OK, so Black folk on Twitter illuminated some stuff for me today — namely that a lot of people think it’s completely cool that some media platforms don’t pay their writers…you know…because “freelance”, and “business”, and “tech gotta grow.”
I’m still thinking a lot of it out, but for sure, there’s too much confusion around what freelancers are, and not enough questioning around how profitable organizations relate to those of us who produce.
If you’re a freelancer, or considering freelancing (or know someone who is) please read this all the way through. The stuff I’m going to talk about touches on precisely why you should charge for your services, why you should charge more than the going employed rate, and why it’s your responsibility as a freelancer who’s serious about their career to continually develop your skills.
Who Deserves to Get Paid
The battle over whether creative work deserves to be compensated will probably never end. You can make high-minded arguments about the purity of art and the corruption of capitalism and blah blah, but here’s my hard line on this…
If labor of any kind — creative, emotional, or otherwise — is contributing to an entity that generates monetary profit, it should be compensated monetarily.
That might seem like it has little to do with defining freelancers and interns, but hear me out.
As much some people like to say that business is objective and repeat the idea that “the only color that matters is green”, that’s all a lie*. History continues to remind us of this. Managers, businesses, industries, and economies decide the value of labor and contribution, frequently by arbitrary standards. If you have ever even thought that Black people have to work twice as hard for half, or believe that a race or gender pay gap exists…if you’ve ever even simply been frustrated by that coworker who makes more than you for doing less work or just schmoozing with the right crowd, you acknowledge this too.
What this means, is that we all work to survive in a world where the value of our labor isn’t directly tied to the actual results of that same labor. So when it comes to compensation (title, vacation, and that all- important social construct, money), there’s a ton of room for arbitrary and biased games. Since humans are human, we’re then left navigating many environments where certain classes are expected to contribute to various organizations, institutions, and yes, businesses — environments where huge portions of the actual compensated value of labor is left to individual and societal biases.
A more severe form of this was going on behind capitalism’s use of racialized slavery — devalued Black labor that was stolen and demanded, yet with no consideration for compensation (that would have required acknowledgement of the humanity of enslaved people, but that’s a conversation for another site.)
The Freelancer Question
So what’s that got to do with freelancers?
Well, the “gig economy” is blowing up, and from what I can see, it’s just starting to take hold in Black circles. What concerns me here is that there is a growing misunderstanding (not only among Black people) around what freelancing actually is.
The “free” in “freelancing” does not connote a new class of worker that does what they do for nothing more than a come up. It simply means uncommitted to an employer. It was originally used to describe mercenary-types who’d work for the highest bidder or whomever they decided. There was nothing “free” about it.
Even today, companies and organizations hire freelancers for a reason that has nothing to do with discounted labor.
Your Relationship with Employers
Typically, the employer/employee relationship involves some money paid plus a bunch of other “benefits”. You’re familiar with those — health insurance (in the U.S. and a few other places), time off, training…sometimes education. All those things cost employers, which is why freelancers can be so attractive. We offer a chance at skilled production without all the drama of training a new hire, paying their health insurance, buying them supplies and a computer — employers get the results of work without any of that commitment.
This is why when you approach a company as a freelancer, part of what you’re doing is explaining why you’re a better choice than them investing in an employee. It’s why you have to prove the benefit you bring. It’s also why you charge more than you would as an employee — you’re convenient to them and as we know from that ridiculously expensive convenience store gallon of milk, convenience costs.
Freelancers — professionals who require little training or investment — are almost the opposite of inexperienced, raw interns. But all that gets tossed out the window in an environment where companies have discounted and exploited labor basically written into their business plans. It’s easy for them, and society as a whole (because you know we’re good for deciding how we treat people based on how they make their money) to see both of them as interchangeable opportunities for discounted labor, especially if the existence of a long-term relationship to an employer is considered inherently superior.
The Problem for Writers (and Maybe Photographers…and Possibly Designers Too)
All that applies to most freelance and contract folk regardless of whether they’re accountants, engineers, or web designers. In the world of “new media” though, things can get tricky.
Most of the media platforms you see online, especially the ones that don’t pay their writers and contributors (feel free to name and discuss in the comments…open discussion of the Black freelance experience is what this site is about) are putting off solving a very real problem they have. They still haven’t figured out how to turn a profit from the content they house. This is why they turn to contributors who’ll be satisfied with little more than a byline and bragging rights.
Instead of taking their lumps and creating a revenue model that works (hard based on content alone), they’re using the weight of their brand (and the promise of some attention) to get people to produce for them…for free. (Side note: This is why I personally stay far away from the journalism world as a professional writer and instead stick with businesses that aren’t in denial about how their industry makes money.)
Don’t get me wrong — it is PERFECTLY fine if you want that byline. If you want to write for free and dream of seeing your name up on a site, you have all my blessings…but I’m not about that life, and this site is for freelancers who want to get paid for the skills they’ve developed and what they produce with them. Sometimes, this might mean low pay (especially when starting out), but in a career as a freelancer, it’s real hard to make the case for free work that’s worth it, especially since there are so many organizations out there looking to exploit, and freelancing relationships don’t have the same networking return on investment that interning does. (I say this as someone who interned for free to kick off their employed career.)
Freelance Isn’t Free
Freelance Isn’t Free is a movement and a hashtag for a reason. We contribute to businesses and just like everyone else, deserve compensation. What worries me though, is that Black freelancers, writers especially, face additional expectations to work for free because of fictive kinship, feeling they need to support growing Black businesses and brands, or buying into the entrepreneurial machine. Support who you like…share content, donate, click on ads…just don’t stake your career on someone else’s dream.
*If you’re a freelancer and hear someone repeating that phrase, you might want to consider making some professional distance, because that person might not be on your side when it comes to you getting paid or honestly, helpful at all in your journey to build a mindset where you truly value the work you produce.