My Year As A Freelancer

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2017 was my first year as a completely freelance musician, however I kind of crashed my way into it without really thinking about how challenging it would be.  In hindsight I probably should have devised a plan, but I’m glad I didn’t think too hard about it, because 2017 was also the year I decided to dive head-first into an extremely challenging personal project.  I doubt my plan would have included such a time and emotionally rich investment, yet The Song-Chain Project turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. 

If you were reading my blog while I was working on the Project you’ll know that I stopped in July.  I was really hard on myself for quitting, yet again with hindsight I see that I should have been much kinder.  The year was bound to be difficult, and if I’d been expecting challenges I might have been more prepared for them when they arrived.

This post by Brittany Bathgate came to me through the Women Who newsletter, and this quote really stuck with me:

“the mental, physical and financial challenges that come with working for yourself is a huge topic, but discussing it and overcoming the battle in small chunks is better than brushing it under the carpet entirely."

When I ended the Song-Chain Project I absolutely brushed the challenges of freelance work under the carpet.  I tried a few times to articulate what made me stop, in draft blog posts that remain unpublished.  The closest I came was this interview with Nikos Fotakis, although it doesn’t really touch on the financial and emotional challenges of freelance work that put an end to the Project, and that I have spent the last six months addressing.

I like that Brittany’s post talks about some of the things she’s done to make her life as a freelancer easier, and so I think I’ll follow her lead.  These are a few things that have helped me in my first year of freelancing, and I hope they give you some ideas if you’re struggling on your own freelance journey.  I’ve opened comments for this post, so please get in touch with any questions or thoughts on the topic.

 

Create a freelancer’s Fuck Off Fund

In our Mind Over Myth chat, my friend Emilee Seymour talks about freelance work being “feast or famine”, and this has been the most difficult aspect of my last year as a freelancer.  Taking inspiration from Paulette Perhach’s Fuck Off Fund, I now have a separate bank account that I use as my freelancer’s Fuck Off Fund.  Having a small financial safety net has been a wonderful weight off my shoulders, as I know that I have the money to cover my living expenses should something happen that means I can’t teach or perform.  It also lets me spend time working on projects that are for creative fulfillment, rather than immediate financial gain, without feeling guilty or stressed about where my next paycheck is coming from. 

To give a practical perspective, I made a very detailed budget for my personal and business expenses (including yearly expenses like car registration or instrument insurance that always seem to pop up at the most inconvenient time), and worked out my weekly cost of living and running my freelance business.  I now transfer this weekly amount into my Fund, trying to keep at least four weeks ahead.  My aim is to eventually be three, or even six, months ahead, which would give me a lot of freedom to work creatively, and to build my career in the direction I’d like it to go.

 

Take a break from social media

I realised through The Song-Chain Project that I don’t have a very good relationship with social media.  I feel much happier without it, when I’m allowed to just hermit myself away and work on creative things, but that’s not a very good way to build a career as a creative freelancer.  When you work by yourself at home you can easily fall into unproductive scrolling habits, not to mention comparisons with all those other freelancers who seem to have it together and are experiencing all kinds of wins in their careers.

I did take a break from all social media for several months last year, and since returning I’ve been trying to manage it better.  I’ve implemented a “dump and run” strategy, so posting what I need to post and then getting straight out of there.  I can log in at a later time to interact with people and respond to any interaction on my own content.  I like posting right before I have to go teach or rehearse, that way my mind is instantly occupied with something else.  I have also been using an Android app called Offtime to restrict my access to apps for parts of the day.  When it’s running you get a nice black screen that says “Relax, your device is at peace”, and that really does make me feel much calmer and ready to work.

 

Make time for exercise

Like Brittany, I have been exercising much more than I used to.  Swimming is my favourite, as I find that I don’t think about anything but the rhythm of my (not very graceful) swimming stroke while I’m in the pool.  The past few months have been busier than usual, and so I haven’t found much time for swimming, and I am noticing the stress creeping back.  To get back into routine I’ve made an appointment with myself for a Friday evening swim, and I recognise the need to prioritise physical activity in my routine, even when it gets crazy.

 

Increase your prices

I think figuring out pricing is difficult for any new freelancer.  Our prices often don't reflect the work and expense that actually goes into delivering a service.  I make an income as both a private music teacher and a freelance performer.  Both require me to maintain my instrumental and vocal skills, prepare material, engage in my own professional development, and do the boring admin stuff like invoicing, corresponding with clients and other musicians, and marketing.  I also have limited hours each day to teach and perform, with after work and weekends being the prime time for both.  I recently revisited my prices to better reflect the time and work involved in what I do, and it has helped me stop taking on too much in order to make ends meet.  It also gives me more freedom to work on my own practice, which in turn makes me both a better teacher and performer.

 

Make time for daily practice

I’m not sure how freelancers in other industries feel about this one, but for me daily practice on my instrument or composing is essential to my sense of self worth.  Recently I’ve been caught up in the admin side of releasing a record, and practice and writing have taken a back seat.  Today I picked up my bass and had a play, and I was struck with how good it made me feel.  Working on something new gave me a sense of pride and achievement that I don’t have when I’m heavily engaged in pitching and promoting my work.  Working as a creative freelancer means giving ourselves the space and chance to do what we love.  Making music is what I love, and so the other work I do needs to facilitate my being able to do just that.