Scot Nery is a comedy entertainer who performs a pancake juggling show around the world, works in television and film, and creates theatrical prop-oriented productions.
Yes, you can pull this off. Painters, chefs, hair stylists, sculptors, comedians, and architects are all willing to work for free. Here’s my guide to helping you hire any artist for any amount of money, including none.
Let’s use Jim as an example. Jim is a professional guitarist currently in-between tours, and working day jobs until his next gigging season. Say you’d like him to play at your one-year-old’s birthday for free.
First, Jim has not much to gain by playing at a child’s party. He won’t get to play his favorite songs or jam with his bandmates. He most likely won’t get laid. Any possible alcohol must be consumed in moderation. And of course, he won’t be a rockstar: he’ll be second fiddle to the birthday girl.
Let’s say in addition to the above, you’d like him to arrive really early, dress like a bunny, call himself Ricky Rabbit, and learn songs about choo-choo trains. All for no money.
This is a pretty tall order.
The easy solution here is to pay him lots of cash: even when an artist is sensitive over the work, money has a way of simplifying arguments. A professional artist will do what you ask of them if they take your paying gig. Corporations ask a lot, but pay top-rate because they want the best and they don’t want to compromise.
So how do we turn your tall order into a project Jim will actually want do?
Believe it or not, you’re not going to pick the bottom-of-the-barrel artist here. You’re going to find one that can fulfill your needs. The most important thing is to choose someone you believe in. You must also respect the artist you’re using for free: any slip here can really scare your artist later.
Here are three criteria for picking an artist to work without money:
Remember, it’s rare that you’ll be able to get the very best artist for free without putting in some work, so compromise can be essential.
Jim won’t work for you for free, but he might work for you as part of a trade. Artists put a value on what they do and most of them are willing to trade for something they value. Such as:
Notice how he has to want the thing. You don’t call up Tom Cruise and ask him to be in a commercial for the honor of working with the Tanawack Rotary Club. Be respectful and use your best judgment. Offer things you think might be valuable.
Consider what may be of little, if any, cost to you in terms of money, time and energy. Perhaps something built into the process or a resource you own, but don’t need (like your party guests are all leaving their shoes at the party and Jim is a shoe collector). Figure out what may be of low cost to you, but high cost for the artist (like you own a hardware store and Jim wants to upgrade his pitbull’s dog house, because she misses him so much when he’s on the road).
Offering a combination of trades can be appealing. Subdivide your offers and show the value of each: “I own a hardware store. I can get you free wood and hardware for your doghouse and I can even have one of my experts help you pick out the primo stuff”
Do not offer your artist the chance to work for exposure. “Free” work usually leads to free work, so for this exchange to really work, the artist has to get something great that matches or exceeds the concept of their value. And when they do their next job, they’ll get that same value or more.
People, even big corporations, do work for exposure. But the problem with offering “exposure” is that it means very little without specifics. People die of “exposure,” after all.
Good exposure: An unemployed actor gets the perfect role for her type and will be guaranteed to be seen by Hollywood’s top 30 casting directors.
Bad exposure: A full-time professional juggler will be able to perform at a school for the blind and can pass out business cards to the parents.To offer some perspective, offering exposure is like saying, “If you work 60 hours for free, there’s a chance that you’ll get to work 60 hours for pay later.” This means 60 hours of work for nothing, with the possibility of 120 hours of work for half pay. Not a great deal.
Give the artist something that he wants! A 20-year-old DJ probably does not want $1,200 worth of hemorrhoid creme, but might love $1,200 worth of RedBull. A 100-year-old illustrator who works for a business magazine may love the freedom to draw monsters however she envisions them with absolutely no input from you in your kids book. Hundreds of super-high paid artists make appearances at awards shows, and create great stuff for charities that they believe in or that they think will improve their careers. It’s possible.
Approaching the artist to ask for something for free can be very tricky. Honesty and respect are going to go a long way here: a working artist will be able to recognize and appreciate that immediately.
Artists are rarely like day-job people. Day-jobbers get the luxury of knowing how much they’ll work per day and how much they’ll get paid per hour. They are secure in knowing that they will work this week and next week and probably next year. Artists and freelancers often have none of these luxuries and must constantly stay on-guard for their financial security. They’re fighting dogs, primed to fight. Approach with caution.
Taking up a lot of time or sounding like you’re delivering a sales pitch can stir an artist’s defenses, so keep it straightforward. This is a simple, respectful transaction.
A great cold-call starts with clarity. Say you’re cold calling Jim for your daughter’s one-year-old birthday. Here’s how you can start: “I have an event coming up on November 9th, and I would like to book you as a musician. Are you available?” This is a clear message establishing your intention, free of any sales adjectives boosting the value of the event.
Value first, price last. Refraining from cash talk until the end isn’t done to be deceptive; talking money upfront can get in the way of showing the true value of what you’re offering and what compromises you’re willing to pursue.
One of the things you’re offering the artist is your genuine respect. Share that with them off the bat. “I was drawn to you by seeing you perform in your AC/DC tribute band. I found your website and realized how talented and professional you really are. I would flip out if I could get you for our party.”
Don’t hesitate to go deeper with the details. “This party is on a private island in the Caribbean the guests include the first family and the entire cast of Breaking Bad. Our hospitality partners will give you a first-class flight, a bungalow on the beach, and an entire spa package for the week for you and a guest. Bob Dylan will be performing there with you and sharing a green room.”
What are your expectations when hiring the artist? Make that especially clear. “I know how capable you are and I want you to perform 20-30 minutes of whatever you feel is best for an audience of VIPs and children.” (bonus points here for the compromise on time and content).
Add some more value: TLC. “We’ll make sure you have all the tech required to do a great show”
Okay, hit him with the price — keep that respect coming. “I want to talk about money. I know that your time, talent and energy are worth a lot. They’re worth a lot to me, too. Unfortunately the way our family is set up, we won’t be able to pay you.” Show him he isn’t getting ripped off. “We never pay performers. We had John Legend last year for my son’s bris and he didn’t get a dime, but he had a remarkable time.”
Make this a no-pressure situation. “Does this sound like a job that would interest you?” If it’s not, try: “Is there anything that I could do to make this a better opportunity for you?”
My last post on hiring an artist for pay still applies here, as it goes through the business of connecting with the artist as they do their work. Besides adhering to these practices, treat your artist like you’re paying them top-dollar for the work. If a waiter comps a meal for you, you probably tip the amount you would for a full-priced meal or more. The same applies here. Give your artist the VIP room, the valet parking, and the dragon-embroidered bathrobe. Talk to them with gratitude and humility. You can always add more value and up the ante as you go.
Although you might have a contract with the artist, they still decide whether they pour their heart into the project. Don’t give any reason for them to dial it in. Like you said in the beginning, this gig is going to be better than most paying gigs. Fulfill your promises.
Ask Jim if he got what he expected at the onset. This is easier than using a leading question, like, “Are you happy?” Whether Jim is happy or not, he can see that you totally came through on your end of the deal and it was the great opportunity he signed up for.
if you’re the person that promised great value and came through, you’ve made it even better than expected, formed a positive reputation with Jim, and made him your ally. The next time you offer him a free gig, he won’t need a hard sell. And when you need a recommendation for a keyboard player for the 2nd year birthday, he’ll be able to vouch for you.