Sound technicians are very often asked to work for free. Even without a salary, it can be tempting sometimes to participate in projects that don’t pay. For example when he was new to the field, engineer Geoff Emerick accepted to work for free when he assisted on the Beatles’ first recording session. After that experience, he spent most of his career working with the Beatles (as a group or solo artists). It’s just one example. Is it normal to work without pay at the beginning of one’s career? Is it actually worthwhile to work for free? Which projects should you or shouldn’t you accept if you aren’t being paid? Very often the answer is “it depends”. Through a series of examples I will attempt to answer the questions that many new sound technicians wonder about. In Part 1 I looked at some of the advantages and disadvantages of working for free. Here in Part 2 I will give you reasons why you might for free as well as some suggestions of what you can obtain in exchange or what you can say when someone asks you to work for free.
Other valid reasons
If you accept to work for free you have to have something to gain. Here are other reasons that could make you decide to work for free.
- Because you know that the person or the team is expecting a grant,
- Because the group or musician has a budget for their album and that one free session can convince them that you are the right person for the recording and that with you, they’ll get their money’s worth.
- Because the group that you are offering your services to for live sound has a tour booked and you would like to get the contract for the live sound on tour.
- Because the project in question will allow you to work with talented actors/musicians with whom you would not normally be able to work with. Sometimes working for free is a good way to benefit from these first precious collaborations.
- Because you know that a major project will get a lot of visibility. But be careful, everyone will be offering visibility, it can sometimes be an exaggeration, but can also be very true. If the project is benefitting from good publicity and extended coverage in the media, that can be interesting for you.
- Because you know you are a sociable person and you have enough people skills to make contacts regardless of the situation. If you are able to network easily, you’ll only need a few free projects before people know you and ultimately recommend you or hire you.
- Because it can give you the chance to work in professional conditions with real professionals and that has never happened to you before.
- Because you are going to get a chance to work with some high-end equipment that you would not normally have access to.
- Because you are technically qualified but you want to work on your teamwork skills or communication skills in a professional setting.
- Because some events are done on a volunteer basis only (community events, religious, school, fundraisers…) and no one is paid.
- Because you never recorded violin and this project will allow you to try it. In the future, you will be able to accept a paying contract to record violins. You will have the confidence and the experience of having done it previously and you’ll request to be paid.
- If you’ve never done a Foley session for a film, this project will allow you to try it out without too much pressure for the result because you aren’t being paid. You can’t really be fired. If at worst they ask you to stop because you’re not cutting it, there won’t be too many consequences: you didn’t lose your job and the session will have allowed you to practice and gain a bit of experience.
- Obtain new credits: when you want to push your career in a new direction, it can be useful to work without pay in order to gain new experiences. See the grid below.
- Work for an exchange of services. The people that you will work with for free may have some talents that could be of some use to you, now or in the future. See the grid below.
Obtaining new credits
To gain producing experience: offer to record for free in exchange for letting you produce the album.
To become known as a composer: offer to record them for free in exchange for them also recording one of your compositions to put on their album.
To become known as a musician: offer to record them for free in exchange for you playing guitar on their album.
To become well known as a mixer: offer to record them for free if they allow you to mix the album (preferably paid).
Obtaining services in exchange
I’ll record for free if you play on a soundtrack I’m working on or if you add some violin on some of my tracks.
I’ll record for free if you refer me to paying clients.
I’ll do the sound for your film for free if you shoot a promotional video for me.
I’ll do the sound for your fashion show for free if you offer a free photo session for my band.
Here are some examples of what you can say to people when they offer you work that you won’t be paid for:
- If the person asking for your service doesn’t have a budget to pay you, ask them for compensation, or some kind of allowance, or a symbolic fee. A little something is better than nothing. Maybe they can take it from the budget provided for transport or food?
- If the person asking for your services doesn’t have any money to pay you, ask them for some kind of collaboration or partnership. You can get a percentage of ticket sales at the door when you do sound for a live show, you can ask for a portion of future sales on an album or a film for example.
- If the person asking for your services doesn’t have money to pay you, ask for a service exchange. Since many sound technicians are also artists, an exchange of services is a good way to obtain the design of a logo or album cover in exchange for your services as a sound technician.
- If the person asking for your services doesn’t have money to pay you and you accept, set some limit to how much time you are going to give. For example a free recording session no longer than 4 hours long, otherwise it is 25$ for each additional hour.
- If the person asking for your services doesn’t have money to pay you and you accept, set the limits of what you are going to be doing. For example, you record for free but if there is some editing to do after, that will cost them 25$ an hour. Another example: you record for free if there aren’t any overdubs and everyone records together at the same time. That puts pressure on the group to be really tight and not waste time doing overdubs that never end.
If you accept to work for free, you need to find an advantage for yourself, otherwise it probably is not worth it. Working for free has its good sides and can be a great stepping stone, but you shouldn’t need to do it once your career is under way. It is however very important to be able to recognize the occasions and projects that lead to money and detect the ones that will not. It is also important to detect the opportunities that give you real visibility with the right people: who do you want to meet? film directors? the head of human resources? sound designers? bands that are leaving on tour? artists that are looking to record an album? Most of all, if you do decide to work for free make sure you have your business card with you.
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