What is your Art Worth? Hopefully More than this Title

Consider it: tomorrow morning, were you to be awoken by the gentle chiming of Van Halen’s Unchained (definitely my actual ringtone) and a voice on the other end saying, “Hello, your art is ideal to me and I need everything you’ve made so far and more.  How much will it cost me?” Do you have an answer for them? Have you considered how your time, effort and creativity should be compensated fairly? Do you even care?

Some declare the art itself to be the reward, and as long as they can keep the lights on and some food stocked, having enough time to create more art is enough.  Others think of the art as what is of predominant importance and of priceless cost, putting it in the scale of necessity above even their own basic human requisites.  Some think their own time and expertise is what is of immense value, and the art is just a medium through which they can grace the world with their vision. We call the latter lead singers.

Whichever way you slice it, the cake you have cannot just be had.  At some point, and one way or another, you’ll want to figure out a way for someone to eat it too.  When that time comes, you need to think of what a slice of your cake is worth. Is this your first cake or are you an experienced cake-ist?  Have you received your baker’s certification? How much did the ingredients cost you? Did you make that cake in your kitchen at home with your utensils, or are you making cakes in a pro kitchen configuration with pro tools (actually I think Gordon Ramsay uses Logic Pro X)?  How much time did you invest into the batter and the icing? The assembly? The decoration?

I like cake, okay?

Point is, if you’re a pro, you’re likely to have invested a lot of your own personal resources to acquire said assets to create any form of art, whether you accumulated the latter through art or not.  As people who tend to invest so much into anything they do, budding artists definitely want others to invest resources back into them, be it money, time, or admiration. So how do you judge whether or not your craft is worth the resources of others, and how much is appropriate?  

For musicians, especially starting out, that amount is often not much at all considering all the time and energy they have consecrated to perfecting themselves musically.  It reminds me of a quote I once read that stuck with me: “Musicians are the only people in the world who will throw $5000 of gear into a $500 car to get paid $50 for 5 hours of work.”  The excruciatingly true reality for so many of my friends, my heart goes out to all of you forever. Your passion motivates you and the people in your circles when the night is darkest; the world needs you to motivate those who lose inspiration temporarily or need to feel more belief in themselves to get started.  

The desire to play a show just to play a show, however, is one that fades swiftly.  Sure when you see all your friends and they admire your performance and the music is fresh and the sound was good, shows are great!  Until you start hitting opposite truths: the sound engineer is just the bartender; you just cannot bring yourself to play the 4-chord song tonight; the venue pays in “exposure” only; no one came; no one came again; “Dude, are you even sharing the event on Facebook or telling anyone?  Cuz’ like your girlfriend’s not even here.”

Loss of motivation can be especially poignant when you have tasted fair compensation for your effort, i.e. you get hired for those sweet sweet corporate gigs, or a bar actually pays you to play original music and not just covers (as I write this I hear the cracking necks of musicians swiftly turning their heads as if I just described a unicorn).  It is the reason a lot of bands decide to stop playing their hometown and move on to bigger and better things, motivated to seek the next level in their musical journey. It is also the reason a lot of bands stop playing at all, sadly. A very justified question a lot of musicians don’t like to ask or answer themselves is: “What’s the point?” Often bands fall apart when they realize that fundamentally, there isn’t really one.  But sometimes that kinda is the point.

Making videos is even worse.  There is regularly even more gear and people to worry about and to put in play, more aspects of which to be simultaneously aware, and so much more planning.  SO much. Plus there’s audio or music to worry about anyways, so it’s basically a video production with a small sound gig happening at the same time. It’s great, there are literally a million ways 5 to 20 people can make each others’ lives more difficult than deciding between Yanny or Laurel.  For the record, it’s both guys. It’s the same frequencies both times. Your brain is the weird thing here.

Some of the productions in which I’ve been involved outside of my own company have been mostly student or independent projects, self/crowd funded or not funded at all and just using whatever resources the filmmakers had at the time.   One thing rang true regardless, when I saw the amount of selflessly given time and effort these people were putting into even 10-minute shorts I think, “Damn, at least musicians get a beer out of the deal sometimes.” I myself witnessed firsthand dozens of other actual human beings look at a week-long shooting schedule, understand the fact that they had to make themselves available for 12-16 hour periods every day of that week, and be okay with absolutely no compensation whatsoever save lunch.  Should these be the terms by which all artists operate? Especially when they have sought higher education and have spent years honing and perfecting their stylings?

To me that answer is hell yeah… temporarily though.  Realistically, this is where almost every artist starts at some point or another: giving everything for nothing else but the fact that the art needs to, NEEDS TO be exposed no matter the cost.  Going out and immediately getting well paid for every gig you play can sometimes bestow a very lowly regarded self-entitlement and desire for fiscal, not artistic, success; somewhat unbecoming of people who have respect for the craft itself.  Also, if perchance you don’t get paid after a nice streak of income, bitch-fit diva tantrums are 87% more likely. Don’t get me wrong, if your goal is to have financial success through art, power to you. Statistically, more people are likely to pay for/enjoy art than create it on a regular/serious basis, so the market is there.  Important also is the fact that although sometimes the two overlap, good art does not guarantee good pay, nor does a solid paycheck ensure the quality or quantity of art.

Oftentimes “proper artistry” is not even defined by mass appreciation/sales figures so much as by the opinion of artistic communities themselves, meaning financial success does not define artistic success.  If your work is only appreciated by others who create similar work, your target market is actually microscopic and you’re limiting your financial potential quite severely. This is why it’s a bad idea for the business side to be universally calling the shots on the art itself, and vice versa.  But that’s definitely an entire discussion in and of itself.

A possible solution to avoid executing poor business choices might be to get some help from people you trust who are, and this is important, qualified enough to get that side of the job done right.  Bonus points if they too believe in your cause; those are the folks who fight for you even without pushing them. They are hard to come by and worth their weight in gold, so treat them as such and they will do the same.  Yes, I know, sometimes it’s difficult to ask for help from anyone, let alone those whom you respect. The alternative is doing everything yourself, and let me tell you, having only grazed the surface of business-related paperwork, it’s not for everyone.  I am one of those “not-everyones” who does it anyways like the testa dura my parents raised (if you can’t translate that yourself in 2019 how did you even manage to scroll to this part of the article?).

So if it were me, I would say establish early on that proprietary blend of pride and positive emotion you draw from your work.  It’s those feelings that will drive you three years later when you’re elbows deep in the part of the job which you need to grit your teeth to get through, even if it’s a gruesome task with no pay.  Humans have this incredible capacity to work with a steely will for things in which they believe, even if their reward is personal satisfaction. Similarly, if you don’t figure out a way to quantify and establish proper balances of supply/demand as well as quality/price, you are likely to not have success at all, unless of course you bestow these tasks to trusted cohorts.  Basically what I am saying is: figure out something you’re good at, something you love so much you’d be willing to do it every day for free, then find someone to pay you for it. Piece of cake.