8 Reasons Every Artist ‘Should’ Work for Free

8 Reasons To Gig Free
Artist: Nova
Photo: Dalton Chan

Now that I’ve gotten your attention with what I expect to be a controversial article title, I thought I’d address an issue that’s been widely prevalent since the Oprah/Revolva incident transpired last week. I have seen at least a few dozen times on Facebook individuals (mostly artists I believe) saying various forms of this statement, including this exact quote:

No artist should ever work for free.

While I’m all in favor of artists getting paid their value, I’m also not going to lie. I think that sentence above is a laughable statement, one that is wildly missing the mark in terms of the reality in which we live and what I consider to be reasonable dynamics between us all.

For one thing, I’m not much of a believer in the idea of “should” as we use it in (US) society today: a means of shaming other people into action; a passive aggressive way of manipulating people; and, from my perspective, a means by which one individual or group oppresses another.

For another, there are some very legitimate reasons to actually perform for free, but it we don’t talk about them openly, people will continue to fall prey to those whose intent is not in the artist’s best interest.

Furthermore, I’d bet most professional flow artists have performed for one or more of these reasons for free at some point in their career. For this reason alone, I find it incredibly hypocritical for artists to say some version of, “Every artist should get paid always” since I’m pretty sure most of us have given it away at least sometimes.

The irony of the title of this article is intended as a jibe in direct response to the quoted sentence above. I had thought it may be better titled as, The Only 8 Reasons Any Artist Would Work for Free though I’m not sure I won’t think of another few reasons to add to the list later, so I hesitate to be that bold.

Instead I present you: 8 Reasons Every Artist Could Work For Free.

Freedom

Given that we all have agency; given that life is a grand playground in which anything can happen; given that spontaneity creates some of the most amazing experiences and opportunities; given that serendipity is waiting in the unknown; we need to have the freedom to choose, moment to moment, what makes sense to us. Choice is our basic liberty and without choice, what do we really have? Freedom is at the core of the the nature of an artist in so many ways — either the quest to give voice to ones experience more freely or to be caught up in the rapture of freely expressing the inner world. To ignore the drive of freedom is to deny our very nature. 

Passion and Purpose

I consider the spread of flow arts in the world (universe?) to be not just something about which I am passionate, but something about which I feel an actual spiritual calling — a purpose if you will. I believe, just as flow arts have empowered countless people currently in the practice, these tools hold that gift for countless more. I am deeply committed to expanding the reach of flow arts intergalactically, though perhaps more imminently here on Earth.

8 Reasons to Gig Free
Artist: GlitterGirl
Photo: DaltonChan

As someone impassioned by purpose, I find with frequency that sharing the work itself is my compensation. No, it’s not cash, but are we now – as artists no less – to say that money is more important than living a life from passion and purpose? To say, “no artist should ever work for free” is as bad as discounting artists who work because they can not imaging being alive without working. Who are any of us to diminish their experience by reducing it to something for which they should get “pay,” especially if that is not what they seek?

Gift

I have many friends to whom I’ve been blessed enough to offer the gift of performance, something incredibly personal and powerful. Yet, is it a gift if I demand they pay me? What if I simply want to give my performance as a gift?

Service

Just as someone may want to give a gift of their performance to people they love, they may also want to freely offer their performance as an act of service to the world around them. If performing for some kids in a cancer ward brings more joy to their lives, that might be something that is rewarding enough to not require payment in cash.

Community Contribution & Activism

Similar to gifting and acts of service, one may wish to donate their performance for true non-profit events in an effort to support a community or specific cause as a performer activist. In a sense, this is part of the civic contribution we all could make into the world simply because we want to be the change we see in the word, which includes more art being shared with more people. The Fire Dancing Expo has long been going for this very purpose and all the artists have donated their time to creating the event.

Experience

Maybe I’m just too old-school to understand how people break into performing these days but when I started performing, there was this moment between “I have enough skills to perform” and “I am confident enough as a performer to demand money” that’s a fairly nebulous period of time in which payment was, at best, clear as mud. This is the time when artists have done a few performances but haven’t gotten paid or haven’t gotten paid much. Or maybe they have spent time getting into events for free in exchange for performances but haven’t been bold enough to ask for money and/or willing enough to not do the gig if they didn’t get the money.

Best as I can tell, this happens for all of us in our career of “going pro” at some point. It is natural in this in-between period where you’re not certain what to charge, to also value the experience more than the money itself, whether you call yourself a “semi professional” or “professional” artist.

It used to be with some careers that you worked as a journey man or apprentice for the experience of it, not the pay, before you actually got cash to do it. We don’t necessarily have programs that support that mentoring process for flow artists so what then is someone “going pro” to do between the moment of knowing they think they can perform and the time when they have the confidence necessary to command pay?

I say the simple answer is that if you can’t ask for cash yet, then you haven’t earned it as that is part of being a performer, so continue to perform for experience. It’s no different than a child not being able to move out of his parent’s house if he can’t afford to support himself. It is very much a right of passage to get to the place of confidence to demand payment. If you’re not sick enough of performing for free, maybe you haven’t done it enough to have earned the money.

Career Advancement

Of all the reasons to choose to do a gig for free, this one is the most subjective I think. Where the others are very much about a specific outcome that is internally based and about how the artist feels (and therefore something you can measure independently of another human without anyone else’s interaction), this particular reason is about what an artist projects the performance will garner them later as a result of giving the performance away today, like investing in a stock for a company. It could go belly up, but it could also pay big dividends. Aside from the obvious lack of clarity, there are two other main challenges with this.

First, there’s the idea of what is valuable and what value does it hold to whom? As I discussed in 9 Lessons Artist-preneurs can learn from Oprah & Revolva, value is relative and subject to the context and individuals. Therefore, where one may see something that might lead to career advancement as valuable, another may not.

The second issue seems to lie in artists lacking sales and negotiation skills and experience. Without these skills, artists may fail to create clear, measurable non-cash value for their work. As a starting point, get everything in a contract and if you don’t know what you want, consider the list here in the aforementioned Oprah article.

Fun

I don’t know why you got into performing, but I can say that most people I’ve met thought it was fun and that’s a huge motivation for them in their career. There’s nothing like doing a performance for the sheer joy and fun it will create. This can be inspiring for the soul.

Need business coaching? Contact GlitterGirl directly or subscribe to our newsletter for mailbox delivery of this and other articles written by Temple of Poi founder and visionary, GlitterGirl, who has been a full time flow arts coach and instructor since 2002. If you seek business training or guidance associated with creating a safe performance, obtaining a permit in San Francisco or other personalized coaching, contact GlitterGirl directly for a free consultation (GlitterGirl <that pretty little ‘at’ symbol> TempleOfPoi <daaaaaaaught> com).

4 thoughts on “8 Reasons Every Artist ‘Should’ Work for Free

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  1. I appreciate this a lot. From the perspective of someone who is not pursuing a career as a “professional fllow artist,” but rather as someone who simply has performance ingrained in my soul, flow/fire performance is a spiritual/expressive/joyous/just plain ol’ fun outlet for me. I have done paid gigs and unpaid gigs. I do not feel one iota of shame for the unpaid gigs I’ve done, and I find it incredibly irritating that so called “professional” flow artists try to shame those of us who perform for the sheer joy of it. While I do support any artist’s obligation not to undervalue themselves, and while I certainly believe in supporting artists monetarily for their art, I think it’s ridiculous and devaluing to claim that anyone’s art is not worthy of public viewing if they aren’t being paid for it. As a performer at heart (not just flow, but of theater, music, dance, and performance art), my life is unfulfilling if I’m not performing in some way. And I have experienced at least indirectly numerous attitudes from “professionals” who seem to think that if I’m not interested or willing to devote my entire life and being to perfecting my spinning skills and subsequently insisting on charging money for performance, then I’m not worthy of performance… (luckily many audiences seem to value stage presence and passion over sheer technical skill). The truth is that I have no interest in being the best spinner in the world, or in truly making a living doing this. But I do have an interest in expressing my heart and soul through performance, and one of the ways I currently do that is through flow performance. I know that I’m not at the skill or experience level of many professional performers, but I don’t perform to exhibit my skill. I perform to exhibit my heart and soul. And that’s something my entire being craves much more than financial compensation. I think if any other performer criticizes this as wrongdoing on any level, then they have totally missed the point of being an artist which I believe to be self-expression. Art is not by definition about making money (or about sacrificing money, which some on the opposite end of the spectrum seem to feel when they call successful professional artists sellouts)- one has nothing to do with the other. Entrepreneurship is about making money. A successfully creative entrepreneur may figure out how to make money with their art, but that is still entrepreneurship. Their art exists exclusively in the act of creation, not the act of getting paid. I think if someone wants to get paid a reasonable rate consistently for their art, it takes more entrepreneurial skill than artistic skill (though certainly having both help). I think if a professional artist feels threatened or bitter towards those who perform for free, it’s a strong indication they need improvement in their entrepreneurial skills. Do you think professional actors condemn community theater performers? Of course not. They aren’t even competing for the same gigs. Many of them got their start in community theater and even champion it when they become successful and famous. Maybe someday the flow art industry will have more structure and (like current actors, musicians, and many other artists) maybe it will become the norm for performers may have agents to take care of the business side of things. TIll then though, the professionals that will succeed will be the ones who are skilled entrepreneurs who know how to market themselves well to the appropriate demographic and secure gigs with their salesmanship. Sometimes being a skilled entrepreneur may involve turning down free or low paying gigs, as Revolva recently did, and it’s important to know when to do that. But making judgements, assumptions, or blanket statements about unpaid performance as a whole only reveals one’s lack of entrepreneurial ability, and I would venture to say one’s probable failure as a professional performer who hopes to make a living exclusively by performing.

  2. Oh man, I just performed an event last night and didn’t even mean to! I was helping some people at the place where our flow jam is held, a warehouse, doing some carpentry work, and after I got done I broke out my puppy hammer/crow-style meteor (purely for fun and practice). It’s LEDs (pods), and spun for like an hour straight. There was about 50 people piling in, as I was spinning, for a fashion show (which was pretty cool), and they all just watched me go crazy, lol.

    There was a 20′ x 20′ dance floor that I had all to myself with mirrors off to the side so I could see what I was doing (a real treat that I never have the chance to do, especially with such a large prop).

    There was a lot of downtime between everyone getting there and the show starting and I filled that gap just for fun and practice, and had an amazing time. I had the best practice session of my life, and afterwords everybody told me that they really enjoyed it!

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