We’ve all heard the stories about successful entrepreneurs who quit their jobs, depleted their savings, borrowed from family and friends, and ate Top Ramen while they built their empires in their parents’ basement. During their company’s start-up phase, they invested all that they made back into the business, refusing to pay themselves. This has become a common model for how entrepreneurs operate, but I would argue that it’s to the detriment of freelance creatives if they follow this business model.
Let me tell you a personal story to illustrate. I recently added “producer” to my creative hats, alongside writer and performer. Unlike writing and acting, where I receive paychecks from my clients (medium-sized to international companies), I have not received a producer paycheck yet. I’m in the building-my-portfolio stage so that I have samples to present to future clients. As a result, I’m funding all of my production projects from my non-producer paychecks, along with grant money.
When I produced my first project, a music video parody, I came up with the concept, wrote the song, created the video treatment, recorded all of the lead and background vocals, cast two actors, secured a location, wardrobe and props, hired a make-up artist, director of photography and editor, convinced one of my friends that she would make a great director (which she did), and asked another friend if she would provide craft services for the crew and actors. Plus, I acted in it.
Although I paid everyone either in cash or gifts, I did not pay myself, telling myself, “I don’t have extra money.” In other words, I took the misguided, creative-martyr position. In that moment, though, it seemed like not just the best thing to do, but the honorable thing to do.
Four months later I balk at the idea that I should be last in line for pay, especially when I am the creator, the primary financial investor, and the one who does most of the work. Not paying myself something – even if a very small check – makes no sense. It mitigates the importance not just of the created piece, but of my time and talent.
Another way to think about it is this:
What good is it to create a project that makes thousands of people laugh, and receives accolades, but not be able to celebrate by buying yourself a caramel latte from Starbucks because you didn’t honor yourself enough to pay yourself $4?
What makes us, as creators, think this way about ourselves and collecting paychecks?
I blame these three:
- An industry that creates a famine or feast eco-system and is so competitive that people are not just willing to work for free – they are clamoring to do so. Yes, entertainment paychecks can be lucrative, but auditions for those opportunities can feel like unicorns to many, making people willing to do near anything for a shot.
- We value our art only if others value it. Whether it’s a screenplay, character interpretation, or web series, if it hasn’t secured millions or tens of thousands of views, then we don’t consider it to be of value. Its inherent value is nullified by its perceived value in the marketplace, which is based on viral-ability.
- We don’t value our art. We think that it is subpar, even if others say that it’s awesome and even if it garners awards. This is called the imposter syndrome, and I was victimized by it for years. (Hint: If you use words like, “just,” and “little” when referring to your art, you don’t value it appropriately. And if you don’t promote it, that’s evidence that you don’t believe in it the way that you should.)
Everything changed for me a few weeks ago, as I finalized the budget for the 14 Days of Funny trailer. I made the decision that if I was going to pay the other actors, that I would have to pay myself as well. I would not cheat myself. It wasn’t just that I deserved to be paid; it was larger than that.
I realized that if I don’t value my own art, how can I expect anyone else to? If I don’t pay myself, how can I expect anyone else to? If I don’t deem my work pay-worthy, then I will hesitate to ask for the deal and say, “yes” to contracts that undervalue my work.
Creatives, in 2016, let’s pay ourselves. Remember: The best way to get others to value your work is to start valuing it yourself.
Chanté Griffin is an actor, writer and TV personality. She has starred in numerous commercial campaigns and has appeared on TV shows From G’s to Gents and Here’s the Deal as a public speaking coach. She’s written for Ebony.com, theGrio, the Huffington Post, and Short & Sweet L.A. She is a graduate of the Joanne Baron / D.W. Brown Studio and is currently producing and starring in 14 Days of Funny. You can learn more at www.yougochante.com & follow her on the twitter: @yougochante