We talk a lot about the system being rigged and we propose this candidate or that one to “fix” it. But in reality, the fix is beyond any one individual’s control. I know of many in business, particularly in the arts business, who have been relegated to the outside of the current system of commerce, we once referred to as Capitalism. Our current system has devolved into a pay to play scenario, nothing but an endless stream of scams, having more to do with cannibalism than Capitalism.
I can’t speak with any authority about other sectors, though I suspect similar pay-to-play scams are now in place in many professions. But to be a creative today means paying one gate keeper after another in the hope of exposure. It means an endless stream of competitions, gallery inquiries, festivals, webinars, conferences, workshops, videos, social media, websites, promotional listings, etc. Some of these “resources” are legit but most offer nothing for your return on your investment of time and money. Selling knowledge is one thing, but selling hope in a bottle is another.
In a desperate attempt to rise in the ranks, artists must be prepared to pay through the nose. Gone, are the days when quality or professional integrity were the foremost determinant in one’s success as a creative. It is shear luck, if you are able to break through the noise any more. In other words, today you have as much chance of winning the lottery as making it as a professional artist (or actor, musician, writer, etc.).
It’s no wonder, many of us have all but dropped out of the rat race. The system is rigged against hard work, integrity, creativity, entrepreneurial ingenuity and the slow, steady climb we all use to experience as part of “The American Dream.”
I love being an artist. It has been a privilege to contribute to society through my creative efforts. I have enjoyed a long, lucrative career. I have committed over 37 years of my life to supporting myself and my family, exclusively as an artist. In recent years, however, being an artist has become a luxury few of us can afford. In fact it has become more of a vanity. It used to be that vanity galleries, founded by the super rich as tax shelters, were the rare exception. Now, there are precious few true exposure opportunities which are actually based solely on excellence or even marketability.
What does it take to be an artist in today’s world? It’s a one word answer: Money. To be visible and relevant an artist needs to invest lots of money. Back in the day, marketing involved hard work and persistence. Many of those traditional avenues are now closed. Today, there are countless businesses that have sprung up laser focused on taking money from artist wannabes in a field which has become so cluttered that there is no way to rise to the “top,” without a significant investment of money.
The work of an artist has never been limited to making art. It was always a magical combination of talent, hard work and branding. But today, those who aspire to support themselves with their creativity fall into three categories: 1) they work long hours at a day job to support their art habit, 2) they are starving in an alley with the rest of the artists waiting for their work to “go viral” on some social media or other 3) They are independently wealthy and can afford to throw money and time at trying to open the doors of exposure; they must be able to absorb the costs of bogus opportunities, sifting through the garbage in the hopes of hitting the lottery.
The days of working full time as an artist are gone, even for the more established artists like myself. Today you need money to throw at multiple galleries, ads, conferences, festivals, crowd-funding, alternative exhibitions, competitions, memberships, a PR agent, an SEO expert and a state of the art website. Gone are the days of spartan, creative, guerilla styled marketing methods. You have to be able to pay or don’t bother showing up at the table. If you want to succeed you have to be active on more and more social sites like Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Etsy, Vango, Pinterest, Behance, Likemind, DeviantArt, Dribble and easily a hundred others, all promising exposure and success to millions of like-minded creatives, who will be buried unless they pay more and more for preferential exposure, in the hope of standing out from the crowd. We are now being asked to pay for hits, shares and likes, listings, mentions, blogs, SEO, in an endless barrage of schemes and models, all designed to play on your hope that there is some magical relationship between exposure and money in an over-saturated market. Unless you are lucky enough to go viral, which is also fleeting, because there is always another artist going viral a couple minutes later, you are destined to wallow in obscurity.
Unfortunately I do not have the solution. I am finding the tried and true methods, like direct marketing, are no longer effective and the current promises of success are not producing the promised results. Popularity among “friends and family,” the age old place to start, is no longer enough. I have no pithy advice to offer to anyone who wants to make it as a creative other than to become wealthy enough in some other field to be able to weather the process. I wish I could offer a more optimistic prognosis. Perhaps when creatives wake up to the reality of the situation, we may rise up and demand real change. But most, who may be sharing this experience, are afraid to say anything about it publicly, because of the stigma and shame of monetary failure.
For me, success takes many forms; art sales is only one criteria. Creating work that is meaningful and edifying for me, work that moves, touches and inspires, has become much more important.