Working for Exposure – a Real Solution

Dying from Exposure (c) JHall Comics
Image (c) JHall Comics. Best comic adaption of this conversation I’ve seen.

I’ve seen many discussions about working for exposure over the years. Blog posts and forums are rife with heated debates which seem to break down into two simple stances:

  1. Pro: Working for exposure is something you should do until you get yourself an audience. It builds character.

Okay, okay. Maybe neither of them are that exactly. I’m simplifying for brevity.

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but I feel a bit like the two sides aren’t even vaguely trying to understand each other and there’s got to be something more ‘middle ground’ which would satisfy all parties.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have virtually no audience, so I’m not really risking a lot here. I welcome thoughtful feedback.

The Arguments FOR Working for Exposure

Let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their intent and come up with some potential up sides for working for exposure.

  1. Exposure to a New Audience – If the person offering exposure actually has any kind of an existing audience, they could perhaps, bring new eyeballs to your work.
  2. Effort Investment – It would allow artists to work with those who they might not otherwise come across. This has potential for getting the artist in on ‘the next big thing’ before it’s huge. Like financial investing (or at least my I’mNotAFinancialInvestorAndThisIsn’tFinancialAdvice understanding of it) that could mean huge rewards for the artist in the long run.
  3. Portfolio Builder – If the work is something in the theme / genre / etc that the artist would like to work in, but hasn’t yet, then the work could help them flesh out their portfolio with things that will help get them future work.
  4. Being Nice – Let’s face it – there is a value in being nice. It doesn’t pay the bills, and it won’t keep you fed, but there’s a value to it. And if the project is something you really believe in and you have the availability to do the work it would mean that someone who might not otherwise succeed just might.

The Arguments Against Working for Exposure

These are written out in response to those above, so 1. -> 1., and 2. -> 2., etc.

  1. What Audience? – The vast majority of the times I have been offered exposure work, the person requesting that work is banking on having an audience in the future. In other words, this amazing project that they’re starting will obviously grow so huge that I’ll just be able to ride the wave to stardom. This means I’ll have to do the work up front in the hope that maybe… one day… possibly…
  2. What Success? – Much like the first one, this really requires the artist to take a leap of faith now and eat up time that they could be using to further their own ends in order to further those of the ‘client’ with the hope that maybe one day it will pay off.
  3. My Portfolio Is Already Solid, Thanks – The likelihood that the person asking for the artist’s time and effort is asking for precisely the thing that the artist would like to do in the future, but hasn’t already done is… minimal at best. What’s more, if the artist wants to head in a new direction, there’s nothing stopping them from doing so – without tying themselves to someone else’s project and/or whims. So the person asking for the work isn’t really bringing anything to the table.
  4. Nice Guys / Gals Finish Last – Okay, I don’t really believe that, but here’s the thing: it’s a simple equation – how does the benefit of ‘being nice’ compare with the benefits of ‘working hard on my own personal project and making that a success’? That seems like pretty simple math to me.

A Possible Solution to Working for Exposure

I don’t pretend to have all angles of this figured out, but I do think I have an idea that covers the vast majority of the problems with this sort of request in a single concept:

The Client Needs to Pay Up Front

Now I’m assuming the client doesn’t have enough money (ie budget – or whatever) to actually pay for the work. That’s why you’re having this discussion in the first place. That’s okay.

But what that means is that the artist is the one bringing more to the table. In order for there to be a balance, the client needs to be the one to do the work up front.

Here’s how I figure it would work

Client and Artist Discuss the Payment

Come up a precise level of work the client must do to give the artist the exposure that is their payment. This should be very specific and determined before the artist draws the first sketch.

Are they going to post 15 of the artist’s top pieces to the client’s Twitter feed and rave about their work to the client’s 500 existing Twitter followers?

Will the client do a YouTube video extolling the virtues of working with the artist and post that to the client’s blog which receives roughly 3,000 hits / month?

Client Pays First

Because the artist is bringing more to the table in an ‘exposure’ scenario, the client must do the work first. They must take the risk that things won’t become a bed of roses over night. They must make certain that they benefit the artist at least as much as the artist will benefit them.

What’s more, this stage demonstrates respect for the artist, their skills, and their efforts. If a client isn’t willing to pay with their effort, they are, in effect, saying that the artist’s efforts aren’t worth their own.

Finally, the Artist Does the Work

After the client pays through their efforts, then and only then, does the artist get started. Not before. Not even a sketch.

I can hear it now: “But what if the artist doesn’t do the work then?! What will force them to do the art?!”

Absolutely nothing – except their reputation. No one is going to ask the elementary school kid with crayons in their fist to do professional illustration work. So I’m going to assume that the artist in question is of a professional grade. That means that they will be very concerned with their reputation in the creative circles.

And if the client has the kind of influence that means the exposure they are offering is genuinely worthwhile for the artist then the inverse should also be true.