I really like the movie “Bull Durham.” In my opinion, it is a perfect movie: romance, humor, tragedy, character development, sports, sex, excellent dialog, wonderful acting, brilliant direction… why it didn’t win the award for Best Picture of the Year is beyond me. One of the aspects I appreciate most about “Bull Durham” is when Annie is explaining that “Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it’s also a job.” So while Nuke is learning to breathe through his eyelids (old Mayan trick… or Aztec, I get them confused), Bobby is getting released from his contract for being in a hitting slump by The Organization.
It’s a lesson that can be easily applied to any professional artistic endeavor: acting, dancing, singing, fine art, illustration. There’s the magic… and then there’s the nuts and bolts. You can be a fantastic actor or dancer or singer, doing some of the best work of your career, but if the box office isn’t selling any tickets, your show will close and you will be hunting for another job. You can be a wonderfully gifted oil painter or water colorist, but if no one buys your work, you will be manning a cash register during the day. If you are a “professional,” you are expected to deal with both aspects equally well. That’s also part of the job.
It’s hard being a working creative mainly because so many people just don’t understand what it is you do. It’s assumed that you can just turn on your imagination like a faucet and brilliant ideas just flow out. And sometimes, that’s exactly what happens: you sit down at your desk and think “I need something like this,” and out comes this brilliant, fully-fleshed out idea that needs no tweaking. That scenario, however, is the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, you sit there with the equivalent of a blank page in your head, not a clue how to get where you are to where you want to go. So you try a variation of an old idea, then scrap all but a part of that attempt to go in a new direction, then keep the few parts of that idea for a reversal of the original theme, and on and on and on. Finally, you have something that doesn’t suck, and you present it to your boss or your client, and you hope for the best… and when you are really lucky, you’ve been working with this person a while and know what kinds of things pique their interest, you get back your work with just a couple of simple edits. This is also the exception, not the rule – what usually happens is your work comes back looking like someone took an ax to it, it is bleeding so much red ink. At least you now know what the boss-client doesn’t want, and you can redo all the work you spent all that time killing yourself to do.
The only thing worse than a boss or client who has no idea what it is you do is a boss or client who does; someone who may not be a creative themselves, but who has seen behind the curtain enough times that they know it’s not black magic you’re conjuring up in your office. They are the ones who say things like “Once you know what I like, once you’ve got the template in place, it shouldn’t take any time at all to do what I want done.” And they are partly right – once the nuts and bolts are in place, it doesn’t take a lot of time to get something done – so you can’t argue with them.
They, however, have completely overlooked how much time and effort it takes to get the nuts and bolts of your template in place.
I was supposed to have an interview Monday. Answered an ad on Friday and was asked to call in and talk to the COO, we set up the interview. Before that could happen, Mr. COO sent me a project. I don’t do spec work, but we did have an interview, so I figured this was an audition; since I didn’t have any plans I would need to cancel, I went to work. After an afternoon of bleeding on the page, I came up with two distinctly different concepts and sent them in.
Sunday, I got a reply – no good. Text was too large, graphics were too small, and the design wasn’t edgy enough. I was thanked for my time.
It was the “Thanks for your time” that bothered me. That sounded a lot like a brush off. I was looking forward to the interview, and now I was being dismissed along with my afternoon of effort. I mulled it over and decided to take the high road: I would ignore the brush off, I would take the criticism as constructive, and redo the projects. Since my potential client hadn’t attacked the concepts, I would leave the backgrounds and color schemes in place – I would shrink the texts, add big graphics in their place, and use edgy, grungy fonts. I spent another afternoon on my unsolicited project, then sent the new proofs in.
The new proofs worked, much closer to what my soon-to-be interviewer had in mind. I made the last edits he asked for, and my now-employer asks me to let him know how I’d like to be paid, and to expect a bunch of projects coming after lunch.
To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. I went from feeling I’d blown the opportunity to winning over the COO by sheer determination, talent, and experience. Got my foot in the door with a ton of work as my reward for not giving up. I was on the top of the world, thinking the Universe is about to give me a much-needed and hopefully deserved break.
The first of the tiny corrections came in. Names were misspelled, one of the participants had dropped out of the program. No problem, I made the edits and sent the project back in. A disclaimer needed to be added to the bottom. Not a problem, I made the edits. The new projects began streaming into my email, along with an inquiry on how I want to be reimbursed for my work – I did the math, realized it would be cheaper to be paid by the hour than by the project, and let him know I can charge less if I’m on a W2. Then I gave him my hours.
“That’s about 3x as much as I would have expected. Now that you know what I want, it shouldn’t take you more than an hour to do a project. So let’s keep the hours to a reasonable level.”
According to his math, what he wanted was a project an hour… or, if I was charging by the project, what he was expecting to pay was the equivalent of one hour’s worth of work per project. He knew how long it took to put together the nuts and bolts, so that’s what he was expecting to pay for. He was completely discounting the talent and creativity.
I was already finished with the first of the new projects – I was still staring at it, trying to see if it was up to the level of edgy I had created over the weekend before sending it in – when that email came across my inbox. I read and reread that line about “3x as expected” and “reasonable level” over and over again for the better part of an hour… and then I did the only thing I could do: I turned the job down. I don’t do projects for a quarter of what I’d normally charge, regardless of how much work was about to land on my desk.
Back when I DJ’ed wedding receptions and corporate events, it was a standing rule that if the client wanted you to stay and work past your initial time, it was a standard $50 an hour for each hour of overtime. When the band does private gigs, unless we are up against a venue’s closing time, we are constantly being asked to stay and play passed our contracted time, at which point my band leader says “Love to, but you have to pay us extra.” And invariably, there is always someone who tried to talk me into DJing for free, or tries to talk my band leader to get us to play for free. “The equipment is already set up, you know you’re having a good time, you know we’re a great crowd – stay and play. It’s not about the cash – you know you do this for the love of the music.” It’s that last one that always makes me mad. Because it’s the truth: I DJ’ed and I perform in the band because I love the music, and truth be told, I would have have performed for free, just to indulge that love.
But this is a consumer-based world we live in, and people do not appreciate what they get for free or what they get on the cheap. I don’t charge for my services because I’m a mercenary; I charge for my services because of the level of respect it brings out in other people. And if you discount my talent and my creativity and then expect a discount for my skills and experience, I’m not going to work for you. You, Mr. COO of the company I would give my left arm to work for, do not respect talent and creativity.
After everything went down, I turned off my email and purposely ignored it the rest of the evening, then went to bed early. I didn’t want to be that fourteen year old girl who keeps checking her messages to see if he had texted back. It had been a stressful four days and I was done being stressed out – I took my sick stomach and pounding head and hit the sack.
After I had finished writing this post, I finally opened up my email – Mr. COO of the company I would give my left arm to work for had written me back no less than four times: three begging me to work with him on rates, and another asking if I would teach a social media class next month. Evidently, when he low-balled me, he thought that was the return salvo of a bidding war for my services. I was stunned… and then I was appalled. My sick stomach and pounding head returned in record time.
A smart entrepreneur would have gone all mercenary. A smart entrepreneur would have upped his rates to the point of raking high-ranking executive over the coals. I’m not a smart entrepreneur, however, and I don’t know how to be mercenary even at my most pissed off. I do know that when someone tries to screw you over once, they will probably try to screw you over again. So after a lengthy email, I told him I would still have to pass on the job – since he’d already shown he didn’t respect me, my talent, or my experience, I just didn’t want to work with him. I got no reply back today, so I’m guessing it’s safe to open my email again.