Am I really going to be doing this for the rest of my life?
June will be my best month of 2021. I don't keep a ledger — I usually only discover how much money I made each year after adding up all the numbers in TurboTax — but I've also been freelancing long enough to know that my most significant financial outliers usually occur in the same month that I'm assigned an exceptionally banal piece of sponsored content. I can't go into specific details here, because I'm not getting fired over an On Posting, but a media company recently cast me as the stenographer for an outrageously dubious startup; one that is promising to solve vast global injustice with a vague strata of Hustle Guy potpourri. I admire the faith it must take to believe a nebulous amalgamation of nouveau tech, sweaty venture capital sophistry, and the sort of greasy TED Talks where everyone seems to be wearing jeans will deliver humanity to utopia — I just don't want to be keeping that faith alive as the skies above radiate a queasy grey-green hue. But that's not the point. The point is that the job carried the richest contract I've seen this year, exceeding my Atlantic stories, my New York Times stories, the Washington Post pieces, whatever. I wrote it on a Friday afternoon while basking in a very distinct flavor of libertine freelance sweetness; the feeling of getting paid a lot of money for absolutely no justifiable reason, whatsoever.
I've never turned down an assignment in my career. I started writing for websites in 2009, when I was 18 years old and rudderless in San Diego. These anonymous, Google-proof music blogs would post recruitment notices on Craigslist, and I'd respond with enough enthusiasm to get… "hired," I guess. Every couple of weeks a cardboard package stuffed with the least essential CDs in the world would arrive at the family doorstep, and I'd dutifully write up my thoughts on each of them for free. The idea, I suppose, was to create enough momentum to catapult myself into higher career tiers; that someday, I was bound to write a life-changing music review and promptly receive one of those life-changing emails. What I didn't realize at the time was that even within a wildly languid year of community college — living sweatless and rent-free in the downstairs bedroom — I was already experiencing one of the telltale pangs of contractor brain sickness. There is no off-the-clock here, and therefore no reason that I couldn't always be making more money.
And so, the sponsored content. God I've written so much sponsored content in my life. There was the time an editor needed me to pen an aimless, inexplicable recap of Edmund Hillary's summit of Mount Everest on behalf of an outdoors apparel company. (They paid a fee about twice the heft of my current rent.) A major newspaper had me orchestrate a series of pieces with a cannabis dispensary that badly desired to be perceived as artisanal and organic, when really they were probably just overpriced. (They cancelled the deal partway through the campaign.) In my heaviest esports reporting days, I'd routinely be handed some exceptionally shady deals brokered with shadowy collectives in Minsk or Bucharest. They'd pay us to summarize a new, harebrained, Cyberpunk-ass racket every week. If I remember correctly, there have been multiple occasions where I've written about a League of Legends tournament that intended to pay its competing players exclusively through a flagship crypto token — which reminded me a lot of a Gilded Age practice where bosses would compensate coal miners with scrip coins that could only be redeemed at the controlling baron's storefronts. This is not work I am proud of, nor is it work that I've ever tweeted out. But it is work that consistently supplies a better rate than some of the most influential media entities in the world. Seriously, talk to any freelancer. They know exactly what I'm talking about.
I turned 30 last month, and milestones like that usually lead to a few weeks of intensive personal investigation. I can't really complain, which is a nice change of pace. I have the best apartment I've ever lived in, a happy long-term relationship, and an ethereal sense of spatial permanence and career stability that seemed downright unobtainable when I was waking up at 6am in a stuffy Los Angeles studio in order to move my Corolla before the street-sweeping cartel claimed the territory. I'm making more money than ever before, and my editorial rolodex is deep enough that I seldom experience the hunter-gatherer existential precarity I endured when I was scoring $50 a post at Vice. In fact, one of the only lingering professional anxieties I discovered during that audit had to do with the ever-calcifying presence of sponcon in my life. In the nadir of that post-birthday haze, I was briefly taken by a vision of myself at 40, or even 50, banging out yet another damp, flaccid Brand Activation — destined to soak up under 100 clicks after the publication in question hastily buries it at the bottom of their website — leaving all parties involved elementally unsatisfied. It is those moments, when confronted with the reality that the dumbest and most disposable portions of your portfolio will likely exceed the profit calculus of everything you hoped to accomplish when you got in the media business… Well, the headline at the top of the page says it all.
Obviously, there are ways to break this cycle. I could go try to get a staff job somewhere, as staffers are rarely conscripted into the sponsored content gambit. But that would also betray the useless, stubborn creed I've hewn with myself — that after more than a decade's worth of freelancing I have no choice but to keep the streak going as long as possible, like that time David Blaine stood on a pole for 35 hours. Better yet, I could simply get religion and understand that every job on earth is rife with paradoxes and tragic ironies that will completely freak you out from time to time, and that if anything, we should relish those moments of Maximum Void for the way they snap all of our delusions back into perspective. Or maybe I could just go find a real career, mixing concrete or something, and float off blissfully into ego death without ever formulating an opinion again. The options are viable across the board. All I know for sure is that June will be my best month of 2021, for better or worse.