In January of 2015, Sports Illustrated laid off the last of its staff photographers. Despite the fact that the legendary magazine built its business on images of live sports events, S.I. no longer employs any of these creative professionals. It’s far from the only company or brand to do so. Many news organizations, such as Huffington Post, create hundreds of thousands of articles every day, none of which are written by employees.
So, here’s the question: Is it still possible to have a creative career? The answer is yes, but it’s a little trickier than it once was.
Creative professionals, from graphic designers to writers to photographers are no longer typically staff employees. They have become, whether willingly or unwillingly, part of the gig economy. If you’re thinking about making a living as a creative, it’s important to understand how the marketplace works, so you don’t end up working for free.
First, let’s talk about why organizations have moved away from hiring creative professionals as employees. It’s not because you’re particularly hard to work with, or even that you’re too expensive. Imagine for a moment how Sports Illustrated had to work when they employed photographers. There might be 20 or 30 sports events happening around the globe on a given weekend. To cover them all, the magazine would have to schedule its talent to travel to all those locations, capture all those photos, and then bring them back to the home office to curate them. That was expensive and time consuming, and it limited the number of events the magazine could cover.
By shifting to freelancers, Sports Illustrated could pay local talent (minimizing travel costs) to shoot events, and then pay for just the photos that they wanted to include in the final magazine. Sure, the price of each picture went up substantially, but, overall, the modified process offered a big cost savings.
The downside is for the many photographers who would shoot photos (using their own time and equipment) that Sports Illustrated would then not be interested in printing. These folks would make nothing at all. It’s easy to become frustrated if you’re on that side of the equation. But, it’s pretty unlikely that the market is going to shift back the other direction, so how do you survive and thrive as a freelance creative?
Know your customer
There are all kinds of creatives in the world, and all kinds of businesses that need creative work. You just need to find the right clients. If you’re a graphic designer, find a focus area. Do you create infographics? Online course animations? Logos and branding materials? Focus in on the type of buyer you work best with, and then create products and services for that market. The more targeted you are, the more easily you’ll find work.
Showcase your work
If you haven’t already done so, reserve a domain name. It can be your name (if it’s available), your business name, or anything else that’s available. You can use a portfolio website such as Wix or Squarespace, if the idea of building your own site from scratch is terrifying. Put your best work on display, and then share it out on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, and anywhere else you think your customers might be looking. Basically, you want to make an impression.
Understand the system
Working as a freelancer is different from working as an employee. If you don’t know the difference between a 1099 and a W2, it’s time for a visit to your friendly local CPA. Get comfortable with the nitty gritty of self-employment so you don’t get surprised by a big tax bill or by not having all the right insurance.
Be cautious of marketplaces
It may be tempting to throw a profile up on 99Designs or Fiverr, or Freelancer.com. These sites promise clients, but they put you in competition with the whole world, including people who are not living in a high cost area such as Boston. You’re better off building a network of prospects in person by going to networking events than trying to sell what you do on a global marketplace.
As an employee, you have the luxury of getting paid whether you are busy or not. Your company assigns you work, and you do it. As a free agent, this is just not the case. You have to actively market your skills, find work, and then get it all done.
Life as a creative professional can be tough. If you’ve never done it before, you might want to do it as a side hustle first, and see if you can find enough clients to survive before you ditch your day job. But, if you truly love the work, there is still plenty of opportunity out there.