As a self-employed Musician, Sound Engineer, Guitar/Theory/Production teacher, and DJ, it has been a journey learning how the freelance game works, and how to stay afloat without going crazy. With a broad skill-set and even broader passions, juggling the work that pays my bills and the art about which I’m actually passionate is a constant struggle, and I’ve watched a number of individuals in all of these fields get burnt out or become hopelessly jaded over time. After several years of taking every gig I could get for the bread, experience and networking opportunities, I found my creative work was suffering and I was investing far too much energy into things I didn’t care about or even hated. Recognizing that freelance work will most likely remain an integral part of my life for many years, I sat down to figure out how to negotiate the balance I needed to keep a healthy wallet and attitude. The result was a 5 point system to organize my priorities and values when choosing which projects to attach myself, or which gigs to take. By asking these questions ahead of time, I’ve been able to better manage my time and steer myself towards work that I find more satisfying.
When I first started out, the presence of even one of these points would be enough for me to jump at the “opportunity”; I now see these as 5 pillars of a support system for my own personal sanity. The more of these points I can identify on a job, the more likely I am to feel good about my work. Ironically, it can sometimes be very difficult to answer these questions until after the job is done, but with experience it becomes easier to forecast the outcome.
1) Am I receiving fair compensation?
Whether you work for hard cash, prefer negotiating a barter, or get paid in sausage and fireworks, compensation is generally agreed upon as a motivator when considering work. Artistic expression doesn’t necessarily presume cash rewards, but successful artists support themselves somehow; We all gotta eat. In my mind, a tenant of success as an artist(another essay for another day), involves sustenance doing the creative work that you choose to engage. To satisfy the Fair Compensation standard, one simply has to be able to do the job presented without feeling that your time and energy is being taken advantage of. Creating a task based rate schedule for the types of services one provides insures that when you get the call for the gig, you can make a confidant quote as to what your service costs, or accept/reject/negotiate the job based on what is offered. Although it isn’t all about the money, you’ll always feel better about the job when the bread is there.
2) Am I having fun?
Enjoying your work goes along way, and I wouldn’t have gotten into art/music if I didn’t love it. Not every job is pleasant though, and when considering a gig, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to not consider how it will effect your attitude and stress level. If time after time you find yourself doing a job and feeling like shit afterwards, something is wrong with the equation and you should think about how to minimize the stressors, or when circumstances are untenable, eliminate the gig.
3) Am I working with people I enjoy being in the same room with?
Although potentially a factor in question 2, this point deserves consideration of its own. We are social creatures, and no matter the job, it is likely that you will be interfacing with a variety of clients, team members, audience members, and managers/planners/organizers depending on the kind of work that you do. Some of these people make your work easy, pleasant, and artistically satisfying while others will seem to stop at nothing to piss on your parade. Your happiness will suffer if you can’t answer yes to this question; while some of these people are unavoidable, building your team/band/staff around good people is imperative.
4) Am I making good art/doing good work?
There is nothing more frustrating to me than pouring time and energy into something that never had the chance to be good. Gigs come to mind where walking in, I knew the drummer can’t keep time, the sound guy is on another planet, the timeframe for completion was unreasonable, communication about expectations was unclear or nonexistent, the equipment I’d be working with is sub-par, or the client that is micro-managing my operation is clueless. If I am not able to deliver a product that I’m happy putting my name on, I’m misrepresented and my brand suffers. Sometimes all you have is your integrity, and if you know that the resources, preparation, personnel or know how for a quality operation are not in place, stress is guaranteed, and the likelihood of walking away feeling good about the gig is lowered.
4b) As a corollary to point 4, the question “Am I learning to do good work/am I practicing skill sets vital to my art?” is worth consideration. In my opinion, one of the reasons doing work within your field is so important is that you’re getting paid to practice in real life environment. I’m constantly learning new techniques, getting exposed to new applications of an old process, analyzing a style of music with which I wasn’t familiar, exploring new software or tools, and being forced to come up with creative solutions to problems in real time, all of which directly inform my future projects and processes, and allow me to bring my new knowledge/work flow back to my art.
Money, Fun, People, Quality… beyond these four pillars is an umbrella we’ll call wildcard: extra-monetary compensation. This is the broadest category, but certainly not one to be overlooked. In my line(s) of work, it could mean an especially advantageous networking opportunity, a notch on the bedpost of your resume, doing an important person a favor for which you’ll have some credit coming, playing a venue you’ve always wanted to play, sharing a bill with someone you’ve always wanted to play with, or any number of less tangible benefits that impact the bottom line of your total satisfaction with your work.
As a rule, I try not to accept any gig with less than three of these things present. Sometimes a double dose of Money or “Wildcard” makes a gig worth my while, but I can’t think of a better gig than one in which I’m being paid well to enjoy making good art with fun people.