Sound technicians are very often asked to work for free. It can be tempting sometimes to participate in projects that don’t pay. For example, when new to the field, engineer Geoff Emeric accepted to work for free as an assistant on the Beatles’ first recording session. Following 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 salary 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 are not being paid? Very often the answer is “it depends”. Through a series of examples I will attempt to answer these questions that many new sound technicians wonder about. In Part 1 I will look a some of the advantages and disadvantages of working for free and in Part 2 I will give other reasons for working for free as well as some suggestions on what you can obtain in exchange or what you can say when someone asks you to work for free.
If you accept to work for free it’s because you have something to gain.
When you first start working in a field it can be interesting to have a certain visibility to be known by potential clients. It is precisely that visibility that the people asking you to work for free will be offering. Before you accept, try to imagine who will be present to see you work and if those people can potentially become clients. Perhaps the people present won’t directly hire your services but they know someone who might be interested in your services. For example, if you do live sound for a band, the crowd may include other musicians that play in bands and may also need a sound technician. There may be managers in the audience that need your services for their artist. Make sure you have a business card ready to hand out in order to maximize your visibility .
Working for free is useful to build a portfolio which is indispensable in many industries including sound. You have to have mixed sound for film if you want to say you are a film mixer. To be an album producer you have to have already produced an album. So maybe mixing student films for free, corporate short films for your cousin’s company or a video for an Italian recipe for your chef friend on Youtube allows you to build a body of work to be included in your portfolio.
In some fields you can’t just buy advertising space in a newspaper or magazine in order to market your services. Ad space can cost a lot of money and if you have more time than money, working for free can be a good way to advertise. This is even more true for sound technicians because in certain fields word of mouth is more efficient. If you want to advertise this way, make a choice on the projects you want to collaborate on and limit the time you will dedicate to them by determining the duration. For example, by offering a free three-hour studio session to a musician who plays in several bands, you have more chances of being hired by them for one of their band projects in the future.
Sometimes if you accept to work for free you have nothing to gain.
Refuse out of respect for your colleagues and your profession. It devalues the work of a sound technician if it is always offered for free. People expect this service to be free simply because so many passionate people do for free anyway. It doesn’t help the working conditions if some of us offer our services for free.
Refuse out of respect for your clients. Your clients may not be so thrilled to learn that that they had to pay you for the same service someone else got for free.
Refuse out of respect for yourself. Your work has value. Your experience and your talent has value After years of studying and perfecting your skill it is normal you should assign a value to your work.
Because once you have accepted to work for free for a client it is unlikely that they will subsequently become a paying client. Sometimes this person only works with you because it is free but if they were forced to pay, they would work with one of your competitors.
Because those who ask you to work for free are sometimes disorganized and, since they do not assign any monetary value to your work, they can waste your time with their lack of efficiency. They would not let that happen if they were paying for your time.
Because you are asked to work for free but the people who are mixing, mastering and creating the cover art are being paid.
If you accept to work for free, there has to be an advantage in doing so. Otherwise it probably isn’t worth it. Working for free has its advantages at the beginning of a career and should be a stepping stone to something better. It should be a way to get on your feet and you should not have to do it once you have acquired a certain degree of experience and have a career. It is, however, important to recognize the opportunities and projects that lead to money and those that don’t. It’s also important to recognize the events that will give you real visibility and to make sure that the visibility is with the right people. Who do you want to meet? film directors? the head of human resources? sound designers? bands that are going on tour? artists that want to record an album? So if you do decide to do the work for free, make sure you have your business cards with you. Next time I will suggest some ways to maximize your time when you work for free.
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