Working as a freelancer can be awesome and terrifying. It is a delicate balance to decide whether or not to sacrifice the steady income, inherent social network, and support of a company for the relative “time freedom” as a freelancer.
I soon discovered that like most things in life, you can’t have your bread and eat it too. You’ll soon see what I mean.
Deep in the throes of one of my worst professional dry spells as a composer for television (and I’ve had a few), an old high school friend spotted me on LinkedIn and offered me work.
There is a Spanish saying: Los bebés vienen con un pan bajo el brazo. This translates as: A baby comes with a loaf of bread under its arm (ie, with new and unexpected sources of income). It is a wonderful saying that captures the essence of one of life’s truisms: there is never a perfect time to have a child. Just have one (or a dozen) and things will somehow fall into place.
And fall into place they did for me, at least for a while. My news about my particular loaf of bread - my son - arrived just as I got the call from my old high school buddy to compose music for her newly-formed documentary company. It was the very month I found out we were pregnant!
Soon, I was scoring thirty to forty pieces of music per month. They were short -- three to five minutes long -- but they required wall-to-wall music. Sometimes, I would do four spots in one day! Man, I was gorging on bread!
But there was a dark side. The most stressful aspect was the deadlines, which were mostly EOD (end of day). I would get documentaries in the morning and deliver them by the afternoon when my California clients were waking up. Redos might have me recomposing well into the night. There were many days when I would compose for a brand new film, redo part of a previous project, adjust a third video to conform to new client specifications, and completely redo a fourth project: all in the same day and all with a deadline of “now!”
What did all this mean, in terms of me having any semblance of a viable social life?
It meant that no matter what I did or planned, I was always on-call. Because in the entertainment industry, in most cases, the deadline really is “now”.
My obsession with being aware of my client's needs at all times with speed-of-light reactions to fulfill them reminded me of doctors who are perennially on-call. But is composing in any way equivalent to saving lives?
Well, composing saved this life many times over.
For many years, I checked my phone all day long to see if I was needed. I couldn’t stray too far from my studio in Madrid for fear of not returning in time to fulfill a delivery. I rarely lived in the moment.
After years of schlepping my portable studio with me everywhere, I went - whether it was to a beach in Portugal so windy I could barely hear what I was composing or scrunched up in the middle seat of a plane struggling to get two notes right, or running back to countless hotel rooms from a tour or a dinner after receiving a “now!” email - I decided I had had enough, and gradually withdrew from a dizzyingly creative yet stressful time of my life.
Why didn’t I just tell my clients that I needed to take time off?
There is a psychological terror associated with the thought of saying “no” to a client. This fear stems from the belief that if you say “no”, word will spread that you’re “that guy”: the freelancer who needs time off, and you will be demoted to the worst a freelancer can be labeled: unreliable. Uugghh, just saying it makes me queasy.
In my head, saying “no” meant that my livelihood would be immediately cut off, and I would be condemned to live under a bridge, drowning in a pool of my own drool.
I exaggerate, of course. But I bought into this terror so much that it resulted in the picture you see here. It is a picture of me composing at my portable studio in a Madrid hospital room, on February 22, 2012.
That was the day my son was born.
Do I regret not having the balls to ask my clients for the day off so I could fully enjoy that moment?
Of course I do.
But this story has a happy ending because, in truth, I am thankful for having had the kind of work that allowed me to stay home and help raise my son for the first few years of his life, even if it deprived me of fully enjoying the first day of his life.
Indeed, los bebés vienen con un pan bajo el brazo, but that bread might prove to be very costly.
Looking back however, I now realize it came with a latent prize: after many twists and turns, it led me to ASM, where a more secure and satisfying line of work - with the best colleagues a lonely freelance composer could wish for - awaited.