Death of the session industry.

Why Social Media Algorithms killed the freelance session world.

The difference between collaboration and sponsorship & why in 2020 you need to understand the difference.

The big hair and beauty brands spent fortunes in the early years of the internet. Quality was the focus and in order to produce high quality content they would use real models, expensive studios and top creatives. It’s how things were done for years. You heard the adage of quality over quantity. That’s what it was all about. It didn’t last very long, The viewing numbers were advertised, we could see how little attention and engagement they got. Literally tens of people would see a video they produced on YouTube for thousands of pounds. Yet individuals that were creating how to’s in their bedrooms were getting millions of views and all of the attention for a fraction of the cost. It wasn’t monetised at this stage but it didn’t matter. This continued for many years until an unforeseen event occurred. The black swan of a global credit crisis.

The financial crisis of 2008 was a game changer not only for the big brands but the session industry.

Before 2009 Fashion designers would have a budget to get a hair and make up team that would design the looks for the models for the cat walk shows. These freelance teams were full of individuals that came together to create memorable and top quality work. Working for designer labels at the high end of the industry was the pinnacle of the session world. For me it was incredibly inspirational, it shaped my technique, my discipline and my perspective. I look back on those times with warmth and a melancholy that wishes those times would return. They won’t and i’ll tell you why.

In late 2009 The rise of ‘we will not work for free groups’ appeared on Facebook. They tried to raise awareness of a trend that was building in the fashion industry. The message was simple – “Professional people do not work for free.” They forecast the demise of an entire entity within the “fashion biz” They were correct. Why? personality and authenticity. These individuals didn’t have an agenda or a narrative. Their personality bounced thru the screen. These platforms had created a new paradigm. It was real and reality TV was the thing we were obsessed with.

Accountants became the masters of our industry.

In 2010. The recession continued to change the industry, session artists bailed from London to NYC (publishers could get more for their $ than they could from their £.) Magazines in London regurgitated editorial from New York. Editorial work cut in half over night. It was hard to get any kind of budget to organise a shoot. I used to use pseudonyms to make money working for the junk mags, within a year these hair jobs went to people at the top agencies as it was the only work that had a budget. The year before these top hairdressers would not be seen dead working for these mags.

By 2011 Big brands were accountable for nearly every penny spent in the fashion industry. They were bankrolled with easy money in the aftermath of the credit crunch. Great if you work for a big company yet horrendous if you were freelance or a sole trader. The cost to an industry was more profound and it has created a race to the bottom ever since. The accountants worked out an economic model that meant that they could get freelancers to work and advertise for them not only for free but for a new currency called “opportunity”

I was one of these individuals that grew more apathetic by what was happening within the fashion industry. I would turn up on set. There were a dozen people working in the studio and yet the only 2 that weren’t being paid with cash were the hair & make up artists. Hair and make up artists were the poor people on every set.

The irony of working backstage on fashion shows in 2008-11 was that we were warned by the brands not to share anything online, otherwise we could be kicked out. It took a couple of years for these brands to realise this new social media was so powerful it would enable them to cut advertising costs again and save them more money. Boy, the shareholder would be pleased. Clever accountants. By 2012 they were actively encouraging you to share everything you could with their hashtags.

At least session artists could earn money working backstage right?

Yes and No, Those lucky enough to be part of established hair and make up teams (Like myself) could still earn something. However the budget cuts showed up in other ways. No longer were we paid in Pounds but in US Dollars. Agencies did this so they could rinse an extra 20% off the top of every assistant in currency conversions. No longer were we staying in hotels, now we had to stay in bedsits up to 6 team members in a 2 bed flat. Oh the glamour.

Magazines, Advertisers, Big brands and designer labels continued to cut budgets throughout 2009-12. They now had a new formula to work with Quantity not quality. Amount of Content produced / Cost to produce. Every shoot now had to combine video with stills and still life. 3 days work was squashed into 1 day. Opportunities were lost and many businesses including the agencies went bust.

Meanwhile the outcasts began to look elsewhere for opportunity. This is where the technology came in to disrupt again. Whereas in the previous decade Myspace turned garage bands into rock stars. Creative freelancers turned to platforms like Twitter and Facebook to work on their audience.

In late 2012. Instagram launched and those that were early adopters of Instagram could curate their own audiences with infectious creativity, passion and authenticity. There was no agenda, this was real, this was the age of the individual. The pesky free market of the disruptive internet was improving itself again. You could now make the rules. All you needed was a smart phone, commitment and conviction to work on yourself everyday.

How do I create my own brand and build for my future?

Be selfish, If you want to be a professional you have to GET PAID.

You need to understand the definition of these three words. As your profile increases the opportunities will increase. But not all opportunities are good and here is your guide. Read between the lines.

Collaboration = is working for free towards a shared goal.
Sponsorship = is being paid or rewarded for endorsing a brand via your work.
Opportunity = is spending your time & money to work for someone else & hope that something else comes out of it. (This can sometimes be referred to as exposure)

Let me give you a scenario.
Fashion Designers have to find sponsors to showcase their work. The designers GET PAID to lease out the creative backstage area to a brand. That’s sponsorship.
The brand now needs collaborators that will work for opportunity. opportunity means you work for free. This is important to the brands.
Here is the rub – The collaborators can only be on the team if they buy the brands products.
The hair & beauty giants have seized the opportunity. The money flows backwards and forwards between them and the designer labels and the hair and make up artists are fighting over the crumbs of opportunity. Which is fine but don’t sell yourself short. The opportunity could be one of a lifetime, in that case grab it. Just understand that lifetime opportunities come once a lifetime.

Getting paid. The secret to longevity in a creative industry.

Now everything is about awareness. Get as many eyes on this as possible. Big brands buy audiences, not content. They have pivoted to User Generated Content. Which is content that is made by fans and uploaded to the brand channel. Why? because it’s cheap.

Those that create less suffer at the hands of the algorithms. Social media does discriminate. It rewards those who spend all of their time on it. Big brands want you to do there advertising for them. Remember the shift from quality to quantity. It’s food for the algorithms.

There is a reason that it costs more money to sponsor Liverpool than Southend United. The players are better, the quality is higher, the games are watched by more people. Imagine Liverpool replacing their current team with all of Southend’s players. Would they pay the same wages as their former players? No. Would the “New Liverpool” be winning the premier league? No. What happens to the sponsors they leave. What happens to the product standards? It declines.

The route for a session artist was well trodden. For years we worked together on test shoots. This was collaboration in its purest form 5/6 individuals came together to create a body of work that everyone wanted to contribute to. You built a portfolio with images showing your repertoire. You worked on your networking by making connections with make up artists, photographers, stylists and agents. Who connected you to the brands who spent money on advertising. Shows were a big part of that networking. It provided inspiration, technique and discipline.

To work in hair backstage in 2020 you have to seek permission from a hair brand that owns the backstage area. No longer is this space full of creative individuals but team mates who get paid in likes and products they may not necessarily want. Your presence is necessary and unwanted at the same time. You are powered by social media and they want access to you audience. What powers social media. Your attention, and your content. How much money does your social media make you directly?

There won’t be a professional hair industry if we aren’t careful. The pandemic nearly put us out of business. We have to spend our time to become world class at our job. If half of our time is spent on social, you get great at social. Not hair. The answer is simple. Put your phone down. Grow up, do your job. Provide a service and earn the money needed to pay for your lifestyle.

The emergence of individuals and their own brands is the story. You don’t need the big brands. They need you. You are the influencers and now you have the power. Big yourself up. Build your platform, Be independent and be individual. If you must align with a brand. Make sure they sponsor you!

About the author @aarondornhair
Aaron Dorn is a hairdresser with twenty years of experience. A background in finance and computers. He continues to cut hair and is a consultant for several companies within the hair and beauty industry.

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