On the Cult of Free

I bet every reader of this blog has been asked to work for free. Certainly you’ve been asked to do it for insanely cheap, but I’m betting “free” has come up at least once in your career. There are usually three contexts for this.

First, you get the client who has no budget or is a not-for-profit. This client tugs at your heartstrings with pleas of “we can’t afford to pay” or “everyone is donating their efforts for this worthy cause” or even “we’re a start-up and if we hit, then we’ll pay you on shoots–we’ll remember–just help us out!”
I’ve always advised that if you want to donate because you want to donate (and this does not apply to the start-ups), go ahead and give of yourself; but, if you are only agreeing to do it out of guilt, do not do it.

The second group are the really evil bastards who act like they are doing you a favor for giving you the opportunity to work for them. Think of the publicity! You will be connected with this person/entity in the public’s eye! Lucky you!
Never, ever fall for this. They are making you their bitch from the very get-go and you will never, ever get the slightest respect, or money, from these people, no matter how sweetly they put it. It is never worth it.

The third group are the ones who seem oblivious to the fact that this is your business, that you have to make money, and sometimes they are even shocked that you would expect to get paid or get paid anything near what your rate is. Often, this is the result of the erosion of the apparent value of the service you are providing because others have given it away for free or very cheaply.
Here, just say “no.” You can try to educate them, but likely this client is looking for free or very cheap and really doesn’t care at all about your actual value. Walk politely away.

In my business, I get a bit of number 1, almost no number 2 (with one huge exception), and a whole lot of number 3. I get emails all the time from photographers who want me to review their portfolios or websites and when I say “it’ll cost $X” they act stunned. These days, there are a ton of consultants and photographer service providers who offer free out the yin-yang, and that makes it more difficult for me when I quote my rates.

Y’all have the same problem. Because there are so many photographers who will do it for a credit line or for cheap, the rates have been depressed. You have to face that as I mentioned in the post from a few days ago. Like me, you have to find a way to differentiate yourself from the hoards. For you, that way is by making unique work. If your work isn’t like anyone else’s, you’ll be the go-to person for that work.

For me, I seem to have picked a perfect time to go to law school to add that to my quiver. I’m the only consultant/lawyer that I know of.

See, here’s the thing about the cult of free: it’s fading. As the economy continues to swirl the bowl more and more regular people are commenting on how people cannot make a living. They get it. People understand that things cost money. The Long Tail is the emperor’s new clothes (see this, and this, and most of all this) in the real world where products we buy, like groceries, actually cost money.

So while we’re still in a tough place and we all have to deal with the schmoes who want it for free or next to free, none of us are alone in it and, I think, it’s getting better.

At least I hope so, because I can’t pay my rent with only good press either. 😉

9 Replies to “On the Cult of Free”

  1. A couple of summers ago, I was asked to share photos of a local event with an economic development organization.

    I told the person making the request that I’d be happy to license my photos for a fee. And I was told that the organization had no budget for such a thing.

    Well, wouldn’t you know it, a few weeks later, a local paper ran a story on this organization. You know what their annual budget was? $1.5 million!

    But, for some reason, they couldn’t pop for a few hundred bucks to license my photos for their use. Screw ’em.

  2. Yes. I am seeing it in a lot of previous ‘free’ online tools and such as well. Free doesn’t work, but it lowers the bar for the other players. As a rising tide raises all boats, a low tide depresses them all as well.

  3. The best I’ve heard of is PDN publishing a photographer’s guide to Chicago and asking Chicago photographers to contribute their work, for publication in PDN, for free. If PDN doesn’t get it, that photographers have to be paid for publication, then who will?

  4. My favorite quote from a guy I do business with regularly,

    “If I charge too much, I’ll lose YOUR business.
    If I charge too little, I’ll lose MY business”

  5. You write better than I do, but I really have to pipe up on that one.

    A “horde” is a large group of *people.* (Or, theoretically, other animals.)

    A “hoard” is a large store of *things.* One could, theoretically, hoard people, but it would require a big cage or something.

    “A horde of inexperienced photographers has created a hoard of underpriced imagery on microstock sites,” one might say. 🙂 One must avoid contributing to the hoard and distinguish one’s self from the horde.

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