According to our survey, 91% of our members have worked for free – and most would do it again. But what are the real stories behind those figures?
I worked as an unpaid intern for about six years in New York and London. My experiences of it differed wildly. When I was in New York, hard-working interns (myself included) were often plucked out of the pool and offered lucrative full-time or freelance positions. The world economic crisis may have changed this but, six years ago, that’s how it was.
In London, it felt like you could work and work, get on with people, take extra stuff home to do in the evening and weekends, and still end up being passed over in favour of a more-useful contact’s niece who’d just finished her A-levels. I ended up feeling that because I was born without a useful contact list, I’d never stood a chance.
I write for online publications now and am paid for it. Rather than all that interning, I’d have been better off just starting a blog and tenaciously pitching to editors. Much of what I tried to achieve in my 20s was a massive waste of time, something that still makes me sad now.
Brendan Murphy, actor and artistic director
I run my own theatre company and wish I could pay everyone.
When I’m working as a producer, I do everything I can to pay people national minimum wage, but it’s not always possible. We’re unfunded, so the budgets basically come out of the co-founder’s and my pockets.
What we do is have an open-book policy with our accounts, so the actors can see exactly where all the money’s gone. ‘Profit share’ is a bit of a joke in the industry because it basically means you’re working for free. It’s better to be honest and upfront. For the last few productions we’ve done, the two co-founders have either not taken a fee, or taken a much-reduced fee compared to the actors or designers. It’s not a viable business model. Any accountant would take a look at us and say, “This is a joke.” But we find that taking less money for ourselves secures a higher quality of actor or director, and encourages them to work with us on future projects.
However, all this flips when I talk as a performer. I have worked for free – one-off comedy gigs or improv shows. And sometimes you go into something without having a fee secured. But I’ve reached the point where I try not to do that now. I’ve been out of drama school for four years; if you kept taking unpaid work then I think people would start asking questions.
When I’m not working as a creative I have a rate in my head that I’m worth: about £10 an hour. But my creative rate massively varies. It’s tricky – there is no right or wrong.
Becky Brewis, commissioning editor and writer
There have been times – like as a production intern at a fringe theatre– when I felt that by working for no money I was being exploited. I wasn’t getting anything out of it. You need to make sure that you’re not getting sucked into the politics of the place or starting to feel that you’re obliged to be there.
A Younger Theatre is a small project run by eight of us. It is constantly growing and evolving but at the moment none of us make any money from it. It feels different– you’re able to shape things and you’re not just doing someone else’s work for them. I’ve had the chance to make contacts and build up good relationships with PR people; I wouldn’t have had that lower down the editorial ladder.
I now do ushering at the Barbican, paid, and I’m living with my mum. Having an income like that does make you feel better about working for free.
John Nugent, journalist
I’ve done tonnes of free work because I wanted to. I write for a film blog, for instance, so I get to see films for free, build my portfolio and practice my writing.
When I first moved, I took on lots of internships for production, film and advertising companies, just to get my foot in the door and get a feel for London, I suppose.
Anyone who’s been a runner will know it’s not a fun job. I once did a few days on a low-budget film as a runner; we were filming on a street near the North Circular. The first AD told me I had to stand at the end of the street and make sure no-one walked up it. It was pouring with rain, freezing cold, and I was just stood on the North Circular, 50 to 100 metres away from all the filming, by myself for three hours. I was getting expenses and was allowed to have a few snacks after the actors had had their lunch. After one day I told them I wasn’t going to come back.
I would be really, really uncomfortable asking people to work for me for free, to be honest. Again, it depends on the context – if it was a tiny film with no money then I’d have to call in favours, but only on the proviso that we’d all be in the same boat. I hope I’d have a hard line because I do feel strongly about it now. I think companies should pay for work.
Read our introductory article about the Pay Debate by Editor James Hopkirk.
What are your experiences of working for free? Let us know below...
Stethoscope and piggy Bank by 401(K) 2013 via a (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence.