One of the pieces of advice that has come up a lot on the podcast is, "Don’t work for free." I’d like to complicate this piece of advice a little.
I don’t think artists should have to work for free, and so I don’t feel comfortable advising artists to work for free. But I also don’t feel comfortable advising them to turn down opportunities to “work for exposure” if exposure is something they need. If you’re an emerging artist who hasn’t yet figured out how to monetize your work, I highly recommend making decisions about working for free on a case-by-case basis.
I’ve given a way a lot of content for free. Giving away zines for free (when I could afford to) helped me get into zine libraries all across the country and build a name for myself as a writer in the DIY self-publishing world. My podcast is free/donation-based, although I would probably institute some sort of paywall (maybe one like Never Not Funny's) if I could figure out how. I've also done a bunch of interviews in the past year, none of which I’ve been paid for (on the flip side: I haven’t paid anyone for their interviews either).
When deciding whether or not to work for free, there are a couple of important questions you should ask yourself, namely:
An alternate, or a supplement, to working for free/pitching your work to other platforms and publications, is to build your own platform. I’m not necessarily saying you should start your own internet magazine, because that’s something that takes a lot of time, energy, and often resources. What I am suggesting is you get a place (online) to put your stuff. A place for people to find you and your work. It’s really important to have a website, but I think it’s also really useful to have a blog (if you can update it fairly regularly).
Tumblr can work well for that, but I think it’s important to have a blog that JUST focuses on your work and/or issues you work on, and not let your web presence get too overwhelmed with reblogs of cute cat photos (unless you are in some kind of cat-related industry). Posting cute photos occasionally will probably help you gain more followers, but you don’t want people to have to sift through tons of cat photos to find your work (I am assuming here that you are not a professional cat photographer).
Additionally, Tumblr is a visual medium. In my experience, it’s not super useful for posting/sharing audio content or long-form written pieces (a lot of people use SoundCloud or WordPress for those, respectively). If you are a photographer, or a visual artist who creates really striking images, Tumblr may be a great place to share them. For podcasters and journalists, I might recommend another platform.
For visual artists on Tumblr, it’s important to remember: the amount of time you spend making something look good, does not necessarily translate into getting a lot of likes or reblogs. The internet is a fickle place, when you forget that, feelings get hurt.
That was a bit of a tangent. The important part is: you need a place to put your stuff that you have control over (as opposed to when you pitch it to another publication). You want a web presence where people will see the things you have created and associate them with your name, where you don’t have to worry about folks breezing past your byline. Make it super clear how people can contact you once they find your website and/or blog. Here’s one I think it particularly well-designed. It’s simple, elegant, and easy to navigate. You don’t need anything too fancy.
Once you’ve taken control over your web presence by building a website and/or blog, you need to make some editorial decisions about what kind of content to include. I’m going to save that advice for a different post. What I want to focus on here, is that even though you may be creating work that nobody is paying you for, you know that:
These are things you might lose control over when you write for other publications. They might not market your content the way you would want it to be marketed. They might bury it where no one can find it. They might not include the links to your work that you would want to include. In my mind, having complete creative control over your work and your web presence can be more valuable that the exposure that comes from working with a big publication. But again, you have to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Check in with your gut about what compromises you are willing to make.
I guess my main argument here is that I think it’s totally fine to work for free for yourself. Once you have a website and/or blog with a clean layout, regularly updated content, and contact information in an obvious place, you are in a much better position to not have to write for free for others, and to let them find you. Of course, that is only one part of the equation. The other is to self-promote and network ad nauseam so people know you’re out there.
Best of luck.
P.S. Here’s a great resource to find out who actually does pay writers.
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Love and Rockets has been a huge influence on me creatively. Definitely the single biggest influence on my drawing style.
Juba Kalamka is perhaps most well-known as a rapper and former member of the queer hip-hop group Deep Dickollective, however he’s also an incredible writer and performance artist. This week I sat down with him to discuss the politics of coming out as a black polyamorous bisexual who is married with two kids, transphobia in gay hip-hop, and the ascension of Big Freedia. Highlights include: