and what value does it hold to whom? As I discussed in 9 Lessons Artist-preneurs can learn from Oprah & Revolva, value is relative and subject to the context and individuals. Therefore, where one may see something that might lead to career advancement as valuable, another may not.
The second issue seems to lie in artists lacking sales and negotiation skills and experience. Without these skills, artists may fail to create clear, measurable non-cash value for their work. As a starting point, get everything in a contract and if you don’t know what you want, consider the list here in the aforementioned Oprah article.
I don’t know why you got into performing, but I can say that most people I’ve met thought it was fun and that’s a huge motivation for them in their career. There’s nothing like doing a performance for the sheer joy and fun it will create. This can be inspiring for the soul.
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