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Karen Rile

Collaborator or Contractor

August 21, 2014 23:11

"The problem is that you have the mindset of a collaborator, not a contractor."

That's what my oldest daughter said to me last night at dinner after I'd been complaining about my treatment as a freelancer. A light blinked on inside my head and I saw the problem clearly for the first time: clients are not collaborators; they are only clients.

It isn't merely an issue of my being "too nice", or lacking boundaries (as women are so often accused.) The root of the problem is that I pride myself on doing good work and making people happy, and as a result I become over-invested in client projects. I become a collaborator, not a contractor, and in doing that I am setting myself up for frustration and exploitation—often unintentional on the client's part. And that's not fair to either of us.

The collaborator-mindset is common among artists—musicians, visual artists, writers, designers. It's proclivity that comes from our training and from our "real work", i.e., serious projects with peer-artists. But if we want to improve the way we are treated by paying clients, as distinguished from our professional peers with whom we appropriately collaborate, we need to install some mental insulation. A collaborative mindset is fine for our own projects. But when we do work-for-hire, we are contractors.

I know I'm good at what I do and that I deserve to be appropriately compensated. But time and again a fixed-price freelance project ends up costing me many more hours than what I budgeted. One client turns out to be ultra high-maintenance. Another sends a disorganized barrage of emailed afterthought-requests. Because I have a generous impulse and want them to be happy, my inclination is to hand-hold needy clients for as many extra hours as they demand or to accede to the jumble of extra tasks without renegotiating the price of the job. Partly, it's because I want the project to turn out well and I want the client to be happy. But at what personal price to me? How do I react, for example, when a web design client refuses to pay for copywriting services and then hands over a mess of sloppy, incoherent text and low-quality photos? Well, I can't do good work with bad materials, so I suck it up and do those services for free. I end up losing money—because time is money—by the time the job is finished.

And that is insupportable. It's terrible way to do business. I can see it plainly, as can any of my friends—musicians, designers, writers, and other artists—who find themselves in similar predicaments. For years I've been admonishing myself: stick to a written contract. Require a nonrefundable deposit. Watch the clock. Don't be so eager to suggest extras you know you won't get paid for just because they will make the project so much better. That "better" project, uncompensated, will drain away valuable hours promised to my other projects, and will not be appreciated anyway. But then I do it, in spite of myself, because in the heat of the working moment I am more concerned about accomplishing the best result possible than I am about the money. Eventually, the situation begins to wear on me. Under-compensated and under-valued, I grow resentful, and that resentment eats at the soul. Plus, like everybody else, I have bills to pay.

I come by the collaborator-mindset honestly. From the time I was a little girl, my parents, both highly trained artists in their own right, worked round the clock in their boutique arts management agency. Their clients have enjoyed many successes as a result, yet for my parents there was never much monetary compensation. The arts, it's a hard business. Single-minded, self-sacrificing dedication made it possible for them to stay afloat for more than forty years in an industry where it's rare for a small agency to last a decade. Theirs is a lifelong project, and if it hasn't made them materially rich, my parents' vocation earned them the intangible satisfaction of having launched and buoyed the careers of many musical artists.

Well, what kind of role model was that? And what kind of role model am I for my four young daughters, each of whom is entering a creative field where freelancing, consulting, and lesson-giving is to be a substantial part of their bread-and-butter? Lucky for me, I have my oldest daughter, who has been freelancing in multiple capacities since about age 14, to reframe the freelancer's dilemma.

This morning I asked her younger sister, our family violinist, if she uses contracts for freelance gigs.

"When the gig is through my school, Career Services requires us to do a contract," she replied. (Good on them, for promoting professionalism among young performers.) But outside gigs and freelance teaching are informally negotiated, either verbally or by email or even text message—and you can get burned. Everyone does. The danger is not in the random one-off gig where you're less likely to develop a collaborator-mindset so much as in a standing relationship, such as teaching, where you can find yourself trapped in an exploitative, low-paying, time-eating situation.

Here are a few do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do tips for freelancers:

  • Educate your client. Because they don't share your experience or assumptions, much of your professional process is opaque to them. They may not be trying to exploit you; they just might not know any better. Spell out for them what is possible and what is appropriate.

  • Don't allow your enthusiasm for the project to override your control of the situation. Don't set up client expectations that you won't be able to meet without feeling resentful and exploited a few months down the road. If a prospective client balks at your reasonable proposal, politely invite them to research the going rate. They may come back, and if not—if their only criterion is to choose the lowest bid—then good riddance.

  • If their initial expectations are out-of-the-ballpark absurd (like the time my daughter got a request for a string quartet to play for four hours for $100 because "a pianist in New Jersey quoted the same price and will bring his own keyboard"), calmly counter with a reasonable price. If they argue—let them walk.

  • Don't underbid your work. It's tempting, especially when working for friends or colleagues, or when you know the client is on a tight budget. But when you undercharge for your work, your work is not respected. People value services and objects that they come to through a fair exchange, (or when they over-pay, which explains the popularity of Burberry.)

  • Never accept a pro bono job (with the possible exception of a White House invitation) only because you're promised exposure, contacts, and the flimsy specter of future paying work. That almost never happens. Remember that proverbial cow who gave away her milk for free.

  • But do pro bono work anyway. Do it for righteous charitable organizations whose missions you believe in. Altruism is good for the soul and is a fine outlet for those generous impulses you'll be redirecting away from the freelance clients who will now be paying you a fair fee for contract work.

  • Keep it in perspective. When revising one's collaborator-mindset, it's important not to swing too far in the other direction. My obsession with the quality of my own work and my genuine concern for my clients' satisfaction are what make me a desirable person to hire in the first place. If I insulate myself too much I'll grow obtunded and lose my passion for the work—and then what good will I be?

Image credit: The Graphics Fairy

2 replies

Bad Behavior

August 7, 2014 14:54


It was Parents Weekend at junior chamber music camp. My daughter, just out of eighth grade, had been attending this program since she was ten. As for me, I was looking forward to a reunion with all the kids, parents, and staff I'd known for the past five summers.

But when I arrived on campus and greeted the director outside the recital barn, she didn't smile back. "Your daughter is making my life difficult," she complained. "We caught her and a friend sneaking out of their cabins at night to hang out with their little boyfriends."

I looked at her in amazement. Boyfriend? That didn't sound like the mild-mannered, retainer-wearing, Harry Potter-reading, freckle-face girl I dropped off a week ago. I stammered out an apology.

"It's a terrible example for the younger kids," said director. She walked away, still angry.

My daughter, a middle child, had always been easy: diligent, good-humored, good with grown-ups. Although I understood that it's developmentally appropriate for teens push against boundaries, I was not quite ready to hear that she was behaving like, well, a teenager.

When I was able to talk with her privately, my daughter admitted that she'd been sneaking out of her cabin after lights-out. But she protested that "all the older kids snuck out at night" to stargaze together on the tennis courts; she insisted it was an innocent camp-wide tradition to which the administration usually turns a blind eye. They'd only gotten in trouble, she said, because her friend had sassed a counselor, who'd reported them.

While I was glad she was confiding in me, I didn't want to give her an impression that I supported her behavior or agreed that the counselor was in the wrong, a snitch. "It's not okay to break the curfew. It isn't fair to the counselors. It forces them into the position of having to discipline you."

"But they don't care. They know we're not doing anything bad. Sneaking out is traditional. We're practically expected to."

I changed my tactic. "The rules are in place to protect you. But rules also protect the camp. If a student got hurt while unsupervised, there could be a lawsuit, and that might put the entire program out of business. You wouldn't want that to happen, would you?"

"No! But everyone's over-reacting about this. Nothing terrible's going happen!"

I pulled out the big guns. "Besides, you've always said you want to work here when you're older. Do you think they'll hire you if you were a troublemaker when you were a camper?"

In retrospect I realized that my daughter was probably too old to return to her childhood music camp for one last summer. She would have been happier (and less of an outlaw) at the camp's senior session, where the curfew was a little later and the rules were relaxed. After that summer, she attended festivals where she fell into the middle age range, and stayed out of trouble—as far as I know. But throughout her high school years, and even during college, I heard tell of many of her peers expelled from their summer programs. You name a summer festival that accepts students under 21, and I'll bet a kid or two or more will be sent home for disciplinary reasons before the end of the season. The most common offenses are curfew violations and underage drinking. But some of the stories are hair-raising. Sneaking back through a window after a late night drinking, a girl steps right into her sleeping roommate's double bass, shattering the instrument. Another student is publicly excoriated, then dismissed for taking a friend's prescription beta blocker because he was feeling nervous before a high-stakes performance. The entire cello section (almost) is caught smoking pot in the woods.

Why is my kid doing this? During the school year young musicians are constantly on the radar of their parents, teachers, and coaches. With all the practicing, rehearsing, and homework, they don't have much leisure or privacy to stage small rebellions or work on differentiating themselves from their parents. Away from home for the summer, they can try out a new social persona in a relatively safe, self-contained environment. In general these experiments lead to healthy, intrapersonal growth. But they can also lead to trouble. It's important for parents to realize that the music camps and music festivals do not provide the same level of supervision that their teens receive at home.

If my kid gets caught acting out at music camp, is his professional life over? The classical music world is small and personal reputation is important. But youthful hijinks like curfew violations are forgivable (unlike showing up late for rehearsal or playing out-of-tune.) Maybe it's because teachers, conductors, and coaches were all once teenagers, too. Or maybe it's that they simply aren't concerned with what goes on after hours in the dorms, as long as performance standards are maintained. With a teacher's backing, many students are subsequently readmitted to the same program that disciplined or dismissed them. So while you may be right to worry about your kid's emotional and physical well-being, don't stay up nights bemoaning the loss of his career.

Why isn't the program doing a better job watching over my kid? Summer music programs provide a pedagogically beneficial environment for young musicians: lessons, coachings, and rehearsals. But the primary mission of a festival is the institution itself—performance aesthetics, audience development, and fundraising. They aren't (for the most part) schools. Festivals and summer programs do provide students with opportunities for educational, professional, and personal growth, but it may be too much to expect them to get involved with students' psychological health and development. That, parents, is your job.

What do I need to look out before I select a summer program? While it's flattering to think that your 13-year-old will be playing alongside college kids, do you really want her socializing with them? Or dating them? Find out what the dorm situation is and what the breakdown is among the ages. Are younger students sequestered? Are their curfew rules different? Will they have a space to socialize among themselves? If not, consider waiting for a few years before sending your child. The camp will still be there when she's older. Once you've settled on a camp, read the handbook, and have your student read it, too. Make sure he understands the consequences of breaking rules.

What do I say to my kid if I find out he's broken the rules? The most important thing you can do is keep the lines of communication open. Let him tell his side of the story without interrupting (as hard as that can be). Remember that this experience is one of many that will help him define for himself who he is and what kind of adult he is becoming. Adolescents are in a constant state of transition. The quiet nerd morphs into the cool druggy guy. The shy wallflower reinvents herself as the party girl. She is probably not very comfortable in her temporary new skin and doesn't want to get stuck there. Give her your love and support and the space she needs to keep evolving.

When my daughter's friend, a college student, was disciplined for underage drinking at a summer program, her punishment was to telephone her mother from the office of the program director and confess her indiscretion. The young woman was terribly anxious because her parents are conservative and their religion forbids consumption of alcohol. The mom's reaction was perfect, something we all can learn from. You little stinker! she said, in voice that was simultaneously affectionate, droll, and concerned. And that was that: her daughter had permission to let it go, move on and keep growing.

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