Everything is Free Now
This week a visual artist friend posted the following on her Facebook page:
“Just for the fun of it, I counted up how many times in 2014 I’ve been asked to do work for free, but for the distinct financial benefit of those asking. A donation, if you will. Eight times so far, six weeks into the year. I knew I was asked a lot, but I didn’t realize the average was more than once a week. If only paying jobs came with the same frequency.”
Her post reminded me of this drawing by artist Melanie Gillman (thanks Irene Ogrizek!). Gillman’s drawing satirizes how our culture treats working artists. There are few professions where individuals are expected to give away their time, talents, and ideas. And yet artists are expected to do it on a regular basis.
Why? Because the larger culture has discovered our secret: that most of us will make art even if it doesn’t make money. Most artists create for the joy of the process, because they have something to say, and because they must—it’s as essential as breathing and eating.
Singer-songwriter Gillian Welch writes about this creative dilemma beautifully in her song “Everything is Free.” Here’s the song’s chorus:
Everything I ever done, gonna give it away
Someone hit the big score, they figured it out
They were gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay
The Benefits of Abundance
While it’s true that even lawyers and doctors do pro-bono work for causes they believe in, there is a primary difference: they aren’t expected to give their services away on a daily basis. It’s their ability to earn a stable living that allows them the luxury of being generous and donating their time and services. Financial stability gives them choice.
In other words, abundance (however you define this word) allows generosity. It allows us to give back without harming ourselves.
“Abundance” will be defined differently for each person—we all have varying ideas about what it means to “live well.” But most of us can make do with less than we think we can. And yet simplicity is not the same thing as poverty or insecurity. Artists need to have security in order to thrive. We need our mental and physical energy free for our creative work and the business of promoting it. Worry drains our energy.
Artists excel at bartering, especially with each other. (This is another reason we are so often asked to give away our work—bartering is a familiar currency in our world.) Personally, I’ve benefited tremendously from the gift economy, and it can be a huge help when exchanges are mutually beneficial.
But problems arise when the balance of power is unequal—when we are asked to give more than we receive in return. This can create resentment, especially when time, money, and energy are scarce instead of abundant. The result is that we feel depleted, stressed, and ashamed because we have not taken care of our own well-being first.
What is the solution? Mindful decision-making.
My friend, who counted up the number of times she had been asked to give away her work, took a crucial step—she quantified these requests. Now that she is aware of how many donation requests are coming in, you can bet she is going to think twice each time she is asked. She now realizes that saying “yes” to something means saying “no” to something else.
Taking care of our own financial needs is not selfish, it’s essential. And like the doctors and lawyers who donate time to causes they care about, abundance, as well as balance, will allow us to be generous when we are approached for a donation.
We all carry around a lifetime of subtle (and not-so-subtle) cultural and family messages about money. These money myths become so ingrained that we forget to question them. We assume they’re true, when in most cases, they aren’t. Too often we simply coast on auto-pilot, not examining our decisions and often saying “yes” when it should be “no” and vice versa.
Do Any of These Distortions about Money Sound Familiar?
- Distortion 1: People can’t afford the art, services, music, etc. that I create.
- Distortion 2: If I follow my passion and do what I love, I won’t make money.
- Distortion 3: I’m “selling out” if I set my prices appropriately and charge what I need to charge to make a living.
- Distortion 4: Price is what matters most and cheap sells.
- Distortion 5: Money corrupts. I’m a better artist without it.
- Distortion 6: I am doomed to be a starving, struggling artist forever.
- Distortion 7: Being a successful artist in a capitalist market is impossible.
- Distortion 8: It’s not fair that artists have it so hard in this society.
- Distortion 9: It’s not fair that other artists are more successful than I am
- Distortion 10: My ideal customer is someone like myself or my friends, and since we’re struggling artists, I should keep my work affordable.
- Distortion 11: It’s not cool/ladylike/hip/proper to talk about money.
- Distortion 12: My gut tells me to say “no” to giving away my time, but I have to say “yes” to stay on this person or organization’s good side.
- Distortion 13: If I keep giving away my art and services, someone will eventually notice and appreciate my work.
- Distortion 14: (And the most insidious of all) I’m not worth it. I don’t deserve to make a good living doing work I love. (This is shame talking.)
It’s time for artists to discuss the topic of money openly and without shame. We can’t expect abundance to simply fall into our laps—we need to seek it out. We need to know what our goals are financially. We need to quantify them, write them down, and mindfully draft an action plan that will help us achieve these specific goals.
Yes, it’s true that our culture isn’t easy on artists. And yes, being an artist is hard work, even when the money does come in. But too many artists have accepted their role as victims. Perhaps it’s time to move past the things we can’t control, and instead, focus on what we can control. We can’t control the competition pool for grants and residencies and shows, to give one example, but we can control how we present and price our work and how often we apply. Perhaps a day job is necessary right now, but is it also necessary to stick with grueling work that is an ill fit with our creative lives?
Here Are Some Questions to Consider:
- Which of the above money distortions derail me most in my financial life? What are the origins of these beliefs? My family? My peers? The larger culture? Are they really true?
- How much money do I need to make each month to be comfortable?
- How much money would I like to earn each month (my pie-in-the-sky goal)?
- How much am I short of my goal at present? (If you are short.)
- How can I best close my income gap? Can I do it by selling my work? By applying for grants? (Concentrate on ways of making money from creative work or on jobs that compliment your artistic practice. Get specific about numbers.)
- Which daily luxuries are worth paying more for and which ones can I let go of to save money? (Cable TV, for instance, or a new car versus a used one, etc.)
- Notice from the previous question that certain items are worth paying more for—a good cup of coffee from the local coffeehouse, for example, versus the burned swill from the gas station, or fresh local produce from the farmer’s market versus imported produce from the grocery store. Why should art be any different? Why wouldn’t your ideal customer pay for a painting, drawing, book, concert, or piece of furniture they truly love? Why wouldn’t they pay for uniqueness, beauty, meaning, good design, or an interesting point of view? (Remember, you are not your ideal customer, and you are not merely selling art, but an experience.)
- If I am not my ideal customer, then who is? Who would I like to see buying my work?
- How can I connect with these customers virtually or in person?
- How can I price my work so that it fits into this market? (Remember, setting a price too low can actually hurt you.)
- How can my marketing materials also situate my work in this market? (This means your website, business cards, artist statement, social media presence, etc. If you aspire to sell your work in a more exclusive market, then your prices and everything related to your work should send a unified message: “I belong here.”)
- How much time do I spend on each piece I create? (You need to know what your labor is worth.) How much money do I spend on materials? (Don’t forget to factor these numbers into your pricing.)
- When I am asked to provide free work or services, how does my body respond to the request? (Listen to your gut. There are cases when donations are appropriate, and others situations that are actually harmful. If it is difficult to say “no” when approached face to face, have a response ready, such as, “Can I think about it? I have a lot going on right now and want to check my schedule.” Practice saying “no”!)
- If I suffered less anxiety over money, how would this liberate me? In what ways could I be more generous? (Consider how this explodes the myth that money is harmful.)
As artists, it’s time to shift our mindset from one of scarcity to one of abundance. Pricing our work appropriately, saying “no” when necessary, and setting concrete financial goals for our creative practice are signs of self-respect. The larger culture exploits artists, in part, because we allow it. We may not be able to change the world, but we can certainly change our response to it.
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