Negotiating Contracts for the Freelance Hustler

by Rachel and Kiki

Published March 2019

If you Google search negotiating strategies, a multitude of tips and tricks pop up, such as “question, don’t demand,” “use facts, not feelings,” and “do your research.” Arguably the vaguest and largest undertaking of those is also probably the most important: “Do your research.” As a professional in the entertainment industry, this research bit can be difficult to pin down just exactly how to go about doing, and time consuming when you work for dozens of companies in a year. When you’re bouncing as a freelancer from project to project, it can be much easier to just take jobs without negotiation at all. Though time consuming, doing your research and negotiating your contract is usually well worth it. To not ask those questions could result in a costly surprise later, quite literally at your expense. It also becomes easier once you get in the practice of it—there are certain factors you will already know, and the unknowns will get easier to find as you get more familiar with how.

There are not many schools out there teaching freelance entertainment artists how to operate themselves as a business or how to be empowered when you’re one person coming into an entire organization. But there are industry-specific questions that are important to ask before entering into a contract or negotiating that contract. We’ve written up 15 points of research, questions, and considerations that we think are most helpful.

  1. First of all, ask yourself: What do you value about or what do you need from this project? Aspects to consider when selecting projects include pay, community, artistic fulfillment, and career advancement. Is this a passion project or a hobby, or do you need to do something to pay the bills? What are your goals in this industry? Are you hoping to tour or to work with one particular company? Are you looking to work with big name companies or would you rather promote new works in small venues? Does working cost you more than the value of your role in your family? Decide what your goals are or if you don’t know what they are, perhaps this is the time to try a wide variety of experiences.
  2. Consider your experience level and find out what you should expect to be paid. Your experience level changes your value to a company. In light of your own values and needs, discuss your wages with others. It can be empowering and can help others attain a fair living wage. Learn what wages are at your level and when you might expect to ask for more. What skills and experiences are necessary to ask for certain rates? Talk to others about when and how to ask for more from a company that you’ve previously worked with.
  3. Estimate what you’ll be making hourly—really do the math. Get very specific. If you are getting paid hourly, are they willing to pay for off-site work? If you’re receiving a stipend, how many hours are you actually working – in pre-project prep, production meetings, rehearsal hours, e-mails, on location hours, extra training, phone calls, etc. – as opposed to what the schedule says? How many hours in a day are you working? How many hours in a week? It’s not uncommon for management to assume that the scheduled hours are your only working hours. Estimate the outside time needed when calculating your wage so you can understand their value before negotiating.
  4. Ask your friends and colleagues about their experiences with the organization. If they haven’t worked for the company before, is there a reason for that? Is the organization carrying out their mission statement with integrity? Are the company expectations and hours close to what your expectations are? Are there quirks you should know about?
  5. Estimate the extra expenses for this specific job. Include transportation costs, food, lodging if applicable, and if you’re required to bring your own tools, equipment, or supplies.
  6. Calculate what you need to live on. If you determine that your needs must be met first, it takes the emotional attachment bit out of the decisions. What is your necessary living wage? Consider what your monthly budget is in what is necessary for you to live. Will you be able to make rent and pay your other expenses? Consider your quality of work-life balance. The starving artist archetype isn’t your only option. You don’t have to struggle just because you’re doing something you enjoy. You deserve to live without choosing between paying rent and eating.
  7. Is this a job as an Independent Contractor or Employee? If a contractor, estimate and include your additional expenses for taxes. What are the available write-offs specific to this gig? Do you feel they are correctly categorizing you? Does your worker status contribute to or jeopardize your stability or well-being?
  8. What are your support assets? For example, do you get an assistant or a crew? Is there administrative support personnel? Are there accessible supplies? What is the scope of the project? Are you expected to perform additional roles outside of your normal job title?
  9. What is the culture and environment of the company? What makes you interested in working for them? What is the company’s reputation? Do they have a vision and values you want to align yourself with? Do they value good communication and trust? Alternatively, are there people working on this project that you are uncomfortable working with? Is it likely that taking this gig might affect your mental health in a negative way?
  10. Consider the safety of the gig. Assess the physical working conditions and possible situational risks and if they are surmountable or avoidable. Additionally, is this an environment where voiced concerns will be heard? Do you have an advocate or an ally?
  11. Does the schedule work for you, or are you able/willing to make it work? Consider mental health recovery time and things that require your attention outside work. What deadlines have been set for the production? Will you be overwhelmed by too many hours? What kind of access do you have to the project? Will the schedule significantly affect your sleep, health, or social interaction time? Are there scheduling aspects you could negotiate?
  12. Consider what other types of compensation they can offer. Can you negotiate for less responsibility or more help? Can the organization offer parking, transportation, childcare, training opportunities, flexible scheduling, access to equipment/materials, or meals or snacks? Are you getting experience to grow your career as a professional? Keep in mind the range of major considerations mentioned earlier – pay, community, artistic fulfillment, and career advancement.
  13. Be willing to walk away. What are your deal breakers, or non-negotiables? What are your values? As a young artist, I started out with simply asking myself, “Can I make this job work?” Over time I started asking myself “Should I make this work?” This can often be born out of a living wage argument but can also come from decisions about mental health and safety, desired lifestyle, and personal relationships. Compensation, whether monetary or not, is a means to an end. Decide what your non-negotiables are considering what kind of lifestyle you want to have. Decide what your options are for when you do have to say no. What other opportunities do you have, or can you reach out to fill this gap?
  14. Present the facts of what you’ve found in your research, calculations, and values. Your data speaks for you. You know what you value and what you need to walk away from. Be honest, factual, specific, confident, non-emotional, and professional. If something makes you uncomfortable, ask questions and try to discuss it tactfully and professionally. Remember, you can walk away. If you are able to have the discussion and respectfully advocate for yourself, ask yourself if you think you should do so. It’s important for companies to know what their workers need and want in order to work and do their best work so that the organization can set realistic goals and expectations. Sometimes this requires more sensitive but still open discussions. Examples may include:
    • “At the rate you’ve offered, I’ll be making $50 a week, which unfortunately I’m unable to afford with the current schedule.”
    • “I understand that you’ve hired a supervisor of the department I’d be hired for. Unfortunately, I’m not able to work with that person due to our past interactions.”
    • “Those hours aren’t a good fit for my family’s needs, and I’m unable to find child care to accommodate what you’re asking for.”
  15. Stand your ground. Holding on to your values, non-negotiables, and needs empowers you to decide what kind of work and lifestyle you have. You are deciding if you want to work with an organization just as much as they are deciding if they want to work with you. Give specifics about what’s not working for you, and ask questions about what’s not working for them. Flexibility is do-able and important in the right circumstances, but make sure you have taken into account your needs and values. 

For early career professionals or those moving into a new discipline, it may also be worth discussing with the company a training wage. This should still be a living wage, but gives you both room to grow in expectations and value. As you get your bearings and become a more skilled professional, ask for your wage to increase. If that’s not a conversation you can have in your negotiations, be prepared to leave if the company doesn’t grow with you.

Finally, on a larger scale, consider how your negotiation is affecting the culture and the industry as a whole. Consider biases and privilege. Is it perpetuating low wages? How do you feel about that? Would it be better for the company to find volunteers or less experienced people who will accept the lower wage? Whether we realize it or not, advocacy for yourself ends up being advocacy for others.

Though it seems to be a trend that most people working in the industry learn these things by experience, Technicians for Change’s goal is to connect, empower, and educate. Negotiating and the research that goes into negotiating is a valuable skill set that can set the tone for your work and transform the “starving artists” into thriving artists.


  1. Very comprehensive article. Affirming of my experience. I loved how it covered not only practical aspects of life, such as wages and working conditions, but also the relational and emotional aspects, like social needs, difficult co-workers, mental health, and family life, which we often do not assert as true needs. These are all very valid points. I would love to read a follow up article, with examples and specific situations that come up in real life for technicians. Thanks!


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