Today, the business of being creative is a lot like the way things used to be in the making of punk music.
Behind what you do, there’s that raw sense of purpose. You burn with mission and conviction. Your work comes from that same Do-It-Yourself ethos that gave early punk acts the verve to plug-in and play from the heart.
“(It) remains one of punk’s singular achievements,” writes Warren Kinsella in his excellent book Fury’s Hour: A (Sort of) Punk Manifesto “It hasn’t been co-opted or compromised. Do It Yourself and change yourself. Change everything.”
It remains a pretty great way of putting a nice big dent in the universe.
But take it from Iggy Pop, the true Elvis of Punk: you also need to pay very careful attention to what you’re giving away.
Especially to what gets done for free.
“When it comes to art,” he says, “money is an unimportant detail.” But he also cautions “it just happens to be a huge, unimportant detail.”
There are two kinds of ways that work gets done for free.
The first is when you offer people something and don’t expect something in exchange (which otherwise typically takes the form of financial compensation).
This includes pro bono work, volunteering your time for a cause, or even in generating what some like to call content (but really it’s something more meaningful…it’s your material that you use to build your platform online). It also includes this post and my newsletter (hey have you signed up yet?)
There are many reasons why you might choose to do this, just like those early-era punk rock pioneers who cut their own recordings and sometimes even gave them away.
Whether as a gift, as a donation, or to serve some strategic end to your business or your career, what matters most is that it’s your call.
You own that choice.
The second way that work gets done for free is the one you have to watch out for.
That’s where the other party–be it a client, a prospect, or someone who says they dig what you do–expects you to work for nothing.
It often includes this classic invitation: “do the work and then I’ll pay you if I decide it’s any good.” This is what’s known as working for spec.
It’s commonplace. But that doesn’t mean it’s something you should do.
Recognize what compels most people to agree to such terms: fear. For example: “If I say no, I might miss my big break.”
This is one of the great lies that gets told by talented people who frankly would know better if they paid more attention to honing their craft than to what others are prepared to pay for to own it.
In a wider sense–if you include working for next to nothing in that equation–it’s a mistake that used to be perpetuated in the record industry by a surprisingly high number of artists.
And that includes Iggy Pop: “If I had to depend on what I actually get from sales I’d be tending bars between sets.”
That’s coming from a guy who has 20 records under his belt.
Being a professional starts by treating what you do as something of intrinsic value. Emphasis on intrinsic, as in it has a quality that is inherent, not assigned by outside forces.
Don’t ask the market “is this any good?”
Don’t ask “how much will you pay for this?”
Figure out what’s the problem the market has that you can solve with your work.
It does have real problems. You can very much solve those problems.
Be a punk with your talent but don’t let your talent get punked.
There are still many good reasons to engage that DIY spirit and to be generous with your talents and share what you know. Just make sure you do it with your eyes wide open.
Here are three tests that I use, and that you can apply to your work when deciding whether you want to give something away.
1) Whose idea is it to give it away?
Ask yourself: whose idea is it that I do this work for free (or for next-to-free)? If it’s yours, fine. But if the request originates elsewhere, proceed with caution. Yes, there are cases where this is entirely valid, particularly where volunteer work is concerned. But those are exceptions. Know the difference.
2) Who decides the value of your work?
Never make it someone else’s job to assign the value of your work. When you do this, you will wind up settling for less than your worth.
That doesn’t prevent you from negotiating on price and on what you will provide in exchange for an agreed upon price. Do not confuse that with the value of the work itself.
Even work that you choose to give away for free has an intrinsic value. But if you don’t know what that is, then how can you expect others to treat your efforts or your product the way you want it to be treated?
3) Who owns your idea?
No, I am not going to bore you here with a discussion on intellectual property rights. Instead, I invite you to think about this little anecdote about the other Elvis. The original one. Hear me out with this.
Back in the early 1970s, a young songwriter got what she thought was her big break. Elvis Presley wanted to cover one of her songs. And then came this from his manager: ‘You know, we have a rule that Elvis doesn’t record anything unless we take half the publishing.’
She said no to Elvis.
No to the money.
And the opportunity to get that song in front of millions of listeners.
But she retained full publishing rights to her song.
Things worked out okay for her.
Okay so that’s not a punk story for a closer.
But it ought to be.
Recognize that whatever talents you have in you–whether it’s being able to paint a masterpiece or being able to mange people or to balance a budget–these are things that lead to outputs that are uniquely yours.
You are a maker of things. Protect your right to set the value and the price of your work. Own your choices.
Be ready to say no to the real Elvis if the deal is not a good one for you.
Be generous like the Elvis of Punk.
Burn with purpose.
But learn from his experience, too.