Billy’s Freelance Survival Guide – Celebrating Independence Day Weekend

During this American Holiday Weekend of Independence Day, I thought it might be a good time to talk about artistic and creative independence. Pulled from many emails and conversations I’ve had with colleagues over the years, let me present, Billy’s Freelance Survival Guide. Perfect for celebrating Independence Day Weekend, no matter where you are on this spinning blue marble.

Evergreen Park Illinois July 3rd Fireworks 2014

Evergreen Park Illinois July 3rd Fireworks 2014

In this guide, I’m going to discuss a few main topics:

  • The importance of getting new work out there
  • Using snail mail, email and social media to promote yourself and which might be best for you
  • The importance of using social media to post interesting things that aren’t annoying
  • Why posting personal work can be more beneficial than posting only your past client work
  • A review of the various social media sites and which ones you might use to keep your name in your clients’ news feeds
  • Why it’s important not to steal music for your personal films and demo reels
  • A few general business practices to keep in mind for your freelance business

There was a time, not so long ago, that in order to interact with the world and potential clients with your art or art related business, you often had to be in the same room with them. Sure, phone calls and shipping portfolios and demo reels to potential clients was the common and acceptable practice, and often still are. But the chance of someone outside of your immediate location simply randomly discovering you through your work was much more challenging than it is today. We’re lucky these days.

I remember shortly after creating my first website way back in the mid 90s, my mind was blown when I got an email from Australia commenting about my photography. Suddenly, I was able to reach people on the other side of the world. People I’d never met and would probably never meet. Something we take for granted today, but at the time, incredible. But there it was. My world was no longer only the city I lived in. We were all just beginning to break the bonds of our immediate physical world. I’ll never forget that day. It changed everything for me.

But of course, just because we can put our work online to be instantly available to anyone with an internet connection, it doesn’t mean the work isn’t going to be lost in a sea of images and sounds that are populating the online world in staggering numbers that would have been unimaginable even ten years ago. It’s very noisy out there on the tubes.

The first rule of Freelance Survival is: You need to find creative and clever ways to keep your name and your work regularly in the minds of your clients and potential clients.

Before I get started, I certainly don’t pretend to have all of the answers to the World of Freelance. I’m not quite an expert, but I’m getting there. I have been a salaried/commissioned staff artist for more years than I’ve been freelance. But there are things I’ve learned being on both sides of the fence that continue to be useful in surviving in the freelance world.

For whatever reason, for about two decades, I also seem to be one of the first stops for colleagues looking for advice who find themselves either thrown into the freelance pool, not by their own choice, as well as those that decided to take the leap into the deep end on their own. I was mentioning that to a producer friend of mine of other day who said, “Wow. A Billy Freelance Survival Kit. I might want one of those myself.”

So here we are.

My own jump into the freelance pool was primarily by my own choice for a variety of reasons that may not all apply to other freelancers. Everyone has different reasons. I thought about it for years before I made my jump. In short, I did it because I wanted to have more control over the kinds of work I was doing. I wanted to use more of my skillset with a larger number of potential clients and a greater variety of work. I could also see the writing on the wall that the industry I was working in, was evolving in a much more accelerated way than in past decades. Nothing in the creative business stays exactly the same. The traditional way of doing things, for better or worse, has been blown up. It was time for reinvention or risk a Brontosaurus-like fate.

Even being on a post-house staff as a film editor, as I was for about 25 years, there still required a certain amount of hustle and selling myself. Certainly there were what we called house accounts that could keep you busy when things got lean, but it was really up to each editor to keep their reels fresh, network with clients and come up with new ways to get your own clients into your edit suite. With Billy Sheahan Photography, which was a business I was running in parallel, there was even more hustle. No house accounts there. I was constantly looking for ways to keep buzz going in both of my endeavors.

Let’s start this conversation first by talking about getting your work in front of people. And although having a good, clean, regularly updated and easy to navigate website is critical in the freelance marketplace, it’s not enough on its own. You do absolutely need a place that’s your own where people can quickly look you over and see what you create and what you’re about. But what good is a website if you don’t give people a reason to visit it? And keep giving them a reason. Again. And again.

Unless your website is so mind-numbingly awesome that people decide to make it their browser homepage, which will never happen, you have to be creative in other ways to remind people about you. And it will never be only one way. At least not these days. Over the years I’ve used many methods to make sure potential clients don’t forget about me. In-person networking is still the best. But no one can be at every quality industry function. And there are only so many lunches you can have in a week. And in-person in multiple markets is impossible unless you happen to own your own plane. And if you do, my hat is off to you. Hopefully at least one of you is reading this in private luxurious comfort at 35,000 feet. Bravo to you.

For the rest of us, there are other ways that consume less jet fuel.

Many years ago, one thing that I came up to keep my name and work in front of people was sending postcards out, once a month, to a mailing list of about 400 people, to both my photography and editorial clients. There was a photograph on the front, and on the back, a few paragraphs long story about how the photo came to be. I got tremendously positive feedback from those postcards. Disposable art, I called it. But I found many art directors kept the ones they loved, tacked up on their cork boards. For years. Every once in a while I bump into someone who tell me they still have every postcard I sent out over the years. Quite a collection.

The main thing was, even though it was my photography, it didn’t feel like I was selling something, especially to my editorial clients, many of whom didn’t know much about the photography business that I was also running. It was simply a free little piece of art they could keep or throw out when the next one came.

I speak of the postcards in the past tense because after a time, the list kept growing and so did the postage and printing costs. And finally, I abandoned them for an email postcard, which worked well for a while and had the added benefit of people being able to click reply and make the conversation a two-way one. Eventually however, as I realized that my own inbox was getting so full of correspondence that even the email I wanted to receive was getting buried in a sea of noise, that method seemed to be not as productive as I was hoping it was. And since then I have cut back dramatically on my email blasts.

As a side note, I’ve since resorted to a wonderful email inbox taming solution which I wrote about last year. It’s called unroll me and I’ve, no kidding, recovered at least an hour in every day by having all non-critical emails sent to me only once a day with unroll me. Not being pulled out of my focus dozens of times a day by bouncing email dock icons or new email sounds is a huge plus in the productivity of my day. But again, now even the most beautifully crafted emails that aren’t from close friends or clients, get pushed into my unroll me single daily email digest. You have to be creating mind-blowing emails to get to the top of that noise pile.

But what I did take away from both my printed and my email campaigns was a simple crucial element that they both shared. And that was getting my clients to say my name once a month by putting something in front of them they actually were interested in seeing.

“Oh, look. Something from Billy!”

And it was something they did actually look forward to getting every month from the feedback I received. It wasn’t only the photographs, but they really loved the corresponding stories that I wrote. I spent a lot of time crafting both. But back to that Brontosaurus thing again. How we communicate with people evolves. And it’s good to reinvent how we do it from time to time. It’s not to say that sending a well-printed postcard or mini portfolio to a potential client is antiquated, or even that email is dead for that matter. In fact, since the idea of communicating with someone through snail mail is so seldom considered anymore, it is actually a novel way to get your work in front of someone. What’s old is new again. Any way to rise above the noise. The trick is to come up with a way to get your clients, both potential and those you want to keep interested, saying your name to themselves every week.

“Oh yeah. Billy! Ooh, he’d be good to bring on for this next project.”

Much harder now because we are all literally overwhelmed with the amount of people vying for our attention. We’ve all resorted to surrendering to the crush of our email inboxes to the point where even well crafted messages get only a second or two of eyeball time, and that’s only if they get opened at all, which is probably a rare thing these days.

Enter the most recent player to the attention-getting game, social media. And even social media is getting to be middle-aged. But the same rules apply. What message you’re putting in your bottle and throwing it out to the internet sea, has to be interesting and relevant to an even greater extent out there now than it used to be.

I still tell my television advertising clients that while we all want to create a commercial that hits all of their clients’ information bullet points, even when we accomplish that, we still have to get people to watch it. There are too many ways to not watch a commercial. TV remotes have been joined by web ad-blocking software as just two methods to avoid any sales pitch. I figure you get about three seconds to get people to decide whether they’re going to watch your message before they change the channel, or click on the next web page. Your message better be beautiful, or compelling or interesting or funny or at least something that doesn’t feel like advertising to get them to stay. It’s just like wrapping your dog’s medication in a dollop of peanut butter. The container of your message had better be delicious, or it will get spit out.

Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. Tumblr. LinkedIn. Those are the big ones. But many, if not all will be as distant a memory as Friendster is in time. Today, however, those social media giants are all really good ways to pop up in your clients’ daily feeds. That’s one of the tricks about staying relevant. Show up where your clients are. It’s the equivalent to bumping into them on the street. But there are a lot more streets and a lot more opportunities for bumping. The key is… and this is so important, I’m going to make it a new paragraph with a new heading…

Make sure what you’re posting on social media is interesting. And this should go without saying, also not annoying.

In other words, it’s a bit like, there you are, standing on the street and a potential client is walking toward you. In other words, you’re the next thing in their feed as they’re scrolling down. A great opportunity for an interaction. Do you whip out your wallet and show them a photo of your cat? Do you say hello and barely let them respond in kind before you start telling them about your latest masterpiece without at least hearing what’s on their mind? Are you being even remotely interesting? Or are their eyes glazing over looking for an excuse to walk away? It’s true, it’s nearly impossible to have a two-way conversation in every Instagram photo or news feed status update. But it’s not impossible to at least be interesting. Don’t be more noise. Don’t contribute to the dumbing down of the internet.

A wonderfully brilliant friend of mine called Colleen Wainwright, who many of my regular gentle readers will be familiar with, once told me, in order to be truly engaging and relevant in social media, whether it’s your blog or your Tumblr feed or on Facebook, you have to make it not always about yourself. In fact, very often not about yourself. You need to use your social media conversation to point out something interesting that you found that may be relevant to what you do. Or to talk about another artist who you find inspiring. Or share some of your knowledge. If you’re often posting information that people are genuinely glad to receive, something they can use or learn from or have a moment of useful enjoyment with (not guilty pleasure), then when you do get around to telling them about your latest masterpiece, it’s become a much more balanced and thoughtful conversation. They’re much more open to hear you toot your own horn because that’s not the only thing you do. They’re not sick of you.

Give it away. Give more than you take.

Let’s face it. Although it may not have started out that way, many of us use social media just as much for business, maybe more so, as we do to keep up with the handful of real friends that we have in our friends lists. Whether or not you actually have a dedicated Facebook page for your business or if you just use your own profile or blog to tell your thoughts to the world, it really is important to give back in a meaningful way, rather than to just be selling.

What’s an example of that? This. This is an example of that. Billy’s Freelance Survival Guide is a nice way to take some information I’ve gleaned over the years and put it out there in the hopes that some of this might be useful to others. Have I talked about myself in this entry? Sure. But only as a background of my experiences that have brought me to where I am today and why I do what I do. It’s much more of a me-you-you-me-you–you-me-you-you, than only a me-me-me-me-me fest. Hopefully anyway. Give your viewers some useful information and make it a habit.

A blog I wrote in 2010 about how to price photography which I updated with new information last year is consistently the #1 read entry of any blog I’ve ever written before or since. Sharing the information and giving back is always a good thing.

But Billy, I don’t have time or want to write 1000 words every time I have a thought.

No. Of course you don’t. Brevity has never been my strong suit. But that doesn’t mean even in 140 characters or less, you can’t be interesting or useful more often than not. And certainly you can choose 140 characters or less that aren’t annoying.

The internet never forgets, even when you have, during one of your epic blackout ragers.

We all have a, “I’m haaaammmmmeeeerrrrred!”, tweet or two in our social media pasts, but eventually we all learn to refrain from that sort of public embarrassment. Or hopefully we will soon before it starts to raise too many eyebrows.

Ditto for political or religious material, general life complaining that most of your “friends” or clients don’t really care about. If you’re using social media for business, keep it positive. I know I’m always tempted to weigh in on something in the headlines that truly bothers me. But unless there is no chance of clients or potential clients reading your updates (very unlikely), social media really isn’t the place to be airing your grievances about that sort of thing. Good, rewarding freelance work is too challenging to come by without the risk of alienating a potential client who may disagree with your point of view, especially if it has nothing to do with your work. Besides, it’s really none of their business what your allegiances are. Sure, we all want to work with people who share our leanings, but business is business. Some might call this self-censorship, but I prefer to think of it as, there’s a time and a place to speak your mind and if you’re using social media for business, perhaps that isn’t the place.

And sometimes, it’s just stupidity about what’s getting posted. Even at giant companies. The latest face-palm moment is the American Apparel Tumblr post that was supposed to be a photo of fireworks for the 4th of July, but tragically, according to a company spokesperson doing damage control, “a young employee who didn’t know about the disaster was responsible for the post.” The post being, not simply an unusual photo of fireworks smoke, but distressingly, a photo of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion from 1986. Perhaps you can forgive the young employee for not being born in 1986, but still, using a potentially copyrighted photograph without at least doing a little research about it or where he/she grabbed it from?

The bottom line is, you should begin to cultivate a sense of your readers looking forward to your posts. Interesting and useful. Never annoying. Or embarrassing. Everything you post should be, in some way, relevant to your work. About the brand of you. Without getting all corporate-speak on you here, as a freelancer, you are most definitely a brand. And it’s important for your brand to be something of value, something compelling, when your clients have many options of who to hire for their next projects. And how do you differentiate yourself from the others who do what you do?

Personal work. Quite possibly the best, most honest thing you can share with your audience.

For every rule, there is an exception. Because my personal work sometimes involves artful nudity, for years I kept my advertising clients shielded from that part of my personal work for fear that it might do exactly what I just described above. That it would alienate potential clients who after seeing it would not want to work with me. It was certainly a valid concern. And one I gave a great deal of thought to.

A few years ago, I was invited to exhibit some of my fine art nude photography at The Colonie, a Chicago post-house where I was, at the time, on staff as a film editor. Prior to that, it was like I was working in two completely separate worlds. I didn’t volunteer to my photography art clients that I worked in advertising, for fear I might be considered a sell-out in those circles. And I didn’t make much of a mention to my advertising clients that some of my photography contained nudity. It’s an American problem. Most of my advertising clients probably had no idea I also had a photography business. As I hung the show that was a 10-year retrospective of my fine art nudes, I wondered what would happen when these two worlds collided. I’d have my answer in a few days when several hundred advertising clients attended the opening night party.


Billy Sheahan Photography at The Gallery at The Colonie

Billy Sheahan Photography at The Gallery at The Colonie

I did have one agency producer tell me she was offended by my work, but she was a very distant exception. And in the past, I’m pretty sure I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t complaining about something, so I didn’t give it much weight. Throw out the highest and lowest scores, you know?

By far however, the reception I got from my work was positive beyond what I could have imagined. I was blown away by how well it was received. In fact, the very next week, I was asked to submit a bid to direct a television commercial for a major financial company. My photography on display clearly had absolutely nothing to do with the financial industry. But something about my art resonated with this producer. And more requests for bids followed. I came to understand that it wasn’t the subject matter of my photography that so many people found compelling. No, it was the fact that it was my most honest, personal work. Something I truly believed in. I had shown a roomful of advertising people a different side of the Billy Sheahan brand. Technically proficient. Emotional. Beautiful. Meaningful in a way that the television commercials on my reel never could. That was the last time I ever hesitated about putting my personal work out there for all of my clients to see.

Billy Sheahan Photography at The Gallery at The Colonie

Billy Sheahan Photography at The Gallery at The Colonie

And in the years since, I’ve found that showing the complete Billy Sheahan brand, including all of the personal work, my art nudes, my travel, my people photography, my personal film projects, it all resonated so much more than examples of the mainstream client work I had done in the past. Not really surprising in hindsight. People really want to know your truth. What inspires you. What makes you tick. The incredible added benefit of showing what you’re passionate about also increases the chances that you’re being hired because of your particular point of view. Your style. Your vision. What you might add to any project you’re involved in. They’re not just hiring a photographer or a director or a graphic artist. They’re hiring you for your you-ness! It changes everything.

Make lots of personal work and show it wherever you can. That’s probably the most important lesson I’ve learned over the years.

So what should your own personal Freelance Survival Kit include?

Some of these items are basic, but the reasons you may use them, or more importantly, how you use them may change.

Your website.

First, own your name on the web. Domain names are so much less expensive than when I first bought . And it’s okay to use a company name that you may use for your freelance business, but you should own your own name as well. As the industry changes and you continue to reinvent yourself, a company name or a name with a specific genre designation may not apply five or ten years from now. is fine if you’re absolutely sure that photography is going to be your only freelance career. But what happens when Jane takes up motion graphic design, or editorial? Going with instead is going to be far more versatile and future proof.

And unless you’re already web designer, my advice to you is to choose a template hosting company. Why not just code it yourself? Simply because unless you code all of the time, that’s going to be the bottleneck that keeps you from getting fresh work up there on a regular basis. That’s the biggest challenge for freelancers, keeping their websites current. As a freelancer, you’re going to have your hands full with marketing yourself, creating estimates and invoices, etc. Delegate what you can. Your website is one of the best places to do that.

In 2008, I gave up coding my own site because I’d have to take a week to relearn the web design software I only used a few times a year, every time I wanted to refresh my site. A huge waste of my time. And I’m not a designer, so my early websites were arguably, fairly amateurish. So six years ago I went with a company headed by a former photo editor, Rob Haggart,  who was sick of looking at bad photography websites and started his own company, aphotofolio, that created websites that wouldn’t annoy him. They continuously evolve their designs and services and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The blog that you’re reading now is created in WordPress, which comes with my aphotofolio site and uses a theme template called Full Frame from GraphPaperPress.

I know other freelance artists that use other website services, such as SquareSpace, and have nothing but good things to say about their experience with them. It really doesn’t matter what website company you choose to go with. Go with what feels best for you. The important thing is to make sure your work is prominently displayed, not only on desktop browsers, but also on mobile devices. And it has to be silly easy to update with new work.

Your email. Hopefully your professional email address doesn’t end in

It’s true. You can be judged by your email address. is waaaay more respectable than is okay, at least this year. But, or Yes. You will be judged. Plus, once you own your own name as your domain, you won’t have to worry about migrating all of your clients to your new email address when it becomes necessary to keep your creative dignity when you change companies or becomes as much of an industry punchline as . Trust me. Nothing cool today lasts forever.

Blog, Instagram, Behance, Tumblr, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook Page? Any or all?

The correct answer depends on what kind of freelance work you do. But even more importantly, how many of these places can you maintain at once with fresh content? And where are your clients hanging out?

A blog is a great place to show your clients a look at your process. How you create what you do. Why you create what you do. Explaining why you’re passionate about it. You can explain things in greater depth, giving viewers a more well-rounded sense of who you are. It’s also a great place to do that giving back thing I was talking about earlier. Just make sure you update it regularly. Nothing worse than clicking on someone’s blog and the latest entry is from 2012.

All of your clients are probably on Facebook. The social media platform we all love to hate. I look forward to the day when this won’t be the case, but for now, if you want to bump into your clients, you have to be on Facebook. A Facebook Page for your freelance business is probably a good addition. But even if you have a personal FB page for friends and family and an actual business page, you’re going to find it’s next to impossible to keep clients from spilling into your personal account and vice-versa. Are you going to want to risk the sadness of a client who you rejected a friend request on your personal FB account because he’s not a real friend? Nope. So the same rules apply on both accounts. Be interesting. Don’t be annoying. And don’t be embarrassing. There is really no such thing as keeping your personal and work worlds separate on social media. It’s all the same tubes.

Instagram. I avoided Instagram for years because it’s designed to only upload pictures from your phone. So I couldn’t easily upload my portfolio worthy work. Also, I watermark everything I upload to the internet, both with a visible watermark and an invisible Digimarc watermark, to track potential theft or use on sites I’d rather not be associated with. With Digimarc, even if my visible watermark is cropped out or resized by unscrupulous thieves, or on sites like Facebook that strip all of your copyright metadata away when you upload, there is still a way for any of my photographs to be tracked back to me. And I can also generate reports on where my images are showing up. Pretty cool, really.

But back to Instagram. All of your clients are on Instagram. And there are ways to upload photos and even little videos to Instagram without being locked in to only using their phone app. On the Mac, I use a program called Gramblr. I believe it also works on PCs. And just like any other social media, The bulk of what I post to my Instagram account (@billysheahanphoto)  is work that I want to get in front of my clients. Not what I had for lunch. And with Gramblr, I can upload finished portfolio-ready work, with watermarks. It’s just my way of controlling exactly what I put out there, exactly the way I choose.

Some people use Instagram brilliantly. I’m actually in awe of the photos they shoot with their phone cameras and upload. My designer friend Dave Brodi is one of those. Bottom line, if you’re a photographer wanting to get work in front of clients, Instagram is a good thing to be a part of.

Oh, and there’s a much better desktop website in terms of navigation and ease of use for looking at Instagram photos. It’s Iconosquare. Much less annoying and frustrating than Instagram. Bookmark it and you’ll never go back to the Instagram website again.

Behance is now part of the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, so if you have that, you have another excellent place to get your work in front of a very specific group that includes creative directors, art directors, graphic designers, anyone who uses the current versions of Photoshop, which many of your clients do, and who may have chosen to activate their free Behance account. Chances are people who are on Behance are not your friends from high school or your family, unless they’re in the biz. A smaller community, but perhaps a more useful one to get your work in front of.

Twitter is definitely reaching middle-age. But it still can be very useful even though it’s become incredibly noisy these days. Because it’s middle-age, your clients are probably here too. And your mom. But then again, your mom is also on Facebook. So there’s that.

LinkedIn. I’ll admit, that in less than a month after I signed up for my LinkedIn account, I landed a nice ongoing job from a client who found me there. That was back in 2008, but still, I do find LinkedIn to be a good addition to your freelance kit, simply because it’s only about business. No random friends. No cat pictures. Just those annoying endorsement suggestions, which, do they really mean anything to anyone? I didn’t think so. The written recommendations however, do lend an air of credibility. I find the best way to get recommendations is to give them. Sometimes you’ll get one back in return. But be honest and only recommend people who you genuinely admire. Otherwise it turns into the same worthlessness of clicking yes on the endless parade of Skills and Endorsements.

Tumblr is another way to blog pictures and video and text, but it has gone through some growing pains since it was recently bought by Yahoo. Many Tumblr users are not entirely happy with Yahoo’s meddling, but it does remain another way to get your work, both pictures and words, out to a wide audience. Tumblr is also one of the few major players that allows pretty much any legal content on it, although since Yahoo’s purchase you can’t as easily search for the naughty bits. But nipples and bums and even more can live freely on Tumblr, without the black censor bands that sites like Facebook and Instagram require. I mean, if you’re into that sort of thing. No judging here.

Google+. This was supposed to be the Google monster that was going to eat Facebook. Many of us, myself included, looked forward to having some real competition for Facebook in the social media landscape. It’s not that there aren’t millions of Google+ users. And it doesn’t hurt that so many of us have Gmail accounts and Google nearly forces you to have a Google+ page to go in tandem with it. But Google, in a rare stumble, doesn’t seem to be able to get Google+ the traction it needs to really be a Facebook alternative.

In fact there are already web rumors out there at Google+ as we now know it may be coming to an end. Here’s one from ars technica and another from TechCrunch that started the rumor. I personally like the way Google+ displays images and video, better than Facebook, in my opinion. But Google+ may have been doomed from the start with an overly convoluted way it rolled out it’s business pages, revising and migrating users pages in ways that were incredibly confusing. Honestly, I now have several Google+ pages, and I have difficulty being able to tell the difference between them all. Which one is my true business page? I have no idea.

Is Google+ right for you? Maybe.

Vimeo and YouTube are excellent ways to host your motion work. First, because they’re optimized to play back your work very well on any device, desktop or mobile. Upload a fairly high-resolution encode of your finished piece and both services re-encode it in various sizes and flavors to make sure people aren’t waiting forever for something to load.

Many website templates, blogs and other social media sites are set up to take any Vimeo and YouTube link and embed it nicely into whatever you post. If you’re worried about excessive bandwidth uses on your own website server, playing back from the Vimeo and YouTube servers eliminates any worry about that.

Personally, even though YouTube has more traffic and more potential eyes on anything you upload, I prefer Vimeo. I think their encodes are a little cleaner and Vimeo embeds very nicely when it comes to posting on your website or blog or other social media. Upgrading to a Vimeo Pro account unlocks some nice features and is definitely worth considering. I have both a YouTube account and a Vimeo Pro account. All of my motion work on my various websites, blogs and social media are all fed from my Vimeo account.

 But please, read the fine print on any social media sites you’re uploading your work to.

Before I go any further, it would be really bad form for me to neglect to throw out this cautionary advice. Sites like Facebook and Instagram (now owned by Facebook), have language in their Terms of Service agreements (TOS) that are positively detrimental to photographers and artists rights who upload content directly to their sites. In short, many of these “free” services not only collect all of your data to use however they wish, but they also make quite the land grab when it comes to any work you upload. By uploading, you agree to give a license to some of these social media sites to use and in some cases, sell your work, however they choose.

That’s why, a strategy I quite often use, is rather than uploading one of my photographs to Facebook directly, I instead post a link to the photo in my status update on Facebook. The photo displays on Facebook, but it’s actually a link back to my own website, which I control. Facebook never actually has my photo on their servers. Only a link to the photo on my site.

The tradeoff is that with linking instead of directly uploading, my image sometimes shows up on Facebook more as a postage stamp size, rather than the full width of my news feed, a choice I’m sure Facebook makes on purpose to encourage people to upload their photos directly. There’s no right or wrong answer to the should I upload or not, but it’s important to know what rights you may be giving up if you choose to do so.

Just read the fine print on all sites you may be uploading your work to. Last year, The American Society of Media Photographers (, released a joint new release with many other professional artistic organizations, describing the troubling TOS terms in Instagram’s agreement with users of the service. It’s an important read for anyone using Instagram.

With so many social media choices, how can one freelance artist keep them all up to date?

A brilliant question and before you go diving in and creating every account on the list above, it’s important to determine whether it’s even possible for you to support them all with fresh content. Nothing worse than a social media account with the last update being six months ago. It could make it look like you may be out of business.

One way to write once and post many times, is to automate. For example, my blog on WordPress is set up, so that when I hit Publish, it automatically publishes links and a basic description to my Facebook business page, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr and possibly Google+. I say  possibly Google+, because as I mentioned before, my Google+ pages are a black box of mystery and I find that I have to double-check it more often than not to make sure. And anyone who has subscribed to my blog gets an email.

That leaves only my personal Facebook page to update manually. WordPress only allows you to automate your post to one Facebook account at a time, either your business page or your personal page, but not both. Not too bad, really. It’s web syndication. I’ve been doing it for years and it saves a lot of time. It gets me to where my clients are quickly and easily.

The only downside to using so much automation is that sometimes you end up with that same postage stamp preview images, like Facebook for example, on some of the sites that you are automating to. It’s good to experiment and see if it’s worth it to take the time to manually post what you’re sharing on each individual site to get a larger, more attention-getting preview image. When I’m really busy though, automation is better than not updating regularly because I don’t have the time to post to half a dozen sites.

And some blogs and social media sites allow you to write your posts in advance and set a certain day and time to actually publish. That’s great when you have some downtime and you can set up posts in advance that will automatically go live when you’re later swamped with work.

A lot of social media sites have automatic ways of cross-pollination. For those that don’t, add-ons like IFTTT (If This, Then That) and LeenkMe can handle a lot of your automation.

What should you post to get into your client’s news feeds?

Your online social media presence has become the new demo reel. And just as we used to take great care in deciding what to put on our reels when it was simply a long string of work we had produced, your social media blogs and status updates should require the same amount of care. But the good news is, it’s much easier to add things to the conversation and with much more regularity.

Absolutely blog or post about work you’ve done for a client, as long as you have permission to do so. I’ve had to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with several of my clients that state that I cannot post any of the work I’ve done for them online, and in some cases, I’m not even allowed to mention that I’ve done work for them. Sometimes that means really wonderful work I’ve done I can’t show or talk about, but that’s the tradeoff sometimes. Those businesses are simply trying to control their brand’s message and where it ends up on the internet. Same as you.

That’s another reason showcasing your personal work is so wonderful. I’ve had long stretches where the only client work I’ve done has been under an NDA and if I wasn’t posting personal work during that time, it might look to the world out there that I hadn’t done anything in the past year.

It’s been fascinating to see what personal work pieces really resonate with people. Much like it’s hard to predict what Hollywood or independent film is going to get positive buzz before it’s released, I’ve learned that I never know what people are going to latch onto and love. Before I post any personal short film or photograph, I place a little bet with myself as to whether it’s going to generate a lot of likes or views or whatever. And it’s always a nice surprise when a little project that was created in a just a few hours gets traction.

I’ve made a few quickie iPhone shorts over the years that I’ve been gobsmacked by the positive reaction I get with them. A few years ago, I had a couple of hours to kill waiting for client feedback. I noticed it was raining outside and walked outside around the block a few times, giving myself the challenge to “find” some interesting shots. I used a camera app on my iPhone called 8mm. I came back into my edit suite and very quickly put together an edit. At a large industry function a few days later, that little film was the first thing people wanted to talk to me about. For me, it was just a creative exercise to kill some time, but something about it was very memorable for them. It was what I call, a one-off. A throw-away experiment. A personal creative challenge to myself. It’s called, “It Rained Today.”

Other pieces of personal work that I’ve spent months on? Sometimes I get crickets back. You just never know what’s going to move people. There is no formula. But it’s important to keep putting work out there that pleases you. Don’t over think it too much. Sometimes you’re too close to it to judge whether it’s really good or not. But that’s okay. Good art is just as much about the misses as the hits. It keeps your creativity limber. And it’s a great way to have an outlet for your expression, especially when you’re bogged down with a client project with layers of approval and endless revisions. Sometimes you just need to make something that’s truly yours to keep your sanity.

Be a good artist citizen. That music track you love? Do you have really have the rights to use it?

This is a delicate subject. We’ve all, myself included, used music in our films and demo reels that we didn’t have the rights to use. At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, “How would I feel if someone used my photographs or footage in some way for a presentation or demo reel or whatever without first getting my permission?” You probably wouldn’t like that very much.

“But it’s just a demo reel. Does it really matter?”

Honestly. Yes. It does matter. Even if you get away with it, it does telegraph something to you clients about your professionalism. Shortly after I created that “It Rained Today” short iPhone film, I came to the conclusion that using the Phillip Glass “Glassworks” music track that I used in it was not completely above-board. No, I wasn’t making any money off of the project, so it wasn’t a commercial project per se. A lot of people use that excuse. And yes, I listed Mr. Glass in the credits. A lot of people think that makes it okay. But still. If you don’t have permission, it really is stealing. An artist stealing from another artist. Just bad karma.

From that point on, going forward, I decided I was going to make sure that any music that I used in my projects, I had the rights to do so or had gone through the process of licensing legitimately. Even the personal ones that I wasn’t making any money on, or that I was paying out of my own pocket to produce. It’s easier than you might think, and depending on what you’re planning to use your personal projects for, even paying to license certain music tracks is not crazy expensive.

It takes a little research and searching, but it’s actually not that hard to find legitimate free music to use. Sure, there’s a lot of crappy free music out there, but much like shopping at Marshalls, you have to dig a little find the truly good things. I’ve used many tracks from the obviously named, FreeStockMusic. In exchange for giving them your email address and the resulting mountains of email you’ll get from them begging you to try their premium services, there are hundreds of music tracks you can use without paying a dime.

Remember Moby? I can’t tell you how many times back in the day we used to use various Moby music tracks as temporary music placeholders for rough edits. Well now even Moby is allowing some of his music tracks to be used for free. It’s a little more complicated than giving your email address and downloading, as some tracks require you to go through the process of requesting official permission before you can put your work out in public, but again, it’s free, depending on what you plan to use it for. There are some restrictions on using it in commercial projects. It’s called MobyGratis and it’s another place worth checking out for free music.

And there are many others, just a Google search away. Just be sure to read the fine print on what you can use it for. Sometimes, for an independent or student film, no problem. But for a commercial project, yeah, you’ll have to pay for that, but even that license may be less than $100 in some cases. And there are many musicians who make their music available under what’s called a Creative Commons license. Very generous of them.

Another way to get free music for your personal projects is to search for recordings that are in the public domain. These are usually older tracks, but sometimes the mood you’re trying to create can benefit from something that sounds like it came from the past. Because, the tracks are from the past. I’ve found a lot of great piano tracks for example, that work well for some of my projects.

The thing to be aware of when using music in the public domain is that you have to be careful that you don’t choose a piece of music that’s in the public domain, but the actual recording of it isn’t. Those are two separate things. Most modern recordings of classical music are not in the public domain. The music is, but the recording isn’t.

For example, for a little one-off iPhone film that I did this past 4th of July holiday, I was looking for something free and I remembered how well the end scene of Ocean’s 11 worked with Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune and the Bellagio fountains. Clair de Lune is one of my all time favorite pieces of music and so I went off to search for a recording of it in the public domain.

Clair de Lune is a perfect example of a piece of music that is in the public domain, but finding an actual recording of it that is in the public domain, is a little trickier. After about 20 minutes of searching, I actually found a modern recording of it, performed by a brilliant musician, Amber M. Short from California. There are many recordings of Clair de Lune out there. But I really loved the passion and emotion of Amber’s performance of it. And because she happens to be one of those people who gives back, she has made her beautiful recording of it available through a Creative Commons license for non-commercial use though her brand PMG Projects. (PMG is a clever acronym for Piano Girl Music.) Thank you, Amber!

But, if you really want an extensive choice of high quality pieces of music for your personal projects and you’re tired of endlessly searching for free ones, perhaps it’s a better use of your time would be to pony up a few bucks and really get a great music track you love. One of my favorite resources for that is Warner/Chappell Production Music. I’ve used them both for paying clients when it wasn’t my dime on the line as well as for some personal project films that I invested a lot of time in the picture part of it and wanted an equally excellent music track to go with it. For that, I did pay out of my own pocket to license a music track. But where a commercial television or film license might cost thousands, a web only license is usually around $250. That’s a license for use on multiple websites if you’re going to post on Vimeo and Facebook and YouTube and your own website, for example. If you’re only going to use it on one website, the price is usually $150. (My contact at Warner/Chappell is a great guy, Mike Hicks who would be a good contact resource if you have any questions about Warner/Chappell or to check pricing on any track you find on their site. His email is mike.hicks (at) . I’ve removed the @ sign to lessen the chance of spam in his inbox.)

That may sound like a lot of money for a personal project that you’re not making any money on, but I can’t stress enough how the perfect music track can really elevate your project to a much higher level. Cheap or free can sound really cheap or free if you don’t spend a lot of time looking hard enough. Licensing a high quality music track, for me, is worth every penny on certain projects.

Here’s a short film project that The University of Chicago commissioned me to shoot and edit of Rockefeller Chapel, for their Alumni Association. And the music track was licensed through Warner/Chappell. That track took the piece to a truly beautiful place. Completely worth it.

And another way to get great music for your personal projects is to reach out to bands or musicians or local audio houses that you personally know. Many of them will give you permission or charge you a token fee to use their tracks if you nicely explain what you want to use them for. If they have a recording contract with a label, however, they may not have control over giving you permission. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.

If I haven’t convinced you yet that it’s important to make sure you have permission to use a particular music track in your work that you’re putting online, you should know that both YouTube and more recently Vimeo, use software to analyze the music tracks in pieces you upload to their sites. Their servers use complicated algorithms to analyze hundreds of videos per minute, looking for music that requires licensing for use. I believe Facebook does something similar. Will you be caught by the computers every time you upload a video with a borrowed music track. Maybe not. But is it worth risking your clients clicking on a link to one of your films or reels, only to find it’s been taken down or the audio stripped off for copyright violation? That makes you look bad. Unprofessional.

A few months ago YouTube dinged me for using a piece of music that I actually did legally license, and they have an online form you can use to dispute the copyright infringement claim. In my case it was resolved quickly. And while the claim is being reviewed, your video does remain online and viewable. The system works.

Just remember, being a good artist citizen means doing the right thing when it comes to music tracks.

And finally, some brief general business practice tips.

Artists are historically fair bad at business. It’s rare to be wired at birth for being excellent both at the creative and business aspects of being an artist. Happily, it’s easier to learn business than it is to learn creativity. At least for me, that’s how it is. I wrote a blog a while back that I mentioned earlier in this post that goes into some of these ideas in a little more detail if you’re interested. It’s aimed primarily at photographers, but much of the information applies to any creative field if you want more detailed information on the purely business aspects than I’m briefly touching on below. You can find it here.

Cost of Doing Business

The first thing you should be aware of is how much it costs for you to stay in business. It’s not only about what you charge being able to cover the rent or mortgage. As a freelancer, there are a seemingly overwhelming amount of things you have to account for when deciding what to charge for any project.

Equipment purchases such as cameras, lighting, computers. The cost of storage and backups of that storage. Projects are sometimes measured in terabytes of data these days. Lots of storage.

Phone and internet.

Software purchases and now the shift into monthly subscription charges for software.

Website hosting costs and other annual subscriptions to things like Vimeo Pro, if you use that.

Insurance, both health and property/liability insurance you’ll need for your business, both to keep your gear and crew protected as well as to rent gear without maxing out your credit card with a huge deposit. Most exterior locations require a film office permit, which in Chicago for instance is less than $30, but you need $1,000,000 in liability insurance to get that $30 permit.

Office supplies and furniture.

Advertising and marketing. Business cards?

It’s a long list. But there is a great tool to put all of those costs together, estimate how many days out of the year you’ll actually be billing and determine an actual dollar amount that you have to get paid each billing day to stay in business. It’s the Cost of Doing Business Calculator from the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). Enter all of your known costs, estimate the ones you don’t know. Enter how many days you usually work during the course of any year. Figure out how much you are going to pay yourself annually, and click. You now have your Cost of Doing Business Number. What you need to charge at a minimum every day you’re paid to work in order to keep the doors open.

Contracts and Business Forms

A good Google search can usually help you find most of these, but I’ve found that the American Society of Media Photographers is a tremendous resource for not only the kinds of contracts you might need, but also with good explanations of what they all mean and do.

And this great video from Creative Mornings is great inspiration for you to keep your contracts in order and get paid. It’s appropriately called, F*ck you. Pay Me.

Feast or Famine

The hardest part of being a freelancer is managing your schedule of projects. It never fails that are times you’ll go a few weeks without work, nothing by cricket sounds and the anxiety that goes along with it, and then all of a sudden, everyone wants to hire you at once and you have to pick which project to take. And you look up to the sky and yell, “Where were you all a month ago?!”

It’s even more challenging when you have a few “maybe” projects circling above. Do you take the smaller job that’s being offered to you today when there’s a beautiful long-term project hovering above in the distance, that if it lands will keep you busy and solvent for months to come? That’s probably the most brutal of all freelance questions.

I know I’ve been burned in the past, passing on a smaller job, because if the larger one came in for a landing and I was booked on the smaller project, I’d have to pass on the big one. The one I really wanted. But more than a few times, when I did pass on the smaller job, the larger one never materialized for any number of reasons, mostly out of my control, and then I was really screwed. A bird in the hand, the old saying goes. If you have a good relationship with your larger project client, sometimes you can get them to give you the true odds of that dream project actually happening, and you can make your best guess on what to do with that information. But most of the time, you’re feeling around in the dark on this one.

It’s up to you and how much financial padding you have saved for the lean times, but I know for me, I usually have to go with the job that’s the sure thing. As painful as that might be when you have to refuse the larger one that finally wanted to firm up the hold a few gut-wrenching days too late. A bird in the hand…

But if you do find yourself with famine days or weeks, the important thing to remember is to keep going to work. Every day. Get showered. Get dressed. Work on your marketing. Work on your personal projects that will likely lead to more work. That’s the most incredible gift of being a freelancer. There is no killing time at your staff job when nothing is going on, and you’re required to be in the office because you’re on salary. All the time, you’re watching the clock, dying to get out there create something you’re passionate about!

As a freelancer, your time truly is your own. And as terrifying as that can be during the famine times, it’s also freedom and independence that you can’t get any other way.

Hopefully this epic length survival guide is of some use to you if you’ve made it all the way to the bottom of this post. These are simply my own opinions based on my own personal experiences and some of my ideas may not apply or make sense to you. Your mileage may vary, as they say. But that’s the beauty of sharing information and starting a conversation. Take what you want and reject what you don’t. Your own freelance survival is a very personal thing. Make it your own.

Good luck out there! And if you have any thoughts or comments, leave them below. Thanks for reading.

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4 thoughts

  1. Billy you are a pretty amazing guy! Thanks for not being stingy and always willing to pass it on. You are a life changer!

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