Should We Work For Free?

When I was a student I always remember my business lecturer telling me the objective of business is to stay in business. I’m not sure that’s entirely the only objective (growth, profit, legacy, exit plan all play important roles), but the tenor of his mantra was of course right. So on that basis, you can’t work for free, otherwise you won’t stay in business, right? It’s something that I’ve grappled with in the past. Should a young company starting out (as The Composerworks was in 2012) offer, in our case, to score projects for free. The conclusion I came to was working for free should be a rare exception when starting out, and provided you’ve strategized so that you will be able to use your investment of free time to your advantage to improve your reputation. I’ve heard that many production staff offer to work on television productions for free for the privilege of having a good credit on their CV. That’s bad for at least three reasons: 1) it devalues the industry we operate in; 2) it devalues the person offering to work for free because they’re saying they’re not actually worth anything; and 3) it’s probably a complete turn off for the production company/broadcaster to have someone approach them on the basis that they’ll work for nothing (it smacks of eau du Desperátion). I’m talking about opportunities where there’s a low or no budget production which looks really promising and which your heart (and brain) tells you will demonstrate your skills to the extent that it would make an impact on a film producer down the line. That, I would argue, makes it worth the investment of your time, as it improves your marketing offering in return. Or where there’s an opportunity to speak at an event which will get you noticed. Or where offering to work on a non-profit project may not only help with your reputation, but give you a sense of satisfaction (eg a charity television advert). So, my view is that there are occasional opportunities where the pay-off may make it worth investing a bit of free time when you're getting things off the ground. But I’d emphasise it should be the exception, there’s got to be something decent to show for it at the end of the process and it should be slotted in as a small part of a wider plan to ensure that you, at the very least, stay in business.