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How to put a price on your work? It's the toughest lesson of freelancing

What should you charge? When should you work for free?

A LONG-SUFFERING friend of mine shared this cartoon by The Oatmeal a while back and it spread like wildfire amongst those of us who identify as ‘creatives’:

Ring true? If so, the chances are that you work in the creative industry too.

There are myriad reasons why it has become widely accepted that in order to find gainful employment or succeed as a freelancer in the creative industries, you first need to give your soul away to the devil for free. Selling it just isn’t an option unless you can first demonstrate that you have sold souls before. You get where I’m going with this.

I know, valuing your work can be scary. What if they don’t want to pay for my services? What if they hire someone else instead? What if I negotiate myself out of the market? And, once you quash these fears, the burning, seemingly unanswerable question… What should I charge?

Valuing the worth of your own work can be difficult. For one, it’s a subjective process, and many of us tend to be our own worst critics. Negotiating is often something that creative types aren’t great at, generally speaking. But it’s important to establish your pricing structure early on. Are you going to charge on a value-based model or a performance-based one? The sooner you put aside some time to determine your worth and set your rates, the more time you’ll have to concentrate on going after those jobs that will pay dividends.

Source: Unsplash

In saying that, I won’t assert that one should never work for free. But it is, as Angela Dorgan, CEO of First Music Contact, who offer free guidance and resources to people working in the independent music sector in Ireland, says, a case of holding true to the idea of a ‘value exchange’.

“You can’t pay rent with exposure,” Angela says. “But at the same time, if what you’re being offered once is a gateway into future earnings, then you should always weigh up what the value exchange is. For example, say a new filmmaker is asking you to put a track to their film and neither of you are getting paid; if you love the project and you love where they’re going with it, then that is up to you to see if you synergise creatively, and that’s always a lovely thing to consider.

“What you shouldn’t do is, if you’re asked for a track after a film has wrapped, and they offer it to you for exposure, and the lighting engineer was paid, and the caterer has been paid, and everyone else was paid and you’re not – then I would stand firm,” she says.

As Angela points out, there are, as with anything, exceptions to the rule. If charity gigs, mutually beneficial collaborations or large festivals with the chance to be seen by bookers offer you good value exchange on a specific occasion, then it may well be beneficial to you. Even lawyers and doctors occasionally take on pro bono work for these kinds of reasons.

But by and large, if you’re going to be a writer, photographer, illustrator, videographer, artist, musician, etc as your ‘actual job’?

You need to get used to saying “I don’t work for free.” Because exposure doesn’t pay the bills.

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