So, you know what you want and you are going for it. Great! Let’s just take a moment to do some risk management. It may sound like boring bureaucracy, but should the day come that a client changes their mind, you’ll be grateful when you have a good contract to fall back on. You’ll be relieved to know how to protect your copyrights when someone tries to steal your ideas, and have peace of mind with insurance when you break that expensive vase on assignment, or break a leg and can’t go to work. And, Future You will thank you when you’ve got enough in the bank to retire. Being an entrepreneur involves taking risks, but don’t be foolish. Take smart, calculated risks to know the reward will be worth it.
“Starting an art biz while still working a day job is absolutely possible.
You’ll need a few things: a vision for what you’re working toward, passion as fuel,
and commitment to go the distance one small step at a time.”
—Kelly Rae Roberts, Artist and Social Worker, USA
Choosing to be an artist does not necessarily mean taking a decision that rules out other possibilities. There are lots of artists who, alongside their personal practice, also teach, work in production or do commercial jobs. There are examples of artists with long careers in totally unrelated fields before turning to art, like Paul Gauguin, who was a stockbroker for more than a decade before he became a painter. There are still other artists who start a business on the side, like Damien Hirst, the artist and restaurateur, or Raphael Lyon, who grows sculptures using geologic processes, and as a side business ferments honey and herbs into wine.
Any art teacher you encounter was also likely trained to be an artist. When they encourage you to pursue your dreams without compromise, keep in mind that it’s a message they’re also repeating to themselves. Their choice to teach reflects the evolving needs of an artist over a lifetime of making work and paying bills; rather than thinking of that as a compromise, it may help you to consider what it gives to an artist to be able to help others along their path. Supporting roles such as teaching, editing, producing, publishing, etc., often enrich one’s own practice.
A mixed practice can consist of two very different things, or two roles closely linked. You can combine your work as an artist with a desk job, or there are also examples of artists joining forces to run a shop with their own products, allowing them to keep up their art production while sharing the shop responsibilities.
In the first few pages of this book, we talked about the idea of success. This will involve an ongoing search for balance: between risk and security, between creative freedom and money in the bank, between time spent on your work and time with your family. Ultimately, the only one who can decide the right balance for you, is you.
have backup strategies in case
something happens to you.
I have insurance, so if I fall ill I
would get an income. You need
to take care of it, because we
never know what may happen
In a regular 9-to-5 job, there are a few upsides and a lot of them have to do with security. When you get sick, for example, you call your boss, go back to bed and still get paid. If you make a stupid mistake on a project and lose a client, you’re not the one who’s legally responsible, your company is. You get paid time off, and in some cases a summer allowance or a yearly bonus. When you retire, you’ll most likely get a pension.
If you’re self-employed, on the other hand, you likely get none of the above.
Saving for a rainy day
So, there are a few things that you need to do in order to create your own security. For example, because your income is a variable, the money you earn each month should be significantly higher than that of a steady job. Your savings account should be a bit fatter than most, too.
No matter how you organise your money, you don’t have to assume that it’s all doom and gloom.
Talk with your friends and family, too, and ensure you’ve got safety nets. Have a plan that you could put into motion if you were to fall ill next month.
Even though you’re liable for your own disability, long-term sickness and legal issues, a lot of freelancers do not insure themselves, and that’s a huge risk to take. There are some alternatives, like Bread Funds, which is a lot like an insurance, but on a smaller scale and with like-minded people.
Insurance against legal costs is a lot cheaper. Whether you need it or not depends on the type of projects you take: with smaller and independent projects you can afford to have a misstep, whereas with large corporations, there’s less room for error. It may not be a fun thing to have a conversation about, but talk this through with an expert.
Pension and retirement
If you are past 30 years old: think of how you can retire. Is there a point at which you can just sit back and reminisce about your creative journey when you are older and wiser? Work towards funding this.
Liability and contracts
There are also institutions that have your back when it comes to copyright, for example, or for drafting contracts. In most countries there are unions and organisations that support artists with copyright management, such as Pictoright, DuPho and BNO in the Netherlands, ADAGP in France, SABAM and SOFAM in Belgium, DACS in the UK, Bild-Kunst in Germany and many more. These organisations are usually membership-based, however, and/or may require that the artist give them (exclusive) rights to manage primary rights. They also usually offer legal advice and try to achieve better copyright protection for artists by lobbying and pushing for legislation.
A lot of the stories you hear about artists who make it are high stakes fairy tales: An actress who leaves everything and everyone behind to move to Hollywood and is then discovered; an artist who puts the last of his money into his project and then finally becomes a hit. They make for great stories, mostly because they skip the boring bits and have a happy ending. The truth is, when you start asking successful artists how they got to where they are, there’s far more stories involving ‘good luck’ and ‘hard work’ as central characters. Some were blessed by being born into artist families with good connections, some slaved away for years before getting any kind of recognition, and many faced rejection again and again before being ‘discovered’.
Here’s another romantic success story: Musician Henry Rollins (Black Flag) used to scoop ice cream before he decided in 1981 that a life in music was worth the risk of skipping a day of work at Häägen-Dazs: “I looked at the ice cream scoop in my hand…my chocolate-bespattered apron… and my future in the world of minimum wage work…or I could go up to New York and audition for this crazy band who was my favorite. What’s the worst that’s gonna happen to me? I miss a day of work…ooh, there goes 21 bucks.”
Put in those terms, it seems like an easy choice to make: a low risk, potential big reward. Perhaps it seems even clearer to us now, because we know he ended up succeeding. Maybe some other people skipped work that day, and didn’t get the job.
We’re constantly tasked with evaluating risk and reward, and trying to make the right choice. Missing out on one day of work doesn’t seem so bad, but for others, the risk is literally life and death. Journalists, for example, can be placed in life-threatening situations for their work, and must also ask themselves when the reward is worth the risk. Photojournalist Lynsey Addario said that it’s hard to explain why it’s worth the risk, except to say it’s a cause she believes in. “There are so many people who go through life and never find a calling but anyone who is driven by something larger than themselves will understand.”
There is no one piece of advice to give when it comes to the balance between risk and reward. You can play by the rules and make it. Or fail. You can gamble your life savings and win, or lose. There are no guarantees, there are no sure-fire strategies.
When there’s something you really want to achieve…
Consider what you stand to lose if you go for it.
Consider what you stand to gain if you go for it.
And make a decision.
When you make something, you’re entitled to certain legal rights. In some industries, like music, the rules are more complicated because there are rights for composing the song, for performing it and for recording it for the first time. In some industries like visual arts, when you make a photo or a painting, you just have copyright. Each of these rights, and their worth, are stated and negotiated in contracts.
Maud van der Leeuw, a legal expert specialised in intellectual property law for artists, says that (starting) artists often fail to make clear agreements, when it comes to protecting their copyrights. This means that you might only find out later, when things have gone wrong, that you’ve given away far more than you planned. Another common mistake is not realising that copyright covers the form or manner in which an idea is expressed, not the idea itself. When pitching an idea to a potential client, it‘s important to keep this in mind and to be careful about what you say and don’t say, or they may take the idea without actually hiring you.
In all partnerships, rights management and contracts are a part of doing business, so you’ll need to know what you’re getting yourself into. For example, if you’re a musician, a label that wants to produce your music will also want a share of the profits for sales, broadcast and streaming. For all rights, you need to agree on the amount of money involved.
Or, if you’re a visual artist, and someone wants to use your photo or design in a book, magazine or on a website, they need to ask your permission. You then need to negotiate costs and usage for your work to protect it. For example, is it a one-time usage, or an ongoing license? How many copies will they make and distribute? Can they use your image on the cover, or in advertisements? To make sure that the contract suits you and is fair, you will definitely want to get help from a specialist focused on creative industries.
The basics of a contract are very simple: you give something away and you get something in return. Always make sure you understand completely what you are giving away and what you are getting in return. Are you licensing your work for use (which is like hiring) or transferring the rights (which is like selling)? Different rights have different values, so make sure you’re getting fair compensation.
In signing a contract, the most important thing is that you feel comfortable with the people you’re in partnership with. Anyone you sign a contract with is someone who could potentially be your adversary in court, so listen to your gut. This is just as important as the fine print.
Make sure you understand the incentives for the person on the other side of the table. Will she make money even if she doesn’t do anything to help you? Does he have motivation to maximise your success? For example, the prime objective of an agent may be to represent as many creatives as possible, to offer clients a wide selection. This arrangement leaves little motivation to help you specifically, and works mainly to benefit him and his clients, at the expense of your work.