Passion vs Paycheck
As with many creative industries the task of putting a price on a passion can be a tough one. How can you accurately apply a value to your work when the very pursuit itself feels like payment enough? Even to this day if the job looks particularly fun I feel inclined to quote less. How can 5 days in Hawaii all expenses paid not be enough?
The fateful retribution to all this creative fortune is that people seem to have latched onto the alluring power of loving your work and will dangle it in front of you like it’s somehow theirs to trade in the hope you’ll give up your wares for free. Suddenly that innocent passion for your chosen career path can be the barrier to making a living from it and in these testing times of tough competition and tighter budgets the willingness to concede to that urge is greater than ever. A well stocked portfolio has numerous benefits but each concession comes at the cost of personal value. When great photography or design or production comes for free why would anyone pay for it?
When I first started out I'm almost ashamed to say my clients often set my rates. I was lucky enough to be graced with fair minded clients who often pointed out I should charge more and then willingly paid it. It was no coincidence that those clients were the most organised, most professional and ultimately most successful. They saw value in both the product and the personal relationships required to collaborate successfully and deliver a great end result.
The flipside to those were clients who only saw value in your work once it was under their control. Whatever line they needed to obtain it didn’t matter “we’re on a tight budget for this”, “it will be great for your portfolio” and “we’ll credit you”. They say there are no friends in business (that’s not been my experience) but sometimes it feels there is no moral compass either. Think about it, how many industries does someone ask to not pay simply because their budget only stretches to paying themselves?
Take a recent interaction. I was approached by a prospective client looking to use some of my images to promote their business. They began with the traditional ego massage, complimenting my “amazing” images etc but as the email went on it became apparent that initial drizzle of accolades was forming the bulk of the proposed payment. The immediate tussle between politeness and pride ensued where I decided how to break the spell of this one sided enchantment. I prefer to err on the side of amicable so I opted for a little assumed empathy. “I’m sure you appreciate I can’t give my work away for free” I replied. Usually this jogs the conversation back on track so the business of business can begin but no such conversation materialised. The once brimming well of tributes had summarily dried up and save for a solitary offer of a credit they appeared to have maxed their budget. Once they knew I would require actual money I never heard from them again. I guess to a person who expects to pay nothing, anything seems like too much.
This is by no means an unusual occurrence and the subsequent struggle to that plateau where you are working enough to reject those offers can feel like a siege. Hovering a finger over the mouse button as you second and third guess a quote can feel agonising. Especially when that money could cover your upcoming quarterly gas bill.
Of course it does get easier. That humble feeling of someone complimenting your work eventually translates to a sense of value so when a compliment is followed by an emperor's new clothes offer or Dickensian plea for generosity you feel more able to say no without the residual guilt of disappointing.
It's worth remembering too that we are all just trying to get the most we can from what we have so you can't blame some people for trying to massage the odd ego to get a project off the ground. The problem is that both sides of the creative fence need each other. The back and forth, particularly in a challenging industry is totally expected, even healthy, but it's a balance that has to be maintained. Tip too far one way and the whole thing becomes a race to the bottom and where prices go, quality follows. You can't pay rent with a compliment after all.