THE DOUGH is an occasional series in which Manjula Martin talks with women in creative professions about money and work.
It’s sort of impossible to keep track of Akilah Hughes. I follow her on social media, and it seems like she’s always working in some way or another. At heart, she’s a comedian, but for her that translates to a zillion different creative projects: a YouTube channel, a staff gig at Fusion, hosting events, blogging, scriptwriting, auditioning…and now writing a collection of essays to be published in 2016 by Penguin. I’m sure there’s more, but I got tired just typing that.
When I caught up with Akilah by phone, she had just returned to New York from Sundance Institute’s Episodic Story Lab (which means she’s writing a TV show, and it’s good enough to get her that fellowship) and she was flying out to Toronto that evening for work. We talked about managing multiple income streams, why she quit doing day jobs, and how she feels about brands, personal and otherwise.
Manjula Martin: What do you say to people when they ask, “So, what do you do?”
Akilah Hughes: I always say, “A lot of things!” And then I try to remember what the lot of things are. If they care past that point I tell them more.
Do all of your creative projects provide you with income? How does that all shake down?
Some of my income is from YouTube, although it’s not that substantial. I probably make like $500-1,000 a month from YouTube ads? It’s not the bulk of my income. But when I do brand deals, it’s really substantial. So, mostly just different brand opportunities.
What exactly is a “brand opportunity”?
For example, I’m doing a web series on my YouTube channel right now for Hallmark. Essentially they’re paying me for a set of five videos. Basically brands approach me to make content that promotes them.
So it’s you, but it’s sponsored-content-you.
Yeah. That’s probably most of my income. It’s them approaching me to make content but I would never do anything that’s not me.
And then there’s my book. There’s a lot of money in publishing.
Yeah! For book deals, yeah, it’s pretty solid.
So those are two of the biggest chunks of my income. And then freelancing is a lot of it. I try not to do anything that’s not paid anymore, because it’s really hard to justify your work when you’re doing things for free. People assume that what you do is very easy if you don’t ask for money.
Your finances must be insane with all these different income streams. How do you structure your stuff?
My mom does my taxes and luckily I have a lot of stuff to put against it—I do rent a lot of equipment, I do have a wardrobe and makeup, so there are a lot of write-offs. But it’s insane. I have bags of receipts, I am that guy. Once a month I pull out my calculator and tabulate it—this was travel, this was food, supplies for a job, charity stuff…
Do you schedule your accounting – like, “the fourth Sunday of the month I do my money stuff”?
No, it’s like, “Oh crap, it’s the end of the month, I should probably do this!”
Do you use any software?
I started to, and I don’t anymore because I forgot my login. I don’t know, I’m really bad! I don’t know how you become good at that.
How did you learn what you do know?
My mother isn’t a tax person, she’s a real estate agent and a family resource center coordinator at a school. But my entire life she’s done all her coworkers’ taxes. So she just knows how to do that sort of thing. I mean, it’s Kentucky, so to have any sort of substantial income you have to have side jobs. And she’s like, I can categorize these things, and I’m like, okay!
It sounds like your mom is a big influence on your financial life. What (or whom) have your major influences been when it comes to your career?
In terms of knowing what to ask for, that really just came from friends who have done this longer than I have. I was amazed that I started getting all these brand deals because I comparatively have a much smaller audience, but [my audience] is my age and that’s a very good age to have an audience be. It’s the 18-40 demographic, and they have money to spend.
So I sort of got lucky with a few different deals. Once I realized there was a lot of money in that specific realm, that was at the same time I ended up getting a traditional agent. So she would submit me for things. And you know, brands have a lot more money when they think they’re making a commercial versus paying “an influencer online.”
So having an agent has upped your value?
Absolutely. I would get deals directly to my email and not really know how to negotiate. But when you have ICM negotiating on your behalf, people take you a lot more seriously.
What other jobs have you had?
I moved to New York to do comedy. I initially was working in social media, as you do. And a lot of weird Craigslisty type jobs.
When did you stop doing odd jobs and day jobs?
I quit my social media job in February 2014 because YouTube had finally become a substantial form of income for me and I was like, I can figure this out, I really don’t need to be doing [other stuff]. So I stopped and a few months later MTV was like, Hey, come do videos for us. And they don’t really ever hire anybody fulltime, everyone’s permalance there, so I was doing that for six months. And then [being hired on staff at] Fusion was a great opportunity, so I was like, okay, I can go back to this day job stuff. Now I’m just freelancing with Fusion, because there are just too many jobs.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Oh, that’s not a thing. It’s constantly something. Most of my day is spent answering emails or writing scripts or writing the book, editing photos, social media, tweeting. It’s all a job. It’s all fun, so it doesn’t feel like work, but it is all part of what I do. So I don’t consider downtime. I often think, there are people who go home from work and just watch TV. What must that be like?
For a lot of people making a living in media now, it’s more and more common that you are your job. There’s less division between life and work. How do you try and balance that? Whether it’s creative work vs. brand work, or work/life, are there boundaries that you draw?
It sounds sort of sad when I say it out loud, but what I’ve tried to do is have just one day off a week. And it’s not really a day off, right? I’m still tweeting and whatever, but on a Sunday I’m like, I’m not going to edit a video, I’m not going to shoot a video, I’m not responding to emails, none of this matters to me right now. And it’s weird that it’s just one day, but for some reason one day seems like an eternity because I’m so plugged in.
Do you want to be doing this forever?
Not really? I mean, I like what I’m doing and I’m definitely having fun. My dream job was always to do TV comedy. But what’s scary is the internet is becoming TV! It’s weird because at Sundance I was talking to all these show-runners and so many of them are so intrigued by the internet and how to make content that’s not a half hour, or an hour. They’re like, what if we did a show that’s like 5 minutes, or 11 minutes? And I’m like, yup, that’s happening online. So it’s blurring. I mean, there’s still this connotation that if you’re on YouTube, you just prank people or have a cute cat. No one takes comedy that seriously yet. But I think once it does cross over officially, I’m going to have to do twice as much work as the people who are doing what I would consider to be resting on their laurels and just being, like, a personality on TV and then going home to chill.
So that kind of classic comedian vision of becoming a sitcom star— that’s not happening for you?
I wish, but I think it’s getting to a point where that’s not even more lucrative or desirable than what I’m doing now. It’s so weird.
Tell me about the Sundance Fellowship.
Basically they have this episodic story lab where you write a pilot for a series. I have a writing partner, this wonderful girl Lyle Friedman, and we wrote this absurd pilot about twin adults who are biracial but one appears black and the other one looks white. It’s so silly, but it really allows us to do some great low-stakes comedy!
We were there for a week, and we had five days workshopping with creative mentors—show runners and head writers for these amazing shows—Girls, Family Guy, Being Mary Jane. So many awesome, awesome people. And the last two days were industry advisors – people from Netflix and HBO and Shondaland. And they basically were like, this is how you will sell your show. So I don’t think it’s going to be too much longer before that’s a huge part of my life.
It sounds like you are just rising and rising.
It’s so weird, because when people ask me what I’m doing I’m like, I don’t know!
If you had to summarize it, what would you say your basic philosophy about money is?
Make it as much as you can now, and then ask questions later.
How do you feel about the term “personal brand”?
It’s so gross to me. It’s on par with “millennial.” I mean, just say people your age! I’m not a brand; brands come to me to do things. If anything I would say I’m “talent,” which is a circle jerky way of phrasing what I do, but…it seems like there’s a value to that. But if I say I have a brand, it’s like oh, well, your brand might be just like somebody else’s. Like how Denny’s is basically IHOP, they just have a better Twitter account.
You would never say Chris Rock is a brand. Or maybe you would, but…don’t say that.
Who’s your role model?
Obviously Chris Rock. I just think he’s so funny. And so honest. He has a way of saying the things we’re all thinking without offending people, because what he’s saying is just so true that it’s undeniable.
And Jessica Williams is so cool. What she’s been able to do on the Daily Show has really changed the way people see diversity. I think there’s a lot changing in traditional media and there’s a lot more representation, but in terms of young women…I mean, there are no black women like her on TV. That’s a huge door she kicked open. She also has so much integrity, I love the way she shuts people down on Twitter when they’re rude about her and her career. She’s very honest and it’s very admirable.
Multiple choice question: Which financial anthem do you prefer?
- Money (Makes the World Go Around) – from Cabaret
- Money Changes Everything by Cyndi Lauper
- Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems by NOTORIOUS B.I.G.
- She Works Hard For Her Money by Donna Summers
- Material Girl by Madonna
- [fill in the blank]
Either the Donna Summers one or that Wu Tang song C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me). Those are very both me. I feel like I really do work so hard. And I know everybody feels that way, but truly I feel like I’m never not working on something. My best friend just got engaged and is settling down and she works super hard, she’s getting her PhD, but it’s just a different thing. She’s like, when I’m done with that, I just live my life and go home to my husband. And I’m like, I am going to go home and write. In the dark. By myself. There’s no turning it off.
Manjula Martin has written for the Virginia Quarterly Review online, Pacific Standard, Aeon, Hazlitt, and The Awl. Her hobbies include making Who Pays Writers? and Scratch.