Free work is a powerful tool for freelancers. It’s our own version of sausage slices on corner aisles of supermarket megachains – it’s what we do to showcase our talent and what we are worth.
That said, much of creative work has been devalued to the point of bastardization. Hobbyists and short-term crafters let the market get used to free labor because they think it will get them ahead in the game, not realizing that a long-term career needs to equally be sustained by paid work. Free work can get your foot in the door to certain circles, but it can also brand you as the free artist and lead to opportunists taking up your plate. (Read about exploiter Hashtag Jameson Blake's brouhaha here, as a backdrop to this whole post.)
As much as I want to draw a hard line against money-less transactions, there are times when I’ve taken on free work and not regretted it at all. These opportunities are considered an out-of-pocket marketing investment or further training costs to me. But I haven’t always gotten it right, and here’s 3 “free” jobs MUAs can try, and 2 you must absolutely avoid based on my own young career:
DO: Take emergency shoots
I’ve taken on emergency shoots that leave me no time to prepare. My spring chicken, pre-academy, idealistic self would have scoffed at the idea of not leaving the artiste in me due time to marinade in the shoot concept, but I have found these opportunities to be absolutely golden to me as a MUA. They leave absentee MUAs grateful, producers; impressed and talents... well generally unaffected, haha.
DON’T: Take portfolio shoots for nothing
I’m lucky to have been introduced to creative crews that I jive well with. But when you’re a beginner MUA, it can get tempting to say yes to everyone asking for free makeup in the hopes of beefing up your portfolio. But before you say yes, you need to understand what kind of portfolio you want to create and thus demand a few layouts of looks you like. Unless the model and photographer are willing to allow you creative control, you're going to end up a free groomer.
I always try to walk away from shoots with shots that are selfishly just for me - and that's okay. That's the point of the whole x-deal. Everyone should walk away with something useful to them. A lot of people ask MUAs for free work anyway, you might as well have something to show for it. The best portfolio shoot scenario involves a legit model, a talented photog, a trained HMUA; and starts with a standard beauty shoot for a model’s portfolio, which will then be converted into an editorial for the photog and HMUA.
DO: Work with a haggle
I’ve heard of MUAs who advise to use cheap products and less steps for haggled prices – but I quickly realized that that was self-sabotage. In the end, doing so leaves me with shit pay AND shit faces that I don’t want associated to my name. When somebody haggles, the best tactic is to book the job with the intent of performing as usual, and demand anything valuable to you: extra heads to do, extra product, online mileage or heck, even an introduction. Get creative with your demands. When my rates aren’t met, I try to earn back the remainder in x deals and negotiate for that so I ultimately don’t devalue my own career.
Work is hard to come by, but that doesn’t mean freelancers should live with shit circumstances. I refuse to agree with anyone who says so, no matter how famous or successful they may be. There is always a way to upgrade the situation and add value to a moneyless transaction – be creative and assertive.
DON’T: Work for free when your work will provide income to the client
If anyone is shooting an advertorial, to be published anywhere in the hopes of marketing goods, services or a brand, no matter how small that company is, the MUA needs to be paid in actual money. This is work that is earmarked a budget and whose output will lead to future income streams for the people who hire you. Do not take this work for free and do not consider products or GCs as legal tender.
Hashtag Jameson’s banner will make his online presence look more legit. It will professionalize his influencer persona and it would lead to endorsements worth five figures at least. He definitely needed to pay cash for that, the shout out can be the x deal to sweep up the remainder of the TF that he couldn’t afford. Asking for it for free was the height of exploitation, especially since he was not really actively securing future opportunities for the graphic artist – a half-hearted one-time shout out on fast-moving Twitter, with no portfolio link, from a Filipino D-Lister is WORTH NOTHING.
At the very least, charge a raw materials fee and/or the current minimum wage for your time.
DO: Try everything once
The kind of savvy involved in choosing where to invest your time and resources unfortunately involves trial and error. I didn’t start being a MUA knowing the power of a counter offer. And I’ve definitely wasted time moping over rejected bad offers that I could spun into something valuable for me. These things just happened, and I learned them on the job. The important thing is to never settle and treat every undesirable experience as a learning one. Walk out of every job with a new portfolio photo, a new skill and a new friend. The job might seem difficult to sustain, but always act wise and remember that many short term solutions are often self destructive to a long-term career.
Jameson Blake was a jerk for exploiting fans and defending that exploitation. Free work has its place in the freelance world, but you are a grade A dickhead for soliciting it AND for not having genuine effort to provide equal value to the artist. There is definitely a defense for free work, but that conversation in no way applies to Hashtag Jameson Blake 9_9