By Brendan Foley (writer, producer and director working in books, film and TV)

One of the biggest battles for people who make their living in the entertainment and media industries is that they get little sympathy from nine-to-fivers as both sides struggle to make ends meet.

The underlying attitude is often something along the lines that: “I have to get up five days a week to go to a job I hate with a boss I hate while you just write/sing/prance and get paid for having fun. Stop complaining.”

And in a way, they have a point. For most of us, no one held a gun to our head and demanded we work long hours often for little recognition and sometimes for little remuneration in the tough world of 21st Century media and entertainment. We do it because we love it. It is who we are. As Hyman Roth observes in Godfather II “This is the business we’ve chosen.”

So, does that mean we just have to sit in perpetual penury, tolling the bell and waiting for society to catch up with the true value of our genius? Not for a second. Studying virtually anyone who makes a decent living in our world can give clues as to how some people do much better than others in terms of surviving long term. Here are three tips on how to making a decent living out of what you love.

1. Develop more than one string to your bow

This is the single most important ingredient in a successful self-employed person in the media or entertainment business. Your career should be like a cooker with at least four hotplates burning away at any one time, and maybe a proverbial bun in the oven as well.

The easiest way to come a cropper in this business is just to have one product/service to sell. For a freelance journalist it may be that you need four utterly different areas of expertise – you may be able to write about Musical Theatre, Electrical Engineering, Trends in Dental Hygiene and Bog Snorkeling.

If you are in business for long enough you will be able to watch as one of these becomes, for a time, the dominant bread-winner and others barely tick over. Then there will be an economic or social change and you find yourself writing non-stop about one of the others.

Or if you are a musician, playing a certain sort of engagement, be it pub gigs or the Albert Hall, you may find that a totally different revenue stream forms a useful second-fiddle. And a third.  And a fourth. If one of your income streams takes a lot of time but brings in very little, put it on the back burner and identify a new one that brings in more for less effort. You don’t have to abandon what you love, but you do have to pay the bills and not starve to death along the way.

There are of course those people who just want to do one thing. Write one sort of book. Do one sort of dance. But the truth is, of those who really succeed in any specific business or art form, most of us have had to do what pays the bills, not just what we happen to love most.

The good news is that sometimes having three or four different revenue streams, always jostling for attention, can sometimes make life more interesting, or even make us better at whatever we regard as our core skill.

2. Be your own Publicist

Few of us can afford our own publicist. Those who can usually do employ one, not out of a sense of self-agrandisement but because having some level of profile among the people who can pay us means more work in the future.

So when times are hard, the best possible approach is to “accentuate the positive”.  It is a strange facet of human nature that we flock to success. This has always been the case – the adage: “Success has a thousand parents but failure is an orphan” rings true to those of us who have had a near miss or two along the way. But while bandying quotes, Shakespeare had a more useful one: “Nothing is but thinking makes it so”. If you have had even the most modest success, for example a writer coming fifth in a small competition may not be front page news, but on a blog or a tweet or rolled in with a few other honourble mentions it can set the writer apart from the herd enough to get a read by a decent agent.

One very successful entertainment colleague used to view Friday after lunch as his “publicity time” and for a few hours he devoted himself to trumpeting in print, online or just in email, about whatever small victories had come his way in the preceding week.

A word of warning – this is about thanking people who help you succeed much more than just tooting your own horn in an obnoxious way. You want to be known as a positive person and success, not a blowhard. Just one of a million examples of self-promotion without being obnoxious is comedian Mark Malkoff who developed his own ‘brand’ and made sure the world knew about it.

3. Spot economic trends

Hindsight, it is said, has 20/20 vision.  But many writers and performers have survived past economic downturns by identifying skills that are growing in demand just as some of their other expertise seems to be on the wane.

One actor friend, fed up with the lack of TV or film roles and irritated by the constant requests to be in shorts for free (“it’s only a few days”) spent some time making it clear that they would gladly work in shorts if not busy, but only if paid some sort of modest fee upfront. No exceptions. What this did for them was to modestly increase their income on one hand, but more importantly allowed them to channel previously wasted energy into a concerted PR campaign that eventually landed them their first well-paid TV ad work. That blossomed into a living and held body and soul together until he eventually got a regular TV drama role, in turn because someone had seen his face on an advert.

If you can identify a future trend early on and become an expert in that field, you can effectively invent not just another “string to your bow” but a string that may become a significant revenue generator and yet allow you enough time to still nurture whatever core skill you want to pursue.

Life is not always an either/or. Sometimes this requires understanding parts of the business that may seem very far from what we do. For instance for a film actor, it is important to understand what, if any, of his or her future revenue may come from DVD sales versus people downloading films online, so an article such as this one may give a clue as to which way the economic wind is blowing. For the actor, or for a union, such changes mean changes to contracts and ultimately to income.

Sometimes, to make the most of such an opportunity, you will need to polish your own skills base. The difference between a freelance journalist waiting for the phone to ring and one able to ring a commissioning editor with a great idea to boost circulation may be as simple as you brushing up your skills on a course. It might be on feature writing, building your first personal website, using social media to get your name out there. The ultimate thing that successful folk seem to do is make a plan and put in the work to make it real, rather than waiting for the cavalry.

Lastly, if it doesn’t sound too glib, it is important not to get bitter about how damn hard it is. Enjoying the bumpy journey is probably a better bet than always squinting towards some far off destination. After all, it has never been easy, as this interview with Dustin Hoffman attests. 

Business skills training
for creative freelances