Freelan¢ing for $ony (Slight Return, Once More with Feeling!)

This article has appeared in at least two places, once in print (in my fanzine, Continue? back around 1999 and a second time a few years later over at Digital Press in my “Did You Know?” column). I figure I’d expand it slightly and give you folks who miss my usual postings something to read as I try and get my Sony PR contacts back after too long.

(Heh, like THIS is going to help?)

Anyway, it’s a fine and funny story, and yes, it’s all true (well, except for the parts about my head popping off or being otherwise damaged).

NOTE: The brief intro below is from the second run of the article, but I decided not to edit it out.

Thanks to my computer blowing up earlier this month, this column has no pretty screen shots to moon over, nor is it the PC Engine piece I mentioned last time. This month you get a blast from the past, originally published in issue 2 of my fanzine Continue? and expanded a bit for those who’ve read it already. The following is a true story, so put on your reading shoes and curl up with the cat- it’s story time!

Part One

In mid-July 1995 I received a phone call from a good friend of mine named Dave who was temping at Sony Music here in fashionable New York City. He was working for this woman who needed some calligraphy done for award certificates that were to be presented to Sony Music offices around the world. The call caught me completely by surprise, as by no stretch of the imagination am I a professional calligrapher. For the most part I’m self-taught and have ended up doing some rather unusual assignments for a number of clients. Dave must have seen some of the banners and signs I’d worked on somewhere and might have thought that it was the same thing but on a smaller, easier to manage scale. But I digress (as I very often do). Turning down potentially good money for hard work wasn’t exactly something I was particularly fond of.

As I dialed the number Dave had given me, I was feeling like quite the optimist. After all, this was the first time I’d be working with such a huge client, so I’d be able to charge my professional rate and not have to worry about haggling or waiting forever to be paid. A few rings later, I was speaking to a terminally perky woman, who after a cordial greeting and information exchange whipped out a spiked club and proceeded to beat me over the head with it. After first informing me that the person who did the certificates the last time wasn’t available, she tells me that Dave said I’d “do a super job” and not charge “too much money”.

Oy vey.

The “super job” part I wasn’t concerned with, but the “too much money” part got jammed in my sentence shredder. On the other end of the line, I smiled as I did a bit of subtraction and gave her a more than reasonable rate breakdown of $20 per certificate. She politely (but in a panicky, yet perky way) informed me that the department she’s in is on a “tight budget”, and asks if I could consider lowering my fee, which made the top of my head loosen a bit, as water started boiling in my brain pan.

Let’s stop the column and consider this for a bit:

I’m on the phone with a representative for the world’s largest entertainment company who’s telling me that they can’t afford $480 for 24 separate pieces of art to hang in its offices around the world?

They must have figured the artist’s fee in with the shipping and professional framing jobs to come somewhere along the line I figured as my eyes rolled around and began floating in the rising water. There’s a huge gap between the fantasy of working for or with a multi-billion dollar company and the reality of an average Joe trying to make an honest dollar. I was trapped in a beat up Nash Rambler with four flat tires on the suspension bridge of disbelief as a tidal wave, earthquake, and tornado hit at the same time.

I was about three seconds away from telling her I was on a budget as well, and to take it or leave it, when she whipped out that club again. “Well, Dave said that you were reasonable”, and “Dave said you were a nice guy to work with”, and so forth and so on. This made me really feel pressured (and NO, not guilty at all, in retrospect), as I now felt that I had put his job in some sort of peril. I smashed the top of my head down with a nearby coffee mug as I relented and took the job, which suddenly turned into a bear trap baited with honey-coated dynamite. All of a sudden, she’s 100% perky again, and has me down to ¼ of my original quote before I could get a word in edgewise.

My head was spinning like an electric dreidel as I asked what the deadline was, and she said that they had to be done by that Friday so that she could take them with her and distribute them at a big meeting that weekend. It was Monday afternoon. I think she heard the top of my head pop off, hit the ceiling and land somewhere in the kitchen because she stressed that the work wasn’t too complicated, just writing “Sony Music” followed by the name of a certain location. This managed to relieve a bit of the pressure I was feeling, but the clock was ticking. “Not too complicated, huh? Well, why didn’t she do the darn job?”, I recall thinking once I’d hung up the phone.

Let’s interrupt this tale of woe again to inform those of you out there who want to hire ANY creative freelancers of the following fact: We don’t all sit on our collective ass waiting for you to call us (or vice versa) and drop last-minute frantic rush jobs into our starving (yet steady) hands. Especially when you attempt to get away with not compensating us properly for out time and effort. We’re not only selling you our skills, we’re selling you back some of your sanity. We burn the midnight oil and you get to sleep nights and look like a hero to your boss when the job is done. They say peace has a price; well peace of mind is a hell of a lot more expensive, dammit.

End or rant (for now). We now return to our regularly scheduled column, where…

I somehow managed to remain calm as I explained that the deadline was a bit tight, and that I’d do my best. She perkily thanked me, and said she’d leave the certificates with Dave so I’d have them that evening. After I hung up, I spent about 10 minutes looking for the cyanide pill that comes in every freelancer survival kit, but I must have misplaced it one or two jobs ago. A good 20 minutes or so was spent on figuring out my work schedule for this job. At the time I had a regular job working nights as a limousine dispatcher, and as almost anyone with a night job can tell you, sleeping during the daytime is a bit of a challenge (especially in fashionably noisy New York City). My initial assessment was that if I was able to do 4 or 5 certificates the first day, the rest would flow like Sinatra singing a Sammy Cahn tune. But of course, if that were true, this would be a pretty dull story.

Part Two

I picked up an envelope with thirty blank certificates and nine samples done in six different styles, which set the brain water boiling again. Some of the samples were quite long, with “Sony Music International” followed by a place name and other lettering, and whoever had done these samples definitely did a hell of a lot more than $5 worth of work on each of them. Dave wasn’t much help, thinking that I had taken care of the business end with no hassles, but then again, i found out later that he was told that things went smoothly by Ms. Perky Perkins. I rushed home to gather up supplies and catch some sleep before work, and when I took a better look at the paper the certificates were printed on, I had to laugh. It was impossible to erase on, making any sort of ruled guidelines out of the question.

As I didn’t have a proper light box, I had to resort to “Plan B”, which involved an apartment with very clean, large windows (mine, at the time), Scotch brand removable tape, and a photocopy machine. I made copies of the samples, and taped them to the windows in a sort of assembly line. This way, I was able to take an actual certificate and tape it over the sample, easily transferring those letters I needed and creating new words as necessary. This sped up the process somewhat, but I was still losing quite a bit of sleep in the process.

That Wednesday, I took some certificates to work to finish (I ended up spending an hour cleaning a massive, massively dirty plate glass window beforehand), and I faxed Dave at work to let him know things were going fine. At the time, I’d been reading and seeing some interesting info on the upcoming Sony PlayStation, and the eternal smart-ass in me half-jokingly added a postscript at the end of the fax that said “Maybe I can get a PlayStation out of this for all my hard work or something like that”. I figured at this point, “What the hell – may as well take a chance and see what happens…”

I awoke the next afternoon to Dave’s voice on my answering machine asking me: “What’s a PlayStation?” and he went on to say that he didn’t feel it was the right thing to ask for something extra in addition to whatever pay I was to be receiving. ”Nanya Sore!” was my first (internal) response (look it up, it’s Japanese) as I realized that it’s bad enough being an eternal smart-ass, but worse when you’re taken too seriously. At that point, about the only thing I was getting for free from the company that could afford Michael Jackson but not me was a lesson in how to deal with large corporations in the future: Don’t.

Thursday rolls around, there are nine certificates to go, and I’m feeling good as the phone rings. I was in the middle of lettering, so I let the machine take it this time. Previous phone interruptions had made me ruin two certificates, and I didn’t have many to spare. It turned to three, as I broke a pen point while listening to the message from Perky Perkinski, asking if I could finish a day early or by Friday morning at the latest, as she now had to leave a day earlier than expected. After finding the top of my head once again and rubber cementing it down (it had landed in a hanging plant nearby), I calmly finished the three certificates I was working on (to quote Dick Vitale, I was “In the Zone, Baby!”) before returning her call. Of course, I got an assistant who said that she was in a meeting, so I left a message letting her know that she wouldn’t get the job until at the earliest Friday afternoon, and to please call me if this was a problem.

A few hours later I called again to see if she had gotten out of that meeting she was in only to be told that she was out to lunch! As my scalp was now stuck firmly to my head, I had to settle for my eyes shooting across the room and sticking to a mirror. “Plan C” would have to be put into effect: I called my job and took the day off, not a good thing especially as I wasn’t paid for days I didn’t work. As I rinsed my dusty eyeballs off (they had fallen off the mirror and rolled under the living room radiator), I thought: “This damn Sony job is actually costing me almost as much money as I’m getting paid…”

About an hour passed before the phone rang, and guess who was on the other line? She had somehow forgotten to check her messages (but of course) and wanted to know what time I could drop off the certificates. I vaguely recall poking myself in the eyes hard to keep them from leaving my head again and letting her know that I had left two messages for her and that I’d call her in the morning when I was done. After I got off the phone, I set my alarm clock and collapsed, completely exhausted from the accumulated stress of this project. My new plan (“Plan C+?”, I suppose) was to catch a good 4 or 5 hours sleep, roll out of bed, and blaze through the remaining certificates, but that (of course) fell through. I ended up snoozing a wee bit past my wake up time, and found myself dotting my last “i” and crossing my last “t” around 11:30 Friday morning.

About 40 minutes later, I made it to the Sony building in a hot and sweaty rush, only to be stopped in my tracks by a receptionist who thought I was a messenger and kept trying to send me to the mail room. When I finally managed to get a word in and explained who I was and why I was there, she turned quite pale, and wouldn’t stop apologizing. Finally making it upstairs, I found out that my telephone tag target was out to lunch, but the other folks in the office were quite ecstatic about my work. I was offered a seat to wait for my tormentor, but I was about to fall over backward from my lack of sleep, and I respectfully declined the offer. Besides, I still had a regular job to go to later, and I needed to be somewhat coherent. Cue heroic “Day Saved” end theme music, right? Well, um…. no.

Epilogue A (a few days later…)

I had submitted an invoice along with the certificates, only to receive a call on the following Monday from someone in Sony Music’s Creative Services informing me that I should have sent it to them instead. As I rolled my eyes and felt the old glue coming loose up top, the voice on the other end of the line asked if I could submit another invoice as soon as possible. Considering the Offbeat Wrongfoot (my new fake Native American name) manner in which this job began, it made sense that it would close in a similar fashion. Not only had I not been told where to submit my invoice initially, what was stopping this guy from strolling down the hall (or to another floor, for that matter) and handing my bill off to someone else to be processed? As I didn’t want to get into an argument over office procedures at an office I didn’t work in, I made up another invoice and sent it out early the next morning.

About three weeks later, I get another phone call from Creative Services, this time to let me know that I had forgotten to include my Social Security number on the invoice. I was about to commit felony assault on my skull with a heavy frying pan when the young lady on the other end says that I can give the information to her. Away went the pan, and I gave her my info, after which I was told that my check would be processed shortly. As I hung up the phone, I thought that it was a damn good thing that I wasn’t depending on that paltry $120 to survive, or else I’d be camped out at Sony’s offices with a tin cup and a really mean glare. But of course, the hits just kept on coming.

A few days later, I get a form letter from Creative Services stating that I should resubmit my invoice again because it didn’t have a Social Security number on it. I thought this was truly insane, as I just had this conversation earlier in the wee with a living person that took my SS number. As I looked over the letter again, I noticed that it was dated 2 days after the phone call from the formerly helpful young lady. This was definitely turning into a lost episode of The Twilight Zone, I thought as I reached for some aspirin.

This time, I made up the perfect invoice, triple checked it to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything and set out to hand deliver it to the Sony offices personally. Which, by the way, turned out to be a big mistake as once again, I was shuttled off to the mail room. I ended up pleading my tired case to some anonymous Sony employee there, who happened to work on the same floor as Creative Services. He gave me a “Well, that’s not good!” as he took my invoice and promised he’d run it up to the proper department…

Epilogue B (8 and a half months later…)

By the time my check had finally shown up, I was so incredibly pissed at Sony that I swore off anything and everything with that heinous logo. Fortunately (for both of us, I suppose) a few things would soon occur to help me break myself-imposed boycott:

1) Nintendo drops the ball (again) by not making its N64 console CD-ROM based, insuring that Squaresoft’s next Final Fantasy games would appear on a different system (I was a huge FF fan for quite a while- another tale for another time).

2) Sega’s Saturn is struggling stateside, no thanks to some really bad internal rumblings at Sega of America (resulting in a never published prophetical column-slash-rant from me on the company’s future prospects).

3) The PlayStation just had far too many quality games for me to ignore it any longer. I’d been playing games at friends’ places for a while and ogling screens long enough to know it was a great system, but yeah, I did hold a rather dopey grudge against the company for a while after going through hell just to simply get paid for my hard work.

So I grudgingly made the plunge, and came up for air a bit happier. Some folks who I’ve told this story to really think I should have gotten a system out of that hell I went through, but hell, I’m no celebrity, sports figure or other type of person that doesn’t need to to do more than show up and wave to score some neat gear. These days I have a PS, and PS2 along with a couple hundred games and I sometimes wonder what my gaming life would have been like without them. I’d probably be playing Crusin’ USA or Killer Instinct Gold while thinking I was king of the world or something…


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