You have been asked to perform and speak and share your views with thousands of people. You have starred in international festivals and spoken at international colloquiums and you are in high demand. You have a huge social media following, you’ve invested in an amazing website and you have a registered business. Yes, you have made it!!! Or so you thought. Then the phone calls come in “Hi we were wondering if you could present at our annual luncheon for free… you will get exposure.” “Hi, we are holding a Black History Assembly for the first time and we would like you to be our keynote speaker…only thing is we don’t really have a budget.” “We have heard so much about you and would really like you to be a part of our conference panel…the fee is $50.00 to speak at five of our sessions.”
Ah yes a sad but true reality of the Artpreneurial life.
I founded my company Imani Enterprises in 1994. I have performed both locally and internationally. I have developed and lead professional development and diversity workshops for educators and corporate clients, but even as a professional artist and creative consultant, those phone calls are still a part of my everyday existence.
Depending on the situation, I deal with it in different ways. I have said no to contracts because of the person’s lack of respect for the art form. Those people that want to hire you but really don’t care about your work, they just have to fill a quota with an artist like you.
I do volunteer work for youth because I choose to. Helping young people is just par for the course with me. But, don’t get it twisted I know my worth as a creative consultant and as an artist, writer or producer. There are times that I will take a not- for- profit fee over my regular fee because I really care about the cause of a project. But, I rarely do work for free because as an artist I have to spend hours on the administrative side of what I do and hours on the prep for a presentation or performance. So, working for free isn’t an option for me. In business terms this means that I understand my billable hours. And though that is a term often used by lawyers it’s something that artists need to think about as well.
Many artists are afraid to ask for a fee or have no idea what to charge. Some are uncomfortable asking for their pay when a client doesn’t follow through; get over that. You cannot be afraid to ask for the fee that you are owed for the work that you did.
Another issue we often face is not getting the credit for our work. We sometimes receive that strange side eyed glance or are questioned about why we feel so strongly about a simple thing like our name. What’s in a name? Our name is often all we have when it comes to projects or performances. So if it’s spelled wrong or omitted then that means we don’t get the credit that we deserve. Our name is one of the many things potential clients use in a Google or Bing Search, so if our clients don’t include our name in the credits that potential client may never find us.
Many artists get frustrated by the constant offers for exposure. My take on exposure is simple…I’m not FILM. However, there are some programs and projects that I will take part in (though they don’t pay near my regular rates) because they are well recognized and respected. Again that’s my choice. At the end of the day how we are treated is really up to us. I learned a long time ago that it’s okay to say no, that it’s fine if someone can’t afford my fee or my rates, and that I should never lower my standards just to get a gig. I learned this the hard way of course.
I tend to be very selective in the types of projects or programs that I participate in. But, that’s because I am extremely focused and I have a strategic 3 year plan that I am working on. I know what it’s like to be stuck between the Art and the Workplace. That’s the place we end up right after we finish an amazing contract. It’s that place where we strive to live off of our art but it can’t always pay our bills. So, we consider working full-time knowing very well that when we work full-time we can’t focus on our art. This is the plight of the self-employed artist.
I have decided to stick it out. I’ve been self-employed for a long time and I do manage to get amazing corporate clients as well as to do grassroots community work that I love. I also get paid gigs as a performer or to present keynote speeches. What I have in my favour is that I’m very strong administratively because I started out running a not for profit at the age of 26. But, even before that I was organized and always set time lines and goals for everything I wanted to accomplish.
My advice to artists who want to live off their art is:
1. Master your craft from the inside out
2. Know what the going rate is for artists in your field to teach workshops or to perform
3. Learn and understand the business side of what you do
4. Learn that you can’t do everything and that saying no is okay
5. Don’t waste all or your energy trying to fit into other people’s ideals – do it yourself, or at least try it yourself. Create the projects and shows that you would love to be a part of and then star in them or produce them.
At the end of the day no one can teach drive, hard work or motivation. It has to come from within. So, get out there and just do it! It might take longer than you planned to reach your goals; but if you believe in yourself and know your self-worth… you will make it!