Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Value of “Exposure”

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 9, 2015

Wil Wheaton’s recent blog post on the value of “exposure” has brought a matter to popular discussion which has already been making the rounds for a bit: the use of “exposure” as compensation. In this case, it’s probably one of the more egregious abuses recently: An extremely popular and highly-valued, presumably quite profitable site – trying to use an already-popular celebrity’s work with only “exposure” as the compensation.

As a friend of mine joked, exposure is something you die of when you don’t get paid for your work.

And on one hand, this is absolutely true. I heard a story recently about an indie developer trying to commission music from an experienced composer, but when it came time to discuss the fees, the indie balked and said, “Woah, waitaminute, you’ll get exposure.” As much as I sympathize with the cash-strapped indie, the composer might have had more cred than he did. Who was giving whom the exposure?

What is the value of exposure?

I want to take the boring middle-ground for a moment. (Taking the boring reasonable position is pretty much the opposite of getting exposure, BTW. People are drawn to click-baity extremes in the Internet age). I think things have gone too far on one side and need to be reeled in… this whole idea of being compensated solely by “exposure” has gone too far.

But there’s a reason that it’s there. Exposure *IS* a thing. I mean, in the modern world, visibility isn’t everything, but it’s one of the most important things out there. For entrepreneurs, there’s really not much of a concept of punching in and getting paid. It’s all about finding your audience… and getting them to find you. That’s amazingly hard.

Wheaton even suggests this in his article… it would be a different thing if *he* was initiating the contact and trying to increase his exposure. It’s important. Especially if you are in a creative or consulting field, reputation and visibility really are your bread-and-butter. You are in a highly competitive field and, when you are just starting out, you are nobody. Deal with it.

Becoming Not a Nobody

Why wouldn’t someone be willing to take a risk on a nobody who has a decent portfolio? I have a friend who was burned by an artist who disappeared halfway through a project. He’d already paid commissions for half the artwork, but now the artist was no longer responding. So now he was left with a choice:

  1. Cancel the project entirely, and lose all the money he’d invested so far.
  2. Put the project on a back-burner, hoping the artist would re-appear in the future
  3. Find a new artist to re-do all the art in their own style, throwing away everything that was done (and paid for) by the previous artist.

That’s a dangerous situation for a cash-strapped indie. In fact, that could kill a tiny studio on a shoestring budget. So yeah, there’s something to be said for exposure, and for developing a track record. You may have to under-price yourself below your expectations for a little while to “get out there,” develop your track record, and prove yourself to be better than the competition.

A Happy Medium

There are a lot of promising but under-funded projects out there that can’t afford what would be reasonable “market rates.” They are struggling just as much as you are. Are you all destined to sink together? Not necessarily. There are some ways of compromising that can work.

A lot of artists and composers are willing to work within “indie budgets” while keeping their prices higher for bigger-budget, bigger-studio projects. That comes with an expectation, of course, that their level of effort (the number of hoops they have to jump through) will be significantly less for an indie project. Bear in mind that this expectation cuts both ways. If you’re running a tiny studio and you’ve got “champagne tastes and a beer budget,” you may find nobody with any experience willing to work with you in the future because you are more demanding than you are worth.

There’s the more entrepreneurial approach of working for a percentage of the profit or becoming a partner on the team – although this may require a level of trust not given to someone who hasn’t spent some time down in the trenches earning their reputation. And even so… most indie projects, including those by successful veterans… don’t really make a profit. If you are trying to pay your bills, this might not be much better than working for “exposure,” and yet may be far more demanding of your time.

There may be other forms of compensation as well that fall somewhere between dubious ‘exposure’ and wads of cold, hard cash. My family has enjoyed some free memberships and gift certificates for places where my wife has performed that couldn’t afford her full hourly rate. If we were depending on that for paying the bills, we’d be in trouble. But we were able to take advantage of the opportunities and derived more value from them than we would have from cash payment. So from a lifestyle perspective, we profited. We were in a position to do so. Not everybody is.

The bottom line is that yeah, we do stuff for that won’t pay in cold, hard cash. This is true of big companies (who can better afford it) who give out free samples and other marketing efforts, as well as the tiny one-person shops. It’s marketing. For many start-ups (especially in creative professions), there’s a period of time where they are paying for the privilege of working for a while until they either give up, or get enough traction to finally become worthwhile.  Hopefully it’s short, but only a few very lucky (and probably underpriced) folks ever get to a point where they aren’t actively trying to increase their “exposure.” I’ve also done work “in trade” for people which has sometimes paid off, and sometimes not.

So yeah, don’t automatically turn up your nose at ‘exposure,’ because there are some times where the marketing opportunity is worth far more. But don’t automatically accept “exposure” as a reasonable compensation for your work, either, particularly once you have a track record. Think of yourself as a business, and your creative work as your product. There’s a time for marketing, and there’s a time to get paid. The only value of the former is to provide more opportunities for the latter.

Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: Read the First Comment

  • Mrs. Rampant Coyote said,

    I do work for a lot of folks who can’t possibly afford my regular rate. I’m at the point where I can’t just volunteer my time anymore. When that comes up, I work in trade instead. I don’t mind trading storytelling for goods and services, and we both end up happy.