Often, aspiring actors and musicians are asked to work for free, or sometimes more enticingly, “for exposure”. The challenge with the word “free” is that it immediately places a value of worth-less-ness. As a both a producer and actor, I find it most productive to use the word “barter”. There is always something one exchange for services rendered. Yes, many starting out find they have to take jobs that are no pay – meaning money. Yet, can the producer/director supply copies of final product? Letter of reference? If it is a aspiring director, perhaps she/he can offer 5-15 minutes of camera time to allow the actor perform a dialogue for their reel.
It is my experience that when I get upset about someone asking me to do something for free it is usually my ego trying to remind me I’m not worth being paid. See, my ego doesn’t tell me how good I am. It tells me I’m a piece of shit. This is why egomaniacs try to make everyone else feel lesser than.
If someone ask me to do a gig for free, I try to remember that is a term for “no cash payment” and it is not a reflection of my value. So where then is the worth? Is it for the reel? To be able to work with a certain director? To do a different genre to break out of a typecast? If is not anything like this, then I ask what can the person casting/directing/producing offer me in exchange and begin a bartering process. If the actor needs/wants only cash payment then it is not a job for her/him. Gracefully say ” I’m not available for this job, possibly we can work in the future” and let it go. Do not burn a bridge by passive aggressively telling the casting director how insulted you feel. You’ve just killed future opportunities..that will possibly pay cash.
I know this as a composer as well. It works the same, even a bit more because film composers are at the bottom of the food chain. Many jobs when the actors are paid decently to very well, I have been asked to do scores on spec or royalty share. Getting royalties out of an indie movie is like play the Powerball lottery. There is always something to barter to make the exchange of value. It’s the law of circulation: what goes out comes back in and then flows out again.
As a producer, I often work on shoe string budgets, even commercial work. I do not ask talent to work for free. I barter and sometimes its cash, other times it is my services and occasionally a combination. A producer/director asking talent to work for free, even when it is a small budget independent film, is coming from a place of lack and therefore cheating themselves and the film. Additionally, talent (especially aspiring talent) who is refusing to work for anything other than cash may be cheating themselves a great experience. When we are creating from a place of prosperity consciousness, there is always enough work, there is always enough value to exchange and it may not look like what we expect. When it’s all said and done, only I can decide if I am doing a job for free. Only I can weigh and assign the value of the work and my participation.
So I see the solution from two perspectives: when I am asked to do something for free, I remember that it means “no cash” and it has nothing to do with my worth. I can let the person hiring know (politely) I do not work for free but I am open to exchange of something of value equivalent to the pay. On the other hand, when I am the one doing the hiring, I do not use the words “for free”. I may say “this is not a cash paying job” and then offer something for barter. A block of my time, a coaching session, camera time, editing a reel, etc.
We can’t change the words people use, but we can change our perspective of these words and choose not to react to our negativity. Instead, we can act kindly in accordance to what serves us best for our professional and personal growth and worth.
A great teacher once told me “no one can buy your worth, they can only pay you for your time.” Payment does not always have to be money. But, I admit, it is awesome when it is!
– Skip Sams
Skip Sams is a multi-media producer, composer, actor and success coach living in Chicago Illinois. His vision is to inspire others to aspire to their greatest potential. For more information, email
firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.skipsams.com