Your 2020 To-Do/Please Don’t List

As we wrap up 2019 and start to look ahead, I thought I would give up some of my best thoughts on both business and legal issues, for creative pros, in list form. I think I should to warn you, though, I’m not holding back on the language. I think someone needs to play Carol Kane in Scrooged to the creative industries and, well, I’m just the broad to do it.

So, here’s what you should/should not do for your business in 2020:

  1. If anyone talks about ROI or value propositions or anything else that smacks of weasel-in-a-suit when it comes to your marketing, run away. All that shit is dead. Sure, you want to get the best bang for your buck, but the most effective marketing for a creative business is simply not quantifiable. Lest you forget, you are not selling widgets or some service that anyone can do, but rather a very specialized service that has virtually no competitors. Much of that MBA mumbo-jumbo just doesn’t apply to highly specialized service providers, and all artists are (or should be) exactly that. Despite our hyper-image-based social media world, your marketing today needs to be honest, real, and a reflection of who you really are. I sure as hell hope you are not a “suit.” Stay away from buzzwords–don’t use them and be skeptical of those who do.
  2. Forget about old selling tools like “elevator speeches.” Look, when you shill, no one gives a shit who you are or what you do. It’s totally off-putting to get the spiel–be that at a party or (yikes) in an actual elevator. Car salesman-esque. Fake. Ew.
    My “elevator speech” is I’m a lawyer for creative professionals. That’s it, because all I’m doing is answering the question “What do you do?” Why only this? Because I’m not pushing the sale (that is very old and disliked) and I leave space for a dialogue by NOT answering all the implied questions (see #3). I’m letting go of trying to control the interaction and, in so doing, get better results.
  3. When meeting someone new, especially a target, after saying that you are a commercial artist of whatever stripe you are, always follow up with a question (or more than one) about the other person: Do you work on the Widget campaign? What other ones? Who’s your dream to work with? etc. And respond honestly to their responses and use follow-up questions: I love the Widget work–where did you find that actor? You are a hell of a lot more interesting to a potential target when you are interested in her/him, especially (in this context) his/her work (it’s good to do research on your targets ahead of time so you know enough to have questions).
  4. SEO is a waste of your time. People who sell SEO services are the used-car salesmen of the 21st century. The reality is that Google has like 97% of search traffic and it manipulates its results something wicked. Really, chasing that SEO goal is wasted effort. Moreover, good buyers are not using Google to find their creative providers. At best they may do an image search of some kind (mostly for inspiration, not to hire) and then that’s going to be more about effectively using your work’s metadata than “optimizing” your site.
    Yes, we all know of someone who got a great gig from Google: and that person is the exception, not the rule. It’s like what we do often with dating: we hear about the one friend of a friend who ended up getting happily married after the guy/woman didn’t call forever and we think that can happen to us. We could get hit by lightening, too. Probably better odds of that.
    4.a Anything blockchain or AI-related as some sort of saviour tool for creative businesses is also total crap.
  5. Put on your big boy/girl panties and, for the love of Buddha, stop whining that you can’t do X or Y. I’m so tired of hearing “Yeah, great idea, but I can’t do that,” like you’re somehow different. That attitude is bullshit: yes, you can do it, whatever “it” is. It might be hard and it may be risky, but you can do it. I don’t care what it is, almost always you can find a way. Just get a set already. Look at me: I started law school when I was over 40 and had my marriage blow up before my first set of exams; I started my own business first in 1999, then again as a lawyer. Life ain’t always easy, but it’s worth it. Business is often hard and there are no guarantees. You want a guarantee, buy a blender. You want to be a creative pro? Accept that it is tantamount to doing the flying trapeze, without a net. Let go and have fun with that. You chose to be an artist–stop whining about the risks. Be a friggin’ ARTIST, unapologetically.
    5.a. The answer to the question But what if someone doesn’t like my work? is always Fuck ’em. In short, they aren’t your target audience.
  6. The “trick”to business is finding the right people to market to. Actually, this isn’t that hard: when you see work you love and that you wish you could have been a part of, research who made that work and add them to your marketing lists. Like attracts like. See Number 3, above. Don’t be afraid to reach out to those people–it’s not like they’re going to have you killed if they’re not interested in working with you; they’ll just say “no.” More importantly, they might say “yes.”
  7. Make art for yourself, as often as you can. Don’t create for any other reason (like to specifically make something for your portfolio) but rather create for the love of creating and for making the work that excites you. Don’t worry if it’s good or right or what you should be doing, just make some damn art for you (see 5.a. above). That is your job and you have to do it for your business just as much as you have to pay your web hosting bill.
  8. Get out of your office/out from behind your computer and interact with people. Social media is a form of connection but it’s a weak and highly manipulated one. You want to get work, you need to meet people in real life. Yes, that means actual meetings. It means traveling to the places where your targets are and meeting with them there or putting on events to get them to where you are. Go to portfolio shows. Oh, and at the end of any portfolio meeting, do NOT ask for a job on the spot. They hate that. You are not selling, you are marketing–it’s a long game.
    Getting out also means going to events connected to your targets, like AIGA presentations, Ad Club events, or even lectures by lawyers (look up your closest Lawyers for the Arts chapter). Take people to lunch (or bring it with you), throw studio parties, put yourself out there. And have fun with it!
  9. Register your damn copyrights. Please. I beg you. If you are a creative professional, stop making excuses and start doing this. There are services, but I don’t recommend using any of them because the resulting registrations might not be anything more than maybe adequate and they might possibly be deficient. A well done registration can make a potential defendant in an infringement matter settle fast and for more money. A wonky one may be challenged by a wily defendant or will at least give one pause. Registration is not hard anyway, particularly for visual artists and even more so for still photographers.
    9a. Relatedly, stop thinking about the cost of registration as a reason not to register–first, it is a legitimate business cost and so you can write it off and, second, it is like insurance that you pay for once but off which you can make many claims (and for much more than the original cost). You will (almost assuredly) make more money in your business if you register your copyrights, and do number 10.
  10. Pursue Infringers. Not every case has to be worth 5-figures or more to get legal help. Some attorneys, like me, will take on small cases because they believe in fighting for the “little” artist and, besides, small cases simply do add up. Let’s say you have small value infringements, but a bunch of those that are worth $2500 average settlement (that number is just for sake of argument). 10 of those cases over the year is $25K. Now, let’s say your attorney gets 36% of that: you’re still pocketing $16K.  How about 20 cases and $32K in your bank? I have clients who make 6-figures annually because they register their work and go after the infringers–some bring in $2500, some bring in much more. Don’t wait for the CASE Act (which may never pass)–you can register work today and for infringements that start after that registration, you can wield the enhanced remedies stick!
  11. I don’t care what any consultant or other artist tells you, separate out your Usage Licensing Fee from your Creative Fee. Better yet, make sure the License Fee is where most of the “cost” lies. As more and more work is getting ripped off you need to be able to prove the value of your license (even if you are going for statutory damages–it helps) and you just can’t do that if you use a combined fee on your estimates and invoices. The other side will have a great argument that most of that number is the Creative/Shoot Fee and you get screwed a second time. Why do you think buyers say they want them combined? Because it benefits their companies, not you. They are protecting their asses–you need to look after your own.
    You can do this if you want to make sure not to piss off a buyer: on the cover/summary page of your estimate (and invoice!) you lump your numbers together into two main categories (Fees, Production Charges) so that there is a simple, one-page overview for the buyer to glance at. Inside, however, you break out every Fee and Production Charge, line item by line item, and make sure to line item the License Fee separately.
  12. Speaking of fees, increase your rates in 2020, especially your license fees. Every creative pro who does this is terrified the first time. I have, however, never heard anyone regret it later. You may lose some clients, but really, you needed to kick those cheapskates to the curb already. Ever notice the inverse relationship between budget and pain-in-the-assishness? Why bend over backwards for the clients who nickel and dime? Just stop. Demand more money and you will get more money and you will respect yourself more.
  13. Watermark your visual art. Do this and, for bonus points, make it a proper copyright notice. See here for the details but, the short answer is that if you do that you (a) have a stronger case for willful infringement (more money); (b) eliminate the “innocent infringement” defense; and (c) if it gets removed, then you may have a good case for a lawyer to help with even if you have not registered the copyright and can’t prove your damages!
  14. Get your paperwork in order. Yeah, I know, contracts are not sexy but they are a very necessary evil in business. Get contracts drafted for you by your own lawyer so that your interests are in first position. If the other side insists on using theirs (yeah, big companies can be bullies), get those reviewed by your own lawyer. Have releases and licenses crafted for your needs. Think you can’t afford that? Think more about how signing one bad contract can wipe you out. Besides, not all lawyers demand insane retainers to be there for you. Check out my Burns Less program for a very cost-effective option (by the way, I am not the only lawyer with alternative fee structures!).
  15. This last item is the most important: be yourself and be proud of yourself in everything you do. Honesty, ethical behavior, and real connections are what will make your business successful now. Have convictions and don’t apologize for them. Most of all, be passionate about your work. That’s what I’m demonstrating here. Sure, some people are going to be offended by my language and/or say it’s inappropriate in business, but in creative businesses (including lawyering for creatives), being real beats convention, every time. So here I am: I swear (in multiple languages even), I’m passionate, and I’m unconventional, but most of all I want y’all to succeed and I work hard to make that happen. I love my work, even though there are days when I want to throttle certain infringers and set fire to certain online platforms. I’ll tell a client when I think s/he/they are making a bad choice and I’ll fire a client who isn’t ethical. A few years back I decided to be more real and open with my thoughts and opinions–I’ve never regretted it and most of my clients and readers have appreciated it.

    For the others who don’t, well, see number 5.a., above.

On Abundance, redux

I wrote this originally back in 2012, but it is even more needed today so I decided to update it.

Everyone talks about how there is an abundance of content creators today. How there is more creative work than ever. How everyone is a photographer, a writer, a curator (don’t get me started on how that word is misused), a musician… we’re all making stuff. And, the argument goes, because there is an abundance of stuff, none of the individual work is really worth much if anything now.

Here’s what these arguments about abundance in creativity and the pricing model get spectacularly wrong: the reality is there is no abundance of good creative work. Sure, there is an abundance of photography and music and writing and art, but most of it is, frankly, shit.

There is abundance in the creative industries in the same way there is abundance in drivers–there are billions of car drivers globally and just about anyone can do it–but how many people do it well? I don’t just mean those who drive better than Mr. I-go-55-in-the-fast-lane-man and his crappy driving brethren out there. No, I mean, how many professional race car drivers are there? Not very many. Ergo, they are highly valued.

Real creative professionals (in whatever discipline) are like pro race car drivers. They can do things very few others can. Their skills are extremely specialized and what they do is, simply put, not of the same quality as what regular people do.

The media and, worse, the tech companies that control the discourse on this subject within the media, have tried to convince us that your creative work is the same as anyone who tries to make something of the same media. Further, because it is the same (in their argument), that work is of the same value and, final coffin nail, because there is so much of that work available now, that value is near zero. In their world, for example, any pro photographer’s photography is the same as mine (for the record, I am not a photographer) and hardly worth anything since there are so many “photographers” out there. That’s like me saying I’m just like, and of the same value as, Mario Andretti or Michael Schumacher because I know how to drive a stick-shift and don’t completely suck at it.

Bullshit.

Every time you let them call you a “content provider” rather than by your proper title you let them define you as less than you are. You are a Photographer or an Illustrator or an Artist or a Writer (etc.). You CREATE. There are damn few people on this planet who actually create and create well. How dare you accept their belittling bullshit about who you are and the “abundance” of what you do. Worse yet, how dare you call yourself anything other than by your proper title!

You, creative professional, are scarce and your creations are of high value. You are a professional race car driver. Don’t let anyone bully you into thinking otherwise.