As a freelancer it’s easy to lose heart when things aren’t going your way, but, says Ben Tallon, you have to keep on keeping on
They come over your horizon with lively introductions and towering compliments. They come with tantalising murmurs of everything on offer in the absence of payment. The bastards are everywhere, wanting you to work for free…
With every new unemployment record smashed, they multiply like fruit flies. Then you’re skulking round Asda, checking there are no neon-green shirts that will see you rip the stalk off your broccoli to save less than 20p of unnecessary weight, and you wonder how it came to this.
When the wall of water hits your window in another bleak recession summer, tempered only by the rumble of the boiling kettle, it hammers hardest against the freelancer’s morale. You’re fighting hard, clawing at the door of anyone who might have a budget. From your bedroom, you nudge those clients a touch harder and more frequently than you might have four years ago. None of this is your fault, but all the same you’re trying to stay one step ahead of the swarms of angry competition in the Darwinian jungle that used to be the arts. We’re on the edge. It’s survival first, maybe progression if you’re savvy. One wrong move and your income is subject to review by the soul-crushing dole-bots down Jobcentre Plus.
Last summer, I was walking down Market Street, Manchester, with my head up my arse, despondent. This was only the second time in six years that I had considered quitting, tempted by the apathy of my former retail employment instead of my current overdraft romance, now eight years strong. Then this one lad, he bowls across the street, not 20 yards from me, arms out at his side, picks up a rock and hurls it through the shop display, the 12-foot grinning fashion model folding on impact as the glass sprays all over the pavement. In moments, his cardboard grin will be on fire and on the BBC news, and you realise that if freelancers channel their aggression a touch more positively, creatively, wisely than this, then we can survive and get back at the pond life that caused this economic mess.
The hope is that you hit the right inboxes, at the right time, in this harebrained carousel of speculation that is freelancing. It’s an .html minefield beyond that monitor. You have to be ever more robust in your methods of wooing clients, and that’s just the start. What happens when you read through the freelance contract and some slippery fucker has invoked a clause that will see you hand over full copyright for a tiny fee? Do you back down and take the money because United Utilities have timed the water rates to sordid perfection, or do you get angry? Challenge it? It’s a tough decision and it’s not one that education prepares you for.
And then there’s the madness. When you spend your lunch break alone, at home on Mumsnet, an online denizen of mothers – because that’s where Google took you when you asked if eggs six days past their sell-by-date would kill you – something has to give mentally. It was never meant to be like this. Before my first run of regular clients and a few decent fees, before all this, I started travelling on trains, buying the Specially Selected groceries and drinking European lager – and you get used to it. For a sweet moment there, I was within touching distance of those college dreams, roaming my own urban studio space, like you imagine Damon Albarn does under the Westway.
Since the Tories squirmed back in, the arts have become nothing more than a means of ticking Old-Clown-Shoes Cameron’s boxes. It’s a constant fight to stay inspired when you’re back to planting empty Special Brew cans next to you on the 4am Megabus in a pathetic attempt to secure a double seat. You just have to become expert at wringing everything from the positives when they’re not as plentiful as they once were. You’ll find galvanised creative responses visible only in a recession. We’re going through a time of diminished budgets and revolutionary shifts in the way we communicate. It’s all about adapting to survive in the age of the creative entrepreneur.