(elements from Shutterstock)

Artists, is Your ‘Personal Brand’ Eating Your Paycheck?

Back Commentary Jul 31, 2017 By Kelly Barr

I’ve lived in the Sacramento area for more than 20 years now, and in that time I’ve worked as a freelance designer, freelance photographer and, more steadily, as the person whose inbox is filled with artists wanting to have their work published in Comstock’s. Many of those years were spent self-employed; I’ve paid all of my bills one month with money to spare, only to wonder where I would find the funds for next month’s mortgage. Or food. I know the plight of the sometimes-starving artist well.

Making a career as an artist is rarely easy, sometimes impossible and usually totally worth it. Sometimes we catch a break and get to skip ahead more quickly than anticipated. Other times we have to put in (very) long hours. Here are a few pitfalls I’ve learned to avoid:

Sacrificing quality for quantity. This was a hard lesson for me. When I was a photographer, I wanted to photograph everything. Babies! Weddings! Food! The hard truth is, if you are doing everything (and still not getting paid), there’s a good possibility you aren’t doing any of it very well. Just like any other business, the buyer wants to know exactly what they’re getting. Are you a photojournalist who follows ethical standards to a tee? Great. Is your style light and airy studio portraits? Super. I want to work with the best photojournalist, the best studio photographer and the best illustrator … and they are rarely the same person. If you can create a consistent brand for yourself and your work, you’ll be one step closer to making sure you can afford your avocado toast next month.

Not having a plan B. Or C. But I have a dream! I must follow my passion! Look, I’m all for finding your true north and chasing your dream. But if you don’t have a plan for how to get there, and then a backup plan for that plan, the only art you create might be on the cardboard box you’re living in. I’ve diversified my own income in a few different ways over the years, depending on where I was in my career. I’ve worked as a graphic designer doing photography on the side, and as a photographer doing design on the side. Additionally, passive income — anything from an e-book teaching other artists something you’ve mastered to creating stock photography and illustrations for sites like Shutterstock — can be a great way to pay the bills while you create your magnum opus.

Blasting people on social media. I have two very clear memories of checking Facebook, seeing a post by a local artist and thinking to myself, “Wow, I would never want to work with that person.” The first was a freelance photographer who had written a public post on their personal page shaming another local photographer. If you think behavior like this won’t catch up with you professionally — trust me, it will. How you present yourself when you think no one is watching is a part of your brand. The second instance was again a public post from a freelancer (one I had actually been considering working with), airing a grievance against Comstock’s that could have been easily addressed with a quick (and private) email or phone call. Comstock’s, like many local potential employers, is a small business (we are operated by 13 people). It always amazes me when creatives treat us as though we’re the Madoffs and their grandmother just invested her life savings with us. Believe it or not, we’re not out to get you and are happy to hear people out. We really like Sacramento artists and want them to succeed.

We have freelancers who have been part of our Comstock’s family for years. They’ve endured our internal changes in leadership, their own moves across the country and back again, crossed wires and even the occasional lackluster output. In addition to regularly producing stellar work, they’re communicative, enjoyable to work with and know how to meet a deadline. But employability hinges on more than the basics.

I recently asked one of them how he was able to rebuild his career so quickly after a long stint away from the local community. His response? “It all comes down to reputation.”