Freelancing can get complicated, particularly if you are an artist who produces commissions for clients. I have spoken with artists who have entered into verbal agreement with good attention but somewhere down the road things trouble starts to brew. It is sad to then find out that there was no written agreement to accompany the once trusted hand-shake.
Now the word "contract" can seem a bit to formal - like you are selling out or something - however, there is a reason that businesses depend on such bureacratic methods. It protects you when you need the other person involved to uphold their side of the agreement. I could sell you all the reasons why you need one, whether you are a graphic designer or a visual artist but when it comes down to it, it is about getting paid what you are worth and what you are due. You create! You are an inventor! Therefore you deserve to be compensated for your work. It is not selling out, it is the way the world operates! If only good intentions could get us fed. So let's talk about what a contract should look like for a freelance or independent creative.
The Client and The Artist
This seems like such a trivial detail but emphasising the parties involved is the first stage of the contract. It also holds the other person involved responsible legally should your relationship status go from "committed" to "it's complicated." This section is particularly important where the client may be acting on behalf of someone else or another organization. So figuring out who is ultimately responsible for the outcome is key!
Any contract should be specific about what both parties are producing. Are you creating a portrait? If so, what style or medium has the client agreed to? What are the dimensions of the project? If you are a filmmaker, how long is feature for? How much will the client pay you? Have you agreed to a special offer? Will the other party to the agreement provide the resources you need? These are all the questions you need to ask and answer so there are no illusions about what is expected. This part of the contract ensures that everyone is on the same page as to what they are getting. Think of it as the "what" stage of the "who, what, where, and how."
Sometimes as artists, you might be providing a service rather than a product. Be clear about your role; specifically what you can or cannot do as well as how long you will be providing that service. That way the client cannot impose on you other duties outside the scope of your agreement. Additionally, you have a leg to stand on should you decide to say no to certain requests.
You have agreed on what you will create or at least the services you will provide, the contract should then include a time frame. How long will it take you to complete the creative work? How long will you provide that service for? You can list down a specific amount of time, for example, months or weeks from a stated time and date; or you can list a start and finish date. It is always better to underpromise and overdeliver. It would serve you better to give yourself a broad timeframe and finish early then underestimate how long it will take and run into delays.
If you are providing a service, not a product, a specific start and finish date is absolutely necessary! Otherwise, you may find yourself working longer than your anticipated or the timeframe cut short. None of which works out for being paid what you are worth!
This is the juicy part and probably the most vital part of the contract. After all, isn't this why you are doing what you are doing. Bacon ain't free! And neither is talent. It is up to you how much you get paid and when. If you are buying mateirals to create the final products, you may want to ask for half up front. This ensures that you get something in-case the final payment falls through. It also shows commitment from the client. It is important to state in the contract that final payment should be made before handing over your final product.Spell out the last day that payment must be received by. Against, this is for your own protection financially and to lay out all expectations upfront.
Some freelancers prefer to do the work and then get paid once the work is completed. Other freelancers prefer to be paid intermittently - hourly, weekly, monthly, depending on the gig. This approach works if you are providing a service. Treat it as an employment. You get paid as if you are on the payroll. If this sounds great to you then include this compensation structure in your agreement. Simply divide the final payment over the agreed upon time frame for scheduled payments.
Whatever you do, do not create an agreement that excludes compensation. Nobody likes to talk about money. It makes people feel uncomfortable. It may take a few discussions with the clients to figure out what is the preferred approach but ensure that this is nailed down in clear language.
Something that may not occur to most people is the method in which you get paid. Make sure that you are clear about how you want to get paid. Are you receiving a check? direct debit? cash only? or PayPal? These details seem trivial, but they can nip disagreements in the bud before they grow. So you don't find yourself pissed off at your client for paying you through PayPal when you were expecting a check!
Nothing ever goes smoothly in life, that's why it is important to have options just in case. If you've ever had to make revisions to a final product, then this is why this step exists. Clarify how many revisions you are willing to make post-production, how many of those will be free (if you want to give the client that option) and how much it would cost for additional revisions. You may never have to use this safety net clause; but it ensure that you are prepared for any changes. It also ensures that your client knows where you will draw the line when they ask you for changes.
There are always situations where things go wrong, the client refuses to pay or the artists doesn't finish the work. What happens then? This is where you talk about how you will resolve those disagreements. Do not challenge them to a duel in the middle of the street. Instead, agree in advance on what the consequences will be. Maybe everyone walks away like it's a bad dream. Maybe the client never receives the product or the artists has to repay the client for work not done. Whatever you agree to, put it in writing to protect everyone involved.
A contract doesn't have to be crazy complicated. If you can string a sentence together, you can write a contract. Keep it simple. Be clear about your intentions, what you want, your limitations, and most importantly use clear language that everyone can understand. You won't always be able to know and prescribe for every scenario that come your way, but you can mitigate some the most commonly foreseen problems. If you offer different products and/or services, create a template for each of them so that you can use them for future work. Saves time and hassle. Also makes you a boss negotiator since you already set in stone what you are willing to accept.
Remember a contract only sounds scary. You are in charge of making the terms work for you. Don't be bullied into something that does not reflect your values as an artist. You can always walk away (politely, no diva moments) if you do not like what is on the table. In the end, have fun! It's art after all.