Freelancing for the Young Professional
Hello, summer 2021. Hopefully, most of you who are reading this are preparing for a busy summer. I know I am quickly booking myself as many safe live shows as I can, and I hope you are as well. Over the past few months, I have been collaborating with a friend and colleague to present an article that talks about freelancing in an extensive and informative way. Since summer is right around the corner and many of us will be hunting for work, now feels like the best time to release it.
Networking. Networking. Networking.
How many times have you heard the word networking thrown around? The word means roughly the same thing to everyone, but each person does it differently. For me, I like to listen to people, and if I want to start a working relationship with someone, I ask them what their opinions are. I make it my goal to learn from them or to simply talk about the work that we do. It is a great opportunity to hear from another person’s perspective, but also to prove that you know what you are talking about. People enjoy feeling like they are important and being heard. Typically, this results in a positive association of me in that person’s memory.
This also leads to one of my colleagues’ opinions on the subject. He likes to take a more online approach by keeping up to date with the ever-evolving industry. He frequently uses social media, online groups, and forums, as well as LinkedIn. Knowledge is a valuable tool in this industry, especially if you are looking into jobs centered around higher education or research. Networking like this also opens you up to the opportunity of coming across and engaging with professionals.
On the other hand, networking on the job can be a bigger challenge. Introducing yourself and making a good impression are two things you will want to prioritize. A peer of mine also likes to prioritize listening to artists’ concerns and will take on the ‘problem solver’ role. It is easy to forget that we are in a service industry and being able to listen and solve issues put your band or artist’s mind at ease. It is an excellent way to create a lasting impression of you in their mind.
One of my recent endeavors has also been to simply ask. In preparation for my summer off of grad school, I started looking for local work. I noticed a local tavern had a full schedule of live music that they were going to have outside, and I asked if they needed any sound support. Fortunately for me, they did, and the conversation went from there. I might suggest as a tip to reach out to venues to see or offer your services rather than searching for a band or a couple of groups to work with.
Multidisciplinary vs. Niche
Something that also needs to be considered is what kind of services you are going to offer. I will cover two approaches that you may want to think about.
The first being multidisciplinary, which can also be associated with flexibility. Myself and many of my peers come from a multidisciplinary background. The education I received in my undergraduate program was well-rounded. As a first and second-year student there, we took several basic stagehand classes covering lighting, sound, production, scenic, and costume work. This results in most individuals being multidisciplinary on some varying level.
Some of the pros of this approach are that it opens you up to most gigs that need help. For example, I can finish up with my sound set up and jump in and help install the lighting rig if needed because I have basic experience with lighting. On most of the IATSE gigs I have worked, the other union members were also well-rounded workers. From personal observation, that appears to be how they live industry works and thrives. It is a fast-paced environment. When you need a hand with something, you typically do not have the time to wait for the right, single person to come and help. Having basic knowledge about several things on top of your more experienced expertise in one area is what makes you more marketable and typically, more desirable.
A second approach is a niche approach. This is a more concentrated or expertise-based method. For example, we talked about union stagehands typically being well-rounded and multidisciplinary. However, a union stagehand might not be the best fit for an audio programmer for video game production. That role should be filled by someone with more concentrated expertise and experience. Services can be even more niche than that. A client may be searching for a recording engineer in a twenty-five-mile radius, but they are specifically looking for a recording engineer who specializes in abstract noise rock.
This can also be perceived as limiting your chances of work and your possible clientele. As one of my close friends likes to put it, “how many eggs versus how many baskets”. This refers to the client to services ratio for you as the business, for the area, and for many other factors. If you have multiple baskets, representing a multidisciplinary approach; you may be able to fill your baskets with more eggs compared to someone with one or maybe two baskets; a niche approach. However, this is entirely dependent on client-related factors like area, service rates, or if the industry is suffering from recent financial hits.
Developing a brand
This section applies to everyone. Most of the time we, as the individual, are the brand or the thing that we are marketing. Everyone is going to have an opinion about your website or your social media accounts. However, what is most important is that it looks good, the information is up to date and easy to navigate, and that it represents you.
A person is always developing and changing, therefore their website’s style is also going to develop and evolve over time. For example, I prefer clean lines and black and white for my website. I like the simplicity and that it allows for my work to be the center of attention. I added a cool and interesting picture of myself or my work on each page for emphasis. The black and white color scheme is nice because it doesn’t clash with any of my pictures. It looks clean and professional and allows for myself and my work to take center stage. Small things like consistent use of single text font and watermarking or other associated symbols are also important. If done well, things will look professional and pleasing but will establish an association with your viewers and audience. We want that association to be positive. Therefore, we put time and consideration into this.
A peer of mine who spends most of his time working in live sound will establish a good impression with an artist or band and then follow them on social media to form a connection between his name and his face. This is also another great way to create a path that leads people to your website and credentials. Business cards are also a great physical object that can lead clientele to your credentials. The same principle applies to these as well. Use the same text font if you can and include any associated symbols or marking to make it personal to you.
This leads to consistency and keeping up to date with information, services you can provide, and communication. Personally, I like to keep a log of everything that I have worked on or done. That way I can tailor my credentials and information that I share with clients. For instance, the resume that I applied with for my MFA was a solid two pages, but you still want to stick with the one-page resume when applying for work like live sound gigs or audio editing for audiobooks or podcasts. Thus, because I keep a log of everything I have ever done, my one-page resume is consolidated to relevant work. This also means that I have multiple resumes and the one I use for live sound work is different compared to the one I may use for a gig doing sound design for a short indie film.
Consistency is also going to influence how professional you and your brand feel to potential clients. If I receive an email inquiring about my services, I am going to respond as soon as possible. On the other hand, I do like to follow the rule of responding within 24 hours once a working relationship has been established. Of course, there are always exceptions and if you respond within 48 hours, but have an open and clear sense of communication with that clientele, that is fine too. Communication is often one of the factors that make people move on and look for services elsewhere, so consistency in that regard is vital for any freelancer.
All of this plays an important role in your public image and how people perceive you. Are you reliable, does your resume or website reflect your capabilities, are you timely when sending emails, etc. Our industry tends to share information and recommendations through word of mouth, thus placing emphasis on a good public image. It is going to be impossible for you to not have some burned bridges, but the more poor interactions that you have, the less likely you are going to be recommended to others. Meaning you will most likely not be called back for more work.
“Don’t do it for the money, but don’t do it for free”
You should always be compensated for the work and services you provide. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean a paycheck. The phrase ‘don’t do it for the money, but don’t do it for free’ might sound foreign, but the mindset might allow you to see other possibilities. For example, a gig might not be able to pay you, but they are nonprofit, which allows you to write it off in your taxes. Several other professionals are also going to be there, which will allow you to network and possibly get your foot in the door for a few more jobs. Or even with potential clients. The gig might be broadcasted or have a large audience on social media which may look good on your website and help you develop your brand as a professional.
This mindset also works when a job might not be able to pay you as well as you want. When you begin freelancing, this kind of thought process is really helpful because arguably it is more important that the flow of work is steady rather than a steady paycheck. Things like networking, developing a brand, consistency, and public image influence that flow of work. It is all about what you can gain from that job. Sometimes it will be a paycheck or sometimes it will be other opportunities. Some people will only accept a paycheck, others may be looking for something more plus a smaller paycheck. What is important is that you value your time, and that will always be changing and will be unique to you.
The World is a Write Off
The gas that you need to get to a gig, the meals that you bought yourself for that day, your overnight stay at a hotel after working a show, and various equipment needs you have for your work are all examples of tax write-offs. Many freelancers will keep detailed records of all of this and submit them to their accountants or CPA. You must keep all receipts, various pay stubs and checks, and any other relevant records you may have. Having some kind of organizational system for these kinds of documents is vital. Depending on your flow of work, you may choose to organize by client or job. If that job is long-term or becomes more consistent, it may require a separate form of bookkeeping and organization.
Let’s briefly talk about equipment write-off and itemizing. This refers to the accounting of all of your receipts when purchasing equipment needed for your business or the work that you do. I will give a few examples. One, I just started out freelancing and I would like to get myself a small tool belt and crescent wrench for a gig I have coming up. When I purchase what I need, I will keep the receipt for my records, file it away in whatever organizational method I am keeping, and eventually present that to whoever files my taxes. Another example, I am working on a client’s podcast and would really like to add a denoiser plugin to the vocals. I can purchase the said plugin and keep the receipt for an eventual write-off because I needed it to do my job. This can also include much larger purchases like needing to upgrade your board if you are a freelance mixer for live music. All of this is relevant and should be written off to receive the taxes back. If large businesses can do it, so can you.
For those who do not know, a 1099 is a tax form for non-employed workers like gig workers. This is because they are not salaried and typically get paid per show. These should be submitted to an accountant or CPA when filing your taxes. Who should I expect to receive a 1099 from? Typically, any business should send you one. If I mix live music all summer for a local bar that pays me in checks, I will expect to get a 1099 form from them. If you worked for a business or client and made less than 600 dollars, they do not have to send you the 1099 form. However, it is also common to do a gig and be handed cash at the end of the night. This kind of payment is harder to keep records of.
Hopefully, this article has brought some sense of clarity or answered any unanswered questions that you may have had. Freelancing can be difficult, but also very rewarding. I have found most of my success by referring to my friends and peers who also freelance. At first, it may seem like a lone wolf type of work, but you will find so much more success and satisfaction if you spider web out and use the resources that you have.