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Blog // Images
November 15, 2009

On Charging (Or Not) For Creativity

In response to my last post, on photography, Toni raised a point concerning charging for creative work. How and when to charge to for services has been both my obsession and frustration this year. It’s something that most creative people I know contend with and it’s an acute struggle when the creative task in question […]

In response to my last post, on photography, Toni raised a point concerning charging for creative work. How and when to charge to for services has been both my obsession and frustration this year. It’s something that most creative people I know contend with and it’s an acute struggle when the creative task in question is not at the core of your work, or vocation.

For example, I’m a musician. If someone asks me to play guitar, or arrange some music, or mix a project, I would expect to be paid and in return would deliver a professional service to the best of my ability. Even though that’s fairly black and white, there are some exceptions, which I’ll come to in a minute.

Moving away from music, things get messy. Lately, there’s been a bit of buzz around my photography. Though I’ve taken pictures for years, I’ve really only started to take it seriously this year. Interestingly, I’ve had a few opportunities in the past weeks that could have become paid gigs, though I’ve negotiated them in a more casual direction.

Hong Kong

Partly it is down to personal aesthetics – I don’t yet consider myself good enough to charge for photographic work. It’s not so much a qualitative issue, I’m being reminded (by others) on a regular basis that my photos compare very favourably with the work of some professionals. Rather, it has to do with my level of commitment to photography and the relatively short length of time I have been taking it seriously. Whilst I would love one day to be part of an exhibition, or maybe work on a coffee-table book, I’m not looking to become a working photographer in the traditional sense. I’m happy to be an amateur in the old sense – developing my craft for the love of it.

Robert Frost confronts this issue, in the poem, Two Tramps in Mud Time. Frost pictures himself out splitting wood, a chore that the poet suggests was both relaxing and rewarding. However, the two tramps, who offer to cut his wood for a modest pay, need the work – their life depends on these kinds of menial jobs. Frost presents it this way,

“As that I had no right to play
With what was another man’s work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right–agreed.”

Growing up, my mother often told stories about her grandmother’s generous hospitality – regularly cooking up huge quantities of Empanadas, for farm workers in her village. She always gave these away. One day my grandfather worked out how much each empanada was costing. He thought she could make a tidy side-business from her prodigious baking.

Apparently, it broke my great-grandmother’s heart. Put simply, she didn’t want to know what it cost. She wasn’t just happy to give her labour away as a gift, she saw it as a small little thing to make the world a little better, a little sunnier.

The moment we charge for doing something, we change our relationships – to the craft and to the people involved.

Charging signifies our commitment to be in a certain creative space (at least we are honest, or ethical about it), in a certain way. Every year I seem to get a few opportunities where I could charge for a service related to the internet. If I wanted to be cynical about it, I could claim to have a better pedigree than some “social media experts.” After all, I’ve been online and developing sites for over 15 years, I’ve actually been professionally trained in HTML and CSS, I’ve delivered paid content, managed international groups and blogged for over 8 years.

However, that’s not a space I want to be in, so it feels easy to pass on those fleeting opportunities to make some cash, instead offering free opinion, or referral to someone I believe can offer a more permanent and professional service.

I feel similarly about writing. I was once, as an academic, a professional writer. I still do the odd bit of writing, proof-reading and so on, but I don’t charge. Put simply, I’ve never seen myself as an editor or journalist and don’t want to be in that space either. That said, if someone wants to forward me a huge advance to write a novel, I’ll merrily rethink this whole blogpost…

“Enjoy present pleasures in such a way as not to injure future ones.”- Seneca

That classic Stoic quote explains a few situations in the music world where I’m currently looking to charge far below my normal expectations. I made a decision, earlier this year, to change my way of working, musically. After all, it’s not that long ago that I came back to music, as a full-time thing, so my sense of direction is still evolving.

Sometimes, to fine-tune in that way, you have to weigh up the potential of a short term gain, versus the longer benefits of building relationships and establishing a portfolio in a new area of work.

Which brings us back to the conclusion of Frost’s poem. My situation is one of relative comfort and that does change everything. For me, the goal in being creative has to do with quality of life for myself and those around me. I don’t think the most important question is how to make money from creativity, or which bits of creativity to charge for, but, rather, how to be in the world. It would be easier to always be black and white about these things, to draw hard edges, but I think that makes it harder to take people and situations as they come and creates a temptation to view everybody as a potential client, every introduction as a pitch. The moment we choose, as Frost says, to join our vocation with our avocation, we are forced to be a lot more honest about the ambiguities involved in charging for things that are not our primary area of focus and expertise. Personally, I think that is a wonderful thing.

“But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.”

Mike Mahoney 15 years ago

Great points, both this and Toni’s in the last post. (and Frost is my favorite poet – bonus!)

I’m kind of in the same camp as you. I was once offered a paid regular gig as a drummer in a local church. I just couldn’t get my head around it – taking money for something like that, being paid to worship, although I know many churches employ paid musicians. And the argument cuts both ways; if you pay your pastor or youth leader or secretary, why not your musicians?

I’d seriously love t be able to make a living off my artistic endeavours, and I often get told by people I should. I’m finding in the making of our album I have a knack for music production and arranging, I love photography and video production. And of course, there’s the music. But I wonder how much of my NOT doing that is from fear of not being able to provide a living, and fear of turning my love for these things into “a job.”

Fernando Gros 15 years ago

Let me give you an example. Tonight I had a play with some ideas in Logic – just random stuff. It’s the sort of thing I used to do for laughs, but now I find myself wondering, “is this good enough to make public?” etc.

I don’t regret at all the decision to go back to music full-time, but when anyone makes that sort of move, you have to ask, “what do I do to relax, unwind, etc.” In a way, photography has taken the place of music for me, the serious hobby, where I stretch myself creatively without the constant pressure.

As far as churches paying musicians – well I think the moment a church “pays” people to do jobs, we have fallen out of the boat. Paying people to preach is just as faulty as paying people to play, or pray. What makes sense to me, is to relieve people of the responsibility to work, so they are more free to do a thing. So, a pastor should be able to make a living doing something else, but you free them up to serve. A music minister might be the same, if the role demands enough time. It’s really when the demands of ministry become such that someone can’t hold down a normal fulltime job.

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