The Downside of Freelance Nation

WITH all the hype around the go-it-alone/ “free-agent” lifestyle and the new economy, it’s refreshing to see a sober, well-balance piece about making a living as a freelancer. Though it’s not specifically about the creative class, Tiffany Hsu’s story on freelancers and the “gray economy” in California is crucial to understanding where cultural life is heading.

The story begins with an anecdote:

A short gig doing security for the True Blood television show. A stint driving for a rental car company. A week as a customer service representative at a retail store.

This is how Delvontaie Antwine, 34, makes do in California’s economic recovery — earning a few scattered paychecks a month from odd temp jobs while living with relatives in Silver Lake.

Then it quickly gets into the big picture. Part of what’s valuable about the article is the way it gets behind wh200px-Nolan_Ryan_Tiger_Stadium_1990_CROPat seem to be cheery employment numbers.

It’s a purgatory sometimes called the gray economy. Although the official state unemployment rate dropped to 7.4% in June, 16.2% of Californians — or about 6.2 million — were either jobless, too discouraged to seek work, working less than they’d like or in off-the-books jobs….

Often, though, such workers are toiling without job security, benefits or career development opportunities.

“It’s pretty dismal,” said Economic Roundtable researcher Yvonne Yen Liu. “It leads to high rates of poverty and income inequality, and it doesn’t bode well for our ability to get back on our feet and be a prosperous region.”

Near the start of my creative-destruction series for Salon, I wrote a piece on “the gig economy”; an edited version of it will be part of my upcoming book, Culture Crash.

I’m a freelancer myself, and not by choice. I’ll acknowledge here, though, that for some, freelancing — playing music, acting, running a one-person design firm — is the best and most creative way to work, especially if you tap into a deep-pocketed steady revenue stream like Hollywood. But for many of us, it’s a rough way to make a living.

 

 

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Comments

  1. says

    I enjoyed your Salon article. Is it realistic to even expect to be paid for genuinely creative work in the so-called high arts (or even in many of the popular arts?) I think of how Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime, The Red Vineyard, for 400 Francs a few months before his death.

    The New Mexico Symphony went bankrupt a few years ago. The musicians in the orchestra were poorly paid. Tutti strings received about $5,000 to $7,000 per year and the solo positions around $15,000, but at least the musicians had contracts, guaranteed incomes, and some minimal benefits.

    After the bankruptcy, the musicians collected enough money to buy the orchestra’s small inventory (music, music stands, podium, etc.) and reformed as the New Mexico Philharmonic where they no longer have contracts and are simply paid by the service. All the musicians, are in effect, just doing a gig. Without union protections, this would probably happen to most regional orchestras. It isn’t all that long ago that even major orchestras worked on a per service basis with no job security at all.

    Both the NYC Ballet and the San Francisco Opera plan their seasons to last just long enough for the musicians to be able to collect unemployment. Unemployment benefits are literally used as a method of arts funding in the USA.

    Miami has a metro population of 5.5 million but does not have a fully professional orchestra. The Florida Orchestra was intentionally bankrupted by its board and replaced by a regular guest series by the Cleveland Orchestra. The Cleveland Orchestra thus became a scab orchestra.

    To make matters far more complex, orchestras, such as they are, are about the most secure job a classical musician can have, but in general they aren’t very creative. The main core of their literature is about 150 years old and the performance practices are highly standardized.

    Younger groups doing more experimental things and with virtually no income or job security are far more creative. In music, there is usually an inverse relationship between creativity and job security/income. Can we reasonably expect anything else? This isn’t artist-in-the-garret romanticism, it’s just social reality. And judging by van Gogh, it’s not a new problem. It’s an old problem being made worse as we return to the forms of unmitigated capitalism that were common in van Gogh’s 19th century. If culture doesn’t crash in such a society, it will only be because of the indomitable spirit of people like Vincent. But isn’t that kind of spirit more likely to be crushed under our totalilzing capitalism and cultural isomorphism than at about any other time in history?

    • MWnyc says

      Quick note, William: The bankrupted orchestra in South Florida (Miami-Fort Lauderdale) was the Florida Philharmonic. The still-functioning Florida Orchestra is in the Tampa Bay area.

      I know; it’s confusing. To add to the confusion, the Florida Times-Union is the local newspaper for Jacksonville (which is, surprisingly to many, Florida’s largest city)..

  2. says

    This part of the comment intrigues me the most

    It’s an old problem being made worse as we return to the forms of unmitigated capitalism that were common in van Gogh’s 19th century. If culture doesn’t crash in such a society, it will only be because of the indomitable spirit of people like Vincent. But isn’t that kind of spirit more likely to be crushed under our totalilzing capitalism and cultural isomorphism than at about any other time in history?

  3. Neil McGowan says

    I am a freelancer by choice. I combine several professions in which I am expert. I am lucky enough to have more offers of work than I can handle, so I can pick and choose my assignments. Just this morning I had to turn down a large project for next week – I have better-paying work already diaried.

    I can make my own financial, health and pension arrangements, and work whatever schedule works for me. I would never go back to having a “day job”, not even if it paid better (which it didn’t).

  4. says

    Some freelancers do fine, and prefer the freedom. I applaud anyone who can make a living in the arts, culture, or journalism. But these people are the exception, and current trends make it harder every year for those without trust funds or the equivalent.

    • Neil McGowan says

      [[ make it harder every year for those without trust funds ]]

      For those of us not ‘blessed’ with an Ivy League background, there is an alternative to “Trust Funds” – it’s known as “work” :))

      In addition to all the stuff I do within the remit of my professional activities, I do at least 4-5 hours of bread-and-butter slogging every day – often until 2am or 3am. It’s what pays the bills. It’s not unpleasant or morally-dubious work, and I don’t feel compromised by it – I am properly paid for what I turn in, and my colleagues respect what I do for them. They even take an interest in what I do “in real life” too :) It means that I’ve at least managed to move my “day job” to being a “night job”, and I have a broad raft of clients – so I am not beholden to a “boss”. On several occasions the “raft” has buffered me against the closure, winding-down, or unexpected termination of a source of work – that would, in an “employee” situation, have left me jobless.

      I’m sure I’m not alone in this! :)) And on the topic of my geographic location, it’s more a question of timezone in many cases. “Neil, can you do this for us by tomorrow morning?” is a frequent question – and since I’m in a time-zone many hours away, the answer is usually “yes”.

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