One bad experience in creative self-employment

Here’s a fun little tale from my time self-employed. It details a client who I am no longer in business with. Hopefully you can all see the flaws in how this has transpired, but I will detail them if not.

A chap that I sort-of-knew contacted me out of the blue, after 3 months of silence. I should’ve known right then that something was suspicious, but I talked anyway.

It turned out that he needed a costume designer for his stage play, because his previous costume designer hadn’t met the brief (I’ve since found out that he didn’t tell this costume designer that he wasn’t happy, he’s just hoping she figures it out when he changes the outfits. Rude.). The project sounded interesting, so I agree to help. In fact I got quite enthusiastic about it.

Now, I couldn’t blame the guy for getting ill and not being able to make our first planned meeting. I couldn’t even blame him when he rescheduled for a whole week later. When he then cancelled that meeting ‘because the cafe wanted him to work that day’ I was a little annoyed. That was the first real hint.

The meeting got rescheduled. Time was starting to get away from me, so against my better judgement I spent a couple of quid on materials and used stuff from my fabric stash to make a couple of the pieces he needed. They were at least fun to make.

The rescheduled meeting got moved again. I didn’t make anything more. I said that I would drop off those bits and discuss the rest before progressing. That got me a meeting at least, and I got a better view of what had gone wrong before.

He had received costumes from the previous designer, some of which were good, some bad, and none really on brief. I can’t really blame her for that last one, as it turned out.

I delivered the bits I’d made, and agreed to make some more bits. The guy wanted to design them himself, which I’d said was fine. To my horror, he didn’t have sketches to show me, but instead showed me a Pinterest board, and pointed out aspects he liked from various photos. Not ideal.

He was skittish and difficult the whole meeting, and obviously struggled to focus. Before I left, I wrote out a list of tasks both he and I had to do, and told him to keep me posted on how it all went.

All through, his communication wasn’t fab, but I hoped I had impressed on him the need for us to stay in contact. Apparently not. I spent the next two weeks trying to get him to tell me what he’d done or hadn’t, trying to get feedback on pieces (since I knew by then he was picky, and he changed his mind so much on what he wanted) and trying to arrange meetings which we had alluded to. All was in vain.

I did manage to finish my commitments for his first deadline. As far as I’m aware, he did not. Imagine my horror though, when I saw pictures going up on the social media page for the play where my outfits (well, partial outfits) were worn – worn badly, with pieces missing – but with no credit given.

I finally got in touch with him, only to receive bad excuses as to why some parts of the outfits had been left out.

Then nothing for a few weeks.

Then a curt reply to my umpteenth message saying that actually the direction had changed, and the outfits were going to be different, and I was no longer needed. Oh, and I could send an invoice.

I was flabbergasted. Shocked. Pissed off.

I had been doing this for almost no money (compared to some jobs) because it seemed interesting, and the chap was in a bind. I was getting enthusiastic and looking forward to working on it – and indeed the chap seemed eager to have me on board. However, all that had happened was that my ideas, my processes, my input was all curbed and mitigated so that he could have free reign of the project, or take advice from others and overrule me – even after I’d already had the go-ahead to do something. It was ridiculous.

I am, I suppose, glad to not be doing it any more. It would’ve been stressful and miserable. With the right manager, such a project could be fun and exciting. It would really inspire the creative team, and I’m sure that enthusiasm would show in the finished play. Instead, well, I for one wouldn’t work for him again without a lot of change, and I hope that anyone else feeling the same pains from him does the same.

I’m not entirely sure what the lesson is here. There’s a lesson for me about being more careful who I work with, especially on reduced rates. There’s also a lesson about contracts, since I’m having trouble getting him to pay up. There’s a lesson about respecting your work, and your time, and making sure that you don’t let people screw you around.

There is also a lesson to the chap, or anyone like him. Okay, creative pursuits are fun. The Arts are wonderful and inspiring. They are however still riddled with challenges, and you need to approach them properly in order to get things done. You can’t take control of a whole project and not let anyone else help. You can’t veto every idea that comes from a fellow creative, especially if it’s their field of expertise, and you’re asking for the impossible. You can’t change things multiple times a week and just expect that to flow smoothly. Yes, The Arts are fun, and creatives can be fun to work with, but it’s still hard work, and a project still needs a capable manager and a proper plan.Wishing and dreaming are great, but you have to have a firm hand on the rudder, and an idea of where you’re sailing, to make it work.

It’s a shame that the creative world is littered with pitfalls like these. I guess I can at least say that I’ve worked on stage costumes more now – and quite interesting costumes at that – but that’s about all the good I’ve gained from this.

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