Tips for managing a precarious freelance career

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COVID has done a lot of things. However, one thing he particularly did was highlight the precariousness of freelance and on-demand work in the arts, design and culture sector.

Many freelancers have been forced to find work elsewhere. Others won (barely).

As the sector rebounds, we reached out to freelancers working in a variety of ways in the arts, to share their learnings and offer their key tips for dealing with the precariousness of a freelance career.

David Walters, Brisbane-based lighting designer

David Walters offers important advice: “Once you’ve agreed to do a gig, it deserves your 100% commitment, big or small, high or low. Your reputation is integral to getting your next job and ‘building’ your reputation is essential.

Be uncompromising in striving to do every job to the best of your abilities.

Walters thinks it’s important to “stay curious, read a lot, understand your tools, and keep up to date with all the latest developments” to keep working.

And when navigating the gig economy, his advice was, “If you don’t have, or choose not to have, an agent, there are some very helpful guidelines for learning how to negotiate.” First of all, always read your contract carefully. What is said and what is written do not always correspond.

“Second, when negotiating, the creator needs to step back and let the entrepreneur take over. Learning not to take management’s efforts to minimize your costs personally and having confidence in your own worth are hard lessons to learn.

He also pointed to the more obvious need for good communication skills, adding the following clarification: “Learning to communicate and truly understand what fellow and fellow artists are trying to say is vital.” Learning to listen and communicate well with a wide range of other practitioners is an asset. The nature of our work requires being able to communicate at sometimes deep levels, while fellow collaborators can often become lifelong friends.

Rachael Dease, composer and sound designer

Rachael Dease told ArtsHub: “Freelancing can sometimes benefit from flexibility and a bit more freedom, but it’s a tough way to build a career.”

At some point, when you get multiple projects, there is a constant time tetris. It’s hard! And being a parent also compounds all those stresses.

“When I feel overwhelmed, I remind myself that I don’t cure cancer, I don’t have people’s lives in my hands – do your best and stop catastrophizing,” she said. “Always ask questions about what is expected of you, what you need to deliver and when.”

Dease’s key tip, however, was accounting: “Always invoice early, include a payment due date in the invoice, and ask when payment is likely to occur when you send it out.

“This often saves payments and helps with budgeting.” She added: ‘Add your superannuation details in fine print and include them in the invoice. Make sure you know your Superannuation rights!’

She also said don’t be afraid to talk to your trusted peers and colleagues about how they handle financial conversations about fees, etc. “It can be a bit daunting at first, but everyone will probably feel a bit more empowered.”

Also at the top of her list was: “Prioritize your mental and physical health. Whenever I feel intimidated, undermined, or need a boost of confidence, I whisper to myself “I’m not here to fuck spiders.” That’s a great six-word self-help speech!

Kate Larsen, arts, culture and non-profit consultant | Artistic manager | Writer

“One of the first lessons I had to learn in balancing client work with my own creative practice was that it was not possible to adhere to strict working days,” says Kate Larsen.

When projects have arrived and when they are due is completely out of my control. I had to both feel comfortable with this uncertainty and set aside time to write when I could, while still having enough confidence that the next job would come.

Like most freelancers, Larsen told ArtsHub that she finds fluctuating cash flow to be a much bigger issue, “than hitting my annual income goals.”

She continued: “Be upfront with your terms and conditions and make sure the customer agrees to them before you start (even a reply to an email can constitute a binding agreement). My quotes, invoices and email confirmations indicate that I expect payment within 14 days and that as a freelancer, if I get sick and can’t complete a job, the client still has to pay me for the work I’ve done so far . .’

And when customers don’t pay?

Larsen said, “I had to be confident in my rights to claim these payments, because there are a shameful number of arts organizations and publications that don’t pay artists on time.”

And his survival clue: “If you can, create a sneaky bank account that you can pay into during the months when you’re short on cash, and pay yourself when you wait for the money to arrive.”

Bill Haycock, Brisbane-based theater designer

In addition to having designed hundreds of theater performances (drama, dance, music, opera and musicals in sets and costumes) Bill Hathererooster has designed related works such as museum and gallery exhibitions, major events, fundraising dinners, award ceremonies as well as private events and parties.

Diversity, diversity and diversity! When starting a freelance career in the arts or design, do anything – or at least consider everything.

His key advice is: try to learn other skills, such as graphic design. A good thing to fall back on.

As a graphic designer, Haycock supports work related to the performing and visual arts, such as the design of exhibitions, advertisements, brochures and programs, as well as logos and signage. He is also qualified to teach which adds another job stream.

Lee Kofman, author

As author of The writer laid bare, imperfect, and The Dangerous Bride, Lee Kofman knows what it’s like to manage his life and work between two books.

Kofman says, “My best advice is very unsexy, but in my experience, it works great for getting the most work out of you – be super organized and systematic in your job search.”

She breaks it down: “Decide which people/organisations/networks etc. you are targeting, then prepare an Excel spreadsheet or, if like me, you have IT issues, create a table in a Word document. Once you have done this, expand your network as much as possible and list all the people you would like to contact.

Kofman says it takes a bit of research, but it’s an investment of time in your freelancing career.

She advises that when you approach these contacts, ‘record the date of the approaches and who you contacted there [if an organisation or company]and note in your calendar when to follow up.

She also said to note how they responded. “Keep recording correspondence between you and this organization/person, including any jobs you may get, [is important] so that you can continue to approach them in the future, but also without “cluttering” them.

“In my experience, such listings help maintain long-term working relationships and a more or less steady stream of freelance jobs,” Kofman said.

Chloé Wolifson, art writer, researcher and curator

Chloe Wolifson says one of the slippery slopes as a freelancer in a precarious market is self-esteem. She says, “Value your work. Use resources such as MEAA and NAVA to give you confidence when agreeing to a contract or setting your own rates, [and] increase your rates based on your growing skills and experience.

Follow up on unpaid invoices, as many times as necessary; it is important that freelancers are not used as a line of credit.

Wolifson tapped a board that helped her juggle a freelance career. “I always try to remember this advice from Neil Gaiman: people keep working, in a freelance world…because their work is good, because they are easygoing and because they deliver the work to time. And you don’t even need all three.

“Two out of three is good. People will tolerate how rude you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the late work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

His last word was “to be open to all opportunities”. Fieldwork opportunities that may seem unglamorous or not aligned with your goals, [but] have positive effects in the medium – and long term (provided they are fairly remunerated). These gigs build your skills, knowledge, and networks, leaving you better equipped to fill the gaps in the independent rollercoaster ride.

Doug Wallen, arts writer

Doug Wallen’s advice is simple, but we often forget to do it.

“Whenever you look at how much a job pays, you have to consider how long it will actually take. It may seem obvious, but there are quicksand moments when you spend far too much time on something that isn’t worth it,’ he told ArtsHub.

And tips for staying focused as a freelancer: “Compartmentalization is a must. You will often need to switch gears at all times, especially when urgent rewrites and/or additional edits are needed.’

He also added to his list: “Most important is morale: make sure you enjoy what you do and don’t burn yourself out just for a little more money.” It’s also not worth it.

Cassie Tongue, freelance critic

Cassie Tongue wrote reviews for Guardian Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Saturday newspaperand often has multiple gigs simmering at once – including a full-time job to take the urgency and stress out of freelancing.

His best advice for dealing with precariousness, “is to decenter it (which I can do because I have a stable job), to create a community and to connect professionally with the people on the ground through groups of d interest, from social media and at industry events, because fighting people around you for work tends to make me miserable.

She continued: “Being around people who work in similar ways, in the same field, is a great source of inspiration and motivation, and removes the isolation as well as the feeling of competition from precarious self-employment.”

There is room not only for your voice, but also for the voices of others.

“We all benefit from opening up these island spaces to others,” Tongue said. ‘Celebrate the successes of others, mentor and share advice with people just starting out, share ideas and recommend people to work with when they are better suited than you for the job at hand. Work is work; people are the beauty of it all.

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