Don’t Work for the Promise of Exposure

Artists, creatives, and the ever-evolving exposure con.

I try to be grateful for every opportunity that comes my way, but some opportunities aren’t actually opportunities at all. Especially when working for “exposure” is dropped into the conversation. *big sigh* I’m feeling sassy.

Exposure. I have a love/hate relationship with this concept.

Artists at every level have been fed an exposure pitch, and many artists (including me, too many times to count) fall for it because exposure is something artists need to reach their goals as creators. More eyes on your work equals more potential for success, right? Yes, of course, but also no, because it has to be the right kind of exposure. I’ll talk more about this later.

First, what does an exposure pitch look like?

Exposure pitches come in all shapes and sizes. Basically, someone will ask you, a creative person, to provide a good or service to them, either for personal or commercial use without any intention of paying you, because your work will be seen by a new audience. Sometimes, these arrangements can be beneficial. Sometimes this is the start of a partnership. A lot of times, it’s just a waste of your time and resources.

Creatives of all kinds hear these opportunities. For example:

Graphic designers might hear, “Will you design my business cards/logo/product packaging/website for free? I’ll give you credit and tell everyone to use you for their graphics.”

Musicians get, “I’m hosting an event and would love to have performers. I can’t pay you, but there should be a good turnout.”

Artists, “I’m opening a new office downtown and there’s a huge wall behind the reception desk. I’d like to display your work. You can put your business cards on the desk for anyone interested. No, I don’t want to buy it.”

This is a very short list of examples. I bet you have your own experience with someone offering you exposure as payment.

Exposure is not payment. Your skills have value.

Exposure itself isn’t a bad thing. Exposure is great! It is what allows artists to find new customers. I love exposure! What I don’t love is when people/businesses/opportunists think exposure is a replacement for money.

Exposure is not money, and exposure does not guarantee money will find you. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills, nor is exposure by itself a fair trade for your goods and/or services. Sure, sometimes exposure pays off and you get access to the right audience, the right buyer, the right connections that eventually lead to a sale, a commission, a professional relationship, etc., but exposure is not a guarantee for any of these things.

Exposure is a gamble. Maybe you will get something out of it, but most of the time the person offering you the exposure will get the better end of the deal. When an exposure opportunity presents itself, make sure it’s the right kind.

What is the right kind of exposure?

Recently, I had someone pitch that I “donate” one of my pieces to fill the window of an empty storefront inside of a mall until they get a new tenant to rent the space. Had they asked me four years ago, I would have jumped on this free exposure and been excited. My response today was “You can rent a piece from me.”

The storefront would have gotten plenty of foot traffic. There would have been a lot of new eyes on my work. My name and social media info would have been displayed. Maybe someone would have wanted to buy that piece. Who knows, I could have missed an opportunity by passing on the offer, but I’m definitely not losing sleep over it for two reasons.

Reason One:

They approached me because they needed something. I would have been providing them a service (filling the window to make it look more attractive). I would have taken the item out of my online store (where it has a higher chance of selling) and driven it to the mall for installation, and I would have received no guaranteed return from my time and efforts.

Artists need to stop thinking everyone is doing them a favor and start asking themselves what service they are providing. Hanging art to make a business look more attractive is not a favor to me. I would be adding value and should be paid, but why would a business go buy art when artists will jump at the opportunity to provide it for free? Artists need to stop agreeing to this.

Reason Two:

This was the wrong kind of exposure. It was the wrong setting, the wrong context, and the wrong audience for my work. My art is not a pair of shoes or a candle at a home goods store. It’s not an impulse buy, nor a mass-produced consumer item. People are not going to the mall to look at or buy art. Had I agreed to take exposure as payment, I find it unlikely anything would have come of it.

Knowledge is Power

It’s important to know who your audience is, what you are selling, and where it belongs. The right kind of exposure will connect you with an audience that overlaps with your target audience. Hanging your art in a dentist’s office might get eyes on your work, but of all the people going in there, how many people a.) like buying art b.) like your art and c.) are actually thinking about buying art at the same moment they are nervous-sweating about the filling they are about to get?

If you are going to work for free, focus on the right exposure, but even then you should plan on getting no real benefit. Unless a payment is discussed ahead of the work you put in, you need to set expectations low.

Why should you always set expectations low?

When I was in California, I was asked to do live painting at a two-day art festival as entertainment. They were not paying me, but I didn’t have to pay to be there either. The organizers allowed me to display some of my work behind me while I painted, but I couldn’t sell my work since artists who applied to sell at the event were charged a few hundred dollars for a booth. I thought this was fair and brought a stack of business cards to hand out to anyone who stopped by to watch me paint. I was happy to trade my time in exchange for the exposure because I thought an art fair was the perfect place to find art buyers.

Everything pointed to this audience being my ideal audience. It was a well-known fine art event in a Southern California city known for having money. My brain went: “Alicia Keys bought a house here! I’m gonna make so many lucrative connections! Yay, commissions! Sell all the art!”

Spoiler alert, I did not sell all the art or book any commissions. I passed out some business cards. Gained a few followers on Instagram. Sold one print off my website. Got knocked into while I painted, and I had multiple people let their dogs pee on the little patch of grass a foot from where I sat. I spent 20 hours between two days to make $30ish dollars. Even when exposed to the right audience, things might not go as you hope.

I’m not saying don’t work for exposure, but never work for exposure alone.

Don’t skip every non-paying gig that presents itself to you. I’m not saying exposure isn’t worth it as a whole. I’ve spent a lot of time doing things that didn’t make me money, but I’ve learned a lot about what I should and shouldn’t do in the future to find success as a result. If you have never done what someone is presenting to you, then you don’t know the outcome. In that case, the experience alone might be worth it.

I wouldn’t take back most of the things I’ve done in the pursuit of finding success as an artist, but I can definitely say that I am getting more protective of my time and I’m less willing to work for no guaranteed return.

Not all exposure pitches suck.

When you are just entering the creative world, every experience is valuable. Exposure is necessary for success, and it’s not easy to know what opportunities are worth exploring. When someone approaches me with an exposure pitch, I ask myself a few questions:

What do you have to lose?

Time? Money? Evaluate your risks and ask yourself if you are okay with getting jack squat in return for the investment you put forward. I set expectations low and spend as little money as I can to prepare.

What do you have to gain?

The possibilities are endless, but what’s the probable outcome? Be as objective as you can here, but sometimes you never know until you try.

Who are you working with?

Is this a new company? A potential future partnership? Another artist or creative that has just as much or little to give as you do? If you are approached by someone who has little to give, then maybe exposure is a satisfactory payment for you. I’ve asked musician friends to provide content for my videos on IG in the past. I wasn’t exactly rolling in money, and could really only offer my audience as payment, but working with other creative people is a great experience on its own.

Now, If you are approached by a big brand or an established business that can afford to pay you, then think twice about that exposure pitch.

What audience will you reach?

Designing a free tattoo for your high school acquaintance won’t generate much exposure for you. Creating art for a celebrity with 1.5 million followers on IG on the other hand is a different story (but they can afford to pay you…). Just know your audience.

What can you learn? Will it be fun for you?

New experiences are important. Take responsible risks and try new things. Maybe just for the hell of it.

Exposure doesn’t mean sh*t without a call to action.

If you agreed to work for exposure, once you get an audience’s attention, what are you going to do with it? If you don’t give direction, you are wasting that exposure. For example, if you are displaying at an event, make sure people know they can buy your work. Hanging your art at a business? Make very clear signage, and give directions on how to buy your work. Live painting somewhere? Bring a butt-ton of business cards and tell people how they can support you. When I did this, I should have put a big sign up that said FOLLOW @MESSYEVERAFTER or OPEN FOR COMMISSIONS. If I ever do live painting again, I will do it differently.

Don’t waste your audience’s attention once you’ve got it. Figure out your call to action and maximize the use of the exposure someone has given you.

Maybe you won’t make money. Maybe you’ll learn the hard way as I have so many times that exposure is often a con to get you to provide goods and services for free. In that case, you will still have gained something. Maybe you’ll find yourself writing a blog post about it years later to help other artists. #worthit

Know and declare your worth.

This is something that every artist will come to with time, but artists need to set aside their desperation to be validated as creators and start seeing themselves as businesses and established creators. Opportunities for exposure are great but don’t work for free when you provide a valuable good or service. Don’t work for free when you can spend your time on paying clients.

If you take anything away from this post, artists, and creatives as a whole need to start declaring their work isn’t free. Put a dollar amount on the work you do. Those who respect your work will pay it and those who don’t aren’t worth your effort. Those who simply can’t afford what you are worth might deserve your generosity if you deem the work is worthy.


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