'If you're good at something, never do it for free,' quips The Joker in the Batman film ‘The Dark Knight’
'If you're good at something, never do it for free,' quips The Joker in the Batman film ‘The Dark Knight’ © Alamy

Charlie Hoehn attributes much of his career success as a marketing strategist to one thing: his willingness to work for nothing. “Free work opens doors that you could never imagine if you took a traditional path,” he says.

The author of the ebook Recession-Proof Graduate: How To Land the Job You Want by Doing Free Work, describes working for no pay as “a means of gaining incredible experience, sharpening our skills and learning directly from master craftsmen”.

Twenty-eight-year-old Mr Hoehn, who works from his home in Texas, advocates the practice for those at the start of their careers or as a strategic approach to building new relationships. He cites one friend, an event planner who worked on the iPhone launch, who periodically drops her $50,000 project fee when she believes it could open doors to new business.

Mr Hoehn and his friend are far from alone. Forgoing pay in exchange for the promise of increased “profile” or elusive “contacts” has become a widespread practice in certain industries, thanks to new digital business models, the economic downturn and an increase in the number of people doing freelance work – either as their sole career or as part of a career portfolio. Research commissioned by the Professional Contractors Group, a UK organisation representing freelancers, estimates that the number of people freelancing in the EU has increased 45 per cent in two years from just under 6.2m in 2011 to 8.9m in 2013.

Particularly common in the creative industries, working for free has also partly been normalised by the prevalence of unpaid overtime. Meanwhile, the related practice of “working on spec” – submitting, say, graphic design ideas without any guarantee of pay – has been driven by the fact that digital technology has made the tools for certain tasks more readily available and less time-consuming.

But as these trends have become more entrenched, the backlash has become more fierce. The blogosphere is replete with much-tweeted tirades from those who have simply had enough. Some workers have deployed their creative talents to denounce the practice, for example by producing witty manifestos and flow-charts to help you decide whether to accept commissions for no pay. A much-shared email exchange by humorist David Thorne ad­dresses the debate. Other detractors have even embraced their own motto: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free,” as spoken by Batman’s nemesis The Joker in the film The Dark Knight.

One of the manifestos is from Barney Hoskyns, a music journalist and co-founder of Rock’s Backpages, the online music journalism archive. Last year he called on freelance writers, designers and musicians to stop working for free with a manifesto published online that states: “If you allow yourself to be seduced by the myth that your unpaid labour will ‘look good on your CV’, try to see that you jeopardise not only the welfare of your replaceable elders but your own long-term future.” It will be impossible to charge for your work in the future, he argues, if you have already said that it has no value.

The trigger for his manifesto came after Rock’s Backpages co-founder Mark Pringle, who also takes photographs of writers for publishers, was asked by Audible, an Amazon subsidiary that produces digital audiobooks, if he could provide a picture for free in exchange for a credit.

By launching his manifesto Mr Hoskyns hopes to get people to stop and think. Companies, he says, “are banking on [people’s] paranoia that they’ll find someone else who will do it for free. What have you got to lose by saying ‘no’?” Writers, designers, photographers help a company’s bottom line, he says. “It is fundamentally wrong not to pay them.”

At the end of last year, an email written by the electronic musician Whitey, in response to a television production company, went viral. In it, the musician who has licensed his work to television series such as Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, speaks out against the company’s refusal to pay a fee for his music. “I am sick to death of your hollow schtick, of the inevitable line ‘unfortunately there’s no budget for music’ as if some fixed law of the universe handed you down a sad but immutable financial verdict preventing you from budgeting to pay for music,” he wrote, noting that he gets begging letters every week “from a booming, affluent global media industry”.

Two years ago a group of bloggers lost their legal challenge to The Huffington Post. They argued that their work – bloggers are unpaid – had provided significant value to the website and so they should be entitled to some of the profits from the site’s sale to AOL for $315m. However, the bloggers’ case was ultimately dismissed on the grounds that they had known they would not be recompensed when they signed up to write posts.

Today’s trend for working for free – which is distinct from charitable and pro bono work – has a long history in the creative and entertainment industries. More than 30 years ago, comedians including David Letterman and Jay Leno protested about not being paid for their shows at The Comedy Store in West Hollywood. Mitzi Shore, the club’s owner, saw it as a kind of workshop in which comedians could develop their craft and reputation. Ultimately, she gave in to their demands.

While the calculus might have changed in today’s digital age in which people trade off name recognition and their number of social media followers, Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist and author, warns in his book Who Owns the Future?, that today’s creative workers may well be the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, to be followed by other professions including lawyers and doctors. “Therefore, what we do to our culture today is what we do to our whole economy . . . someday soon.”

Seth Godin, the US entrepreneur and marketer, makes the point that sometimes offering to work for free means you do not “believe enough in what you do to have the confidence to get paid for it”. It is not just that people need to pay the rent, they also need their work to be valued, he adds.

Robert Levine, author of Free Ride: How the Internet Is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, suggests that being asked to work for free can provoke irrational, emotional res­ponses. “Free is another price point. But it presses buttons in interesting ways that don’t necessarily make sense,” he says. Why would you turn down speaking at an event that offered no financial reward, he says, but take another that only provided a paltry honorarium?

Tyler Cowen, economics professor at George Mason University, guards against demanding that every piece of work is paid. It can be “corrupting if you get into the mindset that you only do things for money,” he says.

This point is echoed by Mr Hoehn: “If you start with money as your sole purpose for doing the work, then your standards will drop and you’ll be more accepting of lame jobs.”

But as another business maxim from The Joker goes: “It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message.”

The earning interns

The line between unpaid internships and graduate jobs has become increasingly blurred in recent years. But employers can gain by paying those at the bottom of the career ladder.

Research into internships by the US’s National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 60 per cent of paid interns received a job offer, compared with 37 per cent of unpaid interns, because employers who paid their trainees valued the work more and gave them more experience rather than clerical tasks that did not demonstrate their skills.

Moreover, Ben Lyons, from Intern Aware, a UK campaign for fair work placements, says paying interns makes business sense: “It allows employers to draw from a much wider pool of potential recruits, rather than the small minority who can afford to work for free.”

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