being creative doesn't mean you have to be broke

Congratulations, you’re no longer a student or intern. Now you just have to work out how to actually make some money.

by Wendy Syfret
28 July 2016, 3:21pm

There are a lot of cool things about starting your working life in a creative field. Unfortunately, the pay is rarely on of them. When transitioning from student or intern to real life cashed-up adult, it can be tricky to know how and when to talk about money. The truth is, for many of us, some jobs will be paid in product, experience, or creative freedom; working for free is part of everyone's early professional lives. But it's important to know when to say enough is enough and hold out your hand — or wallet.

We know money isn't an easy topic to bring up, and confronting task of assigning yourself a dollar amount can be tricky. To help you navigate the sometimes-awkward world of cash, we spoke to creatives across art, music, and publishing to see how they make sure they're getting theirs.

When do you actually start charging?
When you're starting out and happy to work for free, jobs are plentiful. But after a while, you're going to have to get the cash to stay in the game. The most important thing to remember is this process doesn't need to be awkward. If you act comfortable, everyone else will feel that way. Speaking to i-D, musician Martha Brown, aka Banoffee, remembers that when she started speaking about money with ease and authority, other people relaxed.

"I chose a couple of lines that I felt comfortable saying, and basically repeated them," she said. For her, establishing a go-to list of questions and conditions helped normalize these interactions so they became less intimidating over time. Not only is making sure you get paid good for you, but it sets a precedent for all the nervous kids who will come next. "The conversation about what creatives charge for work is so hush-hush it causes a lot of insecurities," said photographer Ben Clements. "It also carries onto other people and sets a new base for what people get paid." When you look after yourself, you're helping build a standard where everyone gets treated better.

What about rates?
Congratulations, you've worked up the stomach to ask for your money — but how much? This is probably the most difficult part of this whole exchange because there is no hard answer. Depending on your area, industry, skill, experience, and client, your final dollar amount can vary massively. The only way forward is doing your research and asking a lot of questions.

Ben remembers, "I spoke to people who were producing similar work to me and working with similar clients. The internet is a good tool as well." It's important to check in with people who work in different parts of your industry, as they'll have different points of view. "I asked managers and other artists at a similar level to me," says Martha.

Realistically, you will still (sometimes) work for free. 
No matter how successful you become, chances are you will still be asked to work for free. Sometimes, it can be worth it. Some projects offer reasonable alternatives like experience, creative freedom, or chance to give back to the community. In these cases it's just a matter of maintaining a balance so you can do the work you like and keep the lights on.

Writer Sinead Stubbins feels it's okay to skip an invoice if the work "provides you with enough experience and joy to justify doing it, and you don't feel you're being taken advantage of." She adds, "Remember: if you're working for zero money, you should still be getting something that is valuable like experience, networks, college credit, or clothes you would never be able to afford."

Offering your time can also be a cool way to engage with your community. Martha reflects: "Some of the best working environments are full of volunteers — people work better when they are doing it because they want to." She's a constant presence on lineups for non-profit shows and events, but it's a luxury she has because she's made sure she is paid properly the rest of the time. "Now that I accept paid shows, I'm way more available for free work than ever before because the bigger shows pay for the smaller shows."

Make sure you sandwich the freebies between chargeable projects. As Sinead says, "You just have to be careful not to underestimate your worth." Ask yourself: am I not getting paid because it's not an option, or because they're making that choice? If you go overboard with the handouts, it can impact your ability to ask for money in the future. "You don't want to do that kind of thing all the time, it gets messy and you stay poor," comments artist Gian Malik.

Beware of gifts and product.
Something to watch out for is people offering alternatives like clothes, tickets, or exposure in place of cash. If it's something really special you couldn't otherwise afford, then consider it — but don't go overboard. Gian says, "Lots of artists swap work; that's great unless it's you think it's shit. It's depressing having lots of things you really don't want, like fancy salt." Martha agrees: "At the beginning it's fun, but then it gets crowded! I can't eat product and it can't pay my rent. For me, it is similar to doing free work. It can be a slippery slope." Also, be weary of it as an ongoing offer. "If you've had a relationship with an outlet for a while, they really should be paying you," comments Sinead.

Get paid to get respect. 
We don't need to tell you why getting paid allows you to stay in the creative game. But often, money buys more than the essentials: it secures something intangible. Working out a rate helps build a relationship with your employer and cements your role and reputation. "I find as an artist, if I don't take myself seriously, who will?" comments Martha. "These guys know the game and they want you to think you need them. But tell them you want dollar signs, they'll respect you for it."

Cash brings new responsibilities.
When someone pays you, they'll expect an added level of professionalism you need to be ready for. "I was so bad when I started out," remembers Ben. "I never had contracts, I never communicated terms and what was expected." He recommends you totally familiarize yourself with your client so you can make sure you're meeting all the expectations they're paying for. "Create a question form that you can give clients every time. Look at how you work from every facet and detail, look for gaps where things aren't working and how you can improve."

"All creative work needs a healthy body, a healthy mind, and adequate conditions to continue to grow," concludes Martha. "Asking to be paid is a step up — professionally and personally. Once you've asked the question once and received that first pay check, you'll feel so badass and boom! You're no longer an intern!"


Text Wendy Syfret
Image via Flickr

Ben Clement
gian malik
sinead stubbins