Exposure doesn’t pay the bills: When to stop working for free

Sabine Brix
3 min readJun 26, 2016

If you’re a writer, musician or artist, then you’ve probably come across one of these ubiquitous advertisements at some point:

“We are looking for a talented and enthusiastic person to work for our successful organisation. Though we can’t pay you, you will receive exposure through our brand.”

And therein lies the paradox. If the company is so damn successful, why can’t they afford to pay?

U.S. blogger Wil Wheaton made a point of raising this issue with online media giant The Huffington Post last year after they requested to re-publish an article on his blog. When Wheaton dared to ask about remuneration he received this response:

“Unfortunately, we’re unable to financially compensate our bloggers at this time. Most bloggers find value in the unique platform and reach our site provides, but we completely understand if that makes blogging with us impossible.”

For Wheaton it was impossible, and he refused by matter of principle. He then penned the deliciously sardonic article: You can’t pay your rent with the unique platform and reach our site provides’.

Luckily, Wheaton’s own platform provides plenty of reach and he used his experience to offer this advice to his 3 million-plus Twitter followers:

“Writers and bloggers: if you write something that an editor thinks is worth being published, you are worth being paid for it. Period.”

Not dissimilar to this is the example involving Warner Bros. In March 2016, the entertainment group sent a request to the Australian Institute of Music allegedly asking students to play in an orchestra on an episode of The Bachelor. The compensation was exposure.

The request caused widespread outrage and the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance lambasted the corporation. The group’s director of entertainment, crew and sport Mal Tulloch, said:

“Artists are not there to be taken advantage of. Exposure does not pay the bills. It is a profession not a hobby, and we expect musicians to be remunerated for their work.”

So when should you reconsider working for free?

The company is profiting from you

If the project you’re working on is making money because of your talent and hard work, Tulloch suggests acting with caution.

“If the engagement is part of a business or commercial operation, this is where we see vulnerable job seekers and creative people get exploited,” he says.

“Certainly in circumstances where you’re part of something that is creating something to be sold or charged to a client, I think the undertaking should be really short. It should also be leading to employment on the project.”

Your intuition tells you to stop

If that niggling voice in the back of your head is making you feel resentful about the work you’re carrying out, or you’re spending too much time on the task, then it’s probably time to end the engagement. But ultimately commonsense should prevail.

“I suppose the point would be when you start to ask yourself if you’re being exploited,’ Tulloch suggests. That’s probably when you should pull out of whatever you’re doing. It’s this area where it starts to get really grey for people. It’s not clear cut.”

You start to view your work as a profession not a hobby

“First of all, you’ve got to value what you’re creating,” Tulloch says. “You’ve got to get from the position that it’s no longer a hobby or anything that you dabble in.

“The notion that exposure is some sort of commodity that has a monetary value is nonsense and it doesn’t exist — particularly for the people that are starting out. They may be attracted to that sort of statement, but in reality it’s just a perpetuating maelstrom. If you’re going to compromise and say ‘whatever you’re creating doesn’t have a value’, you’re never going to get paid for it. It has to be exactly what you have determined as your profession and you want to start to make a living from it.”