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Artist RightsBusiness

This is the Proper Way to Say ‘NO’ to Companies That Want Free Work

It has often been said that the rhythmicality of animation has much in common with music. The other, more unfortunate, similarity between the two arts is that the animation artist, like the musician, often has to contend with companies that believe the work they produce has no monetary value.

British indietronica artist Whitey finally had enough of the “there’s no budget for music” shtick after he was approached by the TV production company Betty, who asked to use his music for free in one of their shows. Whitey penned a biting response and promised to share it, which he did on his Facebook page.

The sentiment is not much different from what character designer Stephen Silver has preached to young artists, what writer Harlan Ellison has ranted and raved about, and what we’ve been saying on Cartoon Brew for years. It boils down simply to this: if you operate a company that earns money (and even if you don’t), don’t expect artists to work for free.

Here is the full text of Whitey’s letter to Betty:

Firstly, there is no label- I outright own my material, so I’m not sure who you’ve been emailing.

Secondly, I am sick to death of your hollow schtick, of the inevitable line “unfortunately there’s no budget for music”, as if some fixed Law Of The Universe handed you down a sad but immutable financial verdict preventing you from budgeting to pay for music. Your company set out the budget. so you have chosen to allocate no money for music. I get begging letters like this every week – from a booming, allfuent global media industry.

Why is this? Let’s look at who we both are.

I am a professional musician, who lives form his music. It me half a lifetime to learn the skills, years to claw my way up the structure, to the point where a stranger like you will write to me. This music is my hard earned property. I’ve licensed music to some of the biggest shows, brands, games and TV production companies on Earth; form Breaking Bad to the Sopranos, from Coca Cola to Visa, HBO to Rockstar Games.

Ask yourself—would you approach a Creative or a Director with a resume like that—and in one flippant sentence ask them to work for nothing? Of course not. Because your industry has a precedent of paying these people, of valuing their work.

Or would you walk into someone’s home, eat from their bowl, and walk out smiling, saying “So sorry, I’ve no budget for food”? Of course you would not. Because, culturally, we classify that as theft.

Yet the culturally ingrained disdain for the musician that riddles your profession, leads you to fleece the music angle whenever possible. You will without question pay everyone connected to a shoot – from the caterer to the grip to the extra- even the cleaner who mopped your set and scrubbed the toilets after the shoot will get paid. The musician? Give him nothing.

Now lets look at you. A quick glance at your website reveals a variety of well known, internationally syndicated reality programmes. You are a successful, financially solvent and globally recognised company with a string of hit shows. Working on multiple series in close co-operation with Channel 4, from a West London office, with a string of awards under your belt. You have real money, to pretend otherwise is an insult.

Yet you send me this shabby request – give me your property for free… Just give us what you own, we want it.

The answer is a resounding, and permanent NO.

I will now post this on my sites, forward this to several key online music sources and blogs, encourage people to re-blog this. I want to see a public discussion begin about this kind of industry abuse of musicians… this was one email too far for me. Enough. I’m sick of you.

NJ White

In followup notes, Whitey clarified his stance on why he sometimes gives away his music for free:

I donate music all the time to indie projects, students and those who need it but cannot pay…I don’t want payment for everything. I don’t even care that much about money, I give away my music all the time. You and I live in a society where filesharing is the norm. I’m fine with that.

But I don’t give my music away to large, affluent companies who wish to use it to make themselves more money. Who can afford to pay, but who smell the filesharing buffet and want to grab themselves a free plate. That is a different scenario.

(Photo via Shutterstock. Story via Dangerous Minds)

  • and now lets all enjoy this gem by whitey:

  • T

    Oh man, you’d be surprised how many people ask me to animate for free or the whole “low-pay basis” shtick from big companies/studios. When it comes to indy, it’s cool, I’ll do something cheaper because I like seeing indy projects flourish and I understand their budgets. I’ve been in the business for four years now and after year one I was already tired of the whole “but this will help get your foot in the door” or “we just didn’t think we’d be doing animation, so the budget for it is low”

    It’s so challenging because the only job I can do is free-lance animation (I have a 1% chance of working at a studio). I’m pretty much stupid when it comes to all other jobs (I can’t even make a buritto). I eat, sleep, and have shelter by doing as many jobs as I can get through craigslist, indeed, or I’m almost unhealthy from the stress it causes and I can barely feed my cat. On top of all this, to have some rich a-hole on the phone, brag for 5 minutes how his company does this and that, and then hear them say “can you do this for free? It’ll look good on your resume!” or “we’ll pay you 100 bucks for this half and extra 100 when you finish…after doing over 10 minutes of animation for us”.

    I have a really hard time turning some people down because I’m desperate for money and sometimes feel that I have no other choice but to work for little pay here and there. I hate it and I feel like I usually have a gun to my head when that happens. Making something good for cheap pay is bad for every other animator, but what can I do when I’m starving my ass off and can’t even get food stamps.

    I haven’t a clue what my reaction would be if they were to say “hey buddy, do you want to eat or not?”

  • gnull voyd

    F*** yea

  • Hey Now

    This can apply to insourced work, too. A version of this happens within the animation studios all the time. Artists are constantly expected to work free overtime to hit unreasonable deadlines. Especially in TV animation.

  • SarahJesness

    Heh, well said! I don’t work in any artistic industry myself, I’m merely a fan. (though I do try animating as a hobby, I just have a difficult time drawing on a tablet) I really hate the concept that artists should work for free. Why is that only applied to artists anyway? I guess part of it is that there are a lot of people who want to be pro artists, so lots of competition for work, but I think there’s also this misconception that art is never difficult for them. An artist will fill her website, blog, or tumblr with lots of amazing drawings every week, so people assume that it must be easy for her to make quality drawings. And since it’s so easy, SURELY it wouldn’t be too much trouble for them to put in a little free work, right? RIGHT?!

    If it takes time, skill, and effort, it’s work, even if there is more supply than demand. If you’re making money, especially a lot of money, not offering to pay is an insult.

  • Matt Norcross

    Question to Amid: Where did you get the picture of that man smoking a cigar and burning a $100 bill in the process?

    • AmidAmidi

      It’s credited at the bottom of the story.

      • Matt Norcross


  • Tim Hodge

    Back in 1994, I was approached by a guy who wanted me to design the cover of a direct to video film he was doing (low-budget, live action horror). He suggested I do the work for the ‘exposure’. I was working on “The Lion King” at the time, so I kindly told him, I didn’t need the exposure. At least I got a free lunch out of it.
    Never heard from him or his film again.

  • luca

    great post. I would love to read Betty`s reply.

  • Revy

    That is an unfair representation of what Whitey said. He’s not putting himself, or any other artist, on a pedestal. I interpreted his comment of “even the cleaner gets paid” as a literal example of “a job is a job is a job.” It doesn’t matter if it’s glamorous or mundane. Everyone in a studio creates and performs work, from the most executive of producers to the creative artists to the custodial staff. All are jobs, all deserve compensation. That is Whitey’s point. To nitpick it by “white-knighting” the unnamed custodian is not constructive or helpful to anyone.

    I also hate the notion of, “Well YOU get to do professionally what you would do for free in your spare time.” What does that even mean? Are you saying that because someone dares to ENJOY what they do professionally, that they should accept compromised pay (or no pay at all) without complaint, because hey, “I get to be an artist! Wheeee!”?

    It’s not fair to invalidate an artist’s demand for proper compensation because he/she is lucky to be a working artist in the first place.

    As a working freelance animator myself, I can say for certain that I have yet to make more money in a fiscal year in the VFX industry than I did answering telephones at a call center while still a student. The money we make is good when we make it, but the work is often so inconsistent that many of us end up unemployed for as long as we are actually working each year. The custodian earning a basic wage, but working consistently year-round, is sometimes doing financially BETTER than many of the artists at the studio.

    I don’t know what Whitey demands monetarily, but with a resume of work including Breaking Bad, Sopranos, Coca Cola, HBO, etc., I’d say he’s worth a significant compensation. Giant corporations asking for his work for free is bullsh*t. That’s plain and simple. And that being the current accepted attitude among employers, and even employees and the consumers of media, is what needs to change.

    A job is a job is a job. Executive, creative, or custodian. All perform work, all deserve pay. End of story.

    • SarahJesness

      That’s how I see it. Custodial work doesn’t require a lot of skill or training, just about anyone can do it. But that doesn’t mean people should be asked to do it, even if they’ll get to put it on their resume. Music and animation do require skill and training, but there aren’t as many professional positions available for them, so sometimes there is oversupply. But that doesn’t mean it’s cool to treat it like it’s not real work and ask them to do it for free.

      If it needs to be done and there’s demand for it, it’s work and people who provide it should be compensated.

  • Ron Yavnieli

    This message needs to be repeated again and again and again by artists everywhere until these people who want free work get the picture! I’m glad these things are popping up more and more but people will continue to try to get away with not paying artists until they literally can’t anymore. As long as there are shysters out there who have no conscience and feel no shame, and as long as there are naive artists who believe them or have low self esteem and devalue their own work, this will keep happening. It needs to become a “political” movement of sorts and reach critical mass to effect real change. I’m down. Let’s make it happen!

  • Izbit

    You are inserting a lot of your own bias into the minds and words of other folks, and bringing up issues that aren’t really relevant to this particular discussion.

    I disagree that Whitney is putting down other professions/cleaners in his statements. The cleaners get paid. That’s a factual statement without any particular opinion attached. The only way I could see this as disparaging is his inclusion of the word “even,” but I think it’s a stretch to assume that he was implying they shouldn’t get paid, or are less-deserving of being paid than artists.

    And why on earth is an artist’s ego relevant at all to this discussion? If an artist’s ego is too inflated according to your standards, do you think they don’t deserve to be paid for the work they create? I’m sure some artists do think of themselves as demi-Gods, but Whitney doesn’t come across as such, and that’s a problem for some folks regardless of what their profession may be….you will find people with inflated egos in every industry.

    Also, the fact that more meaning is given to works of art than clean toilets by our society/culture is the reason why content creators usually get paid more than blue collar workers. There’s a higher demand for folks who can create quality content than for folks who can clean a toilet. Again, just stating facts – this doesn’t mean I believe content creators are better people, or more talented, or deserving of more money than those folks. It just means that the skill of creating quality content is harder to find.

  • mick

    If he wants to start a discussion, lets discuss why do artists put themselves on a higher pedestal than others

    no let’s not. Let’s just gaze in wonder at your astounding response to this discussion. ‘Waffles!? he wants to talk about waffles?! let’s get to the real issue …scotland’. Stunning

  • TheGuyAl

    You know, I think you’re right however I think he’s making the point that he judges and picks projects worth supporting were he’s just helping a bit and not making the bulk of the work as they often ask for us animators, not just a random guy that think that his new flash YouTube short will be the new south park (They never will be).

    As a rule of thumb craigslist’s “work for exposure” is awful and should never be taken by anybody, if by any chance it actually seemed like a decent project then you still need to write and explain how the world works to them.

  • mick

    The word needs to spread. I try, and you’d be surprised (yes you) by the resistance I encounter. I spoke with a college graduate recently who was charging £2.50 for his illustrations, another was charging £6 for an animated logo, with particle effects too. I pointed out to both that not only were they hurting themselves but also their compadres in this business, each was unsure as to whether they could raise their prices(???!!!!). These encounters were in the last few months. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t witnessed it

  • jmahon

    there is a twitter account that showcases the best of these wonderful and absurd requests for work without pay. All the quips they post are from forums and ads, though they don’t post sources to protect themselves from the backlash. You have all seen these before, but the sheer ridiculousness when you see them all together shows how unbelievable and shamefully amusting these people are:

  • AmidAmidi

    The logical flaws in your comment deserve just one image:

  • ummm…

  • Brian Lee Main

    I am a freelancer. I get asked for free work all the time – mostly for pitches & indies.

    I find the best way to get such freeloaders to cough up money (or leave you alone) is to ask for TRANSPARENCY… if they are asking you for free or cheap work then they are essentially asking you to be an investing partner in their endeavor. Therefore, it is perfectly within your rights to require them to crack open their books and reveal who is getting what, how the profits will be distributed, & who else is taking a risk.

    I find that most companies are loathe to do this because it exposes their true intent: to make money off of your gullibility.

    In our system, rewards are reaped for risking Capital. It’s the ONE thing Capitalists are required to do (means of production). If they offload the risk onto the creators they are taking away a critical element from the equation.

    I call it “Capitalism without the Capital” – free from due diligence and risk assessment, consequence free profit-making.

    To offset this, initiators of such projects try to sell you on their strange, arrogant, delusions and overwrought sense of self worth. They often times don’t make any real creative contribution to a project other than a kernel of an idea.

    The truth is this – good ideas grow on trees! What’s more rare are highly skilled workers to realize them. It’s important for us to know this.

    • SarahJesness

      Well-said. I could perfectly understand an artist giving “free” work as part of an investment opportunity. Someone is trying to pitch a new mascot for a product, you give them an initially free drawing/image on the condition that you get money if the mascot is accepted.

      Also DEFINITELY agreed on ideas. I hang around in a writers forum and every so often a new writer will come in and ask if his/her idea is good. I always tell them that ideas mean little, it’s all about execution. A cool idea won’t result in a cool story if the material is handled poorly or if you can’t write well. Similarly, an idea that sounds really stupid, boring, or outright bad can actually result in a very good, or even great, story if done well. (like Pixar’s “Up”. Who would expect that a movie about a senior citizen tying balloons to his house, going to South America and hanging out with a boy scout and a talking dog, would actually be really great?) This applies to any art medium. If I decided to go into writing professionally (as opposed to just hobby as I do now) I wouldn’t write for anyone who just offered a few ideas and still let them take credit.

    • NorthernDoubt

      After 5 years in the 3D industry, this was the best response I have heard to working for free

  • SarahJesness

    I believe you’re right on that.

    I wonder if there’s also the perception that the people who want art for a project or something believe they’ll find an artist who is just as passionate about the project as they are. They have this TOTALLY GREAT idea for an online show, and any artist who hears this idea will be so in love with it that they’ll gladly work for free! Artists will often spend several hours drawing stuff they like just for fun, so they think that artists will draw anything for fun. I draw and write for fun, but not in 100% of my spare time, and I only make stuff I really care to draw/write about. I’m willing to spend hours and days drawing and writing Luna the badass warrior woman or whatever the hell I’m doing these days, but I can’t say I’d be so pumped to do the same about a random character/story someone else wants me to do.

  • Richard Forman


  • Guest

    Sorry to bring this into the whole is copying really theft mess, but there’s a difference between letting someone use music you’ve already made in their indie project, and wanting you to do actual art/music for that specific project. Two very different things that cannot be compared. Both have value, but one is much more work.

    I agree with you that indie projects should also wake up and check reality, everything costs money, and even if they work their ass off for free they can’t expect someone else to do that, at least not without some clear cut rules about being mentioned or similar.

  • C

    Web developers get it too eh. Would you ask a builder to come and build your house for free?