There’s been a lot of talk recently about how freelancing and independent art “should” work. From discussions about intellectual property rights, to ethical business practices, to dealing with clients who don’t pay their bills, it seems that everyone has an opinion on how it “should” be and there’s not a lot of agreement on how to get there.
These conversations are important because they have the potential to really change how freelance business works.
It’d be nice if we could embrace a couple pithy slogans about the changes we want to see and boldly go forth to fight the good fight and realize our dreams! Huzzah!
“Stick to your guns!”
“Creator owned or I don’t sign!”
“Down with faceless profit hungry companies!”
It’d be nice if doing these things actually worked, but, in my experience, they don’t.
They don’t work because they require you to seriously commit to a position. And as we all know, positional negotiation unnecessarily limits your options for solving problems.
But the alternative of interest based negotiation doesn’t have magic answers either.
For instance, here are two pieces of interest based negotiation advice that I hear fairly often:
– Negotiate a solution for the relationship you have, not the one you wish you had.
– The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result.
I like both of these pieces of advice; they each make sense to me and offer that easy to remember golden nugget of advice to follow when the going gets tough.
But how do you follow both? How do you make realistic plans that work for the power dynamic in the relationship that exists and endeavor to create a business environment that is more just in how it rewards work ?
A lot of people would tell you to figure out which of those two interests is most important to you: the safety of consistency or the possibility of change. And then they would tell you to choose: follow the advice that matches your primary interest. “The contract may suck but if you don’t sign it, you don’t work.”
I don’t think this is inherently bad advice; I’ve even given it on occasion. But it’s not satisfying advice. It makes a very grey issue black and white and suggests that there’s an answer. It’s advice that denies the essence of the problem, which is that it is confusing and complicated with no clear answer.
In situations like these, we need to avoid making the complex simple. The suggestion that there must be a choice between work and progress turns the problem back into one of positions. It suggests there is a correct choice and feeds the idea that those who disagree with our preference are stupid or greedy or shortsighted. They must not “get it” because they don’t agree with us. When we start thinking about the people we’re working with in those terms, we do serious harm to the possibility of finding a workable solution.
I don’t have the answers for what to do in every situation, but I do have some ideas on things you can do in how you conduct your personal business that can help you avoid the false choice between work and progress. I really do think you can do both.
Choose your partner wisely. As much as it may not feel like it sometimes, you have a choice about who you work with. You hire the client just as much as they hire you. So choose wisely. Understand the difference between working with an individual and working with a company. If your contract is with the company, it doesn’t matter how nice Fred is; the company is your client and the company is the one you need to evaluate.
Take risks with people you trust. You will work with some people that you trust and others that will keep you on your guard. Only take risks on the things that you love with the people you trust. Share the projects that are closest to your heart, that mean the most to you, with people and companies that you feel will respect your work and your desires for that work. Don’t give your most favorite creation to the work made for hire client or to the client that you know has screwed over other artists. You can still work with those people, just don’t take risks with them.
Protect yourself with tools you can use. It’s great that you have the right to sue if they screw up, but if you know you can’t afford an attorney when you sign the contract, that right to sue isn’t a very helpful tool. That doesn’t mean you cross it out of the contract (please, don’t cross it out); it means you make sure there are other tools in the contract that you can use. Like withholding transfer of the intellectual property until the final payment is made. Or requiring a deposit of a portion of the costs when the contract is signed. Or having the rights automatically revert to you if they don’t make use of them in a particular way within a specific period of time.
Know how each job supports your goals. You will have shitty jobs. Jobs you hate with people you don’t like for not a lot of money. It is much easier to get through those jobs if you know why you took them in the first place. If you take a job to pay the rent, it is not a job that is there to make you rich and famous. If you take a job to work with a client or collaborator you admire, it is not a job that is there to pay the rent. Knowing why each job is important to you and your goals can help sooth the disappointment when the job doesn’t end up supporting a goal you didn’t expect it to support in the first place.
Don’t be afraid of walking away. Company X has a business practice that puts their freelance artists at considerable risk, but they claim it is “standard” and won’t change it. Do you know why they can claim it is standard? Because no one ever says “No.” If Company X can’t get quality artists to agree to its horrible business practice, Company X will eventually change said practice. But for that to happen you have to be willing to walk away from crappy deals and say “no” to harmful terms. And you have to encourage your peers to do the same. It has to start somewhere; it might as well be with you.
These are my ideas; what are yours? How can we avoid thinking we’re stuck with a choice between one or the other? How can we secure work we want to do and encourage change in our industries?