Tips on managing a precarious freelance career

When life is a constant job interview, these tips on managing freelance precarity can ease the stress.

COVID did many things. However, one thing it especially did was to highlight the precarity of freelance and gig work within the arts, design and culture sector.

Many freelancers were forced to find work elsewhere. Others prevailed (barely).

As the sector springs back, we have approached freelancers working in various ways across the arts, to share their learnings and offer their key tips for managing the precarity of a freelance career.

David Walters, Brisbane-based Lighting Designer

David Walters offers an important piece of advice: ‘Once you have agreed to do a gig then it deserves your 100% commitment, no matter how big or small, or high or low profile the gig may be. Your reputation is integral in getting your next job and it is vital to “grow” your reputation.’

Be uncompromising in striving to do each and every job to the very best of your ability.

Walters believes that it is important to ‘remain inquisitive, read widely, understand your tools and keep abreast of all the latest developments,’ to keep getting work.

And when you are out there navigating the gig economy, his advice was: ‘If you do not have, or choose not to have, an agent there are some very useful guidelines to learning to negotiate. Firstly, always read your contract well. What is said and what is written don’t always correlate.

‘Secondly, when negotiating, the creative artist must take a back seat and allow the business manager to take over. Learning not to take management’s efforts to minimise your fee personally, and being confident of your own worth are hard lessons to learn.’

He also pointed to the more obvious need to have good communication skills, adding the clarification: ‘Learning to communicate and genuinely understand what colleagues and fellow artists are trying to say is vital. Learning to listen and communicate well with a wide range of other practitioners is an asset. The nature of our work requires being able to communicate at sometimes profound levels, while fellow collaborators can often become lifelong friends.’

Rachael Dease, composer and sound designer

Rachael Dease told ArtsHub: ‘Freelance work can sometimes have the benefit of flexibility and a little more freedom, but it’s a strenuous way to build a career.’  

At a certain point, when you do get multiple projects there is a constant time tetris.  It’s tough! And being a parent really compounds all of these stresses as well.  

‘When I’m feeling overwhelmed I remind myself that I’m not curing cancer, I don’t have people’s lives in my hands – just do my best and stop catastrophising,’ she said. ‘Always ask questions regarding what is expected from you and what you need to deliver and when.’ 

Dease’s key piece of advice, however, was an accounting one: ‘Always invoice early, have a pay-by date included in the invoice and request to know when payment will most likely occur when you send it. 

‘This can often save chasing up payments and helps with budgeting.’ She added: ‘Add your superannuation details in small print and include that in the invoice. Make sure you know your rights regarding Superannuation!’  

She also said not to be afraid to talk to your trusted peers and colleagues about how they handle financial conversations regarding fees etc. ‘It can be a bit daunting at first but most likely everyone will feel a bit more empowered.’

High on her list also was: ‘Prioritise your mental and physical health. Whenever I feel intimidated, undermined or need a confidence boost I whisper to myself “I’m not here to f*ck spiders”.  It’s a great six-word self-pep talk!’

Kate Larsen, Arts, Cultural and Non-profit Consultant | Arts Manager | Writer 

‘One of the first lessons I had to learn in balancing client-work with my own creative practice was that sticking to strict work days wasn’t possible,’ says Kate Larsen.

When projects came in and when they are due are completely out of my control. I had to both get comfortable with this uncertainty, and book time in to write when I can, while trusting enough that the next job will come.

Like most freelancers, Larsen told ArtsHub that she found fluctuating cashflow a much bigger issue, ‘than hitting my annual income targets.’

She continued: ‘Be up front with your terms and conditions, and make sure the client agrees to them before you start (even a reply to an email can be a binding agreement). My quotes, invoices and email confirmations say I expect payment within 14 days, and that – as a freelancer – if I get sick and can’t finish a job, the client still has to pay me for the work I’ve done so far.’

And when clients don’t pay?

Larsen said: ‘I had to become confident of my rights in chasing up those payments because there are a shameful number of arts orgs and publications who don’t pay artists on time.’

And her hint for survival: ‘If you can, set up a sneaky bank account you can pay into during the months you’re flush with money, and pay yourself out of when you’re waiting for cash to come in.’

Bill Haycock, Brisbane-based Theatre Designer

Along with having designed hundreds of theatre shows (drama, dance, music, opera and musicals in both sets and costumes) Bill Haycock has designed related work such as museum and gallery exhibitions, major events, fundraising dinners, awards ceremonies plus private events and parties.  

Diversity, diversity and diversity!  When you start a freelance arts or design career, do anything – or at least consider everything.

His key advice is: Try to get some other skills – such as graphic design. A great thing to fall back on.

As a Graphic Designer Haycock takes on performing art and visual art related work such as exhibition design, adverts, brochures and programs, plus logos and signage. He also is qualified to teach, which adds another employment stream. 

Lee Kofman, author

As the author of The Writer Laid Bare, Imperfect, and The Dangerous Bride, Lee Kofman knows what it is like managing life and work between books.

Kofman says: ‘My best tip is very unsexy, but, in my experience, it works really well to get maximum work – be super organised as well as systematic in your search for work.’

She breaks it down: ‘Decide what people/organisations/networks etc. you are targeting, then prepare an excel spreadsheet or, if like me you’re IT-challenged, then create a table in Word document. Once you did this, cast your net as wide as possible and list everyone you’d like to contact.’

Kofman says this takes a bit of research, but it is an investment of time into your freelance career.

She advises that as you approach those contacts, ‘record the date of the approaches and who you contacted there [if an organisation or company], and note in your diary when to follow up.’

She also said to make a note how they responded. ‘Keep recording the correspondence between you and that organisation/person, including the jobs you possibly will get, [is important] so that you can keep approaching them in the future but also without ‘crowding’ them.

‘In my experience, such lists help maintaining long-term working relationships and a more or less steady flow of freelance jobs,’ said Kofman. 

Chloé Wolifson, arts writer, researcher & curator

Chloé Wolifson says that one of the slippery slides as a freelancer in a precarious market is self-worth.  She says: ‘Value your work. Use resources like MEAA and NAVA to give you confidence when accepting a gig or setting your own rates, [and] increase your rates in line with your increasing skills and experience.’

Follow up on unpaid invoices, as many times as it takes; it’s important that freelancers are not used as a line of credit.

Wolifson called on a piece of advice that has helped her juggling a freelance career. ‘I always try and remember this advice from Neil Gaiman: People keep working, in a freelance world…because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three.

‘Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.’

Her final word was to ‘be open to every opportunity. Left-field work opportunities which may seem unglamorous or unaligned with your goals, [but] do have positive effects in the medium – and long-term (provided they are fairly paid). These gigs build your skill sets, knowledge and networks, leaving you better equipped to plug the gaps on the freelance rollercoaster ride.

Doug Wallen, an arts writer

Doug Wallen’s advice is simple, but one we often forget to do.

‘Whenever you’re looking at how much a job pays, you have to consider how long it will actually take. That may sound obvious, but there are definite quicksand moments of spending far too long on something that’s not worth it,’ he told ArtsHub.

And tips for staying focussed as a freelancer: ‘Compartmentalising is a must. You will often need to change gears at a moment’s notice, especially when urgent rewrites and/or extra edits are required.’

He also added to his list: ‘Most important is morale: make sure that you’re enjoying what you’re doing, and that you’re not burning yourself out purely for the sake of a bit more money. That, also, is not worth it.’

Cassie Tongue, Freelance critic 

Cassie Tongue has written reviews for Guardian Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Saturday Paper, and often has several gigs on the boil at once – including full-time work to take the urgency and stress out of freelancing.

Her best tip for managing precarity, ‘is to de-centre it (which I can do because I have steady work), to build community and connect professionally with people in the field through interest groups, social media, and at industry events, because fighting the people around you for work tends to just make me miserable.’

She continued: ‘Being around people who are working in similar ways, in the same field, is a great source of inspiration and motivation, and removes the isolation and also the sense of competition from precarious freelance work.’

There’s room for not just your voice, but the voice of others too.

‘We all benefit from opening these insular spaces up to others,’ Tongue said. ‘Celebrate other people’s successes, mentor and share tips with people starting out, share ideas, and recommend people for work when they’re a better fit for the job at hand than you are. Work is work; people are the beauty of it all.’

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina