I can’t shake the feeling that we are a culture in descent. Are we are Rome, cresting before the crash? Maybe, in the throes of my thirties, the impending gloom of disposability has tempered my bright-eyed, bushy-tailed optimism of my twenties, when I was thirsty for something, anything that could begin to somewhat validate my years spent in education and training. I’m grateful for my education, though half of it was unnecessary. I’m more aware and receptive to what I don’t know. But most of what I’ve learned, at least professionally, is a result of a shit-ton of trial and error that never has never touched the esoteric classroom walls. In this wild roller coaster gig economy, I’ve come to learn what rebranding means: adaptation in the face of a culture of instant satisfaction, a society that values now rather than later.
They say necessity is the mother of invention; if this is the case, then I am the mother ship of invention. Rebranding, that dirty word most musicians refuse to acknowledge, is really just a formalized coping mechanism forced by a culture of disposability. In typical freelance fashion, when one source of revenue dries up, you seek another (and preferably before then). It’s usually never personal, no matter how hard I might try to make it about me (I am, after all, an artist). But damn, is it hard.
So let’s talk about disposability. I use this term to mean the pervasive and unnecessarily cutthroat mentality that if you allow someone else’s foot in your door, you might as well let it hit you on the way out, because you’re done. That, and the notion that no matter how good you may be at your job, your performance pales in comparison to the bottom line (usually money, resources, and time, usually in that order).
Where, in this grand gig economy, do I draw the line?
Let me talk a little bit about unmet expectations. In a 100% self-employed household, I find myself wrestling through situations, slogging through contracts, chugging away at jobs that expect the moon for next to nothing. I find myself having to explain to a client why ⅓ of a product is delivered (when the cut the overall budget by more than 2/3rds). I wait more than 48 hours to respond to students’ e-mails or texts because I fiercely compartmentalize my time, and must do so to preserve my sanity. I explain to a boss that if I go over 8 hours of work in my salaried position of 8-12 hours a week, my hourly rate becomes less than what I pay per hour in scholarships to students (or what I pay for a burger), so I’m actually losing money. I turn down well-compensated projects and likely let others down in the process, when I call out institutions to the realities of professional gestures like organizing a contract offer in a timely fashion, a professional courtesy that seems lost on people who play by different sets of rules. Holding myself to the ensuing circus of implications, the dramatically reduced likelihood of ever being offered work there again. I explain why intentions and sentiment are not enough, no matter how much you may like what I bring to the table, actions pay the bills. I figure out alternatives, which inevitably leads to never mentally clocking out, ever, even when I should be present elsewhere.
I refuse to play the game. I demand more without pricing myself out of a job, or a market. I constantly and carefully reword the statement “you’re asking too much and paying too little,” then I try to reach an amenable compromise that will move at least one person forward without becoming a martyr for my own cause. I try not to let the quality of my work suffer under the weight of the enormous chip on my shoulder. I put money where it should matter, only to turn down offers of $1,000 for half a year’s work (work that requires a master’s degree).. I resent the fool who turns around and accepts the work because they have to. I try to stay real and authentic and gracious, because it could always be worse. I know the cycle won’t break if nothing changes.
But you know what? As bad as things get in a particular economy, rebranding has forced a line in my neck and a mirror in my face. Who am I, really?
As it turns out, the answers are intriguing. If I quiet my mind and still my body and just think…there’s something there.
And if you have something, then you’ve got something to share, and if you have a story worth sharing, then someone, somewhere, is waiting to receive it. Then you have an audience, eyes, ears, a niche, a tribe, a community. Before you know it, a safety net appears, a lifeboat. Then, all of a sudden, faring the stormy sea of creativity, where the mother ship of reinvention lurks, a great shadow on the horizon…
it all becomes a little bit less terrifying.