21st Century Freelancing, Same as 20th Century Freelancing

By | Tuesday, February 27, 2024 Leave a Comment
I've seen/heard a few pieces lately lamenting the state of being an artist online in 2024. The basic gist of them is that you can't just be an artist. You need to build an audience so that people will see your work, but to build an audience you need to do all these non-artist things to get the search algorithms to work for you, and you spend so much time and effort learning how to do that -- and then maintaining that audience once they come! -- that you're barely doing any of the art that you wanted to do in the first place. I've seen it mostly in terms of comic artists, but it no doubt applies to musicians and writers and anyone else pursuing a stereotypically creative freelance career.

I sympathize with the people making these complaints. I specifically went into corporate America for a job in large part because I did not want to deal with and learn all the crap that comes with being a freelancer of any sort. I was a graphic designer at the time, and I knew that if I wanted to work as a graphic designer, that meant I would have to be in corporate America. If I were to go freelance, then I'd have to learn how to market myself, how to track down clients, how to sell all the benefits I could bring, how to manage budgets, how to negotiate payments, how to juggle invoices, how to set up and handle insurance, how to do tons of things that are very much NOT graphic design but are absolutely essential to doing that work. So I must admit I'm a little confused as to why they're bringing it up now.

When I made the decision -- and it was indeed a conscious decision -- to pursue a corporate career instead of a freelance one, that was back in the mid-90s. The web was barely a thing, so I didn't have to think about social media or any the bullcrap that comes with that, but I was keenly aware that while I would likely have less creative freedom than if I were to try freelancing, that was the price of not having to deal with a bunch of non-graphic design crap. That was the price of seeing the clock roll around to 5:00 and taking off for the evening, knowing that I did not have to worry about whether I had enough time to finish that one project until 8:00 the next morning at the earliest. That was the price of knowing I would get paid at the end of every two week period without having to pester anyone about it. I could still do freelance work if/when I needed some extra cash, but rent was taken care of by my day job.

And I knew all this because, starting in the 1970s, my father started working as professional magician as a side hustle (obviously before "side hustle" was in the common vernacular) and he would do shows for schools and libraries, and the occasional birthday party. He worked side jobs because he needed money to support a family, but he chose magic because he loved performing it ever since he got a magic kit as a kid and was able to stymie his mother with some sponge rabbits. But to be able to get in front of people to perform, he would spend hours sending out fliers, developing booking sheets and contracts, juggling calendars, looking up directions to one-room libraries in obscure towns and villages hours away... all in the days before he even had a computer! If he did 100 shows over a summer (I know he did more than that some years and less than that in others; I'm going to use it as a rough easy-math median) each at 45 minutes (his usual show length) that's a total of 75 hours performing. If the shows were on average an hour away (he traveled all over the state; some places were 15 minutes away, some were 4 hours) that's 200 hours of driving. We're already looking at only 27% his invested time doing the thing that he actually wants to be doing, even before we address anything to do with sales or marketing or contracts or anything.

Now clearly, that was a different time and a different market. Just as it was a different time and a different market in the mid-90s when I joined the work force. Not harder, not easier, just different. But the basic idea of doing a bunch of shit you don't want to do at the time and expense of the thing you do actually want to do is part and parcel to the job of a freelancer. I recall my father complaining about that back in the day and, as he got older, he more often questioned whether the joy he got out of performing outweighed all the extra crap he had to do in order to perform. I know many of my peers who did go into freelance graphic design work right out of college later expressed dissatisfaction with the non-design aspects of their work, and a few eventually decided it wasn't worth it and took corporate jobs.

I don't say all this to dismiss the people today who are complaining about having to do a bunch of work unrelated to their main passion in order to pursue that passion. There are absolutely some bullshit issues they are having to deal with in terms of managing social media and SEO and working towards the whims of ever-changing algorithms and all that. There are aspects of that I have to manage with my day job, and literally every day I talk with SEO experts who openly admit that they're at best making half-informed guesses on what to do in order to improve search rankings or improved conversion rates or whatever. And if experts who expressly do this for a living don't have any real answers to this kind of thing, I can't imagine how difficult it must be for people who are trying to draw comics or create music or write or whatever creative vocation they're pursuing. It is extremely difficult, even if you are trained for precisely that sort thing.

I just don't understand why it seems to be a thing people are talking about now, as if it's new. Even setting aside some of the old bullshit my dad had to deal with in the '70s because technology fixed many of those issues, the current concerns about social media and catering to algorithms go back at least a decade. YouTube launched in 2005, Facebook and Twitter in 2006, Kickstarter in 2009. Amazon bought comiXology ten years ago. There's an entire generation of webcomikers today who've grown up in an environment where webcomics were not only a proven viable career path, but where there were books published about how to do it. (Not a lot of books, mind you, but more than one.) Every creator under the age of 35 has been dealing with exactly this for their entire career, and every creator ever has had some version of it, so why bring it up as a sort of new-sounding existential crisis today in 2024? It's not that it's not a discussion worth having, it's just the framing of it as a new problem that I don't understand.
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