Exposure doesn’t pay the bills – and yet some people still count it as legal tender.
Many moons ago I had a mini exhibition of my stained glass panels in a local cafe. An acquaintance arrived with a bottle of Cavos, which she presented to me along with lots of compliments. Would I consider donating a piece to a charity raffle she was organising, she enquired. There would be no payment, though did appreciate I needed to sell them and make money. But my generosity would be repaid because the good people of Royal Kensington and Chelsea would see my work and commission me (perhaps). It would come back to me courtesy of exposure.
WHAT IS EXPOSURE?
If you’re any kind of creative then it’s hard to avoid the subject of exposure. For those not in the know, it means being remunerated by publicity rather than hard cash. This can be a recommendation on social media or simply word-of-mouth. Prospective clients claim they’ll bring you much more work if you work for a vastly reduced price, or nothing at all.
The truth is generally anything but. Though that won’t stop clients trying to persuade you otherwise. You’ve probably seen memes and cheat sheets about exposure online. There’s even a Facebook group, replete with stories of cheeky would-be clients who still find the cash to pay cook, baker and candle stick maker. Unfortunately they have no artist budget for a particular project – but help them and they’ll pay you in exposure. If some of the replies that they receive from creative people seem a bit harsh, then it’s simply because we’ve heard them too many times before.
Many young artists and other creatives (or those starting out in a creative career later in life) feel bamboozled into working for this invisible currency. I know I used to feel I was risking future work if I didn’t agree to work for no fee now or pro bono (money coming later once a project started to pay off). With the gig economy in full-swing, it’s even harder for younger creatives to know whether they should accept it or not.
SHOULD YOU WORK FOR EXPOSURE
I would never presume to advise you either way. Many people are quite strict about not working for exposure and that’s their prerogative. For me personally, I do think it has paid to relax the rules a little in certain situations:
- A scheme for local kids, say, may really not be able to pay you for your input. But you may well find that the work you do is its own reward. Plus it’s something you can add to your portfolio.
- You may be doing well from your creative work and want to give something back. If you are happy to donate your time and expertise then that’s fine.
- Perhaps you may need some help from a friend when you’re not particularly flush yourself. You may benefit for their input and expertise in the future.
- You may agree a trade. My first yoga teachers once met the cost of a retreat they were hosting because I made them a stained glass panel.
That said, you still need to pay the bills and put food on the table. I’ve often had money coming in from my teaching work, so I could support myself without feeling short-changed. And if you feel you’re being short-changed then you probably are.
For every well-meaning, genuine request there are plenty where the inquirer is, as we say in Glasgow, “at it”. Ask yourself this perfectly reasonable question: What’s in it for me?
WHY I DON’T THINK WORKING FOR EXPOSURE IS WORTH IT
- The message is that your work isn’t worth (much) payment.
- Someone far more important hears that message too – you!
- It says that creative work isn’t a real way to make a living.
- A race to the bottom means everyone suffers as Catherine points out in this great blog post. The client gets poor quality work and the creative poorly paid. It undervalues other artists and creatives.
- If too many creatives don’t charge accordingly, clients or project managers won’t factor in artist payment in future budgets.
- It favours the more affluent who can perhaps rely on family help while they take on such gigs (and no harm to them). Ruling out a lot of talent from ever seeing the light of day.
- It’s highly unlikely that it’ll lead to future paid work. Many years ago I made a colourful leaded light window for a cafe. Because it was my very first one I did it for the cost of materials. When the owner sold the business she let slip in front of the new ones how much she loved the panel which had only cost her £x. Meaning when I quoted the new owners a more acceptable price for a replacement (though still a very good price), they said that they’d wait for me to “bring the price down”.
- Likewise, people who offer exposure often don’t follow it up. When I worked free-of-charge for a primary school during a week-long art event here in the UK, I didn’t receive the reference I’d asked for. I volunteered quite happily and I would willingly do such a project again. But a short write-up would’ve been useful, given that everyone else in the classroom was being paid except me (and the kids!).
THREE TIMES I’VE HAPPILY WORKED FOR EXPOSURE
- Running a kids’ art day for a group raising money to renovate a local landmark.
Exposure points: A mosaic on MDF whose making I facilitated for a cause that meant something to me personally.
- Donating a small painting to a friend who was organising a local raffle in her town plus some more to Tri Yoga who organise an annual charity raffle.
Exposure points: None and none sought – but a wall in Stratford-upon-Avon is a little brighter. As are a few homes in north London too, perhaps!
- Giving a friend a hand at a kids’ party he was running while setting up his business.
Exposure points: Several photos of art-in-progress I can use for my website and blog (with kids pixelated out). Oh, and a great afternoon out helping to make sock puppets.
THREE TIMES I TURNED DOWN EXPOSURE (OR PRECIOUS LITTLE PAY)
- Making one hundred handmade cards for 50p a pop, including use of pricey materials with printing inside (both of which I’d need to pay for out of fee paid).
Exposure points: None whatsoever if I’d accepted. Just a feeling that of being ripped off by a colleague I hardly knew.
- Doing a mosaic at a local vegetarian cafe I frequented. With the help of the owners, who were known to enquire about such work then beat creatives down to the point where the project was hardly worth doing (yes, the ones from earlier!).
Exposure points: The public would’ve seen a pretty piece of handicraft. But the owners had a habit of moving the goalposts and would no doubt have refused to pay me anything at all.
- Creating a stained glass window for the rarely-seen sibling of an extended family member (I’m assuming she was planning to pay for materials and travel costs to go and measure it up).
Exposure points: Null points. I’m pretty sure that Ms Rarely Seen wouldn’t be promoting my work. Plus I’m not convinced any friends’ first words would be “Hey! How much did that fancy window cost and would you give me the artist’s details so I can commission her myself?”
For every well-meaning and genuine request there are plenty where the inquirer is, as we say in Glasgow, “at it”. Ask yourself this perfectly reasonable question: What’s in it for me?
What are your feelings on working for exposure? Has it ever paid off? Let me know in the comment sections how you’ve made it work for you.