Surviving and Thriving as an Artist

August 15, 2009

I had a nice long conversation today with my friend Eric about marketing and monetizing artwork.

The conversation stemmed from a revelation of a sorts that I had this morning while listening to NPR’s Planet Money podcast, but has its genesis going back four to six months.

Back in 2007 Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails wrote a post in his forums in which he talked about what an emerging music artist should do (in his opinion) to make a go at it as an artist. I encourage you to read the full post here.

The following is an exerpt from Trent Reznor’s original post:

If you’re forging your own path, read on.

* Forget thinking you are going to make any real money from record sales. Make your record cheaply (but great) and GIVE IT AWAY. As an artist you want as many people as possible to hear your work. Word of mouth is the only true marketing that matters.
To clarify:
[n]er with a TopSpin or similar or build your own website, but what you NEED to do is this – give your music away as high-quality DRM-free MP3s. Collect people’s email info in exchange (which means having the infrastructure to do so) and start building your database of potential customers. Then, offer a variety of premium packages for sale and make them limited editions / scarce goods. Base the price and amount available on what you think you can sell. Make the packages special – make them by hand, sign them, make them unique, make them something YOU would want to have as a fan. Make a premium download available that includes high-resolution versions (for sale at a reasonable price) and include the download as something immediately available with any physical purchase. Sell T-shirts. Sell buttons, posters… whatever.

I read this around 3 or 4 months ago, and I thought, ooohhh, great advice, and a sort of proof of concept is available to see here, on the website for Nine Inch Nail’s album Ghosts I-IV. Go Ahead, take a look. You’ll see on the order page, available to anyone, the free download, the $5 download of all of the music, and the $300, 2500 copy limited edition deluxe package which sold out.

(That’s a gross income of $750000 direct to the artist by the way)

So I stared thinking about how I could modify and apply this model of thinking to a visual artist’s work, specifically, to my work. It seems stupidly simple to me now, but it took me about four months of contemplating this to come up with some ideas to use with my work. The stumbling block I had wasn’t trying to figure out where to start (free high resolution downloads of my work) but what to offer on the premium end and what to put in between.

After four months of thought, yesterday I was listening to NPR’s Planet Money Podcast #72 “Bloody, Miserable Medieval Economics” and they were talking about the Medieval Guild system of economics and how it stifled innovation and the eventual onset of the industrialized economy. Have a listen, it’s a great podcast.

What caught my ear and finally catalyzed the necessary thought process was this from correspondent Adam Davidson

So, thinking about this economically what I’m finding confusing is there is so much money left on the table. I mean we now know with the benefit of hindsight that if the shoemakers or clothmakers or whoever else got together and said, ‘Hey guys forget this controlling our production, let’s make as much as we possibly can let’s flood the market, we’ll make a lot less on each one but we’ll sell a lot more units. People will not buy one pair of shoes every ten years they’ll buy one pair of shoes every season or every few months…  …and we’ll all be much richer.’

Now I know what that sounds like, it sounds like a Walmart approach, and if I were to apply that philosophy by itself to my work, well, maybe I’d be Thomas Kinkade, whatever you think about his work, or maybe I’d be something different, but that’s not where I’m going. That was just the catalyst. It was something I needed to hear to allow all of the disconnected ideas to coalesce into the beginnings of a strategy. A strategy for distributing my artwork across a broader audience base; to allow me to build a relationship that respects their desire to access my work, my desire to profit from that work and protect my artistic integrity.

Based off of that initial relationship, I can then take the audience/artist relationship and turn it into a patron/artist relationship. A patron being, “a regular customer, someone who supports or champions something.” Ideally, that something being me and my work.

Okay, I told you all of that, so I can tell you this. Here’s what I’ve got in mind as a starting point for executing this.

My website will be the home base for this, and on my website, this is what I’m going to offer:

  • High resolution downloads of images for free. The only requirement will be creating a free account and providing an email address. By high resolution I mean an image that could be printed at photographic quality at 8″x12″
  • Packs of high resolution images (zip files) available at a low cost. An example would be a pack of images from my upcoming scavenger hunt exhibit or sub-bodies of my work.
  • Handmade limited edition photography books available of my exhibits, sets, etc… By handmade I mean hand bound, with all text hand written, all design and layout work done by me.
  • Non-handmade books for sale through print on demand services like Blurb or Qoop, for a less costly book owning option for patrons
  • Free .pdf/epub ebook available for download of the books.
  • Limited edition folios of work available.
  • Large format very limited edition selections of work for purchase.

As you can see, the options break down into roughly four categories/premium levels.

  1. Free in exchange for a bit of information, with no limit to quantities/editions. Information (email, name) that I would use respectfully to inform my patrons of news and available works/products
  2. Lower cost convenience access to work in unlimited editions/quantities. Download packs and print on demand books
  3. Mid-range cost limited edition products (handmade books, folios)
  4. High end very limited edition (select large format works)

This is all in very early idea stage development, so I’m going to have to do some research on certain things and determine how I will add and maintain this on my website, as well as what final form my offerings will take. For instance, will I make all images on my site available for the high res. downloads, or selected images, will I offer the print on demand books, or just the handmade editions (cost comparisons will be in order), how limited will the editions be, etc…

I’m really excited about doing this and coupling it with my use of twitter and other social media outlets to connect with my audience/patrons. Now, I need to get to work!

–Spyros Heniadis