Why you should never work for free

It’s a very tough beginning in the world of sound work, and generally working in an industry in which most people would give their left nut to be involved at any level. As a sound guy, the rise in quality of the equipment available at cheap prices for the ‘bedroom’ studio is unbelievable. In fact, I professionally use some of that stuff for projects I work on and can safely say that the quality is up there with some of the top vintage equipment. For the modern day, this gear is great and I want to cheekily add that if some of it was available back in the 60s (along with a thunderbolt equipped mac), they would’ve most likely made it onto Beatles recordings, Hendrix – any of them. And I really believe that. But that is not what I’m getting at here – but I’m digressing.

My point is that, this is a desirable industry and the barriers to entry are getting smaller and smaller. That means that the incentive to make a profit immediately is being forsaken for the opportunity to try and jump straight in and work for whoever and on whatever project you can. Many musicians will tell young bands to just gig and improve that way. I don’t fully agree with that statement in general and more so with sound engineering I honestly believe it is good to wait, learn your craft, make mistakes and make them on your own so you don’t screw yourself up and burn bridges straight away by making people think you’re useless. Because let me get one thing straight, whether it’s Johns covers band down the pub or the Rolling Stones, they won’t care about your experience and what you’ve done past if you mix their band to sound good, and they will definitely have no trouble telling you where to go if you go wrong with it.

But getting work in the first instance is tough, and with sound engineering there is always the good old gem of, ‘we can’t pay you, but it’ll be great exposure for you’. And to those lovely people, I kindly ask them to go fuck themselves. If you don’t want to pay for people to do work for you and to make your music/ band better – then that’s straight up sad. Do you really want to be fooled that you’re going to get exposure for working with little bands who themselves struggle for exposure? This may be quite a negative point of view but the fact that they can’t afford to pay you says about the level the band is at and shows the amount of exposure they’re probably expecting to get themselves let alone what the work will give you. I would have no qualms with having a play with some mixes of bands and artists to gain practise for yourself, but simply if they won’t pay you at the end of it when you deliver finished products – then you should not be giving it to them. It devalues your work and in the grander scheme, it devalues the industry.

And even further down the line, Why would bands pay sound engineers and professionals when there is a wealth of talent and stupidity in the industry willing to do it for free? And then when a band is at a level where they feel they want to start paying professionals, why would they pay someone who is known for doing the work for free? You’re devaluing yourself. It’s a sad and sorry reality, but you are. Start charging and then you look more professional and are then able to earn and improve your trade, buy better gear and equipment and move up the professional ladder. Again I must stress, practising your trade is important to be the best, but don’t be doing work for free. It genuinely sickens me that it is even a thing!
But it is rife across all corners of the industry, and I need to draw attention to a brilliant journalist, Thea De Gallier (go follow her on twitter, @theadegallier). She writes some awesome articles and is extremely active on twitter and with various publications with some of the important musical issues. Following the collapse of the huge music media company, Team Rock, she tweeted in disgust at ‘how many blogs were commenting on the sad situation of the company yet they themselves don’t pay contributors’. 

The free content they can undermine and undervalue some of the brilliant content that other media outlets are offering after they’ve had to invest huge quantities of money to get the best writers and amazing access to artists and these companies can no longer compete – or at least they can’t afford to pay those who matter when there are clearly a plethora of talented individuals who seem to be allowing their work to go unrewarded, at least monetarily. Some of these bloggers release some awesome readable material and get the occasional access to a-list stars – so why would people pay or give their attention to other sites that may advertise or cost a premium to read. It’s exploitative. But it’s happening all the time. It’s sickening that people will sit in a coffee shop paying over the odds for a crapucino, with their overpriced tablets or phones and feeling entitled to read free material written by those who at times can struggle to make a living, but it seems to be becoming part of our don’t pay for music much, we don’t go and watch new bands and pay for gigs, and we don’t want to pay for what we read and what entertains us. This is a generalisation, but a sad truth in most cases.

The entire structure of the music industry is disappointing. As I’ve written before, mixing passion with business is difficult. Especially when we now have an industry where (even though it’s meant to be all about the music), record labels and business executives are sitting there earning a lot of money from bands music, while those bands are struggling to work extra jobs and pay for touring, knowing they probably may see around 30p of each pound they earn. That’s after they were ‘lucky’ enough to get signed. That feels exploitative to me as well. We are here working because of the music, but it feels like the people who want to promote the music, the people who write and play the music and the people who help create the music are the ones who are suffering. It’s sad.

It’d be fantastic if the public would pay for their music, pay for their reading material and what entertains them, as otherwise I really panic that soon this industry will collapse In a damning chain reaction with nobody to write, record, enthuse about or play music. How depressingly shit would that be?

But in a world of negativity, for now there are tonnes of bands out there playing awesome music and recording fantastic records. Find them, work with them, prove your worth – make them sound awesome and as long as you’re getting paid for your hard work too, you can have a really enjoyable career with the privilege of working amongst one of the most inspiring mediums ever – music.


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