Gabe Sokoloff  •  August 1, 2013

At some point in every young songwriter's or composer's career, he is faced with a gig that offers little or no compensation, or a project that seems like a great opportunity but falls a little outside his musical comfort zone. There's plenty of dogma on each side of these dilemmas - "free work only leads to more free work," "never turn down an opportunity," etc. - but such hard-and-fast rules don't adequately address the nuanced versions of these situations that arise. Here are some things to keep in mind if you're struggling with whether or not to accept a gig. 

When a Gig Offers Little or No Compensation

The idea that "free work only leads to more free work" is based on the notion that doing work cheaply, or for free, devalues your work in the eyes of the client. It helps establish their perception of you as a novice, and that perception could be impossible to uproot. Defenders of doing work for little or no pay usually argue that every opportunity is a chance - maybe your only chance - to show a client the quality of your work. Nail it, and they'll willingly pay appropriately the next time around. Opponents of that view argue that if you refuse the unpaid work, clients will respect you for it and hire you for their next gig that does have a respectable budget. 

In practice, you can never know which way it will really work out, but here are a few points to consider when making the decision for yourself.

Some clients have an established protocol whereby free work leads to paid work. For example, some commercial music houses will not pay a composer for her first submission but, if it meets their standards, subsequent demos are remunerated fairly. This is obviously preferable to doing free or low-paying work with no guarantee that the arrangement will eventually change. For clients with no such protocol, consider suggesting one. Tastefully state from the outset that you're willing to do one gig for little or no pay as a "trial" of sorts, but you will require a reasonable rate should the working relationship extend beyond the one project. A more aggressive version of this stance would be to negotiate that, while you will compose the piece for little or no pay (just this once), you must be remunerated fairly if the piece is used. This eliminates any risk for them so, if that's the source of their stinginess, they may be amenable to the idea.

It's not a bad idea to feel out your client based on your interactions with them. If they've got no budget for you but otherwise treat you respectfully, then it's more likely they'll "reward" your willingness to do work for free with another gig of respectable budget. If, on the other hand, they can't seem to get your name right and are curt on the phone, that may be a sign they're just looking for a quick freebie. This kind of intuitive compass is far from perfect, of course.

If, at the end of the day, you feel a gig is worth taking despite the lack of pay, there may be some small ways you can leverage your generosity - requesting a nicely-sized on-screen credit, for example. The client should be more than happy to give what costs them nothing (and, if they aren't, that may be another worrying indication of their integrity).

Finally, I would advise against accepting a job for insufficient pay simply because you're afraid of a potential client feeling spurned. Whether they'll "respect" you for turning down the gig is debatable, but they surely can't blame you. If they do, then they're the kind of client you're best off avoiding anyway.

When a Gig Falls Outside Your Wheelhouse

Eventually you'll be offered a gig that's juicy in terms of either pay or prestige, but calls for a style of music outside your expertise. There are those who advocate always accepting such a gig, viewing it as an opportunity to expand your skill-set by being "forced" to master something new. Against this view is the notion that it's better to put only your very best foot forward, and working outside your wheelhouse is unlikely to do that.

The key, of course, is to realistically assess the challenge and timetable to determine whether you're capable of delivering something top-notch. In doing so, don't forget the option of calling on a collaborator. If you're primarily a rock guy and the client is envisioning a "Hendrix-meets-Mahler" concoction (heaven help you!), call on your orchestral guru friend to helm the classical side of things. Explaining to your client that you'll be taking it on with a partner won't diminish your reputation in their eyes; more likely they'll be grateful and impressed that you're building a "team" for their project. 

In the end, you'll salvage the gig, satisfy the client, and earn some goodwill with a colleague all at once. And if you really feel that the gig is still too far outside your sweet spot to accept, consider referring the client to a fellow music creator you know is right for job. What goes around comes around, and both your client and colleague will be grateful for the connection. 

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Gabe Sokoloff is a songwriter, producer, composer, singer and electronic musician (under the name Thrice Noble). Gabe has composed music for hundreds of national advertising campaigns and a variety of television shows including Fox's American Idol, Disney's Kickin' It, Oxygen's All the Right Moves and Travel Channel's Food Paradise, and has contributed songs to ABC's The Vineyard. As a songwriter and producer, Gabe has earned acclaim from KCRW and critics at Spin and The FADER, and is currently writing and producing for forthcoming releases from Carolina Liar and his own band, Verhoven. Gabe is also the associate creative director for HUM Music in Santa Monica. Visit Gabe on the web at thricenoble.comfollow @thricenoble on Twitter.