Spending money to make money – life as an artist

By , December 9, 2012 4:26 pm

I’ve been thinking about the old adage, “You have to spend money to make money.” Searching that phrase with quotes returns over three million Google hits, and searching without quotes returns over 650 million Google hits. I couldn’t find the origin of the phrase, apparently because it is so clear and so ubiquitous that figuring out who used it first is difficult.

As an artist (and I’d suspect this holds true for freelancers in general) it’s a difficult concept to get behind. When you’re struggling to make rent, or trying to pay a tangible fee like a festival entrance cost, putting money into an abstract project – new video footage, hiring administrative help, paying membership dues – seems hard to justify. Why should I put money toward something that might help me out in the future, when I can put money toward something that I need to do now. I’d imagine it’s more simple to justify “spending money to make money” at a big business: We need to build this factory so we can produce new cars, or we need to invest in design costs so we can make a new iPhone.

Nevertheless, I’ve made a few decisions over the past year to spend money in the hopes of making more money in the future. A few of these investments (because that’s really what they are) have paid off, a few may yet pay off, and a few may never do so. I thought I’d go through some of these various projects and talk about how they’ve done, and how I feel about them looking back and looking forward.

Hiring Help and Support

As an artist, I’m used to asking people for help: making donations, hanging posters or distribute postcards, filming a show, driving me to the airport. I’m less used to paying people for help. But this past May I began working with Alice Feldt at Time Gift Artists. We met when attending Creative Capital artist professional development event early in 2012, and got to talking about her business. From her webpage:

Alice also has a great smile

Time Gift Artist Assistance is for the busy contemporary artist. There is so much to keep up with on the business side of the art world that it becomes hard to find time to make work. Time Gift comes at this problem at two angles:

Production – Researching materials, source material, file management, file output.

Representation – Finding exhibition opportunities, putting together proposals, maintaining social media blasts, updating contact lists.

Both services are available virtually, which gives the artist even more time to work. All file transfers happen through Dropbox and all payments are through Paypal. Plus, the artist will be able to Facetime chat with the assistant, so its simple and personal.

I hired Alice to help me build a list of colleges and universities to contact. Specifically, I took this list of colleges and universities with some sort of LGBT class offering, whether it’s a single course or an entire department. Alice then went, school by school, and Googled for the school’s theater department, gender or women’s studies, student diversity, student activities, LGBT groups, and Hillel. Doing this school by school, she compiled a list of about 5,500 email addresses – of students, staff, and professors – across at least 100 schools. I spent about $600 on this list.

Lots of the emails are dead. As a ballpark, I get about a 5-7% actual response rate of any kind. Almost always, it’s along the lines of “Thanks but this isn’t my department,” “you should talk to so and so,” etc. Maybe half of all the responses seem at all interested, and so far only ~5-7 of those have turned into gigs: Bucknell and Smith happened in November, and I’m trying to get contracts from UNH, Simmons, MSU, and a few others I’m following up with.

On the surface, 5-7 gigs out of 5,500 emails (about a tenth of a percent return) seems frustrating. On the other hand, I’ve made enough to pay for Alice’s services, even if I never get another gig from that list. Since I hope to get at around 3-5 more for the remainder of the 2012-2013 school year, and hopefully some in 2013-2014, the list seems more than worth it. The list also has allowed me to figure out what kind of outreach to schools and universities is worth my time; I get a much better response from emailing students than professors. I think students are more willing to take a risk on someone contacting them out of the blue via email, where all of the gigs I’ve gotten from professors have come from first meeting them in person. Moving forward, I’m having Alice focus specifically on campus LGBT groups, which means I’ll poteennntttiiaaaalllyyy lose out on some contacts, but I think it’s worth it to try and focus my energy more.

To put all this another way, do what you do best, then hire someone to do the rest. I can build these lists on my own, but Alice has made my life so much easier by doing it for me. In particular, Alice was working away while I was touring to Fringe festivals over the summer. That means I was able to come back to Chicago and immediately begin emailing schools, without feeling guilty over not having kept up with my administrative work as well as I would have liked.

FINAL VERDICT: Find someone you trust, and HIRE THEM RIGHT NOW! (If you do hire Alice, help me out by telling her I sent you her way.)

Profesional Conferences

While touring over the summer, Seth Lepore talked me into attending Arts Midwest, one of five(?) yearly regional arts conferences around the United States. These conferences bring together artists, agents, and booking venues (theaters, schools, etc) to network, hire/be hired (hopefully!) and attend educational workshops. Some of the other conferences (at least the ones I can remember) are put on by the Western Arts Alliance, APAP, the Performing Arts Exchange, along with the college-focused APCA and NACA.

These conferences cost big money. Simply attending is usually a few hundred bucks, and if you’re attending and hoping to get bookings you most likely need a booth and promotional materials (another $300-600 for a solo artist) and a performance showcase ($400-5,000, depending on how big you want to go and how many times you want to perform). Then there’s travel and the hotel, not to mention food and going out to drink and network. I spent about $1,000 going to Arts Midwest, and easily could have spent more had I done multiple showcases, stayed at the conference hotel and not 15 minutes away, and gotten bigger/better promotional material.

The opening night party at Arts Midwest DID have a merry go round…

Figuring out whether a conference is “worth it” is a bit tougher than figuring out if it’s worth it to hire someone to help build a mailing list or redesign a website. A lot of the people I met at Arts Midwest said that they wanted to see artists a few years in a row, to be reassured that the artist was in it for the long haul, before they would consider hiring that artist. Likewise, there were some venues that would never hire me: No matter how supportive of the LGBT community they are, I’m not going to be the right fit for a 2,500 seat theater in Podunk, Oklahoma. So while I haven’t gotten any gigs from Arts Midwest yet, it’s entirely possible someone I met there will contact me in the future. I made a few specific contacts that – if they come through – would make the conference more than worth it. It’s also valuable to see what else is out there, meet artist presenters and other artists, and get to feel like you’re part of a wider community.

For all that, I’m not sure I’ll return to Arts Midwest in 2013. It’ll be in Austin, which I’d love to visit, and I had a great time and learned a lot. At the same time, I’m not sure what I have to offer is right for lots of the venues who attend, or that my resume is long enough (yet) to make me attractive enough for someone to take a risk on a trans performance artist. I could see myself regularly attending at least a few of these conferences a few years down the road, but I don’t think that’s where I want to focus my money right now. I am more seriously considering APCA and/or NACA, as they are exclusively for the campus activity boards at colleges and universities. I’ve heard most of those student boards are looking for easy sells, though. Things like bands or comedy acts that can fill a theater and make the student government look good for having brought something awesome. Since I’m having solid luck contacting LGBT groups directly, I’m torn on whether or not to put money into attending APCA or NACA, and may hold off on those for a few more years as well.

As a final note, each conference is different. They draw from different parts of the country, have different atmospheres, and cost different amounts. I’ve heard that Arts Midwest is a great first conference: it’s not huge but not tiny, it’s not cheap but it’s not crazy expensive, and everyone is super nice. (Ahh, the Midwest.) I’ve also heard good things about WAA. APAP is supposed to be incredibly expensive and overwhelming, as it’s held in New York City every year and is just huge. That’s on my “someday” list, but not in the near future.

FINAL VERDICT: Maybe? I’m glad I went to Arts Midwest, as it gave me a context for what these conferences look like. I want to return and attend at least one every year, but don’t think I will be able to really afford it for another few years.

Facebook Adversiting

One of the workshops I went to at Arts Midwest was about Facebook advertising. There are a million pages out there on how, so I won’t get into that. The why, however, was interesting: Facebook allows for super-targeted advertising in a way that just about nothing else can. It’s also as cheap as you want it to be, since you can set caps on how much your campaign will spend. So, when I was working with Sean Dorsey at Links Hall a few months ago, I decided to splurge and do a Facebook ad campaign. I posted ads linking to Sean’s Facebook event, and tried a few different wordings to see what works. You can have all the version of an add pull from the same pool of money. After tweaking the language a few times, I said I’d be willing to spend $25 total, and let the ads loose. Here’s what I ended up with:

You can click to see the specifics, but here’s the overview:

  • The ad cost $25 total to run
  • 62,000 people saw the ad
  • 46 people clicked on it (a rate of 0.074%, which the Internet says is pretty good)
  • Of those 26 people, 14 actually clicked ‘Attending’ on the event page
  • The second wording of the ad worked much better than the first

It’s impossible to know how many of those 14 “attending” actually came to Links Hall, but getting only three extra people there would have paid for the ad itself. (Or would have if I was making money per ticket sale. I wasn’t, but this was an experiment for me and I was OK with eating the ad cost.) To me, that seems promising enough to try again in the future. I specifically block ads on my computer (and you should too!) but I know lots of people don’t. Since Facebook allows specific targeting of people who have ‘Liked’ things like ‘transgender,’ ‘queer,’ ‘gender identity,’ ‘genderqueer,’ and so on, you’re able to target people who – hopefully! – will give a shit about what you’re promoting.

VERDICT: I wasn’t blown away by advertising on Facebook, but the response was positive and the cost low enough that I think I’ll try it again in the future.

Future Plans

In this mindset, here are some things I hope/plan to spend money on in the next few months:

  • Professionally shot video. I know people who have watched my videos are more likely to hire me or come see a show, and yet all my video has been shot on my mediocre camera. I plan on hiring a friend of mine to shoot good video, with close up and far shots and multiple angles and all that jazz, all from a really good camera.
  • Website updates. Both this blog and my artist site are run on WordPress using free themes. I’m fine with that (and like both themes) but my artist site needs some work. First and foremost, I purchased a fundraising plugin to launch my (successful!) efforts to get to New York this week, and will use the same plugin to do my big surgery fundraiser. I may still use IndieGoGo and/or Kickstarter for future artistic projects, but I think a do-it-yourself solution for surgery fundraising makes sense. Coupled with that plugin, I may end up hiring another friend to help tweak some things that I don’t love about my current theme.
  • Promotional Material. One of the things that I learned at Arts Midwest in September was how many different ways an artist can promote themselves. I had brought a big foam core poster to display, which worked well but A) had too much text and B) was a bitch to travel with. Before I do anything remotely similar, I plan to get a collapsable poster display, which will also let me take it to schools and present myself as that much more professional. I also want to invest in a 3-fold flyer about my educational workshops and performances, so I have something simple and easy to give anyone interested in hiring me.
  • Things to make traveling easier. I already bought a portable phone charger, after having to search for someone with a power outlet in the convention hall at Arts Midwest. This makes flying easier, and means I don’t have to worry as much if I’m going to be out for a long day. I eventually want to get better luggage, but feel like I should get more gigs first – the luggage I have is fine, I’m just coveting fancier backpacks and carry-ons.

What about you?

Are there places you’ve spent money to make money? Did you regret it, or were you please with your decision? Likewise, are there any additional places where should be thinking about spending money?

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