Musician’s Scathing Letter Offers One Way to Respond to Requests for Free Work


A strongly worded letter has gotten a surprising amount of attention in photograpy circles recently.

It was written by UK musician Whitey (aka. NJ White) in response to a TV producer who requested to use his work for free, and it’s gotten popular because, even though it was written by a musician, photographers really seem to love Whitey’s no BS response to a request many of them are familiar with.

Now, to be clear, we’re neither condoning nor suggesting you approach responding to requests for free use of your work this way. Commercial use of your work is definitely something we believe you should be paid for; however, a polite no will probably work just as well without burning any bridges.

On the other hand, there is something satisfying about an artist, whatever their branch of art, letting fly with all of the pent-up anger that tens or hundreds of these requests lead to and, in the process, demolishing some oft-used excuses that companies give.

Here’s the full letter for those interested in reading the whole thing:


In the following section, the word “music” could just as easily be replaced by “photography”:

I am sick to death of your hollow schtick, of the inevitable line “unfortunately, there is no budget for music,” as if some fixed Law of the Universe handed you down a sad but immutable financial verdict preventing you from budgeting to pay for music. Your company set out the budget. So you have chosen to allocate no money for music.

He goes on to point out that “even the cleaner who mopped your set and scrubbed your toilets after the shoot will get paid,” so why wouldn’t you pay the musician (or in our case the photographer).

It’s a sad fact that art in all its forms is being devalued as more people are willing to work for free, which in turn encourages more producers, publishers, ad execs, etc. to ask for free work. And even though we don’t suggest people respond this way, it might not be such a bad thing that this letter is getting attention in photography circles.

(via Reddit)

  • James Hedley

    I wouldn’t generally celebrate rudeness, but it’s a shame you don’t seem to believe that this guy is existing quite happily without the need of further business from your studio – he doesn’t want to be on your books… he’s quite happy to burn whatever flimsy bridges there are. We’ve established what kind of company it is that feigns poverty to exploit creatives, so why is it unproductive to tell them where to go? Who is going to respect this artist any less for placing a value on his work?

    As a one off, it’s got him some great publicity, and if everyone did this, there would be a culture change throughout, so futile…? Definitely not.

  • James Hedley

    I fear you’re right, but it shouldn’t stop us trying to force that change in cultural attitude. Whether this is a helpful way to do it is open to debate, but I bet it made him feel better.

  • David Portass

    Perhaps use some initiative and go to Whitey’s Facebook page where he has put the full details or any number of other news sites that typed out his email in full?

  • David Portass

    Yes, check his web page, they publicly tried to worm their way out saying they always pay there was just some confusion so Whitey posted the original email received from Betty TV clearly stating there was no budget for music, that bit they have not responded to

  • Four Letter Nerd

    We apparently have different meanings for ‘bottom feeders’. Your second guy is a bottom feeder. Both losing one’s cool and tossing the offer into the can mean zero probability of getting paid work. Politely declining and quoting one’s rate leaves that door open. IF a bottom feeder has minimum quality standards AND can’t get anyone to do it for free AND decides paying is better than substandard work, why eliminate oneself from consideration, however remote it may be? Even if you don’t get work, you maintain your dignity and a spot in the bottom feeder’s Rolodex, useful if market conditions change. Not as satisfying as burning a bridge, but better in the long run.

  • Janet Green

    Nicely done.

  • no longer a sucker

    I once had three months of ceramic output in a gallery on sale or return, a week later the pots were not there., great ! A big sale.. UHH? “Oh they are out ‘on appro’ “in a potential client’s home!! They are such LOVELY WORK, you must be so proud of them…blh blah..” OOH goody! what home? It was to jazz up a home on show by a realtor! Of course they never paid for the pots nor did they think it odd that my work was loaned out without my permission. Nor even could they get it that I was p*****D off.

  • Dover

    Ctrl +++ to magnify, if you are on a Mac Cmnd +++ should work

  • tyrohne

    That’s why it’s a multiple choice response. I’m extremely amenable to barter, personally. I don’t have to pay taxes on it, it is an easier choice for those without a budget to make (i.e. do I have something to trade or not?) and I personally find it opens up a ton of avenues.

    Some people succeed. Others will fail. Clearly this guy is either a) successful to the point he can be a dick in the industry and then tout it

    or b) frustrated and thinking in one dimension only

    or c) a dick

    For all of you creative professional types: It’s a choice you have to make but don’t think it doesn’t happen in any other business. IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME. Ask your mechanic if someone has ever asked him to do something for free or barter. Or your plumber. Or hell, ask your doctor. For a long time I didn’t have insurance and I offered to bush-hog my physician’s farm in return for a physical. He took the offer!

  • tyrohne

    I don’t think we’re looking for your calibre. Thanks.

  • tyrohne

    I don’t think it requires someone else to pay for it. I think it requires creative thinking or, as you say, find the money. Everything is a balancing act. I don’t live in a black and white world. If this cat does, then god bless him.

    Future payment is ABSOLUTELY done all the time based on royalties. Especially with smaller studios. The bigger you get the harder that is to do (which, if you’re in the industry you know).

  • Craig John

    Agree the art/creative industries are getting fed up with the “begging for free work”, or paying with peanuts for good work. But as long as there are reasonably talented creative hobbyists willing to give their work away for free just so they can say they had some work published – and the that talent pool is getting deeper – this will only get worse.

  • Robert Mark

    I’ve been guilty of saying yes to that request in the past. I don’t anymore. Your work is worth precisely what somebody pays for it.

  • Ramon

    Blurry stuff makes your eyes hurt?

  • sudden_eyes

    We do know what the request said. See his Facebook page (linked in the main article).

  • superduckz

    If there was a “like button” on this concept I’d hit it a hundred times.

  • Dexter J Hate

    Be Exploited or Die.
    It’s the American way!
    As Whitey is looking at it from the perspective of a Brit, he seems to have the personal courage to stand up to this nonsense.

  • djbethell

    I bet Zoe wishes she’d stayed in bed that day.

  • naturegirl

    And if they want you to work for free, and are known for doing that sort of thing, then having their name on your resume kinda advertises that you fall for this sort of thing, and an undesirable cycle continues….

  • ElectricShunt

    Then read another article, or e-mail the person who took the screenshot and ask for a higher res version, or just deal with it.

    Telling us about it is like writing a comment to complain that your TV remote is too far away and it hurts your back to stand up and grab it. It’s just a plea for attention.

  • liec

    My son is a musician–trumpet player. Oh, how this rings a bell! Some of the biggest cheapskates are the wealthy daughters of high-paid physicians. You play at their weddings and they try to get out of paying you–“I don’t want to pick my father’s pocket”! Bill–$100!

  • AA Erick

    but then you have people who are not necessarily “qualified” who provide better work than those who supposedly are. How would you define this in the arts? By definition the arts are too hard to pin down, and would not yeild well to puting many qualifyers on. This is not law, mathematics or history. It’s art! Yet in all fields, quality speaks for itself, and those who have higher quality will get more work. A business is not going to go with an artist just because they’re cheap. this is a myth. Sure, they may try to get work for free, but they’re going to go after higher quality, they’re not going to settle for crap. they would be better to just go without the music than do that. So, the problem is that there are so many high quality artists! Funny, it doesn’t sound like a problem. The world is saturated with them. Therefore, you have to do something that stands out and separate you from the crowd. Stop blaming everyone else you guys! You cannot expect anything from the world.

  • Ignorant Awareness

    Are you talking about the first introduction photo, or the second one?

  • Chris L

    I’m worried that if I plagiarize his letter he’ll want payment from me :)

  • Bill


  • Pete Ferling

    Erick. There was a time that the method and gear required to do a job was extremely expensive, and therefore, access, not talent, was the deciding factor of whether or not someone got the job.

    Thanks to cheap technology, the DSLR market has been gutted. The average shooter can expect a salary of $10/hr.

    You could earn more as a security guard, or a fry cook.

    What remains is the Medium Format jobs, commercial and product photography, and to some extent, weddings. The tools, or the amount of gear and technique (work) required are still out of reach of your typical wannabe.

    As an aside, I have friends whom work in the media production business; setting up stages, events and renting gear for venues, etc. Their business model is all about having access to some very expensive gear. They only lose clients whom close their doors, and still realize $10K days. They provide a service that other businesses need and willing to pay because few alternatives exists, and they’re aren’t cheap.

    You wanna standout? Stop being an “Artist” and start providing access to the kinds of service that folks consider worth paying for. Being good is expected and just par for the course.

  • Jen Haylock

    it’s one thing to give money or skills or product for a charity but to simply ASK for it when it is a commercial venture…..PUHLEEEEZZZz

  • John Thiel

    I grew up in Entertainment, and I have to credit my father, a Producer, for telling me when I was 16 taking my first pit orchestra gig that I’m a professional and therefore do not work for free–ever. This has been reinforced in every job and industry I’ve worked in. Yet I have many friends who allow themselves to be taken advantage of again and again, acting for film credits, playing on a studio recording for album credits, as if you could buy groceries with those.

  • SarBear

    Very satisfying to read. As an artist I am in complete compliance with NJ White. I’ll be sharing this with my students and peers. Cheers Mr White!

  • RubĂ©n Romero

    Bravo! Bravo!

  • Charley Seavey

    I have occasionally let my photographs be used for free- by friends, or something that struck me as an outfit that really did have no budget- a farmer’s market, for instance. But…. anybody that obviously does have a budget gets a price quoted to them. Thus far, no takers.

  • Duckface

    I genuinely don’t get how anyone can say that this letter is “Too strongly worded” or that you wouldn’t recommend anyone respond to a request this way???? This letter is a rather eloquently put refusal to comply with somebody’s request. Where are the offensive curse-words? In what professional business letters is one expected to crawl in apology for one’s opinion? Not being funny, but too much fluff and skirting round the issue and apologising for yourself actually makes you look rather unprofessional and weak. The last words are harsh of course, but I’d say that’s about it.
    Mr White made a valid point. I’d loooove to see a report on the ten o’clock news, featuring a surgeon saying: “Of course I’m not getting paid for this quadruple bypass operation, but the patient assured me that I’d get loads of exposure and if it goes well, I can even put it on my CV! Cause I’m doing this for the love of the craft, you know.”

  • timmy

    You can try to use a some simple problem solving logic that folks with a 5th grade education or higher use and search on Google for a higher res among many other solutions. You really couldnt think outside the box a bit?

  • NN

    One of the biggest problems with this situation is that there ARE plenty of budding musicians, artists, designers and actors who will give away their skills for free, simply in exchange for experience and exposure, which causes a resounding gap between the professionals of that artform, and the media-houses which pay (or not, in this case) for them. The real question isn’t whether professionals should get paid or not, of course they should. The real question is how do we differentiate between the professionals and the amatuers.

  • Stephen Wigmore

    How about not being an asshole to someone you don’t know just because they made a polite complaint. Did you consider that before tapping away at your keyboard?

  • Howard B.

    How sad and true. Is it the moderator or just another list member who advised against sending strong letters? Something about being polite without burning bridges?? Who are YOU? If you are an exec at Facebook, well then, you probably earn six figures and your company is worth billions upon billions of dollars. Did you really fully READ the author’s email?? He has been working and slaving his whole LIFE and giving his heart and soul to his music and just wanting to share it not always for free, so he can live. The recipients wants to rob him of his work and use it to make more millions.

    No other nation on Earth treats its artists as shabbily as the US (and apparently the UK). Many nations actually help support musicians. Weird?? I don’t think so. We spend billions on lobbyists who bribe our elected representatives on a daily basis to make them richer and us poorer. Biiliions on war, billions on pork-barrel subsidies to rich mega-farmers and oil companies. If only a teeny-weeny fraction of that were used to help artists who WORK (like a fraction of even one-hundreth of one percent), I ASSURE you there would be no justification for any increase in taxes (though the devils who want to bleed us dry would certainly scare people by saying that).

    The commenter I am responding to said “be nice and don’t burn bridges”. Come on, be honest. What “bridges” would this writer possibly burn?? Being “nice” will not get him anywhere either. I understand his outrage. Greed is greed, and being nice where it never works is pandering to that greed. I always want to be nice and treat everyone I meet with kindness and respect, unless there is no reason to do so. I would not be kind to murderers and rapists or child molesters, nor to those who are thieves in sheep’s clothing. No one is God and can have infinite patience after being slapped in the face thousands of times for no good reason. All I can say to our writer is RIGHT ON, BUDDY, SOCK IT TO ‘EM!!

  • Steve Hulbert