Artists: Do You Feel Compelled to Work for Free or Barter?

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I found this conversation-starter on ArtsBizBlog to be a good one and enjoyed reading the comments that rolled in. The dilemma:

Sometimes it’s great to trade your art for a service or other product.

Then there are the times when you don’t really want what the other person is offering.

Matthew Kowalski wants to know: “What is the polite, friendly way of saying you would prefer to be paid with money?”

I particularly liked commenter “Carla’s” approach:

I have a barter policy written, and I can refer to it for these conversations. It is not posted for the public, but it reminds me of my boundaries.
The high points include:
Barter agreements are for no more than 50% of the price of the work.
I will discuss barter only if I am in profit that month.
I have a limited number of barter sales I will consider in the calendar year.
If I do not want what the other person is offering, I suggest a payment plan. In fact, that option is part of any barter discussion.

She’s one smart cookie. An unofficial or official barter and sales policy could go a long way to making those awkward “So, how much do you charge for something like this?” or “Would you be willing to reduce your price/barter/do this for free?” conversations go much more smoothly.

I barter my voice teaching services (in fact, that is how I scored this lovely web design as well as some incredible martial arts lessons from an Olympic athlete!) – so I think barter is appropriate in many situations where you really feel the value received meets or exceeds what you are offering (the definition of free and fair trade, actually).

However, I find truly valuable barter propositions are few and far between, especially when they are framed as “exposure.” Commenter “Erika” shares my annoyance at being asked to perform at events for mere exposure,

I get this all the time with the exchange being use of my art for ‘exposure’. I don’t want any more exposure – I want money! But they always seem to find an artist willing to do the freebie (I used to do that too, until I learned better).

Don’t get me wrong, exposure is great and incredibly important for artists who have no resume and are trying to build a reputation – but I’m not. I’m no superstar, but I have reached a level of involvement in teaching and performing where I’m satisfied and I do not need to do a bunch of free gigs to get my name out.

Furthermore, I already do a lot of free singing for things I think are important based on principle (part of my unofficial policy I suppose) – from volunteering my services for arts organizations trying to raise money, to celebrate and/or represent my ethnic heritage at a music festival, or for funerals and memorial services in particular – I often don’t feel right accepting money when I am  asked to sing for these types of events.

However, I feel that all too often, artists are undervaluing themselves and are afraid to put a high enough price tag on their talents, even though the competition can be fierce – with so many other artists willing to gig for free – at a certain point you need to start charging adequate prices for your services, especially if you are a proven talent.

A friend who is an accompanist quoted his rate to me once and I know he saw my eyes turn into giant saucers. He responded with, “Look, I’m not charging to put on a tux and show up for the 2 hour gig. I’m charging for the years I’ve spent practicing, the uniqueness of my repertoire, and the debt I’ve amassed educating myself – I am charging for my expertise, not just my body on the piano bench. That’s what doctors do!” All artists should have that kind of confidence to assess their skills and charge adequate prices for their services.

But pricing can be a confounding thing and there is no one-size-fits-all-artists solution, so if you are interested in more advice about pricing, I highly recommend some pages out of my favorite micro-business and entrepreneurism blogger’s playbook, Naomi Dunsford of IttyBiz, who writes about pricing strategies:

How Do I Figure Out Pricing?

Goldilocks on Pricing, or Why You Might Not Want to Charge $5 for your Ebook

Remember, as an artist, you are also an entrepreneur as you are often a one man or one woman show trying to prove yourself and your art/talent as a product in a mass market. You need to not only learn business skills but have the guts to implement them by assessing, then asserting your worth to potential buyers in the marketplace.

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10 Responses to “Artists: Do You Feel Compelled to Work for Free or Barter?”

  1. teaparty says:

    Hello, great blog.

  2. Thank you for your insightful post.

    I think this is a common problem especially when you are starting out. When do you say I have had enough of free and I need an income? I passed this onto an artist friend of mine who has done a lot of commissioned work but is having trouble with pricing I think the website you linked to will help her a lot.

  3. Laronda Fie says:

    I just found this blog a while back when a good friend recommended it to me. I’ve been a regular reader ever since.

  4. Nick Burman says:

    Oo sticky question. Pricing is also a regional issue, so doing research locally is always a good idea.
    One idea, when it comes to bartering, is to have certain services that you can barter more easily – ones with lower expenses, or perhaps require less work.
    To draw the line on bartering, I would suggest the blunter approach, especially with friends. Real friends will appreciate you treating your creativity as a business, especially the ones who are also in business. They probably eat regularly and may understand that you share a similar habit!

  5. Good Post topic. I’ve learned the hard way. Barter doesn’t work for me. I’ll give some sculpture away because it’s a good cause, but I design the sculpture for that particular event. There’s so much time in creating sculpture folks don’t realize. If they really appreciate the work, most are willing to pay for it.

  6. Milena,

    Came to Art and Avarice by way of Brazen Careerist after reading your intriguing post on internships. I work for myself, but also for a co. called iGrad (http://myigrad.com/articles) and as a result, I’m always looking for perspectives on career – both as a 20something with my own business, and as a member of the iGrad team. Thanks for the cogent post and roundup of links. I had no idea the extent to which this administration is tackling the subject.

    As for this post, yet another excellent POV in the arena of unpaid or “sort of” paid work. I’m a creative professional, and the subject of price and barter comes up often. I cannot believe I have never considered laying out my view of it in an unofficial “policy” format so that I can be up-front about it from the start of a business relationship. Thank you for sharing! (That Carla sounds like a genius – maybe I should hire her!)

  7. Terrific post,You discover interesting things each day.

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