Sing it with me: exposure doesn’t pay the bills.

exposureI tweeted this yesterday because it’s something that bothers me, particularly when I hear about it happening again. It’s a struggle as a freelancer, and a struggle particularly in the creative industries, that ‘exposure’ can be interchanged with ‘a fee’. To spare an infinite tweet thread, I’ve opted for a blog.

I get it. To get your foot in the door you have to work for free (the fact it’s true is rubbish, so I’ll spare that debate for the sake of this post), so it’s a given that non-payment comes up repeatedly. At the very least, I hope you read this and feel a little more defiant of working for free.

But you have to work for free to get your foot in the door…
Yes, you do (again, sparing the debate on this here). But you’re learning, being trained, getting experience. If you have a skill and someone seeks you out to write, create, host, curate, do something that benefits them rather than you – you’re doing a job.

But the creative industries struggle with money…
Again, yes. The nature of the creative industries is that they are creative; thinking of ways to work differently or better is unsurprisingly where it flourishes, and why so many are pitched ideas by companies, but that doesn’t stop it being an industry.

If you have money, you can pay someone. If you don’t have money, you probably don’t need it. There are exceptions: non-profits, charities, volunteering and so on. People call in favours, will let things slide for good causes, friends, and the like, but these are exceptions. Companies pay.

But if I say no someone else will say yes…
The fear of missing out sucks. It really does. Like with free work to get your foot in, being in the right place, or in front of the right people, can be what gets you a job. But there also comes a point where you have to know your value. Know your value and own it. It’s not to say you have to bring companies to their knees and bleed them dry of money – don’t do that… – but you need to know when you deserve to be paid, when you’re beyond the ‘getting experience’ or ‘exposure’ argument. You may well miss out once in a while, but that’s life.

But what if another opportunity doesn’t come along?
Do you want to work for someone who will pay themselves but not you? Huffington Post. Oxford Literary Festival. The Glasgow Subway. They’ve come under fire for a simple reason: people are getting paid, creators aren’t.  If someone’s found you, chances are you’ve got a good reputation. Keep at it and someone else will inevitably find you again.

That seems idealistic, but when you toe the line of creativity, words come about like ‘exposure’ and ‘doing it for the love’. There are millions upon millions of words to be said for the benefits of creativity, the positive impact it can and does have, but there’s also a time to say, hey, you know, would you say to an engineer: could you just lay the groundwork for this project for exposure?

You’re not going to get rich in the creative industries (usually), but you’re even less likely to make a living in it if you don’t learn to say no. Chances are years into your career, people will still be offering you exposure as if it’s a golden ticket. There will always be exceptions: you’ll help out a friend, the exposure will help others than yourself, it’s not a set rule. But exposure is becoming increasingly synonymous with being taken advantage of and cutting corners.

For me, saying ‘no’ was reading Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking and the following week emailing everyone I worked for saying I couldn’t do it any longer if I didn’t get paid. Every last one of them agreed to pay me. Every one of them in an industry (publishing/magazines) that can often skirt paying. I also recently read Neil Gaiman’s The View From the Cheap Seats when he talks at length about learning to say no as a freelancer/professional. Go read it.

I’m not going to lie: it’s scary as hell to email someone and say you can’t do it for free, but once you get the first “Well, we could pay…” back, it gets easier.

If you want to really work and go it alone in the creative industries, it’s not a case of stubbornly saying you won’t do it if you don’t get paid, it’s a case of you can’t. Exposure gets you noticed, sure, but it does not, and never will, pay the bills.

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