Thanks for no thanks

’Tis the season (well, nearly – I still think the capitalist machine could ease up on the carols for at least another week or two) to be joyful and thankful and kind, and all that stuff. ’Tis also the season, for many musicians, when offers are made of ‘work’ for which they will likely be offered no, or extremely inadequate, remuneration for their time and skills, for the entirely logical reason that, you know, Santa.

I spent a bit of time last December writing about the responsibilities that we all have, as musicians, to support each others’ right to fair pay for our work. In fact, this is a subject I seem to come back to with depressing regularity (as in here and here). This December, I have found myself in receipt of a request for my professional involvement (not to take place until June, mind – no Santa reflex in this case), which similarly did not include reasonable terms of payment. It is the irony of this particular instance which compels me to blog about it… because I was being asked to come and speak at a careers event, explaining what it is to be a freelancer with a portfolio career in the arts.

Now, I am all for encouraging people to be freelance. I consider it to be an extremely rewarding, fulfilling, varied and exciting lifestyle. So in principle, I was all up for being part of the event. But in my reply I made the point that nothing had been mentioned about a fee, and that I would also need my travel costs covering. It subsequently transpired that although my travel costs could probably be covered, no fee could be offered. The event is to take place in a city around two-and-a-half hours away from London by train. The round trip, door-to-door, is over 6 hours. The event is an hour. That makes basically a full working day in which I will be able to earn no money at all. And the point of my being there would be to explain to students what it meant to be a freelancer. How on earth could I be expected to attend when I would be urging them never to do what I, myself, would be required to do in order to in order to speak to them – to offer my expertise, experience and time in exchange for absolutely no remuneration?

I have turned down the invitation and explained, I hope clearly, my reasons for doing so. And in case this should ever happen to you – whether you are the freelancer being asked, or the person considering asking a freelancer to work under these conditions, I offer a few things to think about:

If you want a freelancer to do you a favour…

  1. You need a clear reason to be asking for something for nothing. Are you a charity? And even if you are, have you made it clear from the first point of contact that this is an unpaid, volunteering role?
  2. Consider the logistics and practicalities of what you are asking. Does this require a lot of time additional to the event time, for travelling or preparation? Are you taking account in that in what you’re asking?
  3. Having stated the voluntary nature of the job, is there anything you can offer at all to encourage participation? Travel costs, food, accommodation, publications, discounts, etc? If you can, that’s great, but don’t expect us to jump up and down in gratitude. It’s still not a fee, and all the free food in the world can’t actually help us pay our rent.
  4. If the freelancer says no, be understanding. It may well be that they would have accepted had their financial circumstances been different, or if the charity/cause had particular meaning to them. But if they can’t commit to giving that much time for nothing, remember that doing so would have deprived them of the opportunity to earn a living.
  5. If the point of your event is to promote freelancing, don’t expect us to show up for no money!! If you really believe that the way we work is a valid career choice, have the respect to acknowledge the financial implications of that choice.

Coins on a twenty pound note, from Pixabay, C.C.0

If you are a freelancer and an offer comes your way…

  1. Make sure you have very clear information from the get-go on the money-related aspect of the offer. Asking about payment is not sordid, penny-pinching or inappropriate. You are a professional and you are trying to make a living. You need to know if you can afford to do what is being asked.
  2. Consider the logistics of what is being asked. Does it involve travel, overnight stays, or preparation time? Has this been taken into account in the offer that has been made to you?
  3. If the organisation cannot offer you a fee, but you would still like to help in some way, ask them what else they can do to make it viable. Travel costs, food, accommodation, subsistence allowance or anything else you think might be useful to you (including introductions, if there’s a networking opportunity) are all good things to think about. If they can only offer things you don’t want/need or which you don’t consider to alleviate the financial burden you are taking on by working for nothing, then you can say no with a clear conscience.
  4. If you can’t afford to do it, there is no shame in saying no (and it’s not bad manners either, fellow Brits…). You have to live, and that takes time and money. You’re not letting them down, and you’re not being evil in the face of the chance to Do Good For Charity. Be polite but firm. Give reasons if you feel that the organisation has not fully grasped the implications of what they are asking.
  5. If the organisation is asking you to do something that is all about promoting freelancing, then you should expect them to be particularly sympathetic to your circumstances. Speaking on behalf of a company may have direct or indirect financial rewards for that company and its sector in the form of recruitment or investment. Speaking on behalf of freelancing offers no financial reward, direct or indirect, for you personally. Instead, you are being asked to take away from your working hours. So only say yes if you are really sure that you not only want to take that hit, but also want to back an organisation who thinks that’s an acceptable way to treat freelancers.

For everyone involved in exchanges such as these, think about what you are asking or being asked. A full-time employee gets paid every day to do their job, and will potentially also be offered expenses to cover attendance at promotional events, away days and conferences. A freelancer who takes time to do these same things has to pay to do this – there is no one to reimburse attendance fees, travel, and so on, unless they seek additional funding. You have a right to say yes, of course, if you feel able to make the commitment. But you have a right to say no, too, if the figures don’t stack up. Use it if you need to. We all should.

One last thing. There are many organisations – in the arts, education, culture, etc. – which do not have sufficient funds to offer reasonable fees and might ask you to do work for less than a professional rate. In these circumstances, exactly the same logic applies. Don’t be bullied into doing something for not enough because you think they have some sort of moral high-ground as a struggling charity. If you want to support them, then that’s great. But if you’re being asked to work for below recommended rates and you can’t afford to, then don’t. Those very organisations, just like you, should be helping to campaign for fair pay and balanced books across the sector. Speak to your union if you need further advice.


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