Working for Free

What ever happened to paying for work?

The website announced:

Obama for America invites artists from across the country to volunteer their creativity to support President Obama’s plan to create jobs now, and his re-election campaign to keep fighting for jobs for the next four years.

Seems that artists aren’t included among those who need jobs. (See the Graphic Artists Guild’s response.)

LIGHTS, CAMERA, PRIZES! Tell us why you love AAFCU in a 60 second video. Visit for complete details.

Seems people want their commercials created for free (the prize is $300, much less than an advertising firm would charge).

Googling “free music download” turns up 109 million results.

Seems people want their music for free, too.

Five hundred years ago, artists and scholars were often supported by patrons. These days,  artists hope to sell their works in order to support themselves. The idea is that if we try hard enough, and are skillful and creative, we can earn an income. This motivates us to become more skillful and creative.

Lately, however, it seems we expect these sorts of “products” to be free. Why pay for music when we can “borrow” our friends’ downloads? Why pay for advertising when everyone has a video camera and can’t wait to get their name published? Why spend money at an advertising firm when you can get artists to design a poster (promoting job creation, no less) for free?

I know I’m guilty of wanting—expecting!—freebies. I no longer spend money on cookbooks—the internet has plenty of recipes. I send free e-cards (even while I sell blank greeting cards to others), hunt down copyright-free photos for use in my PowerPoints, and read my favorite magazines online. No more paid subscriptions. (This might be one reason so few magazines still pay for photographs or articles.)

I’m also guilty of providing goods at no charge. My blogs are there for anyone to click on them. As a volunteer master gardener, I never charged for providing gardening advice, teaching classes, or writing articles. (That will change come January, as I will no longer volunteer for CSU Extension.) And I still volunteer to write articles, edit the newsletter, and maintain the website for our local Audubon chapter. For years, our income tax forms listed my profession as “volunteer.”

Now I’m trying to establish myself as a professional photographer. It’s not easy. With the advent of digital cameras, everyone with an iPhone is a photographer. I hope I’m better than average, and I’m certainly working hard at improving my skills, but the marketing aspects are killing me. (You can see my work at

In an effort to gain name recognition, I began by donating photographs to our local newspaper and various nonprofits. Now I have to ask… why would someone pay for one of my photographs while someone else makes theirs available for free?

What do you think? Are you willing to provide goods or services for free? Should we expect artists to donate their work? How much are you willing to pay for a work of art? Do we need some other way of funding the arts?

3 thoughts on “Working for Free

  1. Hi Leslie,

    Seems to me that artists who knows the ropes and have contacts get grants from the government to pay for art work nobody else in the world would pay cash money for.

    As a writer, I recognize that lots of readers love my work–so long as they don’t have to pay a penny for it. Nevertheless, because there were hard times in my own life when I could not afford to buy books, I do make free pdf e-copies of my books available to folks who ask.

    And, as a Christian, I’ve noticed that when a preacher talks to me about “ministry” he wants me to do for free something he gets paid to do.

    Pay no attention to me–I’m grumpy this morning.

    John Cowart

    • John, If that’s being grumpy, then I’ve been grumpy a lot lately! I am enjoying your book on Unanswered Prayer very much, and will be writing about it when I finish. Hopefully that will inspire others to buy it!

  2. I agree! So many times organizations and companies that could totally pay to hire an artist or design firm have a “competition” to get the same work for free.

    I think that art competitions are fun for charities who don’t have the funding (even the Hurricane Poster Project was organized by the design firm Moxie Sozo). Or, when the art isn’t really necessary, but just a fun thing to do (like when the Olympic skeleton competitor let kids compete do design the art their helmet.)

    But, major companies or causes (including Obama’s re-election campaign) should be supporting our artists by paying for their work! This is their livelihood and they have spent their lives dedicated to training and skill. It would be like asking engineers to all design new cars, and the one person who has the best design gets “paid” a fraction of what their time should be worth. Forget about the other skilled workers’ time and energy put into the project.

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