"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
March 31, 2010

Sponges, Lunches And Time Bandits

Creative people always have stories to tell about people expecting work for free. It’s a familiar refrain when I talk to designers, photographers and, of course, other musicians. A good friend of mine used to say, “…don’t ask me to play for free if you’ve never bought me lunch.” His point was that favours come […]

Creative people always have stories to tell about people expecting work for free. It’s a familiar refrain when I talk to designers, photographers and, of course, other musicians.

A good friend of mine used to say, “…don’t ask me to play for free if you’ve never bought me lunch.” His point was that favours come out of relationships. In honesty I’ve met very few creative people who are unrelentingly mercenary, very few people who would never lift a finger unless they were being paid. Most are willing to do favours for friends, to offer advice that comes from their professional experience. In the process of normal friendships these “gifts” are painless.

What’s unpleasant is people asking for favours and freebies almost as soon as they meet you, or when there is no established friendship. These people treat you like a dispensing machine. Typically they don’t understand how much you have invested in acquiring your “talent.” Perhaps even worse, they don’t appreciate the effect that doing work for free has on the creative market in general.

In some senses, it doesn’t always hurt to let people see our work for free. A lot of photographers will start out taking on some unpaid jobs as a way to build a portfolio or sharpen their craft. Moreover, as a musician today one has to be brutally honest; will people ever hear your work if you don’t make it accessible on platforms where your pay is limited or non-existent?

But, my concern is a little more relational. As a creative person it is worth taking stock of the asymmetrical relationships in your life – where give far more than you receive – people that are always seeking for favours, or always asking you to promote them, or looking to you as a way to grow their network.

Increasingly I’ve come to believe that it is dangerous to keep people like this in your life. I’m not suggesting that we start banishing people, or engaging in widespread incivility.

But, you have to guard your time, your space, your energy and your work.

This is, for me, an uncharacteristically harsh thing to say. Normally I am all about building community and sociability. But, I believe that this age we live in is, for musicians (and creative people in general), a very mixed blessing. We have a tremendous potential to build new collaborations and connect with our potential fans, but we have an unprecedented potential for distraction and discouragement.

Good friends will support and encourage you even when they stand to gain nothing from it, even when success eludes you. Good professional acquaintances will bring opportunities into your work as you create opportunities for them. Both kinds of relationships are like tides that drift in and out with a steady rhythm, even if their movement is imperceptible in a single moment.

And, of course, good clients will reward you for your efforts…

Note: these thoughts follow on from yesterday’s post, Gifts And Business Cards.

Responses
Toni 13 years ago

It is a tricky balance to hit, and not just for ‘creative’ work. I consult for a biotech/diagnostics/protein chemistry company, and frequently get inundated with emails, to the point where I have to close entourage sometimes so I can do my own work. Yes, I charge them, but usually in 1/2 day blocks, so there’s always a bit of free work.

They do like me, however. 🙂

Mike Mahoney 13 years ago

Toni’s comment made me chuckle a bit. “Say, buddy, could you do me a favor and sequence this protein for me?” It reminds me that there are needs and favors in every sector of life.

I used to constantly be inundated with requests to “look at my computer.” Fortunately, as the salt joins the pepper in the goatee, people’s first thought is to approach someone younger. That at least filters out the easy problems. I feel like “second level” tech support now. 🙂

I’ve yet to get to the point (notice the “yet”? Always hopeful!) where I am getting paid for music. Even when the record drops, the money will be to recover costs and fund another one. I really enjoyed the “producing” aspect of the project – schedules, arrangements, licenses, contracts, marketing, overall theme, cohesion… and could see where I’d be good at that. And I’ve often been approached by parents to give lessons. THAT is where this post comes into focus. On one hand, I love the idea of passing a gift on, and sharing my love of music and worship with a new generation. On the other hand… the time! To sacrifice the time with family and other things must be compensated somehow, and the “good feeling” isn’t always enough.

Wow, that was long and rambling…

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Toni – how to charge is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a challenge for me. There’s a great discussion about this in Matthew Crawford’s excellent book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft.”

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Mike – I’ve found the best way to kill the “look at my computer questions,” is to ask people about what they download from the internet. Amazing how reticent people get when you start looking in their downloads folder or at their cookies…

As for teaching; that is an interesting question. I’m feeling more and more inclined to get back into teaching guitar, especially guitar and recording. But, I would need to make the time to come up with a curriculum or programme. The good private instructors I’ve had, be it in guitar, or photography or pilates had made the time to get their stuff in order.

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