I will work for free, but probably not on your project

The topic of working for free comes up regularly in relation to making video games. When I worked in photography, it came up all the time as well, and if you’re a musician you will not be a stranger to this debate either. Generally speaking I am against working for free, and especially if the work performed is also your actual profession. The real world is not so black/white, however. There are times, when there is nothing wrong with offering or accepting free work.

Let’s get one thing straight: I am not talking about working for “exposure”. Don’t do that. If someone has enough influence that being associated with them is enough to actually open new doors for you, that someone can also afford to pay you.

The free work I am talking about, is the kind you donate because you believe in the project or its creator. In my experience, these are usually niche projects with little chance of ever seeing commercial success, or even breaking even. And on this scale, there isn’t much “exposure” to benefit from either. Most indie productions fall into this category (whether you’re making games, movies, or music).

So, why bother? Why donate your time and talent to some weird, outlying project? I am glad you asked. Here are 3 quick reasons.

  1. It’s a chance to experiment with new skills, processes and tools in a production environment, without risking your day job/career if you mess up.
  2. It’s a way to network with others who are associated with (or fans of) the project. For me, if I walk away from a project with 1 new friend, it was worth the effort – regardless of other factors.
  3. It’s practice! No matter what your creative medium is, practicing storytelling, presentation and implementation many times over will only make you more confident and raise your mastery.

But before you ask me to contribute to your project, let me remind you of the second half of this post’s title. Why not your project? (Uh, this is assuming you, dear reader, is not already a personal friend of mine, in which case I probably DO want to work on your project – text me)

Context is everything! If I already know you, your pitch comes with the shared experiences we have, and my understanding of your goals and dreams, as support. If not, your project has to stand completely on its own. You could get lucky and pitch a project that happens to match something I’ve been wanting to do, but that is too rare to use as a strategy.

My point is two-fold. If you are asking others for help, play with open cards about your budget and goals, be inclusive, respect contribution limits, and please, don’t take offense when someone turns you down. Don’t go into it with a cold call approach. Get to know people before pitching to them and tailor it accordingly. It’s not enough to sell it in the moment, you want them to commit – so you have to commit in return.

On the other hand, if you are volunteering your work, please do so with your eyes open. Do it for love of the craft, for fun and for learning – when it feels like collaboration. By eyes open, I mean if you are working with someone you don’t really know, or you think there is even a tiny chance that the project might take off – get a contract written up!

Don’t volunteer yourself so others can get paid in cash, while you try and pay the bills with all that “exposure” you got. Most of us have been taken advantage of a few times, and it’s easy to become jaded from the experience. However, swearing off all others tends to end up feeling rather isolating after a while. Be picky, but say yes sometimes.

I guess you could boil it down to: Go ahead, work for free but don’t be stupid about it. And by all means, ask others for a contribution to your project, but don’t be a dick about it.

The featured image was generated using Midjourney and a combination of the prompts “I will work for free, but probably not on your project” and “Spend your time wisely”.

By Rasmus

Nerd and immigrant who uses words, pictures and sound to tell stories.

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