Employers, you better have my money: Best practices for running a freelance business

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Independent producers Paulina Velasco and Jayce Baron attend IPP's negotiation workshop in May.

“I’m expensive.” Freelance audio producers, say it to yourself repeatedly. Internalize this mantra. This is one among several invaluable directives “Call Your Girlfriend” founding producer  Gina Delvac urged to an audience of about forty on a sunny Saturday morning in May at the newly minted KCRW headquarters in Santa Monica. Of those in attendance at the latest Independent Producer Project (IPP) workshop, a majority were women. Almost half of those folks were women of color, an appropriate crowd for value assertion training, considering that 66 percent of women do not negotiate for higher pay.

“Negotiation,” she went on, “is a normal and an expected part of any hiring process.”

There. It’s settled. Yes, you will negotiate.

Let’s Talk Numbers

The organization that established the national standard for freelance podcast rates back in 2012, the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR), is currently in the process of revising its own rate guide. Fortunately, IPP was able to obtain charts of the approximate figures AIR is currently working with.

Preliminary updated AIR Rates Guide to commissioning freelance content. Adopted by KCRW, but subject to change. 

Although these numbers are subject to change as the rates are finalized, you can still use these ranges to determine a ballpark figure of where you land within this scale. Of course, you must also consult with the AIR professional experience guide and consider the level of complexity demanded by the job in question. Do your due diligence and reach out to peers in your network, mentors and other professionals in comparable industries. Get their two cents and discuss where they feel you land in the spectrum and why. Ask them to practice role-play negotiation with you.

To demonstrate, one useful metric to hone in on is the day rate range. At the “novice” end of the spectrum (NPR’s current Day Rate) is $300 per day or $37.50 per hour given an eight-hour day. The “advanced” end is $800 or $100 per hour.

Once you have determined the amount you know you are worth, ta-da!  Here you have your lower limit. For example, say I decide, based on industry standards, that the rate I should be earning given my experience is $40 per hour. $40 per hour is my lower limit. Therefore, I will not accept anything below this amount.  

Now we’re armed with the figures to confidently state, “The industry standard for this level of experience and responsibility is…”

But wait: Now increase this number by 50%. Yes, you are worth it. As journalist and “Call Your Girlfriend” co-host, Ann Friedman wrote in The GIF Guide to Getting Paid, “This negotiation is about your long-term future.... there’s no set of criteria or checkpoints to ensure you continue getting raises.”

To recap, determine your lower limit and then increase that number by 50% because no one is looking out for you other than yourself. That lower number is your starting point for negotiation, and that higher number is your ideal outcome.

Let’s Talk Emotions

During the workshop, Gina split the room into groups of two with handouts titled “Boss Mode” and “Unicorn Life.” Each person took turns negotiating from both the perspective of a potential employer and an employee. It’s an emotionally fraught experience, but that is nothing you cannot overcome with practice and industry knowledge to back up your case. Considering the continually evolving landscapes of digital media: podcasts, public radio, the saturation of content, and the influx of amateur podcasters, you have to teach potential clients how the industry works and how they ought to treat podcasters with respect. This means pay transparency and equal pay for equal work, among other ethical equal employee fair protection standards.

Practice this with friends. Practice as much as you can. Go to meetups and more workshops and free talks; sign up for MOOCs and community college classes. Send emails to producers you admire, get phone numbers of other producers you meet at events, make friends; and if necessary, offer to pay a freelance producer a consulting fee to “pick their brain” about how to thrive in the industry or for one-to-one training. Time is money.  

Gina, for instance, offers 10 minutes of phone or facetime to respond to general inquiries from people who want her expertise on the podcasting industry, podcast development, and guidance on ways to become a podcast producer. At the end of those 10 minutes, she explains that she’s available for continued advice and is happy to share her consultation rates. Her current consultation fee, by the way, is $150 per hour.

In closing, I’ll leave you with one of Gina’s most poignant pearls, “Remember that an employer wants what they want. You want what you want. Don’t let them align your wants with theirs.”  

Other Useful Tips:

-If your potential employer is driving a hard bargain about money, consider negotiating for other benefits and takeaways: a flexible schedule, the opportunity to work remotely, health insurance, a title bump, support of additional team members, equipment loans, license usage, office/studio space for both project and personal use, a guarantee of regular work, resume building, mentorship, gym membership, co-work space membership. Even consider a lower offer as an introductory rate and request a salary review within six months or a year. Or maybe you’re desperate, and it’s short term. That’s ok sometimes. We all have bills to pay, but set firm goals regarding how long you plan to accept a project that pays a lower rate than you know you’re worth? Write out your next steps. Find an accountability partner to remind and encourage you of these steps.

-Potential employers, by California law, cannot ask you for your salary history.

-Make your life easier and get a tax accountant. You should be able to find someone at under a $1000 per year. Sit with them, and outline a game plan for what information to gather and prepare throughout the year

-Put 30%of all your earnings into savings so you don't get screwed during tax time.

-Set up a separate checking and savings account for your business that’s separate from your personal accounts.

-Register for the LA City Business Tax, and snag that exemption.

-One good rule of thumb is never to go below $30 per hour for any project, day rate or hourly wage.

-Retain ownership over ideas, adaptations and future money possibilities.

-Determine a fair number of rounds of revisions, clarify this with your client and factor it into the project schedule.

-Take on a mentee. Pay it forward.

-Not everyone can afford to pay in cash so consider welcoming comparable forms of non-monetary even exchanges such as therapy sessions, fitness training, data entry, fact checking, co-work space sharing, haircuts, massages, session engineering, subletting, exchanging stock sounds, sound effects, soundscaping, song riffs, meals, tape syncs, rideshares, gear loans, copy editing, bookkeeping, transcribing and so forth.

-When in doubt, put on, perform, practice and use these tools with bravado. Successful negotiation is a confidence game.

Now take it from here, Rihanna. Also, we can’t forget the boss wisdom of M.I.A.