Bullish: How to Make Money as an Artsy-Artist Commie Pinko Weirdo, Part II

If you’re reading Bullish two days before Christmas, either you don’t celebrate Christmas, or else you are mid-sculpture / business plan / book / musical composition. All of which I support. (Remember when Bullish cockblocked Thanksgiving?)

As I discussed in Personality Qualities That Are Way More Important Than Anything on Your Resume, you can’t just have a job anymore. So, when other people are quaffing eggnog is when it is your chance to get ahead; watch as your competitors fatten themselves up for the kill!

I jest, I jest (sort of). It certainly is important to take time out to recharge and to spend time with loved ones. But I’ll bet there are some people in your family you don’t even love, much less like. So that’s some time saved right there! Seriously: how much of the lazy-time around the holidays is actually quality family time, or any kind of real pleasure? At my familial homestead, a lot of it is sitting on the couch watching cop shows. So, rather than lose a day to twelve hours of low-intensity family prattle, there’s nothing wrong with taking charge and making suggestions for quality time (“I really want to play Scrabble after dinner! Who’s in?”), and otherwise sequestering yourself for productive stretches where possible.

Last week’s column was How to Make Money as an Artsy-Artist Commie Pinko Weirdo, Part I. I read something once that really stuck with me and ultimately became the impetus for this column: a profile of subway musicians revealed how much each of them made. It wasn’t that they made so little or so much — it was the incredible rich-poor gap. It was like John Edwards’ Two Americas down there, with one singer-songwriter making $7 that day and another making over $400. I doubt that the latter musician was actually 5,614% better than the former. As I said last week, business advice applies to you even if your job and life look nothing like the stock photos on business books.

So, today we return for Part II — because it’s totally possible to make money without becoming a Republican.

Setting Prices for Art

I’m using a loose definition of art, here. If you’re being paid to produce something that only you could make, maybe it’s art. If it’s something you really can’t do on command, exactly, but instead need to go do your thing and get “an idea,” maybe it’s art, at least for the purposes of this discussion.

You can’t let people hold you to an hourly rate for art. I’m not saying everyone’s self-expression is fucking priceless — as Fran Lebowitz charmingly puts it, “There are too many books, the books are terrible, and it’s because you have been taught to have self-esteem.” I’m just talking about negotiation tactics, assuming that others actually want your art.

Art isn’t working behind a cash register. Most artists can’t do it for a six-hour shift with predictable results. More importantly, if you’re doing something no one else can do, and your client is going to benefit from that work forever, you should charge accordingly. Here’s how to have that conversation.

When asked “How many hours will it take you?”, try “The actual designing/writing/drawing could take anywhere from one hour to ten hours, but the important part is that I’ll have to think about it all week before I even start. If I’m thinking about your project, taking in information, and nailing down the idea, I can’t do that with any other projects, so this is really one week of creative time.” In essence, “When I’m doing your thing, I can’t also run my own creative career.” (Hire a songwriter to write your company jingle, and you’re delaying her next album; all things have an opportunity cost). I’m also fond of “It takes a long time to conceive of and build an atomic bomb, even if it only takes one second to push the button.” I should probably get a less violent metaphor.

You can also point out that, while a creative gig might take you from 1 to 10 active hours (plus days of sleeping on it, thinking in the shower, etc.), charging per-project actually protects the client from writers-block-type impediments. “It’s possible I get a flash of inspiration and slam it out right away, but if it takes a week of staring at a blank page or twenty failed attempts before I get it right, you pay the same — you’re limiting your risk with this payment structure.”

You can also try something like, “My creative output is limited to about 6 of these a year, so I really have to be sure the arrangement will work for both of us before I get started.” While many creative types resist quantification, there is a numbers game at play. I can handle about three textbook projects per year, and every English curriculum I write for a test-prep outfit means one more one-woman show that never got written. On the flipside, if you are a creative person really pouring yourself into your professional work, then your clients should sense that in your work: this textbook is like when you get pregnant with twins but then one of them dies and gets absorbed into the other one, who discovers later in life that that “mole” on his back is just the tip of a parasitic-twin iceberg containing fingers and teeth, but these fingers and teeth are parts of my soul.

And, of course, if you are the lucky artist who is selling your art to actual art buyers, rather than to companies, don’t be afraid to get ballsy with it. Sell your band’s CD for $5, some potential buyers simply won’t respect you and your work. If you’ve got a masterwork, treat it like one.

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