7 findings from my first year freelancing

This week MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE turns one. Born as a newsletter on Revue, it’s now (finally) a sustainable company. That word, sustainable, comes with a caveat, because it currently still depends on me selling my time. There’s inherent risk in that, but I digress.

Launching the newsletter, I knew it would take me places, so I dropped everything else I was doing in order to be able to get the most out of the opportunities.

Here’s what happened next. 🍿

People will hire you for your most visible skill

I’m not a writer. I write a lot, but I wouldn’t consider it as a full-time profession. Yet it’s one of the things I get approached for most often.

Even when I was leading product strategy at Zvooq, a music streaming service in Russia, writing was one of my most important skills. It helped me communicate ideas to the team, investors, labels and potential partners. It also helped me keep the team inspired and motivated.

But I’m actually a strategist. I keep a wide overview, and have a few topics that I’m more knowledgeable about than many people in my niche. This allows me to find value through combining things.

I had always said I’d never charge money for writing, but this year I had to reconsider that. I had always seen writing as a means to attain visibility, which would lead to bigger, better things…

But what if you’re running on savings and those bigger, better things take a while to materialize?

So, I caved in: fine, I’ll write for money. My attitude towards it has changed now, because not only does it allow me to work on pieces with even greater quality, but it also brought me something else…

Find a base sustainable income early

Writing has been an easy skill to market: every month, thousands of people come across my articles through recommendations, my newsletter, the Synchtank blog, as well as Hypebot, which occasionally syndicates my writing.

And writing can be done from anywhere. As a matter of fact: I strongly prefer to do my writing out of office, away from officey distractions.

office distractions

One of the real challenges I had was getting to a sustainable income before my savings ran out. I considered getting some part-time job, but I didn’t want to commit myself to a schedule just yet. The following anecdote will explain why:

Last April I got an email on a Monday evening. It was from a well-known music business figure, with a legendary background, asking whether I could be in London for some event on Wednesday morning. After checking the email header to make sure someone wasn’t pulling a prank, or scam, I called up the sender and the next evening I was on a plane to London.

It was an incredible honour to be invited, and I got to present my ideas and vision to a room full of industry execs (my 3 minute presentation). This, to me, was the first confirmation that I was onto something with the newsletter. Had I had a job at, say, a bar, I would have had to find a replacement and I might have missed out on this opportunity.

So I held out as my savings dwindled. I wanted to stay flexible.

Then people started asking whether they could pay me to write… and suddenly I had found something that allows me geographic freedom, an income, and it synergizes with everything else I do.

Find synergy, because you’re selling your time

Some of the things I do now:

  • Helping a music tech startup with content strategy
  • Helping a music tech startup with business model development and licensing strategy
  • Helping 2 artists with management & marketing
  • Helping a conference curate their music track
  • Paid writing about trends & innovation in music
  • Occasionally lecturing about these topics

The thing I love about these activities is that they all add value to each other. Working with the artists gives me a chance to try out new ideas around building a fan base, pitching labels, as well as creative ideas around ideas. For example, I built a chatbot for Quibus recently to let fans unlock some special goodies: now we can use it to send a push notification directly to fans (stay tuned).

If you’re dependent on selling your time, you should make sure your hour becomes more valuable: if you can draw on past work, you can achieve more by spending less time or you can charge a higher hourly rate.

Border Sessions panel
Moderating a panel about interactive music experiences at Border Sessions.

Leads can take a looooong time to convert

I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me to figure out potential collaborations. Most of those went nowhere, yet.

And that’s fine. People are busy. Priorities shift.

It made a big difference when I shifted my focus from 100% international to local. Somehow, locally, it’s easier to get a collaboration off the ground. But that, too, took me some time to figure out: I had been abroad for the bigger part of 10 years and had to accustom myself to the Dutch culture again. But that’s a different story.

Basically: don’t assume positive talks about collaboration will lead to anything tangible. I just ploughed on and focused on expanding my network and the value within it (often by connecting people). Keep seeding. Sooner or later, some of those collaborations will happen and you’ll be too busy to worry about the ones that didn’t happen.

Always save some time to walk around and enjoy the moment.
Always save some time to walk around and enjoy the moment.

Make sure you have work during the summer

If I could go back in time…

Dear Bas,

Summer is dead season. Be extra proactive during Spring to find things to do during the summer, because people will be out of office and initiating new collaborations will just be a lot more difficult.

If you don’t find anything to do, just get some part-time job, because last-minute invites are also unlikely to happen.

Instead I spent my time rebuilding MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE’s homepage, improving the newsletter and other web presences, and studying.

Your clients are your best source of future work

It’s obvious, but I feel it bears mentioning, because of what it implies.

We live in a distracted age where everyone is competing for your attention. So the advice I always give to artists building their fanbase is: make sure you stay top-of-mind. For a freelancer, the best way to stay top-of-mind is through collaboration.

The next time someone has some work to do, they’ll know they can call you. Even better: they might not realize a problem can be fixed, if it weren’t for knowing you. We often ignore things that seem like they can’t be improved, not being aware of the problem… so by being present in people’s thoughts, you help them find more work for you.

Invest in your relations.

What this also means is: you now have an excuse to feel great about doing some work with a client that you don’t find super inspiring. Just stay focused on quality and promise less, deliver more.

There is real risk in selling your time

It doesn’t scale. You can only spend your time once. You can only work with so many people at a time. And if you get sick, there goes your income.

It also means unfilled gaps of time may exist between projects, which means you won’t have income for that time.

My goal is freedom. A naive goal for an entrepreneur, for sure, but to me it means: doing what I love while being able to go wherever I want to go.

So a tip I’ve had from a few people is to sell something other than my time. I have a few product ideas that I want to launch this year. I’m also considering setting up a Patreon for MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE, which will probably somehow be tied into those products (eg. funders get early access / lifetime subscription, etc.).

The goal is to create a revenue stream to cover basic costs, like rent. Once I hit that goal, I’ll figure out whether I can scale that revenue stream or add new ones on top of it. A big example for me is Pieter Levels.

 Left to right: Music Tech Fest’s amazing 2016 venue (Funkhaus Berlin), one of my favourite meeting spots in Amsterdam (Quartier Putain), panel discussion at Sørveiv Conference in Kristiansand.

Left to right: Music Tech Fest’s amazing 2016 venue (Funkhaus Berlin), one of my favourite meeting spots in Amsterdam (Quartier Putain), panel discussion at Sørveiv Conference in Kristiansand.

So that says something about MUSIC x TECH x FUTURE’s direction

But don’t worry: I won’t suddenly throw up paywalls. This strategy is working well for me, so whatever is free now, will stay free. As a matter of fact, due to my focus on synergy, I aim to deliver you more value over time.

After a year, I finally got to a point where I can set up a steady pipeline of projects (by the way, I’ll have more time on my hands from mid-March, so if you’d like to work together, email me: bas@musicxtechxfuture.com). In part because of shifting my focus to The Netherlands, but also because international collaborations are finally materializing.

Year one’s a wrap! 🍾

It’s been great meeting so many awesome people this year, from Amsterdam to Groningen, London, Berlin, The Hague, Ghent, Kristiansand, and Valencia. Thank you for the follows, the shares, the correspondence, the collaborations, the advice, and the amazing conversations.

I’m proud to be part of such an intelligent, forward-thinking, global community. Here’s to the future! 🤖 ❤️️ 🍸

(If you’re feeling generous, help me work through my reading list 🎁)