For the last 2 years I have been focusing part of my energy on finding projects where I can contribute with my music. It has been a learning experience and also a bit of struggle has come around every now and then.
I want to focus on the fact that as an upcomer to the game, most of the people I got to talk to share the same line "we have no/little budget". I do understand that some of them are in the same position as me and are starting to build his career as Directors, Producers, Animators, Game Developers etc. but that still not a reason to give away your work, time and skills away.
What I have been offered numerous times is credit for my work, meaning that my name will be on the ending credits. While this is a benefit towards us Composers because it kind of spread our name around the industry...if people reacts to the project of course. Still this is not payment for your time, I think credit is something the project must include you 100% of the times and is independent from payment. At the end of the day letters on a screen won't pay your bills.
Usually us Composers have a standard rate for hour or by project, in my case is 50 USD per minute of Sound Design and Music (low for the average in the industry. I am comparing myself with others on my same or similar level). But money is not the only negotiation tool available for music creators.
Other options of payments are: equipment, libraries, pay 50% now and 50% once the project generates revenue etc. whatever you may think your studio or your workspace needs... ask for it. Maybe you need a specific sound library for that project, and it turns out is the sound library you have been trying to get for months. Talk to the Director or Producers, they might be willing to spend a small bit of their budget on the library not only because it would be "cheap" (sometimes) but because this will make their project better. You get to meet a win- win situation and after you can use that library to generate more revenue with other projects.
In this days, getting music is as easy as getting a glass of water. This accessibility has opened many doors and closed others in the industry. It is easier to distribute your music using the internet but it is harder to find which market in the industry will react to your tunes, it is accessible to anyone who has a computer to make a brand-new song without any music studies and be successful, this is the reason why there are no more super big artists like The Beatles, Bob Marley, Madonna etc. The big chunk they got back then it is now distributed within a couple of bands and artist that stay famous for a couple of years and later on another buzz replace them, sometimes to make them disappear or they stay in a stable exposure with the fanbase they already got through past years.
Because music has become extremely accessible along with piracy of it, we have devalued it as a product. Why pay $12 USD for an album if you can listen to it "for free" on YouTube. It has acquired a bigger value in our everyday life but it has become extremely cheaper.
Still all these reasons are not an excuse to work for free. As creative people, we need to give value to our work, time, skills and professional development. There is at least something you can work out with Directors and Producers to create an EXCHANGE, this is where the key remains I believe.
If you create an exchange it becomes a transaction where I give you something and you give me something else. It doesn't matter what it can be, they are giving something up to get what they need or want. When you work for free, you are giving them what they need or want but they are not giving anything up to get it.
Next time you find a project where they have low or no budget, try to figure something out with them. This way you will feel rewarded for your job and time invested, otherwise it kind of feels like if you worked for nothing (at least I have been in that position, have you?), and they are getting advantage of you. Give value to your skill and passion about creating music or sound, this will make others appreciate it the same way you do.