Moving into the world of freelancing can be daunting. It’s a world where there are no set rules of time versus pay commitment, it often feels as if people expect too much from you for too little return. Early on in your freelance career, it can be tempting to accept any offer of work that comes your way. It can also be hard to know how much to charge for your time, and difficult to weigh up the pros and cons before saying yes or no to a job. I want to share with you some of my experiences of moving into full-time freelancing, with the hope that you can learn from some of the mistakes I’ve made over the last few years and discover how to feel confident knowing your worth as a freelancer.
I’ve been working freelance in marketing and events for the last four years, becoming fully self-employed in 2019. Having previously worked in salaried roles, the transition to self-employment was a tricky one. I fell into the habit of accepting any job that was offered to me, even if the jobs were poorly paid or not paid at all. I quickly realised that not only was this financially unsustainable, it also meant I was taking on more work than I could manage. I would end up working long days, seven days a week just to stay on top of my workload. It eventually reached a point where this approach was no longer manageable; I was burned out, not making enough money and I no longer had anything that resembled a social life. This realisation caused me to re-evaluate the projects I was working on and helped me to consider jobs more carefully before accepting work. There are a few key factors I now take into consideration before taking on any new job.
The big one: Pay
You’d think it would be a given when someone asks you to work for them that they would pay you fairly for your time, but too often this isn’t the case in freelance. It’s easy to find yourself in this position whether you’re a musician who is expected to play a gig for free, or a photographer asked to work for ‘exposure’. I know when I started out I was working on far too many projects without being paid. I’ve learned to avoid this by being straight up with my expectations for pay from day one. Sometimes it can be uncomfortable; talking about money is always a little awkward, but as a freelancer you have to get comfortable talking about money or you will find yourself in situations where you are not getting paid enough for your valuable time. Trust me, if you clearly communicate your expected fee early on it will avoid a lot of awkwardness further down the line.
Before you can be confident knowing what fee to ask for from a client, you must work out how much you need to be charging per day to make a decent annual income. Take a person in a salaried role making the London Living Wage of £10.75 per hour as an example. If they worked 37.5 hours per week, they would earn £80.62 per day or £20,962.50 per year before tax. However, as a freelancer it’s not as simple as charging £10.75 per hour for your time. A salaried person would be paid for their holiday time, their employer would contribute to their pension, and they may receive other types of compensation – a freelancer will not receive these benefits from their clients. You may also have overheads that a salaried person would not have such as studio or office rent, subscriptions to services such as Adobe Creative Cloud or Squarespace, and bills like Wi-Fi or mobile contracts (make sure to account for these costs in your tax return at the end of the financial year). Also remember that freelance work comes and goes, there could be weeks when you are incredibly busy and weeks where you only have one job; you must allow for this ebb and flow of work, especially early on in your freelance career. There is no fixed amount I can tell you to charge per day/gig/job, and your fee will naturally increase as you gain experience and clients, but you should take these factors into account when quoting for a job. Do some research into the going rates for your particular skill set, and charge a competitive price accordingly.
I would also recommend discussing pay with your friends, colleagues and other people you are on good terms with. Ask them how much they are being paid for work, especially if you are working for the same client, or playing a gig for the same promoter. There is too much secrecy around pay, and this can often lead to incidences of businesses and promoters getting away with paying less to womxn, people of colour and LQBTQ+ people. It’s important to start normalising the discussion for the benefit of everyone.
Make some time to sit down and do the math to work out how much you really need to be charging to turn a profit. If a client is asking you how much your time will be this means they are expecting to pay you, so do not offer to work for free, even if it’s a project you’re super excited about! Be prepared to present a cost to your client when they ask for one, whether this be a fixed fee for a project or an hourly rate.
Managing your time
It’s good practice to lay out your expectations in terms of the time you’re willing to commit before accepting a job, especially if you are receiving a fixed fee for a piece of work. What seems like a simple job at the outset, can quickly evolve into a huge commitment, with lots of back and forth between yourself and a client. When setting your fee at the start of a job, allow a contingency for extra hours that may be necessary to complete a job to a standard you are proud of. Don’t put out subpar work purely because you didn’t measure in additional hours for amendments, delays and other discourse between yourself and a client. For example, if you’re a designer make it clear to your client how many revisions you’re willing to make on an artwork before you accept the job. Let them know that if additional amends need to be made, your fee will increase accordingly. Jobs rarely run exactly to plan, and it’s good to be prepared for that.
It is also important to get a full outline of your client’s expectations of you, so you know what is and isn’t your responsibility. You can then refer to these initial expectations if a project ends up developing into something bigger and more time consuming than you originally anticipated. I’ve worked on projects that were quite small and clear cut to begin with, but eventually morphed into much larger, ongoing pieces of work. This can often be very exciting, especially if it’s a project you’re passionate about, but you must remember to check in with your client if this happens and communicate that extra time spent working on their project means your fee will increase accordingly.
Trust your gut
This really is the biggest bit of advice I can give. If a project seems like it’s going to be a nightmare from the get-go, it probably is. If it feels like someone is purposefully underpaying you, they probably are. It is ok to say no to a job if you have a bad feeling about it.
On the flip side, I’ve been in situations where I’ve known the other person approaching me for help is working with little to no budget, but the project has been something I’ve been really inspired by, so I’ve made the informed decision to help that person regardless of the fee involved. Presumably if you’re working in the music industry it is because you love music, so it shouldn’t be solely about money. If you are in the position to offer assistance to someone who’s work you respect and who needs your help, you should do that, as long as it’s not to your detriment! A favour you do for someone will likely not be forgotten.
The irony of writing this piece during a time of massive uncertainty for the arts and music industries is not lost on me. When jobs are few and far between it is tempting to take any job you are offered, but remember your time is still as valuable now as it was pre-covid. Any time you spend working on someone else’s project is time you could spend working on something for yourself.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to setting your rates or knowing when to accept a job as a freelancer, but I hope I’ve at least given you some food for thought. If you have any questions about traversing the freelance world, please just drop me a message on Instagram and I’ll be there to help.
By: Kira Radley
Commission Mission was created by Young Guns Network and London In Stereo to commission 20 new and experienced freelance writers to create articles to inspire, inform and entertain young people in the music industry who are struggling during Covid-19.
The supporters who made this project possible were Association of Independent Music, London In Stereo, Musicians Union, Motive Unknown, PPL, Remi Harris Consulting, Small Green Shoots, Young Guns Network, Youth Music.