Life as a Freelancer
Stories from self-employed Minnesotans who juggle multiple gigs and navigate the feast-or-famine cycle
Actor/Uber Driver/Freelancer Zach Curtis. Photo by TJ Turner.
The Actor and Uber Driver
Zach Curtis (a.k.a. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business)
“The majority of my income comes from theater work, split between acting and directing. My other substantial income in 2015 was driving for Uber. Aside from that, I do evaluations for the Hennepin Theatre Spotlight program, write for the Ivey awards, do some commercial work, some teaching, and last year I collected my lowest amount of unemployment yet—yay!
Uber was a great thing to come along. I can set my own schedule, and while it’s supplemental income for me, it’s saved my ass. I had a three-month drought of theater work last year, which I haven’t had since college, and it kept me alive during that time. Uber is the first non-theater job I’ve had since 2005, when I quit managing a restaurant to do theater full time. Without the Uber income this year, it would have been tight, but with that added money, 2015 was the best year of income I’ve ever had.
When work is abundant, I just try to pace myself as best I can. I use what little free time I get for head clearing and relaxation, but if I have more than a three-hour break of time available, I’ll probably go drive.
Typically, I get up at 6:30 a.m., get to the theater by 8, and do two matinees for school groups. If I have an early evening rehearsal, I’ll use the between time to catch up on emails and business. If it’s a later rehearsal, there’s a good chance I’ll go drive for a few hours. Then early to bed—11 or so. When I’m between shows, I tend to drive for Uber late nights—the 10 p.m–3 a.m. is the best money, especially on weekends.
Uber tends to average around $20 an hour (not taking into account gas or mileage). In 2015, I made $34,600: 70 percent theater work, 22 percent Uber, 6 percent other gigs, and 2 percent from unemployment.”
“When I’m not on tour, a typical day looks like this: wake up, make coffee, respond to emails, check out social media for news and headlines. Head to the gym or yoga class to exercise. After lunch, sit down to work on music, and keep at it as long as I can for the rest of the day, whether that’s one hour, or on and off until bedtime.
Sometimes, I feel the most imaginative and inspired at night, so I have to work when the mood strikes. It’s a job that I never really clock out of, and it can feel like absolutely nothing is happening. I must remind myself constantly that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
On tour, I try to keep a creative mind during travel, and if writing or editing music seems like it could be fruitful, I’ll do that. Upon arrival at the next city, it’s all hotel check-in/rest a moment/make way to the venue/soundcheck. Sneak in dinner bites or secure take-out for afterwards. Play a show. Mayyyyyybe grab a drink after the show, probably just go crash and rest. Repeat for two weeks.
In 2015, I made somewhere over $20,000 from live performances, including solo and band gigs, tours, guest appearances, etc. That might seem like a nice amount for playing music, but weighed against travel, production, and living expenses, it was a tight year. The most I’ve ever brought in from a single performance is $1,500, and the lowest is, of course, $0. Typically, a gig will bring in a couple hundred bucks.
Music sales are my second highest source of income, though it’s not a close second, and this income stream varies as sales slow down dramatically after an album’s been out for a couple years. 2015’s physical sales were a couple thousand dollars, and digital sales less than that. Last year, I did a handful of recording sessions for other artists that brought in a couple hundred dollars. Also, a couple years back, I received a grant for about $2,500.
I was a server for more than 10 years while I gradually built up enough music work to go full time. When music work wanes, I dip back into the service industry to rebuild my bank account. Luckily, waiting tables is a job that affords scheduling flexibility, as a job in music is completely manic. Some months, I have so many gigs that my calendar looks like a scribble-test paper at a pen store. Other months, I might have only one gig on the books.”
“I was in sales my whole life, but I got tired of the travel when I was in my late 50s, and decided I was done.
I’ve never advertised, ever. Word of mouth is the very best way to go. When I was getting started, I’d go to garage sales, find a book to buy, and hand out cards I printed up with the tagline, “I can fix anything but a broken heart.” I stopped giving out cards 12 years ago. I’ve always had more work than I can handle. If you show up on time with the right tools and skills, if you’re honest and level with customers and charge a fair rate, business will literally beat the doors down. And fortunately most of my clients are quite well off.
I charge $40 an hour, which is on the low end of the scale for a skilled handyman, but I work for my friends and they trust me. I have keys and garage codes to over 150 houses.
Today I repaired a lamp for a customer, rewired it, and now I’m heading to Minnetrista, where I’m installing grab bars in a bathroom for a friend of a friend’s husband who had a stroke.
My wife had her own business too; we live really simply. Thank God we had good insurance when we were both self-employed. Early on there were periods of low cash flow that caused concern, but something always came up. My biggest worry now is being able to pay property taxes. We’re OK...but we like to travel. I could crank it up and work 40 hours a week, but, now that I’m 70, I really don’t want to.
I’d no more go back to a cubicle than the man in the moon. The pros of freelancing are many. The only con is that you don’t know where the next gig is coming from. And telling people that I can’t work for them, usually because the work is geographically undesirable or not very interesting.
I truly think I’ll work at least 10 hours a week until I can’t. I wish I’d done this when I was 25.”
“My schedule is all over the place. I have my private practice, which is my main source of income, but for supplemental income I also do on-call jobs at a mental health clinic and a chiropractor’s office. I’ll take up to four clients a day. I work six days a week and I don’t have set hours.
I mainly get clients through word of mouth, though I sometimes do promotions like sending a coupon on people’s birthdays. I try not to do too much discounting because then people rely on the discount. I want clients to come in at the rate that I charge.
I will see which homes have sold in my neighborhood in the last three months, and then I’ll send a ‘welcome to the neighborhood’ card with a coupon for a free half session. This works really well because I’m local, and so it’s convenient. The best advertising is for clients to experience my work.
It’s so great to work out of my home. There’s no commute, I don’t have to drive in bad weather, and I can schedule people for whenever I want. But my income is not reliable. At this point, I can get my bills paid, but sometimes I’m scraping by to do that. There are weeks where I’ll be really busy, while other weeks will be slow. I take the work when it comes. There are saver and spender types, and I’m definitely more of a saver. When I have a busy week, I’m not out shopping—I set the income aside for when I need it.
I have a personal meditation and spiritual practice, and I know how to shift my perspective when I’m feeling anxious—that keeps me calm when I’m starting to worry about making ends meet.
My gross earnings last year were $30,000. About $10,000 came from my supplemental jobs, and the rest came from my private practice. But it’s only my second year in business, so soon I hope to be making $40,000–$50,000. Clients might feel like they’re spending a lot of money when they come in for a massage, but massage therapists aren’t rich.”