'My craft is my only source of income': Being a freelance creative during a pandemic

With business disrupted and cities on lockdown to curb the spread of the COVID-19 disease, the economy slumbers. Most projects are at a standstill. Events and shoots have been postponed or altogether cancelled.

There’s no denying that among the workforce, informal workers (officially speaking: independent and self-employed) are hit hard. Yet no one could have prepared as much for a crisis as gargantuan as this, with no end in sight.

“These workers are often the first ones to be cut during a downturn, and are viewed as more discretionary spending by many companies,” business consultancy firm’s Carlos Castelan told the Nikkei Asian Review

Having no safety net – without a company to work for – compounds this dilemma. 

It’s a vulnerable place to be in. We don’t have the protections that come with a position in a workplace: security of tenure, benefits, and – especially during these trying times – health insurance.

Photo courtesy of Tony Battung
‘My craft is my only source of income’

For creatives, our craft is our bread and butter, and the current circumstances are bringing us to exhaust resources. Each day goes by with living costs piling up, with no new paycheck to cover us for the near future.

“I am incurring debt in every moment of this lockdown and I’m doing my best to accept that reality,” film and commercial editor Ilsa Malsi said. Even as a self-avowed “aggressive saver and investor,” the current situation, she shared, is stretching her financial capacity.

Unlike in “lean months” she's experienced throughout her career, she said that she has “resorted to aggressive use of my credit card as well in these times, just as a practical way to stay liquid.”

Some have coped by turning to family to tide them over and are living with them for the time being.

“I’m trying my best not to spend at all right now,” said King Puentespina (a.k.a. CRWN), a musician and composer for ads, who is hunkering down with his family during the lockdown. 

With large gatherings and cramped gigs put on hold (until late 2021, said a US pundit), the She’s Only Sixteen drummer has little options at hand, except his passive income from “streams and other scoring jobs.”

“Since I’m with my family, we’re all just going to be splitting living costs,” Puentespina said, adding that they have been understanding.

This is a common scenario that seems to be a convenient recourse for many of us.

“I don’t believe there’s any shame in pooling resources with your parents during tough times like these,” Malsi suggested, as she is also able to keep an eye on her parents who are senior citizens. “My parents are supporting me – and I, them – in this period.”

Slo Lopez, a makeup artist, shared that since getting a return on investment from her work, she has saved and set up an emergency fund for herself. 

“It’s a system I’ve done to make sure this career would be sustainable since I started freelancing fulltime so that I can be prepared and stable given how unpredictable being a freelancer is in the first place,” Lopez said.

“Fighting for the craft is one of the hardest things any filmmaker ever has to do and to live on indefinite income comes with it. The next paycheck is always indeterminate – more so during a pandemic,” said Kara Moreno, a cinematographer, speaking about the big predicament that all freelancers face. 

This is one side to the calamity that has occupied much of the public discourse: the coronavirus’ economic toll, which has left scores of people more exposed in various ways. 

A survey conducted by #CreativeAidPH, a group of artists and cultural workers, with the Nayong Pilipino Foundation projected that the mean income loss in the following months could range from P171,050 to P 4.5 million. 

A local chapter of the ILostMyGig initiative and DAKILA have been collating similar data while also trying to paint a clearer and broader picture of how creatives are impacted by the pandemic.

Many of them are indeed left to a narrow range of options to weather this storm – with no enterprise of their own or an alternative racket.

“My craft is my only source of income,” Judd Figuerres, a commercial director, said.

“Right now, I’m dependent on my depleting savings,” added Figuerres. “I wish I had a part time job or there’s an alternative way to practice what I do but it’s so impossible to produce video without gathering a crowd.”

An group of commercial production houses released a statement at the onset of the community quarantine, calling off all shoots for its entire duration. 

The Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) released a similar memo citing the high risk of infection, following the policies of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Disease.

On top of restrictions on movement and gatherings in the midst of a fast-spreading contagion, the safety of workers has been paramount.

Photo courtesy of Tony Battung

Even with a demand for brand presence and content, Tony Battung, a freelance producer, said that the other side of the industry has responded correspondingly.

“Luckily and surprisingly, the agencies and clients I’m working at the moment were very understanding of this decision. I suppose they recognized the gravity of the pandemic,” she said.

“The industry understands the grave danger that we are in and everyone is willing to do what it takes to keep everyone safe,” Figuerres said likewise.

A number of freelance creatives can probably thrive with a work from home setup or similar flexible arrangements. Some can say they’re used to it.

But there are different fields, different occupations, and – even in the world of video production, which I belong to – different circumstances along the chain. 

Not to mention: it’s all interdependent. For example, an editor like me can’t, more often than not, work without footage. An advertising agency would have to scramble for other means to mount a campaign. 

No dry spell

Even with the lack of security, like a regular payday for instance, we take comfort in trends and a semblance of predictability with our job. We know that business won’t always be booming throughout the year. We may have clients and industry partners who have constantly trusted us.

“Every time I experience a dry spell I always tell myself, ‘It’s fine, new bids are always going to come up because brands are hungry for content,” Figuerres mused. “There’s always something to look forward to. And I know that someone out there is going to need my service.”

“Right now, things are so uncertain.”

Lopez echoed this sentiment: “It’s a waiting game and you aren’t even sure if the businesses that helped you before can give you work again right away after this crisis.”

Figuerres expressed a fear that many of us share: “No one can predict how this crisis is going to turn out. I can’t comfort myself with the same sentiments because I know that we’re all heading to an unfamiliar path.”

It bears repeating that this is no mere dry spell. These aren’t down months that come and go, with a surge in demand later on.

“That’s the main difference here, there isn’t really a way to have a full grasp on the situation since there isn’t really a precedent,” Lopez said.

Who are ‘day workers?'

For some of us, we chose this life and embraced the freedoms that came with it – not to mention how potentially lucrative it can be – while being aware of the drawbacks.

Down months are sometimes a welcome respite. It would have been a time to be productive with other things or for leisure.

“Taking time off out of free will is a privilege and I make sure to make up for it, so I take pleasure in down months sometimes – but only when they come at a right time, and that pleasure doesn’t usually last very long,” said Moreno.

But she works with an entire camera department, and she admits this is her privilege check: “My staff is my responsibility; if I don’t have projects, neither do they.”

“I always remind myself that my choices affect my staff’s families,” she added. “The current situation… is something I will never find a silver lining to.”

Even before a director first calls action, there are those who stay at the corners and wings of the set – often the “first ones in and last ones out.” 

Consider the propsmen who make the product in a commercial look good, or the setmen who help build breathtaking scenes. There are also the electrical and technical crew who keep the shoot running smoothly. 

There are many roles like this across the industry, which are essential, but are probably the hardest hit among freelancers in Adland. They’re called day workers or daily-wage earners. They’re freelance workers, who – simply put – don’t get any pay if there’s no shoot.

Similarly, there are workers on so-called zero hour contracts. They’re on call, but if there’s nothing for them to work on, they don’t get anything.

Some production workers, like gaffers for example, can earn around P5,000 to P10,000 if they’re veterans in the industry. But some, such as grips, will get as little as P1,000. These are only ballpark figures, and rates vary.

In these troubled waters, they’re not only more financially challenged. Industry practices – even pre-COVID-19 – have been detrimental to their well-being.

“Our low-income film workers as is are already in dire straits. Few of them have access to health care,” said Moreno. “They do the most work and get the least sleep, yet to them, the privilege of having enough savings is harder to come by.”

Photo courtesy of Tony Battung

Aid and sound policy

“I think anyone who is able to should consider extending immediate assistance to those in more vulnerable positions,” said Battung. As a producer, she has managed projects that deal with such day workers.

“As difficult as it may be for many of us to face, the help they need right now is urgent,” she added.

Our colleagues in the industry have partnered to set up initiatives in solidarity with our more burdened peers.

Some pooled their resources for Aidvertising, a fundraiser to support daily-wage crew members. They are aiming to hand out aid worth P2,000 each for over 290 beneficiaries.

Malsi also happens to be one of the key people behind Lockdown Cinema Club (LCC), a similar initiative by Filipino film professionals for displaced workers in their field.

Among their landmark efforts is a screening series, where the public is given online access to a lineup of short and feature-length films in exchange for voluntary donations.

While their focus is on day workers, they vet potential beneficiaries such as those working in post-production including editors and audio professionals “in terms of need and then pay scale since per day or per hour rates don’t always apply to these workers.” 

They also recommend other programs which can accommodate applicants or refer them to appropriate channels in case of a mismatch.

The economic slowdown has made such workers sink into a desperate situation. So, governments across the globe have sprung into action with aid packages for vulnerable communities.

Malsi observed, “Based on what we’ve seen, the private sector has the ability and initiative to step up but probably not the reach and the resources of the government.”

The Philippine government has its own response suited to the creative industries.

The National Comission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) is rolling out cash assistance worth P4 million for around 800 artists and cultural workers. Freelance workers are among those prioritized by this program.

Other state entities like the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) have the DEAR (Disaster Emergency Assistance and Relief) Program to aid those in the audio-visual production industry, as well as freelancers among the entertainment press.

It’s another task, however, to make assistance accessible, considering the enhanced community quarantine’s restrictions in place, or just the layers of bureaucracy. “I understand there are already programs in place but if the processes to avail of these are severely arduous, our fellow freelance workers won’t get the aid they need in time,” Malsi said.

There’s also a concern whether these mechanisms are effective.

Some quarters are protesting and urging the NCCA to implement a more “comprehensive program” for artists. Its abovementioned Assistance Program for Cultural Workers Under the State of Calamity has been criticized as “demeaning, unrealistic in its deadlines, and problematic in its process of consultation and implementation.”

‘Cracks in the system’

Malsi added that assistance from the state should also have a long-term scope. “Whatever government aid is available in the time of the lockdown should extend to helping the workforce transition back into society when we all go back to work. Robust and transparent social services have been needed for far too long now,” she said.

Figuerres views this as a parallel to employment in a workplace: “The government should introduce a model where freelancers can have better access to benefits that regular employees have.”

“I think the [COVID-19] pandemic should serve as a long-lasting social history lesson in that people are not just in need of aid during this time but that many sectors of society have been under the thumb of inequality and poor labor practices,” Malsi reckoned.

“The pandemic has just sharpened our focus on these issues because these cannot be ignored anymore.”

Battung said, “I feel this lockdown has reminded us of the cracks in the system that need to be addressed in terms of protecting the interests of production workers, especially freelance day wage earners.”

For Figuerres, unionizing is one feasible course to take.

“As freelancers, it’s our responsibility to raise these concerns as a collective,” said Figuerres. “Right now, freelancers have no proper union to protect each other, and I think that is what the system lacks also.”

Malsi has been working with a Filipino Film Editors’ Organization, which, prior to the lockdown, was gearing up for essential meetings for stakeholders and policymakers like the FDCP.

For her, the lockdown has an upside in this particular context. It presents an opportunity to plan more, “recalibrate,” and on top of it all, scrutinize the status quo. 

“We are also galvanized to think about long term sustainability practices for our industry due to the nature of this pandemic,” she said.

Legislation to safeguard the welfare of these creative workers is certainly needed. 

Bills such as the Freelancers Protection Act, among others, have been introduced in Congress but had yet to hurdle the law making process. Among the provisions afforded by the bill include the requirement of a contract prior to employment and protection against “unlawful payment practices.”

Another measure, the Artists Welfare Protection and Information Act, would ensure that accredited artists will be able to avail of social services, such as that from PhilHealth, SSS/GSIS, and Pag-IBIG.

A lot of the aid coming in – while still welcome – are nonetheless stopgap solutions. There have been gaping holes in the system, which were only exacerbated by this global health crisis.

Photo courtesy of Apa Agbayani

A disaster of this scale only underscores the need for a large overhaul.

But Moreno – like a good number of us – is skeptical of how committed policymakers will be, gauging by the current administration's topsy-turvy coronavirus response. “The lack of aid for our frontliners is telling that government inaction has become standard. While it should feel better to be hopeful for our industry workers, my heart tells me otherwise,” she said.

In the meantime, we can only trust that our company and client associates will try to fulfill their responsibilities as best and as soon as they can.

One massively helpful thing they can do is to release back pay through digital means.

“I am so grateful to the companies and clients that have done so with me,” shared Lopez. “It also helps me be able to donate and support the frontliners or spare some money for other friends that might need a hand for the time being.”

At the same time – on their side – they need some clarity so they won’t fumble in the dark. They want to be able to act accordingly, with on-hold projects as well as future plans.

“Clients are having a hard time moving forward because of the lack of direction from the government, and this dilly-dallying is greatly affecting the future of client-based work,” said Figuerres. 

“If the government are more specific with its plans and timelines, I’m sure everyone else will follow and more effective strategies from agencies and clients are going to come about.”

Photo courtesy of Tony Battung

Will we ever return to ‘normal?'

The lockdown has caused not only an economic cliff dive, but it has far-reaching consequences in how industries are run, including those producing creative content.

Consider how mounting brand activations and events will be virtually impossible in the next several months to come. 

“We don’t see experiential marketing – with the use of press launches and influencers and viral content – to return the way it used to be,” one respondent wrote to ILostMyGig.PH.

Battung also mentioned lasting effects in the business: “I worry about how the repercussions of this lockdown on the advertising production industry will affect work in the coming months.”

An article in Campaign observed: “It's unclear how long or how severely the ad pipeline will be depleted. The affected players are trying anything and everything to cope, from shelving and moving projects to changing creative approaches to having directors on set via telepresence.”

Players will have to pivot to alternatives, assuming demand for creative content doesn’t wane. There’s even talk of being resourceful with animation, stock clips, archival footage, and the like. Remote production methods are also being considered.

Photo by Kyle Macatangay/courtesy of Judd Figuerres

Even when the world is finally able to contain the virus, and businesses that engage freelancers try to get back on their feet, by then, the landscape will have thoroughly changed.

“It’s the anxiety over this pandemic that really sets the current situation apart,” said Battung. “We won’t be able to just go back to what used to be our normal after this.”

We’re both optimistic and skeptical that we’ll be able to pick up the pieces and return to what once was. But things will never be the same.

That might as well be, considering the straits we’re left in. 

If we must rebuild it into a new world, we must imagine it to be a better one for workers like us – especially the most vulnerable among us. – Rappler.com

Paolo Abad is a film/television editor and motion graphic designer. He is also a self-confessed concert junkie.