When is “Exposure” Worth It?

Recently I spoke to a class of art students and one brave artist asked, “I keep hearing that I should never, ever work for exposure. But I’m just starting out and a lot of the work I can get doesn’t pay much. Is it ever OK to work for exposure?”

The rest of the class laughed nervously, as if the student had asked an obviously silly question, one that they secretly wanted to hear the answer to. “That’s a really good question,” I told him. “And yes, there are times when it’ll be worth it to you to take that risk. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you when those times will be, but I can tell you how to recognize them.”

Treat exposure like compensation: Make sure what you’re being offered is valuable to you. One of the many problems with working for exposure is that not all exposure is created equally. If the person promising you exposure can’t expose you to the people you care about working with, it’s not valuable. Make sure you understand exactly what the exposure is and how it can benefit you. Only agree to exposure that gives you something you want.

Make sure the exposure supports your career goals. You’re not working just to work; you have goals for your career! Whenever you take on a new job, you should understand how the job supports your goals, not just the goals of whomever wants your work. If an offer for exposure is attached to work you wouldn’t do unless someone asked, that’s a pretty good sign it’s not going to support your goals.

Understand how successful this exposure has been for others. Did you know that the musician featured in the half-time show at the Super Bowl isn’t paid? It’s one of the highest profile “for exposure” gigs in the music industry. But musicians are willing to do it because the exposure can work—Bruno Mars saw a 164% increase in sales of Unorthodox Jukebox after his performance in 2014. If the gig’s exposure has worked for others in the past, there’s a better likelihood it’ll work for you, too.

Only do it if you can take advantage of the opportunity. If you can’t take advantage of the exposure, by following up with someone you want to work with or selling something to the sudden influx of visitors to your website, it doesn’t matter how “good” the exposure is, you won’t benefit from it. The best exposure usually requires more work on your part to make use of it. If you can’t do the extra work, the exposure won’t be worthwhile.

“I’m not advocating that you work for exposure on a regular basis,” I told the now attentive class. “But it comes up, and pretending it doesn’t, or that you can totally avoid it, isn’t helpful. Treat an exposure job like any other: understand what you’re being paid and that you want to do the work for what you’re being offered. If either of those things are iffy, pass.”

Katie Lane is an attorney and negotiation coach in Portland, Oregon, helping artists and freelancers protect their rights and get paid fairly for the work they do. You can read her blog at WorkMadeForHire.net and follow her on Twitter: @_katie_lane.

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