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The Credit-Experience-Break Myth

In response to a recent twitter conversation (I wish Karen was getting paid)…

As a musician I see it all the time – “I can’t pay you but you’ll get a credit”. I’m sure every professional (or want-to-be professional) musician, sound engineer, video editor, actor, model, photographer, painter, journalist, graphic designer, translator, web designer, and toilet cleaner has heard it a million times.

At some point, usually early along the career path, we frequently hear this, and more, from people who want our skills without paying for it – “freebies might lead to more work that actually pays“, or “the extra experience will stand to you in the future“, and of course the old classic “maybe be you’ll be discovered, get your ‘Big Break’ and be paid a fortune by somebody else“.

And we do it to each other, “I’m already doing it for nothing so I can’t offer you anything either, but I’ll give you a credit, and you never know…

And we do it to ourselves too: “I really should be paid for this gig but…

But the credit/experience/big break thing is a myth. Whether somebody else tells us, whether or not they believe it, or we tell each other, or ourselves, it’s just not true. And it’s not always Machiavellian nastiness on behalf of the non-paying employers (though frequently it is). Sometimes it’s just a lack of money, compounded by a lack of thought, not realising how much hard-won skill and effort goes into doing the job well. But ignorance is no excuse because what they are saying still amounts to this…

What your time and skill is actually worth is irrelevant because I won’t pay you, but maybe somebody else will care another time“.

And while we’re at, has it ever grated on you just how little people really know about your profession? How little the wider world values your skills and talent? How a whiff of creativity in your job seems to imply that “skill” and “experience” apply less in financial terms to you than to other people? Does it make you angry that being somebody with a creative skill, people immediately try to low-ball your asking price? Does it never bother you to hear people say “Oh you don’t need to get paid, you do it for the love of it.“? Half a century ago we said that about nurses and teachers. “It’s a vocation, they don’t really need to be paid“. We got over it.

OK, maybe we didn’t, not completely.

So, as artists, how do we pay the bills and a keep doing our thing, that skill we’ve put so much time, blood, sweat, tears and money into developing? How do we give value to the work we do and the skills we have? How do we promote and educate people about the importance of what we do, the value of skilled, talented, creative people to the world, to society, to the economy?

One part of the answer is simple – Stop working for free.


When you work for free you devalue yourself. If nobody else could be found to do that job or gig, you would be unique and in great demand, ergo “not at all free”. But that’s not the case. If you work for free somebody else can always be found to replace you, also for free. If you are not getting paid, you make yourself disposable. (And even if you are getting paid, you may still be disposable.)

When you work for free you devalue your skills and talents. As a professional you must already realise that people often want work done for free because they don’t understand when professional skills are required and what those skills involve. They often think a rank amateur like themselves could do it it just fine. But their time is worth something, certainly more than mucking about with a old crappy look-alike of whatever tools/software/skills you spent years mastering, they see no need to fork out for a professional when any amateur with a bit of a notion can do it for free. Are you “any amateur with a bit of a notion“?

When you work for free you devalue your time. Every hour you spend working for free (and you may not yet realise just how many hours that will be) is time you cannot spend looking for paid work elsewhere that will further your career more. It’s also time that you cannot spend with your loved ones, or doing the other things in life that mean something to you. It is lost time and sets you back. You must value your own time by insisting it has value, because if you don’t nobody else will.

And it matters not one iota if the people you work for are effusively grateful to you and say lovely things and and make all the appropriate “Mmm!” noises. Those nice things sound great and make you feel nice but go to a bank or shop with a bag of those nice things people said to you – how much are they worth in the real world?


Sometimes, your skills may be used as part of a larger production, in which case they may say “I can’t pay you but I can give you a credit“. You can give me a credit? A credit should be automatic! A credit is a given! A credit is an absolute minimum! And a credit is frequently almost worthless because it is not even a recommendation, which might itself be worth little more than nothing!

Think of a restaurant. You walk in and say “I can’t pay for dinner but I’ll tell people nice things about the food.” Or maybe you try the “pay the costs gambit” – “I won’t pay you for the food but I’ll reimburse your bus fare to get here to make it and then say something nice about the food“. Now, restaurants like recommendations. They like lots of them. But unless you are somebody very special, restaurants won’t care a damn about your one recommendation. Why should they? You won’t even pay! Now reverse the roles and put yourself in this situation as the skilled professional with a client who doesn’t want to pay.

As it turns out, this notion that you won’t get a recommendation unless they underpay is a lie. People do say nice things about the goods and services they pay for. In fact, people who pay the appropriate fee are more likely to do so than people who ask for a discount or want it for free. People who pay the correct price for excellent service value that service more and give better and more frequent recommendations.

You want the best and most useful recommendations? Do a great job and charge people appropriately for the work you do. When you work for fee you guarantee that you will never be recommended as “worth every penny“. Sad, when you need and deserve every single penny you can get, eh?

So, here’s the rule that I use in my dealings as a musician in Paris, one that I hope you’ll apply to yourself too…

If somebody wants to make money as result of my work, I need to be paid appropriately.

If they can’t afford the appropriate price, they don’t get the service you offer, end of story. If you can’t pay the store you don’t get to home with the goods. That’s how it must also work for people who want your goods and services too, i.e. the music you play, the video you edit, the photographs you take, the articles you write, the pictures you paint. If anybody makes money, so do you. And your pay should never be contingent on those people getting the amount they want for themselves first.

Of course money need not always be involved, we can always exchange goods and services. I have exchanged guitar lessons for professional photography, or given my services as a recording musician in return for studio time for my own projects. Maybe you’ll exchange a concert for a live recording or exposure to a big room full of new fans. But if no money is involved, your recompense must still be consistent with the level of service you end up giving. And it should sometimes be more than the equivalent monetary value. Why? Because ‘no money’ presents a significant inconvenience to you when paying for things you need, e.g. food, lodging, savings, upkeep of equipment/tools of your trade, in other words – being able to support yourself and maintain your talent and skills and their optimum levels. In other words…

Not being paid today can seriously affect your ability to be paid tomorrow.

The times when that is not the case are very few and far between.

A finally a note to those who accept low pay or no pay because I don’t do it for the money” or “I don’t need to get paid because I get paid elsewhere”. There are some that even ask for less than what was originally offered. This is where thing can get very contentious and people who refuse to change their ways on this do this are often seen in very negative terms, from “selfish” to the scathing “scab”. I don’t feel the need to crank up the rhetoric that high but I will state my feelings as follows: by refusing to ask for an appropriate level of remuneration you are, in a very real and immediate way, making things worse for others. If you think I’m wrong, I promise you that “Why should I pay you that (fair) amount when somebody else will accept a lower (unfair) amount?” is something people hear all the time. It needs to stop.

Just remember that in doing a good job at the appropriate rate, you are not only helping to maintain the prices for others coming into the job after you but also to maintain the quality and standards that they have to achieve to earn those prices. It’s not a huge moral weight to bear; just do the great job that you do, charge appropriately for it, and everybody wins.

If you were alert, you may have noticed ‘toilet cleaner’ mentioned in the first paragraph. You’ll may even have thought, without either hesitation or hint of irony, “Don’t they get usually get paid?“. Yes, they should always get paid, often with a legislated minimum wage and a contract and all the basic rights and responsibilities that go with being a minimum wage employee. When they don’t get paid at least that it usually breaks at least one law, and sometimes quite serious laws, like slavery or sexism or racism, and people get upset about it and lots of journalists write about it in local and national newspapers and online media sites that fill their webpages with click bait that people love so much. And sadly many of those journalists are not getting paid either.

That’s the credit-experience-break myth.



(Last edit February 2016: – originally published in July 2014, I have made a few small changes and expanded this article since).

  1. Jim

    I don’t understand the point of this article. People are not stupid. There is more to payment than money itself. People make their own choices and most people do not do things that will disadvantage themselves.

    So, If I get asked to do something for free the first thing I try to find out is what the purpose of the project is and why I am being asked to do it for free.

    If the project seems worthwhile and I am satisfied that by being asked to contribute for free is not done out of an unwillingness to pay me, then I can decide whether I am able to do it or not.

    I may do something for free in order to make some contacts. I may do it because I believe in the cause I am playing for. I may do it to gain experience. I may do it because I see an opportunity to try out some experimental music or work with a new band and see how it works out. I may do it to help out a friend.

    Of course I have to limit the amount of freebies I give. That’s just sensible and practical. Also, if I don’t like the attitude of the request, or if I feel that the person asking me has an attitude of “musicians will do it for free cos they just love playing”, then I am quite capable of declining, or making the point that I will need payment.

    I think the article is full of truisms on the one hand, stating the obvious. But it doesn’t paint the whole picture, which is that there are a lot of great opportunities and reasons for playing for free and that musicians are not stupid and can decide for themselves.

  2. Jim, clearly you take a sensible approach and make a rational decision based on the big picture of your life, as everyone else should. Where I disagree with you is this – in MY experience there are virtually no opportunities that come from playing for free and it’s just not worth it. That’s my point. I think it’s a myth. People are not stupid but they are sometimes very naïve or desperate for ‘success’ and they make a habit of poor decisions.

    My experience is this – my earning power increased dramatically when I decided to say “no”. No free gigs, no more “you can pass a hat”, no more “I’ll give you a credit”, and no free guitar lessons. I am a pro and I’ll do a damn good job at a good price for everyone. if you want me, I’ll be very reasonable but you must be too. All of my highest grossing gigs came after that decision and my reputation has soared.

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