Quit Your Media Job Today: A Freelancing Endorsement
On Friday afternoon I got a frustrated message from a fellow music writer. AOL Music, she said, was closing down. Soon thereafter employees of the media property, including Spinner editor Dan Reilly confirmed the news. "Well, we all just got laid off," he Tweeted. "AOL Music is finished."
Luke O'Neil, at work in his office
My first reaction, which is, sadly, a common one for all of us in the media of late, was "Oh, great, another one bites the dust." That was followed by a note of sympathy for my friends and colleagues employed by the various AOL music sites. We could spend a lot of time pouring one out for our lost publications lately, that is if any of us had money to pay for the beer in the first place. A similar scenario played out a couple months ago when the Boston Phoenix, the venerable alt-weekly that I had written for for years, shuttered. In a big picture sense, the city itself was rendered poorer the instant it closed down. In another sense, all of my friends there were rendered literally poorer.
Around the time of the Phoenix's closing I was party to some of the outcropping of sympathy, with colleagues in the industry checking up on me to see if I'd be alright, money-wise. Sure, it was a little blow, I would say, but it's the full time staff I was really worried about. I'd emerge relatively unscathed ultimately, and many of my fine colleagues have already landed on their feet elsewhere, but that wasn't a fluke on my end, it was a vocational fail-safe mechanism cultivated by design for just this increasingly likely outcome. A freelancer by its very nature is a hydra-like beast, or a system of disconnected terrorist cells -- cut off one head and the other lives on; in fact another one grows back quickly in its place. I couldn't imagine working any other way.
The life of the freelancer is often regarded with skepticism by more traditional job-oriented media professionals. "Isn't it scary out there, drifting unanchored to anything stable?," my desk job-having friends have always asked over the years. As a matter of fact, it's the exact opposite. In the current media jobs climate, it seems a lot less responsible to me to put all your word eggs in one publication basket, especially since all of the baskets are going out of business.
But stereotypes about the life of the freelancer persist. A recent Fast Company piece outlined the ideas behind Why Freelancers Are So Depressed. Among them include feelings of confusion over who you're actually working for. For a certain independent-minded worker, that's exactly the appeal. Frustrated with the demands you're getting from one editor? Don't take their assignment that week. How many people at traditional jobs know the pure joy of saying "No" to work? You know the old saying about football: if you have more than one quarterback you don't really have any? It's the same for bosses when you're a freelancer.
The Fast Company piece goes on to outline other typical fears about the freelance life: the work/home blur and social isolation among them. While I'll admit there's a certain something lost by not, you know, actually seeing any human faces for eight hour stretches a day while you're at home, there's also this: not having to see any human faces for eight hour stretches a day while you're at home. I'd list off a few of the common grievances that most people face in the office environment, but I don't even know what they are anymore. Do people still complain about the fax machine not working all day and not clean out the refrigerator?
It's been about 10 years since I last had an office job; it was an editing gig, where I lasted for about 3 days, and ended when a group of new co-workers came over to explain excitedly that there was pizza in the break room. I just can't sit here in a place every day and watch people get excited about pizza in the break room, I thought, and promptly walked out. You know why people get so excited about pizza at the office? Because they're such miserable, soul-crushing places that literally any bright spot dulls the oppressive weight. When you work from home the entire world is your break room.
Admittedly there are problems chasing down payment from time to time, but if you properly diversify your working portfolio, you can spread out the risk. That's one of the most basic tenets of investment strategy, so why wouldn't it make sense to do the same with your actual source of income? At least I think it is, I'm a freelancer so I've never had a 401k.