I had a conversation that really reminded me why I decided to make a finance blog aimed at artists in the first place and how deeply under-served this community is in that area.
This is going to get ranty and I’m sorry if you didn’t come here for that.
So I had coffee with a friend I’ve not caught up within a while. They’d read the blog and were eager to have a proper chat about finances. I’m always down for hearing people’s financial stories.
We talked around a lot of different topics before we got down to the heart of my friend’s money troubles. They’d recently gone freelance as an artist after the better part of a decade working for one company. Since we were being candid, I asked what they had been earning employed and what they were charging now.
I nearly fell over. My friend had been living off of R15 000 a month for the last several years. R15 000!
I know that’s going to strike different people differently. That might sound like a lot to you young-uns out there and maybe even okay for the low-income peeps. This is a person in their mid-thirties. Theirs is a fulltime, overtime-intensive job and that’s their whole salary, after tax. They live in the southern suburbs of Cape Town.
R15k is comfortable enough if you’re frugal. And single. And if you have housemates instead of dependents. That’s not enough to save, to pay down debt, to contribute to an RA fund, cover a sudden emergency expense, to go out and party. At 15k a month in Cape Town, you are very much choosing between those options.
Unsurprisingly, my friend’s freelance rates weren’t any better. That made my job as advice-giver a lot easier. This person simply didn’t know how to charge properly. They were afraid to ask for too much and scare away potential cheapskate clients. They were stuck in the “Is my work worth more?” doldrums and had been for years.
And this is where I get ranty because… only artists.
Only artists worry about whether their work is good enough. NOBODY ELSE WORRIES ABOUT THIS. There aren’t analysts sitting at their computers with their hearts in their throats worrying if their spreadsheet is anything other than not wrong. Nobody else is striving to be 150% on their bagging groceries game or working a second of unpaid overtime if they can help it. Nobody else is striving to be anything at their jobs other than competent.
Why? Because it’s a job! It’s a cold, clinical exchange of time, effort and cash so that you can have a life. Art jobs are no different. It’s art. It’s not heart surgery. Nobody’s going to die if you had an off day. It’s a job, that you earn MONEY AT. Money for services or products rendered. Anyone who makes you feel bad about earning money as a WORKING ARTIST is not worth working for and is almost certainly underpaying you!
Trust me when I tell you, there’s a universe of clientele out there who won’t use the fact that you chose to become an artist for a living as an excuse to not pay you. Do you know why you haven’t met clients like that yet? Because you don’t charge properly. Your low rates are killing you. Low rates make good clients wonder about your quality delivery, and act as a mating call to every bad client out there looking for somebody to screw.
And good enough? How good you are at your job isn’t germane to the conversation! Can you do the job? Do you no longer struggle to execute the most basic tenets of it? If we’re assuming competency here, why the hell are we talking about ‘good enough?’ If you’re enough of a professional that you show up regularly, don’t smell of intoxicants and you don’t skeeve out your coworkers, you’re legally good enough! Yes, sure, a lifetime of learning and all that, but levelling up at your craft is an entirely separate issue from when you get to charge properly so you can live and plan your future.
Your income isn’t attached to whether you level up artistically or not. You don’t ‘get better’ and more money appears in your account. I know far too many amazingly talented artists who worked for YEARS, worked themselves to a shuddering mess waiting for their employer to wake up and offer them a livable wage. Needless to say, their employers weren’t exactly motivated to change an arrangement that wholly benefitted themselves.
And you know what the best part of this evil, self-punishing rubric is? When the ‘be a better artist = more money’ equation fails, it must be because you’re just not trying hard enough. Your art’s just not ‘there’ yet, wherever the ‘there’ is.
That’s madness. That’s not how economics works.
How economics works is you ask for more money and negotiation happens. If one client won’t pay your asking price, another might. If you’ve repeated this exercise to ten clients and got no takers, THEN AND ONLY THEN might the quality of your artwork or your lack of experience be the issue. Good clients who don’t like your work don’t take you on. Bad clients who take you on despite their objections to your work are doing so to control you and your price.
Our artwork is often far too central to our identities as artists, and a rejection of the artwork feels like a rejection of us personally. Bad clients know that and use it to manipulate the artists they hire, negging them to keep them reeling and seeking their approval and behaving like they’re doing them the most massive favour.
More often than not getting rejected has nothing to do with how good you or your art is, but how convenient it is in that moment to the client. Every single artist I’ve ever met who got the good gig and made the good money got it because they were a) available and acceptable, b) able to charge properly and c) not a complete chore to work with. All this is absolutely independent of whether they were the most talented person for the job or not. Nobody picks artists based on a lottery of talent; they pick people who have the audacity to make themselves seen.
Here’s a stupid metric. How old are you? Right. So ask for your age times R1000. Go on. It’s not heart-surgeon money, but it’s not nothing. Does the number scare you? I don’t care. That’s your new income goal. Break it down daily, hourly, monthly, per thing you make.
As you age, so should your income, because you have things to do and a finite amount of time in which to do it.
You’ll never earn that, you say? You’ve asked, have you?
What matters is that you ask. You initiate a negotiation. You put that number in front of an employer or client. Will they say no? Of course, they will. You’re a twenty-year-old who wants R20 000 for the job? No! Will you accept eighteen?
That’s how negotiation works. I know it’s not easy, but you know what’s impossible? Getting a raise to twenty grand when everyone involved knows you’ll settle for twelve. When clients negotiate down, they rarely cut the number down to 50% of what you asked. If the budget really is super tight, they get to be profusely apologetic and ask you to be nice. Not you. You don’t need to walk into a room apologetic for even being there in the first place. Don’t you dare!
People will treat you differently when you ask for the so-called ‘crazy money’ (fyi, it’s not crazy, not by a long way). They’ll treat you like someone who values themselves. Life’s stupid like that: people treat you exactly how you demand to be treated. If you shrink and defer and don’t want to be a bother, they’ll brush right past you like you don’t matter. But if you ask plainly and openly for what you want, while maintaining eye contact? You’ll be terrified, but amazing things will start to happen.
I’m not asking you to be a jerk. Some artists overcome their natural shyness by being jerks. But the fact that you equate asking for what you want with ‘being a jerk’ is a massive problem. If someone else treats you like you’re way out of line for just having a BUSINESS CONVERSATION, run a mile. You weren’t going to get paid anyway.
You don’t need to wait to be worthy of better pay, better treatment. If you’re looking for outside validation of your worthiness, as we’re primed to do as artists, many people will make you wait forever. It makes economic sense for them.
What matters is that you start treating yourself like an asset, your two hands, your brain, your spinal cord health, your voice, your youth, the prime working years you have left LIKE A TEMPORARY ASSET. Unless you’re inheriting your money or living off a trust or marrying rich, your income is the only wealth-builder you possess.
Do I really have to convince you that you have needs? Dare I say, wants? Goals? A retirement to plan for? Family or a theoretical family you’d like to support? When do you want to start asking for the money to do all this with? When you judge yourself to be good enough? You? Who has the self-esteem of an angsty teenager and for whom nothing you’ve ever done has ever been good enough?
I can’t wait that long and frankly, neither can you. Sometimes we just have to jump into cold water and acclimate as we go.
But perhaps you don’t like dirtying your hands with money? That’s tough. We’re not paid in seashells anymore and exposure is something you die of. Other people would certainly like it if you didn’t want to charge properly for your efforts. Are we really breaking our bodies and ruining our sleep schedules here to oblige them?
Can I get a “Hell no.”?
Article reposted with permission from Drawing Money.