Full Price or Free

Do you read Gabe the Bass Player’s blog? If you don’t, you should. He’s smart and generous. Everything he says makes sense.

A couple of days ago he wrote something interesting about pricing for artists.

Pricing is a dark art that must be mastered if an artist wants to sustain. The truth is that it’s hard to balance getting paid vs doing it for the sheer love of it.

That’s why I have a two-tier price structure. If someone wants to work with me, it’s full price or it’s free. To be clear, when I say free that means no charge, no bill or no cost. That may sound nutty to the uninitiated, but it works for me.

Of course, I don’t do free work on terms that aren’t my own. I hope you’re not surprised when I say that I don’t do free work for jerks or bullshitters. Actually, I don’t do paid work for them either.

I’m not altruistic and I’m not wearing a hair shirt when I do unpaid work. Benefits of free work accrue to me in ways that money can’t match. Usually, it’s simply a creative opportunity that wouldn’t exist if dollars must change hands. Other times it’s simply a chance for me to spend time with people I like.

If I ran my artistic life like a jukebox or taximeter, I’d miss a lot of opportunities.

This portrait shot on 4×5 sheet film turned out to be my last analog session. Nobody paid me to do it. I did it for the pure joy of the act. The cost of everything came out of my own pocket. I had no expectation of anything other than creating something interesting in the moment.

Three years after the session, it turned out to be the perfect illustration for a financial services firm. That was purely incidental.

For that, I got paid handsomely. It still stands as the highest single transaction royalty earner of my career.

Not bad for free.

About the author: I am Stephen Kennedy, an experienced photographer with more than 2500 completed sessions in all 50 US states.

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