You’ve heard the term before: “starving artist.” It’s a stereotype preventing talented people from pursuing professional careers in music, painting, writing, photography and other creative endeavors.
The key to flipping that script is realizing your self-worth and driving up the value of your artistry so you can ultimately make a living from your passion.
The discussion of value in the music industry is a tough nut to crack, and even taboo. While music and business are often considered mutually exclusive, someone is going to make money from your artistic output, and it might as well be you. This is the 21st century, and you have all the tools and hindsight necessary to position yourself as a creative entrepreneur.
It is absolutely critical for independent artists to show confidence in the monetary expression of their talent for purposes of survival. The reality is that knowing how much to ask for is often challenging.
Imagine you are an independent DIY musician discussing pay for a future show with a promoter. What is your starting point? How do you negotiate from there?
How do I know how much to ask for?
“Separate from the concepts of artistic value and artistic integrity, it boils down to simple economics and crass capitalism,” says entertainment attorney Joe Madonia. “The value of an artist’s work is, simply put, whatever someone will pay for it.”
So first, determine your price based on the value of your work. Your quote should cover your expenses, but ideally you also want to make a profit. Consider the value your customer receives from your service, beyond how easy or difficult the service is for you to perform.
That means understanding your value in the eyes of the people you’re trying to make a deal with. Part of that value will be dependent on outside forces, like the size of the club you’re trying to book your band in.
“It’s important to acknowledge the sellable capacity of the venue and the ticket price so you can determine how many paying customers you will provide to the booker,” says Stef Roti, who works on both sides of the performer/booker equation. She’s both the drummer of Yoko & the Oh Nos, and a booker at Notion Presents, which puts on the Chicago indie festival Warble Daze. “Big picture tip is to be on the bookers side. Say that you want it to make sense for you both.”
“The dollar amount depends on the band’s history in that market, whether or not the band has a record out, and a campaign around it,” says Michelle Cable, president of Panache Booking. She’s helped grow artists like Ty Segall, Mac DeMarco, Thee Oh Sees, and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard from DIY clubs to auditoriums and, in many cases, headliners of massive outdoor festivals.
As Cable points out, there are other factors that artists can have control over, though, such as how much work they’re willing to put into promotion. “[Bands can] align themselves with a good publicist who can help them get stronger press to raise more awareness about them and to help with marketing,” she says. “Social media these days helps, so having a strong active social media presence can be an asset.”
Whether you’re hiring a publicist or managing your own press, leveraging your identity and key strengths is key. That means when writing your pitch email to a promoter, make sure you’re emphasizing your press, video, and promotional efforts.
What is your strategy?
Ultimately, outside factors like club sizes and expenses can’t be the only things that determine what you should charge for your work. You also have to figure out what you’re worth to yourself.
My personal approach, as a completely independent artist, was to set the bar low for guarantees back in 2008, then gradually increase that rate every year. At first, we would play for any amount of money, and sometimes for free. Once our first self-titled album came out, we asked promoters for $100 flat, no matter what. After the second album, and third year as a band, we increased that rate to $250. With quite a bit of press coverage accumulated, we insisted on $500, then eventually were able to get $1,000 at times, with plans to grow that rate annually as the band matures.
At the same time, there are bands who garner $1,000+ guarantees to perform before their first album even drops because of a special buzz around their name. On the other hand, there are mature bands still struggling to make ends meet. So what’s going on here? More importantly, how does the industry determine the value of artists in the music industry?
“The value of your work is first determined in your own head,” says Joe Madonia, the entertainment lawyer. “ You are the initial creator and marketer of your art. If you don’t value it, no one else will. If you don’t get it out there, the managers, agents, and search engine optimizers won’t come calling. So why not place a high value on what you create and what ideally is the product of your greatest passion and personal calling?
What about quoting for in Other, Non-Musical fields?
Sometimes, maximizing your value can mean thinking outside the box. Sometimes it can mean saying “no” to paying gigs.
Michelle Cable at Panache says that it’s okay to be picky about the gigs you take. “[Artists] should definitely do shows based on quality over quantity,” she explains.
Delicious Design League made their name on designing gig posters, but now that’s only a facet of what they do, having expanding into other fields to support their passion for posters. Billy Baumann, creative director the company, compares appraising visual art’s value to musicians charging for concerts. “There’s no Rolling Stones in the poster world,” he explains. “Posters have a very limited value; our financial ceiling is pretty low. So, that’s why ultimately we’re not really a gig poster company, it’s simply one of things we do, and the way that we were able to get our brand out there to land bigger clients that are not poster related.”
How do you ask for your guarantee?
So, you’re in an industry teeming with bands and artists, and you’ve finally decided what your rate for a gig is. Now, how do you ask for what you’re worth?
“I appreciate straightforwardness,” says Tylor O’Conor, who books and promotes rock ‘n’ roll shows at Chicago’s East Room. “It’s more efficient to lay it all out and not be shy about what you want. It makes things easier instead of beating around the bush. As a promoter I can then work with that number, see if I can make it happen, or find a good deal to make both parties happy. That’s the name of the game.“
In other words, honesty is the best policy.
Value in the creative industry varies by gig or project sizes, types of clients or promoters, and what services you are performing. What you will find is that your pricing starts with your individual perception of what you’re doing, and growing that over time. As you are reading this, commit to holding your art in a high regard, while cooperating with those who are working with you.
Rest assured there are ups and downs to this process, with plenty of triumphs, as well as rejections, to your personal perception of value. The most revered musicians, painters, designers and brilliant minds in history experience fluctuation over time. What makes you an artist, though, is a burning engine of creativity that propels you forward regardless of changing tastes.
As the late great Tom Petty said, “Do something you really like, and hopefully it pays the rent. As far as I’m concerned, that’s success.”
The views and opinions expressed within the Why DIY? column are those of its author, Miss Alex White, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, and business practices of Riot Fest.