“Don’t ask me to work for free” is a good response if the party asking has any money to offer. Maybe that’s been your experience; maybe you’re deluged with requests from profitable publishers, successful musicians, or multi-million dollar startups asking you to work on spec. That hasn’t been my experience, but I suppose it happens. And in those situations, I agree: the person asking is out of bounds and deserves a scolding. Though I strongly suspect that someone with tons of money who asks people to do stuff for free is probably beyond shaming.
But my experience has been different. I write a more-or-less monthly column for free; I’ve written lots of other pieces for online publication, free; and I’ve done readings and hosted events for free. I managed to eke a book deal out of all that, in part because I was lucky, but mostly thanks to my agent. I’m a modestly accomplished writer with a day job and two kids and while I’d love to make a living from my art, I don’t think my failure to do so is the fault of the people I’ve donated my labor to.
I do think that if you go around proclaiming, “Don’t ask me to work for free!” there’s a very real possibility that people will stop asking you to work at all. I get the frustration behind the sentiment, but it’s rude and, what’s more, it’s misplaced rudeness. I mean really, why does a non-profit organization seeking musicians for a fundraiser deserve your scorn? Why does someone stretching a tiny budget to build a website about something they love need a lecture on respecting artists?
You’re yelling at the wrong people. The problem isn’t that your friends, family, and acquaintances don’t properly value your art. The problem is that the people who value art in our society DON’T HAVE MONEY. The people with money run Wal-Mart. They may collect art for themselves or endow art museums, but they don’t give a shit about your community and how art enriches the lives of the people in it. Jerry Jones has money. He commissioned artists to make art for his $1.15 billion stadium, which was funded in part by tax dollars. The Koch brothers are major arts donors too. Those are the people who have money. They do not care about you or your art.
Artists aren’t the only people whose labor is devalued. The Waltons and the Koch brothers want ALL of us to work for free, or for a laughable minimum wage, if we can even get jobs, and they want us to spend what little money we earn in those shitty jobs on shitty pizzas delivered by part-time workers with no health insurance.
So if the pizza delivery guy has a wreck while he’s delivering your pizza, and his friends throw a benefit to help him pay his medical bills, and they ask artists to contribute for free, and your position is that they shouldn’t even ask you? You’re kind of a dick.
Don’t work for free, if you don’t want to. But you can say “No,” politely, and let it go. Recognize the problem for what it is: the systematic devaluation of all labor in this country, and the planned, conscious destruction of the arts as a public institution.
If you can come up with a snappy Facebook meme addressing that, I promise I’ll share it far and wide.