Giving the Milk Away
“Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”
When you look at the careers of modern, successful artists they seem to fall into one of two categories. What I like to call the “fuck you pay me” crowd and the uncompromising visionary crowd.
The first group tend to be working artists who went to college, got into the competitive market, saw all the BS that gets thrown around and said, “Right, I’ve done some math and I need x returns on my investment.” They become artists for hire, taking any work that pays well enough and ascend to their throne of 401Ks and medical insurance.
The second group tend to get their start in some unrelated field, but end up as artists because they’re passionate about their craft and eventually that’s all they spend their time on. They do exactly as they please and are rewarded with devoted patrons and special awards that commend them on their unwavering ability to do whatever they want.
I think that most artists would prefer being in the latter group, but practical demands and current economical structures dictate that in order to be successful an artist must treat their talents like a medieval peasant’s virgin daughter. Waiting for the best proposal before giving up the goods. It does make sense as visual artists traditionally make far less than other skilled laborers and people are constantly trying to glean free services from them. It’s understandable to want proper compensation for your work when you invest so much in developing your skills. So what’s my gripe?
The way artists are treated in the job market with email verification has us defensive and possessive in the field. We want to be respected as talented creators, but we also want to make rent, so most of our best work is going into marketing and advertising for companies that we may not even care about. The greatest among us are designing ads for the sides of buses and spending days making the perfect font for a mailer that will inevitably end up in a thousand garbage cans. And worst of all we resent other artists, particularly those who could directly compete with us, when we could be collaborating and expanding our creative abilities.
So what’s the alternative?
We live in a future that was not anticipated by the creators of Copyright. They never thought that it would be so easy to share information, or so difficult to control the spread of content. This is why I am grateful for things like creative commons licensing. It gives artists (and everyone else on the planet) the freedom to break from a proprietary mindset and share freely. It provides universal access to content that would otherwise get caught up in the labyrinth of Copyright laws. It grants permission universally, giving your art an infrastructure that spans the globe.
I don’t mean to suggest everyone quit their graphic design job and go live on a commune. I’m merely putting out there that we live in a world were you can have a graphic design job that pays the rent, while you contribute to modern culture in a meaningful and accessible way. For every one email I get about how someone likes something I’ve been paid to do I get ten saying how much they like something I did for fun. And it’s not because the art is any better, it’s because people share my passion for the subject matter and have the means to find it and use it. These days I get more work related to my own interests than ever before. All because I gave some milk away.
Great, thought provoking post Cloe!
There’s a concept in marketing called “loss leading” which is the notion that it’s acceptable to lose money on something if that loss leads to further sales that eventually make up for it. Major retailers do this by marking down a single item or small group of items to below the cost they paid for them and then advertising them aggressively. They make up those losses in sales on non-discounted items that are purchased by the people drawn into the store for the sale.
You can also loss lead by advertising an item or items over and above any reasonable expectation of returns on that advertising. This is brand building. It’s predicated on the notion that once everyone knows about you, future advertising will have a greater impact with a lesser expenditure.
I own a tiny bike store. We don’t make a very good markup on complete bicycles. In fact, if we were to make that profit margin off of everything we sold we couldn’t continue as a business. The bikes are our version of loss leading, even though we aren’t actually losing on them. A person who buys a bike will usually return to that store for parts, accessories and repairs and that’s were we become a profitable business.
I also occasionally do minor repairs for free. In fact, as I was typing this a kid came in and bought a helmet. A week ago he came in and wanted his disc brakes fixed because they were squealing. His bike was covered with cherry juice, bits of cherry meat and skin*. I cleaned one rotor to make sure that that was the problem and told him how to clean the other and didn’t charge him. I have no proof that he came back because of that but he made a point of thanking me for it while he was buying the helmet.
In the art world there’s no reason you can’t loss lead by giving away your product as a means of brand building. The trick is to manage the transition from free to payed work without losing the goodwill you gained by giving stuff away.
I really think that this isn’t much of a real problem though. we grossly overestimate the number of idiots in the world, the kind of people who will get huffy if you start charging. It’s hard not to of course because they do exist, but here’s the thing: we remember the idiots much more than we do the nice folk. An encounter that gets our adrenaline up is going to stick with us a lot longer than one that doesn’t.
It’s common for retail employees to be very cynical about humanity but when you look at the actual numbers for every bad encounter there are literally hundreds of good ones. We had on average one customer per week where I as a manager had to come and deal with them because of some conflict. In that same period the store would have between 300 and 1000 payed transactions and many, many more than that would walk through the doors.
That shiny pated, dapper poster child for TMI syndrome George Hrab seems to be doing the transition from free to paid really well. His free content, the Geologic Podcast, is mostly a separate entity from his paid content in the form of CDs and gigs. That distinction is a good way to maintain goodwill. Mind you, I suspect that for him the podcast can now be seen as a straight up advertising cost rather than a loss leading endeavor.
He also value adds to the payed product. You can listen to his last album in its entirety on the podcast but buying the download gives you separate tracks and buying the CD gives beautiful artwork and packaging. This is another way to distinguish free from monetized product.
I’ll also say that there’s a difference between choosing to give your art away and not being paid for work that was commissioned. In that case “fuck you, pay me.” is a perfectly appropriate response. But to say that that is only attitude to take is a classic false dichotomy.
*I don’t know, really. I asked how it happened and he dogged the question in that way that only teenagers and politicians can.