A few years ago, my wife and I had just met another couple and we invited them over to our house. Since we were just getting to know each other, our conversation was marked with all those getting-to-know-you topics. Here’s a funny part of that conversation that I had with the wife of the couple visiting…
She: “So what do you do for a living?”
Me: “I’m a writer.”
She: “Wow. That’s awesome. What kind of writing do you do?”
Me: “I write sales and marketing copy for businesses.”
She: “Oh, so you’re not a real writer.”
That’s always a nice thing to say to someone. We’ve become friends with that other couple but I won’t let her live that comment down.
Then even more recently I had a similar conversation with someone else…
Them: “What do you do?”
Me: “I’m a writer.”
Them: “What kind of writing do you do?”
Me: “I write sales and marketing copy for businesses.”
Them: “Oh, so not the kind of writing that takes any creativity.”
Uhhh, yeah. Sure.
We tend to form these ideas about what art is and what it isn’t, and in both examples above, the person I had the conversation with was quite interested in what I do for a living for the short time that they thought I was an artist… and when they found out that my writing has a marketing and sales purpose, they quickly dismissed it as “not-art”.
I do not consider myself an artist. I write for a commercial purpose and I love it and I have no hidden desire to be the next great novelist or poet. The work I do takes an immense amount of creativity but the goal is to sell and to promote, and I’m totally cool with that.
But I mention these conversations because they illustrate something I’ve noticed pretty widely: People believe that art and commerce cannot coexist. You’re an artist or you’re someone who sells something.
I have a number of friends who are artists of some kind — painters, musicians, writers, etc. And, I sometimes hear from most of them that the life of an artist is a financial struggle. They are just getting by or they have other jobs to fund their art. But when I suggest that they could market and sell their art more effectively, they tell me that it feels like they’d be selling out.
I disagree. I think art can and should be sold, and I don’t think that becoming a great marketer and salesperson trades a piece of your soul or sells out your work. In this blog post I’m going to try to convince artists to fearlessly, boldly, and confidently sell their art without feeling like they’re giving up a piece of their soul.
WHO ARE ARTISTS AND WHAT IS THEIR ART?
We should probably first start with some definitions, partly for practical reasons to keep this blog post from becoming even longer than it’s going to be but also to address an interesting situation:
Let’s divide art into two different kinds…
- There’s the type you might call “fine arts” or “visual arts/performance arts”, which are things like painting, sculpting, music, poetry, writing, acting.
- There’s also the type you might call “practical arts“, which can still be very artistic but often have an obviously practical application, like cabinet-making, cooking, architecture, etc.
This isn’t a perfect distinction but I think that it’s clear enough. In broad terms, fine arts look and sound wonderful and/or provocative and they bring beauty and meaning into our lives when we encounter them; they connect us to a deeper humanity. Practical arts provide us with things we can use but can also be beautiful and/or provocative. That’s not a perfect distinction but good enough for the purposes of this blog post.
Interestingly, the fine arts people tend to be the ones who struggle with striking a balance between art and commerce while the practical arts people can make a living (perhaps even a very good living) by doing their work.
So the focus of this blog is on the fine arts or the visual/performance artists — to keep this blog post from getting longer but also because I think that’s the group that struggles most with the idea of marketing and selling their work.
Make sense? This might seem somewhat arbitrary but I need to draw a line somewhere.
Okay, with that somewhat arbitrary definition assisting us, let’s look at why artists resist selling.
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT ART AND COMMERCE
Let’s start with some misconceptions about art and commerce/sales. I see a few. These aren’t always articulated in this way by artists but I see the common patterns of these ideas among many fine art artists:
1. The poor artist creates the purest art.
I believe this is the one ring that rules them all — the most potent, pervasive idea about the relationship between art and sales and the one idea that influences the misconceptions that follow. It’s believed that the struggling artist creates the purest form of art.
It’s easy to see how this idea has taken root: Poor artists seem to be the best artists because all the trappings of life have been stripped away and all they are left with is their raw, unfettered emotion, which puts them in touch with that part of life that most of us cover up with money and possessions. In that way, their poverty is the key to allow them to access that emotional center.
Compounding this misconception is our love of the underdog: Who doesn’t love the story of an artist who struggled their entire lives against an unappreciative world and only after their death was their work recognized for its brilliance and meaning, and gained worldwide recognition? For some reason, that appeals to us: The artist was able to deny themselves the financial pleasures of the world in order to create provocative art and then the world finally recognized the value of the artwork, but not until the artist died… leaving their artistic purity unsullied.
I’m reminded of a book I read recently about the search for the Northwest Passage: In spite of seeing Inuit people living comfortably in lightweight fur clothes and traversing the water in hide-covered kayaks, British explorers continued to explore the Arctic with the worst possible equipment: heavy woolen clothes that did little to protect from the biting Arctic cold, and massive wooden ships that were often crushed by ice. Some asserted that British explorers would be more successful if they adopted the ways of the Inuit but these voices of reason were drowned out because the British social psyche was built around the explorer enduring hardship while maintaining their Britishness against all odds.
When I think about artists I think about those explorers. Artists, rather than accepting and embracing a sales and marketing practice that could help them earn a living, seem to prefer to be defined by their struggle against all odds.
This mindset, I believe, colors everything — from how artists portray themselves to their goals with each piece of art, and even to their career goals.
2. Art and sales are diametrically opposed.
When I said “career” goals in the previous paragraph, did that bother you? Artist is a career but I think we can pretty broadly paint artist as a lifestyle while careers are reserved for those who work for someone else.
This illustrates the idea that art and sales are diametrically opposed: The more sales an artist makes, the less it’s art. (Consider the painter who struggles through life without the deserved recognition of his or her work, versus the financial juggernaut of Thomas Kinkade — someone that most painters would disdain). If we were to apply the label “artist” and “seller” to those two extremes, it’s easy to apply the artist label to the unrecognized person who doesn’t bow to sales pressure and apply the seller label to the one who gives up artistic credibility to make a buck.
It’s as if art is about what is true and selling is about what is false; as if art is an expression of the thing that makes us human while selling is the dirty task of foisting an unwanted thing on someone else. It’s as if art and sales are part of a zero-sum game and the more you get of one, the more you give up of the other.
That leads to the third misconception…
3. Art shouldn’t need to be sold.
The third misconception I want to talk about is that art doesn’t need to be sold; that if people saw it and were moved by it, they would buy it… because they were so changed by it. (And if they don’t buy it then the art didn’t move them sufficiently or they simply didn’t realize how potent the art really was).
We tend to believe that art’s value transcends financial value, and by applying any financial value to art, it lessens the quality of the art. And I’m not just talking about putting a pricetag on it but also the very act of promoting art as something that can be transacted in a financial exchange. Good art, we think, shouldn’t have to be promoted. The truest and purest of arts should naturally draw people to itself… or so we can lead ourselves to believe.
The blunt bottom line of these misconceptions: I think artists end up with the idea that they create the most meaningful art in an impoverished state, and then they need to whore themselves out to sell their art to make enough money to live and to create more art.
I believe these ideas are wrong. Starving artists do not necessarily create the purest art, art and sales can coexist, and art should be sold. I believe that these misconceptions are hurting artists — and society at large. I think there’s a better approach to art and commerce.
ARTISTIC BUSINESS MODELS — HISTORICAL AND MODERN
Artists have been making a living — sometimes even a good living — since there has been art. In fact, I believe there are four main business models artists use to earn a living:
- Patronage: In this model, the artist is hired by a specific person or group to perform their art. We tend to think of this business model as a longer-term one, so the artist might be hired by a king or a count or some other wealthy nobleperson to paint or play music or whatever they do. Today, we still have some patronage business models in the form of grants or performance contracts (such as a band might have to work at a specific venue).
- Performance/Experience: In this model, the artist gets paid to perform. That pay could come from donations (as with a performer in an ancient marketplace who earns a few gold coins while they play) or it could come from ticket sales (as with a modern band on a tour). Actually, this model is very similar to the patronage model above, except it’s shorter term and a wider paying audience.
- Packaging: In this model, the artist sells a complete piece of artwork to someone else. This is the one that painters or writers might use, but musicians also do this, too, with albums and with other branded products (band t-shirts, etc.)
- Self-funded: In this model, the artist creates art and releases it to the world without remuneration, perhaps because they have some other source of income.
There are variations to these models, of course, and blurry lines between each one. A portrait artist is, in some ways, serving a Patron for a very short time, although they are also Packaging their work and selling a single unit. And grants are somewhat of a Patronage in that they are (or often are) hands-off while some Patronage is a little more demanding and hands-on.
Even with today’s ability to conduct business online, artists follow some variation of these models: An artist might use Kickstarter to fund an album, which is basically the Patronage model. And even if iTunes pays notoriously little back to musicians for their music, it’s still the Packaging model.
We see these models present throughout history. Each of these models requires some aspect of selling or commerce: The Patronage model requires that the artist sell their ability to create art that the patron will like; the Performance model requires that the artist sell art that attracts people to view the performance; the Packaging model requires that the artist create packages of art that people will want; the Self-funded model requires that the artist give their time in some commercial organization in order to fund their art.
REVISING THESE IDEAS
Since we see that business models have existed for artists throughout history, we know that business and art can mix. So let’s revisit those misconceptions I mentioned earlier and see if there is a better way to understand them to help alleviate the concerns of artists who are reluctant to sell.
1. The poor artist creates the purest art.
1. Artists who go deep create the purest form of art.
The purest forms of art are created when artists go deep and connect with that emotional core. It is emotion and the truth within that emotion, not financials, that create create pure art.
Would you say that Mozart was an artist? Or Hemingway? What about Picasso? Or Rodin? These artists achieved modest-to-substantial success in their lifetime and yet we don’t shortchange their work or its impact because of the money they made.
2. Art and sales are diametrically opposed.
2. Art needs to be seen by others to have an impact, and sales can be an honorable way to share it.
Art that is hidden because the artist does not want to sell it won’t be enjoyed by the right people. I listed Mozart and Hemingway and Picasso and Rodin above. These artists achieved fame in their lifetime and that fame grew after their deaths. But how many other artists have created works that have not been seen and yet could potentially be equal to or greater in quality and meaning than the works of the artists I listed?
Art has some value when it is expressed by the artist but I believe it has greater value when it is experienced by others. This requires a certain amount of effort to share that art with others, and that effort is the activity of marketing and sales.
Marketing and sales do not need to be thought of as inauthentic or false or forceful. Yes, some marketing and selling turns out that way but good marketing and selling should be authentic and honorable. Good marketing and selling should help people see how their problems can be solved and their life can be better; it’s about discovering a truth and sharing it with people who need to hear it.
3. Art shouldn’t need to be sold.
3. Audiences don’t understand the value of art and need to be told.
Money is the thing of value in our society and although we have other things we value (time, relationships), money has the greatest amount of immediate perceived value to people. So valuing art by money may not be perfect but it’s one of the only ways to show people what at is worth. (Curious side note: What if you valued a piece of artwork by the amount of time it takes to appreciate it? Van Gogh’s Starry Night might be valued at 100 hours while my highschool art project might be valued at 30 seconds? haha)
So money is the easiest way to attribute value to something, especially if you intend to sell it anyway.
And, most importantly, audiences need to be told why a particular piece of work has a specific monetary value. People don’t understand why one piece is worth one amount while another piece is worth a different amount. They don’t understand what art can do for them. And they don’t understand or appreciate all the work that went into that piece of art to create it. Think of a car: To someone who knows how to drive and who needs a car, a car is a valuable machine. To someone who doesn’t need a car or even know what a car does, it’s a worthless scrap of steel. The value of your art needs to be shown to others for them to appreciate its value.
I like the illustration of the person who hires a live band for a wedding and when they get the price quote, they say, “that’s too much for three hours of music.” And the band replies: “You’re not just paying for three hours of music; you’re playing for the decades of lessons, rehearsals, and equipment… the years of preparation leading up to the event.”
Why do we pay hundreds of dollars to see The Rolling Stones but only a few dollars to see someone play in a small club somewhere? Because The Rolling Stones have spent years promoting the value of their music and the entire concert experience — it’s a value that people understand and appreciate and they don’t yet understand and appreciate the artist in the smaller value to the same degree.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO ART AND SALES
So you’re an artist but you don’t want to sell because selling feels like selling out. It’s commendable that you want to remain true to your art but what doesn’t help the situation is a lack of a clear definition of art and artists. You’ve chosen your own context and the art you perform as art and you’re defining other artists and their work around yours. This makes it more challenging to understand how sales can impact your art… and your soul.
Would you define an artist as someone who is in a stage play? Probably you would. What about if they were in a Broadway musical? What about if they performed in Vegas? What about if they performed in a film? What if they performed in a pornographic film? Or an art house film? Or an action film?
The same is true with music, poetry, painting, sculpting, and every other art. We have certain definitions of art and artists and these influence our idea of marketing and selling.
Think about a long horizontal line that will represent a spectrum: At the extreme left is a painter who doesn’t make any sales. They’re good; their art is high quality and provocative but nothing sells. At the extreme right is Thomas Kinkade.(Yeah, I’m using him again). He churns out work in an almost assembly-line fashion and although many people like what he does (me excluded) he’s more of a sales machine than a painter.
In between these extremes are degrees of sales. Closer to the left: “Barely scraping by” to “Making a decent living”. Closer to the right are “Making a good living” and then “Rolling in cash”.
This applies to any art, not just painting:
- For music: On the far left is the garage band that makes tapes on their older brother’s ghetto blaster (old school!) and on the right is Justin Bieber.
- For writing: On the far left is the unappreciated, unpublished writer and on the right is James Patterson.
- For film: On the far left is the under-appreciated YouTube-only-release “art school” film and on the right is the creators of the American Pie franchise.
See where I’m going with this?
Regardless of the type of art you create, in between each of these extremes are the four degrees: “Barely scraping by” to “Making a decent living” to “Making a good living” to “Rolling in cash”.
If you’re an artist, where are you on that spectrum? Where do you want to be? And what is the point at which you feel like you’re selling out?
I’m using this spectrum to make an important point: It’s not the act of selling that sells you out. Historically there have been successful artists using different business models who have lived comfortable and even very financially successful lives who didn’t sell out. So it’s not the act of selling that sells out, it’s a certain point on the spectrum.
What does your art look like at each point? How do people discover your art and enjoy it? What do you do and how do you share it with the world? Each of the points along that spectrum represent parts of your potential artistic career. How far to the right do you go until you feel like you’re selling out and no longer living as an authentic artist?
No matter where you are on that spectrum, and no matter where you want to go to the right on that spectrum, it takes sales and marketing effort to move yourself there. And the act of marketing and sales doesn’t sell you out, it just moves you right. Selling out is when you reach a point on the spectrum when it’s more about the money than the art. You need to find that point and avoid it, but you can move to the right without reaching that point.
HOW CAN YOU SELL WITHOUT SELLING OUT?
First, I think the concept of sales and selling needs to be redefined. This is not an issue of transaction (exchanging art for money) since that happens a lot. The issue seems to be one of promotion. So if the words “sales” or “marketing” offend you and I haven’t convinced you that selling is an essential part of art then reframe the term: Maybe words like “promote” or “share” or “evangelize” or “convince” or “persuade” or “position”. Can you do these things? Maybe one of these words can stand as a more palatable synonym to selling.
Second, the artist needs to determine how they can promote themselves authentically and legitimately. Marketing and sales can be a positive force when used appropriately. You need to decide for yourself what is a good and honorable persuasion effort for you (and what isn’t) and follow those standards.
Third, the artist should promote/share/convince others about their art with the purpose of (1) letting the world know that there is meaningful art to be enjoyed, and, (2) ascribing value to the art and educating the world why that value has been applied. Marketing and sales do these things — they tell the world and they help the world understand value.
All good sales efforts should do this:
Good sellers should find someone with a need and show them how their need can be solved. (Read more about that in this blog post about how to sell anything).
What does this mean for artists? If you’re an artist, you need to figure out what need your art fulfills and then help other people see it. Whether you intended it to or not, your art fulfills a need. That need might be entertainment or escape or challenge or inspiration (and the need is probably more specific than those few high level examples). You need to figure out what need your art fulfills and then you need to help other people discover that your art fulfills that need.
You do that by selling.
Artists have an important contribution to make and for years they’ve been doing it by selling. Even some of the greatest artists in history who we respect and admire have been selling through one business model or another. But artists face pressure to remain connected to the deepest part of themselves and it seems that the ideas of money and selling have somehow become perceived obstacles to that connection. As a result, artists draw more self-definition from the struggle than from successfully sharing their art.
I believe this needs to change. Our world needs art even though it may not realize or appreciate it. And artists need to find a way to share the message that they have a valuable contribution of work to offer to the world. And whether you want to call it “sales” or something else, that’s fine by me. But the act of marketing, selling, and promoting your work is essential… it’s not selling out.