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So you think freelancing could be for you, but are you clear about the importance of networking, fee-setting and admin? Lucy Tomlinson offers some guidance on what to expect.

Photo of someone writing at a table.

In the light of the findings from the ArtsPay survey 2018, and if you recently read this commentary, you would think that no one in their right mind would willingly embark on a freelance career in the arts at the moment. You’d be looking at stagnated or wildly random pay, as well as a working life of precarious security, antisocial hours and non-existent regulation.

You may share your daily fee and never hear from them again

Yet, not economically surprising, the number of freelancers is widely reported to have grown rapidly in the last decade with no sign of abating. For a few, the lure of being an entrepreneur will be strong. For most, the reasons to take the plunge into self-employment will be more practical. It may be to support and supplement other work (often in the arts) or to navigate the complexities of caring responsibilities.

Identify networks

Finding work is of course fundamental to being a freelancer, and before you steer a course down the road of self-employment, now is the time to consider your networks.

If you are starting with years of experience, you are likely to have strong connections in the sector, possibly even a professional ‘tribe’. Now is the time to call on them and tell them you are freelance, you need work, you need them to proofread your website, you need invitations to events with opportunities to network, and you need them to remind you that you have those years of experience.

If you don’t have those initial connections, skip straight to the networking bit to find them. Ah, networking: an uncommonly awful affliction of the freelancer. Don’t get me wrong, I like meeting new people. I also like industry discussion and the ignition of ideas that could become something bigger. But I don’t like going on my own to a party that’s not really a party and making uncomfortable small talk with people who are only there because they want to speak to the one person in the room we’ve all heard has ‘budget to play with’.

Talking about money

Still, if done well, you’ll find yourself into advanced networking territory. Essentially like an uncomfortable first date, you need to get to know each other, find common ground, decide if you’re going to meet again and, if so where, when… and for how much money. And here endeth the dating analogy - it’s time to talk about money.

This is a potentially awkward conversation. You may share your daily fee and never hear from them again. But make confidence of your worth your constant companion. Before becoming self-employed it’s crucial you are clear about your financial bottom line and how you are going to achieve it each month. Something that is no mean feat when your fee isn’t necessarily the same for each job and the window of payment from clients can be vast.
The instability of payment for freelancers looms large in current conversations about sector pay. The ArtsPay survey draws particular attention to this issue and makes for a depressingly recognisable read. Certainly among my peers who freelance, we have unanimously shared experiences of awkwardness and confusion over fee-setting, working over and above the fee and chasing for payment.

After a particularly sticky and prolonged payment chase, one of this group now issues a simple contract and payment schedule for work. This seems profoundly sensible, even basic advice for a freelancer but, perhaps tellingly, this is not a person who works in the arts. I’m bracing myself for some more ignored emails, but I’m getting the template and I’m adding this bit of admin to the ever-growing list of things I didn’t do in my permanent job but I need to do now.

Doing the admin

It’s a big list though, and if ever a freelancer needs to adopt a power stance and some positive self-talk it’s in this category. Core offer aside, you will become a master of the multiple skillset.

You, as a freelancer, are an organisation of one. You are the administrator, the finance department and the marketing team. You’ll be jumping through HMRC hoops and have a spreadsheet of your invoices while nonchalantly building your snazzy (basic) website (while youtubing ‘how to’ videos).

While we’re being positive, let’s also note that there can be wonderful opportunities for variety and flexibility in your working life. With intimate knowledge of the reliability of WiFi in your local cafés, and the ability to work when others sleep, it is possible to fit your work around other commitments. With drive and determination, there are amazing new partnerships and projects to be conceived.

You are an asset to the sector and, in return, the sector needs to fundamentally understand that the freedom of a freelancer isn’t a whim for most. It’s a complex melding of passion and practicality. To thrive as a freelancer requires support, a little luck and a professional environment that truly values your contribution.     

Lucy Tomlinson is a freelance arts professional based in Hampshire.

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