Freelancing with Sanity – a quick guide to be an awesome respectable badass

For the past 5 years I have been freelancing as a sound mixer and now exclusively as a sound editor & designer. If you had at least one client as a freelance artist I am sure you know already at least a couple of pitfalls to avoid.

The freelancing life can be great if you are the type of person who likes to have control over your own schedule and make your own deals with clients. However, this requires not only an incredible organisation but also a high level of integrity and bad-assness. For me, even when I thought I had it all figured out, I still burnt out and learned many valuable lessons looking back at it.

If this blog post is going to give you, freelancer, a a-ha! moment I will be very happy with the perspective of helping you, but it might also mean that you have not been playing your cards the best way you can. But no one did and we can always learn and change for good.

Now – less talk and let’s go straight to what matters. And with this…

  1. All the talk with your client is paid work. If the client calls you to discuss something, if you send and read emails, every minute is accountable. Make sure your client knows this. Often clients ask how long a certain task is going to take. Include these discussions / conversations in your report (more on that in the next post); typically I budget this under “sound supervision”. Do not ignore this rule for your own sake. Once you start tracking the time of these innocent calls and emails, you’ll see how easy you spend 30 minutes a day or more. Just think this way: if you work employed in an office, you are being paid for the hours you are in it, either you are editing or meeting your client, right? Be good to yourself and treat your freelance work the same exact way.
  2. Write an agreement and make sure the client has read it. This is to protect YOU. In this document you will be clear on the hours / days estimated to complete a project the way it has been discussed in that moment. This is to say that if your client re-edits the film or decides for a new approach on a certain scene (which will happen 100’s of times) they will pay you the extra time not estimated initially. Do not by any means skip this. If you give your client hands free with their decisions, they will try all possibilities and beyond since they are very comfortable with the fact they don’t have to pull extra cash. This will even help them to be more concise and responsible towards themselves. Every time they try to pull over this line in your agreement, politely and firmly refer to your document. Don’t fall for any manipulative tricks and always keep being rigid with your standards. Being like this will never make you an unpleasant person to work with but you’ll be seen as very professional well-orientated artist. Would changes need to be done, add an addendum to your agreement and make sure the client pays right away.
  3. Demand payment in advance and the final amount on a given date. The fee you will ask to start with is up to you; it’s typical to ask for 50% and I would never go below 30%. Usually I write this first invoice with payment due in 10 days, as soon as the agreement has been accepted by both parts. If your client is not happy with this consider it a big red flag. I have seen many freelancing friends struggling to get paid at both stages of a project while trying not to get into a bad relationship with their clients. If this is something that you see yourself into (I have been there even recently) remember: a client that does not pay in time is not a good client. This client is not valuing or respecting your work, even if they seem to be the nicest people in the world. Do not ever be afraid to ask for your payment – it’s your right and you are not a slave to anyone! I’ve heard some people say that this is the way freelancing is and that we need to get used to it. Don’t fall for this! EVER! A though like that is wrong at all levels: personal, moral, ethical. Think: integrity. Demand integrity from the people you work with and be the biggest example you can think of. And do not mistake being demanding and assertive with being impolite, crazy or hysterical (specially if you are woman and / or unprivileged social-economic class and /or immigrant, etc. …………………. you will suffer much more from this brutal prejudice). As for the second part of agreeing being paid on a give date: even if it sounds a little unreasonable just remember about all those projects that were suppose to get approved and finalised in November, but then it got post-poned to February and finally the client’s client has been quiet so maybe you’ll get an answer in April. Meanwhile your well deserved payment is vanishing in the air. Include this in your agreement over a predicting date for final delivery. If a terrible delay like this happens and you end up working beyond what you already had, simply add an addendum to the document so you can ask for the extra work’s payment once it’s finally delivered.
  4. Ask for a confirmation when you email your client your invoice. This has happened to me twice; even though I sent an email with the subject “Invoice / work xxxx / 20180621” I had them saying later on they haven’t seen the email with an invoice. Just add a line to your email saying “please confirm the reception of the invoice”. Simple. You can even instal an extension to get notified when someone opens your email.
  5. Define your working strict schedule and do not engage in contact with your client outside this time. You will be perceived as an organised, honourable professional. I had clients calling me Sunday mornings to ramble about their film. No! Just no!!

Adittional and not so in-your-face tips for yourself

From my experience, the film industry is filled with big egos (I have one myself of course). It’s perfectly fine to accept this but learn how to handle it. The past year I learned about personality types and manipulation techniques. This helped me immensely to detect dishonest people; I am not saying that your clients will always be like this, but it’s also natural for people to step in your toes if they feel you are giving them that space. Do not by any means allow friendship to flow and blend with your work. It’s very natural to become personally close to someone you work for a long time, but this shouldn’t ever exert exceptions and prejudice in your work. You are a professional in this situation and not a friend.

Do not get personally involved in a film. For directors in specific, a film is their baby – not yours. Red flags? When a director refers to their project as “our film” and ramble endlessly about it. Conversations about it are very natural but understand when it’s time to talk and when it’s time to work. Be strict while always being polite and kind.

The way a client approaches you is fundamental for you to determine what kind of person they are and what are they ethical values. Some years ago a sound supervisor with some relevance in the industry called me out of the blue (we didn’t even know each other but had colleagues acquaintances in common). In the first 3 minutes of that phone call he told me how expensive was to hire people and studios in the UK and how he needed to save money. After much blah blah blah that included insulting his former dialogue editor, the proposition was that I’d work for him for free to prove my worth with the faint promise I would maybe get paid work in the future. I say fuck that. Do not be afraid of saying no – you have nothing to prove to anyone but to yourself. Don’t get illusional by the status of these sort of people, don’t let them manipulating you into anything. If it helps, put it in another perspective and imagine that a good friend of yours is telling you about the situation: what would you think and how would you advise your friend? In another words – be the best friend to yourself.

Sounds harsh? Don’t think like that! It’s work, you a are a professional connected to your work deeply if you are an artist, but you are always a person before, during and after. You can (and should) be kind and nice to be around with. When I have meetings with my clients at my working space, I’m sure to spoil them with a nice environment, coffee, tea, good snacks and a good introduction talk. This is the moment where I feel I can connect to them beyond work and show them the pleasant person I am while I get to know them. Besides that, work work work! You can still be goofy, funny, crazy or even shy – whatever you are, but be strict.

Will you lose some clients? Very likely. But if you always act polite and on a very good ethical base (and of course – do a great job!), they will never have anything to throw at you. This will give you all the space to return the responsibility on them, have they been rude or unfair. Learn how not to care what people think of you. I might be an idealist (I am!) but I strongly believe if you keep your fair position in the game, integrity will always win. Now this can sound dramatic or romanticised but it helped me to think the following situation: one day I will be very old and understanding my life is reaching the end; I am then looking back at the stuff I have done. What will I regret? Bowing my head down to a shitty person or keep my head up?

I’d be very happy if you can comment your own thoughts – either you agree or not. Tell me what tricks have helped you going through tough jobs, tough clients, mistakes you made, victories you had, things you earned, things you lost.

9 responses to “Freelancing with Sanity – a quick guide to be an awesome respectable badass

  1. Good post! Making all the mistakes of freelancing can very easily turn someone into a very cynical person — something I’ve tried my hardest not to become.

    • Thank you Micael! How do you think we can become cynical? I understand we might come across as such when we get very down to earth and strategic by protecting ourselves but not actually getting there. I know very negatives thoughts about people / clients cross our minds which is only human though.

      • Okay, so let me rephrase:

        If a freelancer doesn’t follow the kind of strict guidelines you’ve written about in this blog post, and constantly compromises on them – maybe because he’s new in the game and is afraid to scare a client away; or because his personality type tends more towards the agreeable instead to the confrontational side – then he will, personally, pay a high price. Cynicism will be one of those things.

        So yeah, doing the stuff you’ve written about may feel uncomfortable and sometimes counter-intuitive, but the consequences of NOT doing them are so destructive that they will guarantee a failed (or at least unfulfilling) freelance career in the long term alongside a deteriorated personality.

      • Yes, I see! I completely agree. To be honest at times I almost had to move towards a line of thought that felt close to being cynical, which was a horrible feeling, but as you say, a result from not being as strict as I should have been and getting burnt out in the end. For me it feels like a small deviation from sanity as natural as it is to fall into these mistakes.

  2. I love this post
    It is very complicated to fulfill these rules in my country but I try to fight for it in each project .
    This is how things should be
    Thank you for sharing

    Pablo Aset

    • Thank you Pablo! I understand circumstances can make it more difficult sometimes. Hopefully you have a community you can rely on even if it’s just to rant out or seek advice. All creative freelancers are in the same boat and I love to read advice and stories on how to handle this sort of situations and clients. A lot comes down to understand our worth and be fearless while always being kind and polite. Have a wonderful weekend!

  3. thank you very much Melissa.
    I love when you can read and interact with freelancers from other countries and see how things are out there forming community.
    I notice big differences when I do a job for outside my country. Good weekend for you too.

  4. One thing I learned is to keep a written record of all phone calls and in person conversations. After discussing any subject I like to write a quick email with what was said and agreed, I learned that this avoids possible arguments about the work.

    • Thank you Sérgio. This is indeed useful for unstructured clients and also for the ones who bounce their ideas on and off a lot if you are working on a package price (which I think it’s a bad idea in general).

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