Everyone knows that when you work a job, you get paid. This might be an hourly wage or a salary (flat fee). As you advance in your chosen field, your hourly wage increases, as do things like bonuses and paid time off, vacation pay, sick pay and insurance benefits. That’s the standard work force in the United States of America.
Unfortunately, this is far from the reality in the creative entertainment industry. Unless you work for a corporation or a big studio, a production house, as an employee, you’re pretty much a freelance artist thru your entire career. And what this means is, only you can determine your worth.
As far as I can tell the entertainment industry is the only industry where trained professionals, very knowledgeable in their chosen fields are asked to work on projects for little to no pay. You wouldn’t ask a doctor, a dentist, a teacher, a construction worker, to take a job for the experience and IMDB credit, but people do ask actors, writers, producers, composers, etc. to do so all the time.
I moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1999, having worked on nothing outside of a few High School plays. I began my foray into the LA acting scene at Central casting for background artists as do most actors that come to town with little experience and no union status. I learned the ropes, the rules, the wages, and when I was joyously taft-hartley’d into the Union in 2005 (eternal gratitude to Robot Chicken), I went to all of the SAG meetings to learn even more. I went to workshops on contracts, on agents, on managers, on commercials, you name it, if there was a workshop I was there.
Now, the rules and contracts are easy to follow if you’re dealing with big production companies, who play by the rules, but for so many of us we just want to work. We want to have something to show our friends and family, we want to build our imdb page up, and a lot of times, that means working on a friend’s project or a friend of a friend’s project for copy and credit.
As someone with a large network, and someone who used to promote Hollywood bands, I’ve been asked countless time to spread the word about this band, that film, this event, to my network. But that network took me years of hard work to build, that’s my network. So at what point, do you say “I need to get paid”, for ALL of my skills.
For me, that turning point came in 2012. No more hosting gigs, no more acting gigs, no more social media gigs, producing gigs, promoting gigs for FREE. I was able to see in myself that I had paid my dues. I had credits, experience, knowledge, a great reputation, and my finger on the pulse of a large, talented network of industry professionals. Since that decision, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been offered a project, and when I ask my now standard, “Is there a budget?”, have had to turn it down as the answer was no.
I’ve noticed with that one simple question, a lot of clutter and possible drama falls out of my path, and the jobs that are truly credible and going places will come up with a budget if they truly value you and what you bring to the project.
This is true for all industry jobs, not just acting. Last year, after I made my declaration, I ran into a seemingly amazing project that was looking for social media interns. I decided to take a meeting with the producers. I fell in love with them, and their project, and agreed to “intern” only for their twitter needs. As the days went by, they began to see that my skills and expertise was much more than just twitter knowledge, and the list of duties I was asked to do got longer. In the past I would have continued to work hard for this project hoping something would come of it, or they would realize my worth and pay me, but let’s face it, if you’re giving it way, no one’s gonna pull out a checkbook. But this time it was different. I had made that resolution, and even though I had agreed to do their twitter pro-bono that was all I was willing to give. The next week, I was hired for a 4-day gig, and was unavailable to do anything for the other project. That’s when they saw my worth, that’s when they felt what it would be like, if Leah was too busy (with a paid gig) to answer their calls. It was a scary moment, but I sat down with the creator and explained that I was happy to give them my full-time attention but only if there was a salary attached to that. And guess what, I got exactly the salary I asked for, while the project was in need of me. A salary that was equivalent to the average person’s weekly 40hr paycheck.
On my journey to self-love and worth, which is really what this article is all about, I hadn’t learned to ask for my needs to be met. I had stood up for myself, and my worth, and my talent, and I was granted what I asked for. Wow. Imagine that.
Now, I’m not saying don’t ever do work for free, in the beginning you have to, you really do, and often times the contacts alone, and the future job referrals that freebies or pro-bono work leads to are invaluable.. but there comes a time when you have to know your worth.
For me, it ties back to self-love, and maybe it does for you too. Many creatives struggle with self-esteem issues, and so I urge you to value you, value your skills and your expertise, and don’t be afraid to say, “Yes I can do that, but these are my rates.” Don’t be afraid to ask, “Is there a budget for me?” Because guess what, as you start to value your worth, the universe will lead you to people and projects who also value your worth.
Of course, you should also pay it forward. I’m at a point in my career where I’ve hired Interns for a few projects now. Some interns have rocked it, some not so much, but you better believe that when the times come that I can get a rock star intern a paid position somewhere, I will have their back like no other. Pay it forward my friends, pay it forward.