The word “freelance” comes from a two-word term used to describe medieval mercenaries or knights – their “lance” was “free” in the sense that they hadn’t sworn loyalty to a specific lord or realm, and therefore their warrior services were for sale to anyone willing to pay. Over time the two words got joined together and eventually became used to describe any self-employed independent contractor who is engaged as and when needed for a specific job or project.
Most of the sound engineers I know, myself included, operate almost exclusively on a freelance basis – it provides us great freedom to work on the projects or with artists who really interest us, but this freedom comes at a cost. You quickly need to develop a range of administrative skills that not only help in doing the work but also play a key role in securing the work in the first place. Let’s take a look at the various non-sound related skills that all freelancers need to master.
Passive & Active
Arguably the most important skill to develop is the ability to sell yourself; unfortunately, technical people tend not to be good sales people so this can be a challenge. In an ideal world, the hope is that the work speaks for itself – as long as you produce the desired results while getting along with everyone, the recommendations should come flowing in and you’re never struggling to make ends meet. However, in reality people have short memories so it’s often necessary to keep reminding them not only that you exist but also that their project would suffer from your absence, or that you bring something special that other apparently equally qualified applicants can’t.
This can be both a passive and an active process. Passive options include maintaining an online presence that highlights your work and promotes the “brand” that is you through a personal website as well as social media and networking outlets. Simple things such as posting photos of the work you’re regularly doing as well as referencing the daily challenges and obstacles you might encounter create a melange of background material that can easily be seen by anyone – including those all-important prospective employers.
Active approaches revolve around a skill that is core to being a freelancer: networking. The music industry still thrives on word of mouth, so networking is vital; simply put, the more contacts you make the easier it becomes to find work so it’s important to not only cultivate but also to actively maintain a solid network of contacts.
Anyone at any level in the industry could be a potential vector to work so treat everyone you encounter with respect, be they a roadie, band manager, tour manager, musician, label rep, promoter or just a friend or associate of any of the above. It’s also a good idea to maintain contact with other sound engineers – most of the work I get is from other sound engineers that work with multiple artists who find that certain dates clashed so they need to pass some of their work on to someone they trust.
Be aware that if you plan to work in any of the creative industries you’ll inevitably find yourself in a buyer’s market, the work is generally considered to be glamorous and desirable so there will always be more applicants than jobs. When you’re starting out, employers may attempt to exploit this imbalance in a number of ways, such as expecting you to work for nothing, offering minimal fees, not covering expenses, require you to work long hours or endure less than favorable working conditions or requirements.
Such things are unfortunately inevitable so apply careful judgement as to whether it’s worth it; some less than attractive situations can still be a good way to gain experience, build a reputation and/or make contacts so each opportunity needs to be thoroughly evaluated on its own merits. Many of us have had to work through this difficult period of our career, and all I can say is that if you can stick it out, the rewards that eventually come are worth it.
Navigating A Minefield
Once the job offers start flooding in, the next important skill to develop is contract negotiation. In my experience it’s rare to be offered a formal written contract of employment; most contract negotiations are done over the phone or in person and certain assumptions are inevitably made, which can be dangerous territory in the current climate of constantly constricting budgets.
Therefore it’s always good to follow up such conversations with an email where you get all the key conditions of your employment down in writing for the other party to agree to (and thus be held to in the event of any dispute). Once confirming you’re available, the first thing you typically negotiate is your fee, followed by the rate for daily expenses (known as per diems or PDs). Some people like to lump these two monetary sums together in one single payment but I always try to keep them separate – the fee is your wage (paid at the end of the job) and PDs are for daily expenses (ideally paid in cash weekly), so keeping them apart will certainly help when it comes to filing your tax return.
Depending on the scale of the production I may then go on to discuss conditions such as whether I’m willing to share hotel rooms (nobody likes to share but being willing to do so might well secure more work), whether I’m expected to drive (and if this involves an additional fee), whether I’m willing to travel on budget airlines (the cheaper costs inevitably involves more hassle for the traveler) and what my luggage requirements are (everyone should have a personal bag allowance but you might need to bring equipment as well).
How hard you push on these topics depends on how strong your negotiating position is as well as some understanding of the budget involved – there’s no point insisting on first class travel if you’re working with a new band who are hoping to pay for the van fuel by selling t-shirts.