There is a disparity between the information people outside a creative industry have, and the truth about working in that industry. This is because the views of people who are very successful in an industry get more coverage, both through conventional media (because reporting on what multi millionaires like Adele or Tom Cruise or Gabe Newell does gets more clicks) and organically through media like twitter, where we naturally follow ‘celebrities’ who are inevitable wealth and famous.
(I am as guilty as anyone. I follow Elon Musk and Brad Wardell and Mike Bithel on twitter. If you are a struggling indie who hasn’t had a hit game ever, I’m unlikely to follow you unless I know you personally…partly because I just *do not know who you are*.)
To compound the problem, there is the whole issue of ‘fake it till you make it’, where indies and other creative types project a false narrative of success in the hope that success will breed success. This is just playing to human nature, and is understandable as a marketing strategy, but its damaging in terms of giving the false impression to people who want the real facts.
And to add to all these factors (as if they were not enough), we have a natural human tendency to want to place emphasis on our successes and minimize our failures. I am much more likely to tell you about all those times I did a share deal and made money than admit just how many times it went badly, badly wrong… This is just how humans operate.
The reality is that there are a number of big downsides to the freelance/self-employed/start-your-own company life that probabl;y need re-emphasizing from time to time. Here are the big ones
You probably, on average, will not make much money as a game developer, writer, artists, actor or any other creative pursuit. Its just harsh economics. Lots of people want the jobs and few are available. by jobs I also mean sales, so lots of people want a hit indie game and there are only so many buyers. Simple market forces mean most people do badly. In this article in 2018, Mike Rose found that 82% of indie games didn’t make their creators the minimum wage. What makes you so sure you are in the top 18%?
People often equate unstable income with ‘you earn $5k one month and $3k the next month. sheesh!’ but the reality can be way worse. Think more like this: You earn $32k one month, and then absolutely zero for a year. Or maybe two years. Can you be *that* disciplined with money to live like that? I’ve seen my own income double in one year, then halve the next year, and I’m a stable indie with 20 years experience and many shipped games.
You may well work from home. Whole days may pass without you talking to anyone. You have no work ‘colleagues’ and no workplace chat or gossip. There are no social groups in the evening of people grabbing a quick drink or food after work. There are no workplace parties or works events or trips. You may do 95% of your socializing through a web browser. Not normal or healthy
You will not have an employers pension, so should set one up. How do you do that? Can you get a mortgage? how do you prove earnings? Who gives you a loan when your income is so unreliable. How can you set up things like subscriptions, or direct debits for bills, or book holidays when you have no idea what you will earn. Even if you get a mortgage, how can you know if you can afford it?
Nobody understands your job
Meeting with friends in normal jobs will start to feel weird. Most of their work-chat is about how they hate their job, or colleagues, or boss. You cannot relate to this at all. They claim to be envious of your lifestyle, but have no idea what it is like. They do not understand why on earth you would work at the weekend, you do not understand why they have to rush back because they have a pre-set lunch *hour*. They don’t know what its like to pitch for work, or a publishing deal, you cant remember what performance reviews are like, or why flexi-time is so valued. They think you have made the wrong decision. You think they have no ambition.
The business facade
You are conscious of always having to represent your business side. You cant get drunk and tell people your job is pointless and the work boring. You are always thinking about your public image, and not wanting to upset potential customers, or investors. Every dumb or sensitive comment you make on twitter could lose you business, even wreck your career. Your views on social media are inseparable from the public face of your employer, which is you.
Nobody to blame
When everything goes wrong and nobody hires you or the game flops, or nobody buys your art, it is your fault. You cannot tell yourself, even subconsciously, that this is the fault of X in marketing or Y in sales, and how you did a good job. Ultimately there is nobody to pass the blame onto. You can come up with excuses and rationalizations but ultimately the whole company is you and there is nobody else to blame. Failure feels much more personal, and harder to shake off. Even when you are successful you worry about failing in the future.
Ultimately, its a choice that depends very much on your personality. Working for yourself in a creative field can be very rewarding, financially as well as personally, and i would DREAD to go be an employee again, but it really depends so much on your personality. I am very self-motivated, I don’t mind (within reason) the isolation, and I’m very risk tolerant, so it works for me.
Also do not forget that the reverse applies. I have personality characteristics that mean I don’t like working as a normal employee at all. I can be argumentative, arrogant, short-tempered, I hate being told what to do, I hate working in noisy places and hate commuting. I can be very moody, and not good at working with extroverted people… there are so many reasons for me to choose the lifestyle I have, despite its many shortcomings.
It is very easy for people who are successful in a field to forget the many downsides for those who are more typical. I probably vastly understate the effect that low income and unstable income has on people. If money worries can lead to stress and health problems, which leaks into relationship problems (which can lead to more stress)… then this can be all consuming. Sometimes these things compound. Trying to be extroverted and upbeat and SELL SELL SELL when inside you are worried about paying for food and that your partner is disappointed in your career choice…. cannot be easy.
My top tip: TALK to other people in similar fields, whether you are in the industry already and struggling, or considering leaving your job for this business. It can be very enlightening. No reading of blogs or twitter is as good as real world ‘pub-chat’ with people in the same position. Even just hearing other people agree with you about the negatives of the industry can be strangely re-assuring. Somehow us humans like to know that we are not suffering alone, even if we are still suffering.