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Are you more focused on pennies than the bigger picture?

A long time ago I was on a makeup chat with my makeup buddy, Ohio based artist Kendall Stolz.

She said something that has stuck with me literally to this day. We were talking about various marketing techniques and she was saying that she was planning to revamp her website, change her collateral, etc. because she was “upping her Brand”. This was a zillion years ago, well before personal branding became all the rage as it is now, and certainly well before *I* had any consciousness of my own branding. And Kendall did it. She got herself to the point where even in her smaller/tertiary market she was working for major clients, doing major editorial, had an agent in another state, the works. Clients knew they did not have to bring in another artist from New York or Chicago, Kendall Stolz was just as good if not better. In short, she separated herself from the pack and put herself above the fray.

My oft-quoted mentor, Crystal A. Wright recently made a Facebook post to this same effect. Apparently someone in her circle was complaining about rate undercutting in their market and here is a part of Crystal’s response:

You see, while someone doesn’t want to pay you $250 to do their face for a wedding, someone else is paying another artist $650 and much more for the same service. So what’s up with that?


Today when I read the blog about this idea of the horrible undercutting freelance artist who is beating everyone else out for services I snapped! Quite frankly I think it’s a crock. Are we all to believe that just because someone doesn’t want to pay the price that you charge for a service and they go to another vendor YOU are being undercut.

It’s as ridiculous as thinking that Morton’s Steak House should go around complaining about the person who goes to McDonalds for a piece of beef.

This is the the truth, folks. YES. There are folks who will seemingly work for $5. YES there are clients who will try to take advantage of that. However, YES at any given moment there are artists working great jobs at great rates all the time. All. The. Time. So what really is going on? Obviously, the whole picture is more complex than the Mortons vs McDonald’s analogy, but the premise is the same; the onus is on you to position yourself above the fray where people would never compare you to the $5 Wonder Artist. This is what Kendall did, this is what all successfully working artists do. It takes hard-work, smarts, chutzpah and a little bit of luck. And by “luck” I mean the kind of luck that is created via hard work, smarts and chutzpah. As always, I based my articles based on my own experiences and mistakes made. Here are some ideas which have helped me over the years…

1 ) Control What You Can Control and Let The Rest Go
There will always be people who charge too little for their work and there will always be the clients who hire these people. If you think about it logically, it is not a good idea for either side. An artist who under-charges probably does so out because they – for whatever reason – cannot get more. The client who hires said artist might be getting a bargain, or they might be opening up Pandora’s Box and setting themselves up for a re-shoot. What YOU can control is YOUR artistry and YOUR career: Staying educated, being professional, being pro-active, and just generally being on point. Focus on yourself and furthering your own career and you will not have to worry about what Mr./Mrs. $5 Artist is doing.

2 ) Know Who You Are
At a certain point, I believe, in order to maximize your career you have to start making choices. Am I going to be more of a niche artist – like for example, a body painter – or am I going to be more of a generalist? Am I going to specialize in beauty or am I going to specialize in FX? Do I want to stay local/regional or do I want to expand into other markets? These are all decisions that will ultimately chart the course of how you should proceed. Choices are hard because once a decision is made, you have to live with the consequences and there are plusses and minuses to any decision. However, to paraphrase Crystal Wright yet again, a lot of artists careers never really go anywhere because they never took the time to PLAN where they wanted their career to go. Hence they put themselves in a position where they have to take any sort of work, which opens the door to having to work for low-ball rates.

3 ) Present Yourself Well
Get the “Wix” banner off of your site (and out of your URL), get the “This Card Printed by Moo” ad off your business card, avoid silly names like “Frou Frou Tra La La Makeup”. Up your game and present yourself like the professional you claim to be. I think a lot of new artists get into the habit of thinking that they’ll do whatever “for now” and then they’ll magically be better “some day”. Well, your entire career you should always be striving to be better, that’s just a given. That has nothing to do with not giving your best right now. If you cannot even spend $5 to get the Moo ad off of your business cards, or to have the Wix banner taken off of your website, why should a client pay you more for your services? You’re telling the world in clear language that you are a either an amateur or a cheapie, discount artist. (I made this mistake once, too. Not only did I have “printed by VistaPrint” emblazoned all over my first business card, I used one of their generic stock cards instead of making something Custom. I think a Custom card from VistaPrint costs a whopping $10? :-|. Yeah, I never made that mistake again…)

4 ) Know Your Market
In any given market, there is a median rate that freelancers are getting for certain type of jobs. For example, an average rate for an artist who does Bridal in Milwaukee may be $200 for the bride. In Los Angeles let’s say the average is $400 for the same bride, and in NYC the average may be $600. This means a couple of things: First of all if you are charging $200 for a bride in Los Angeles chances are you are undercharging. Secondly, those averages. You do not have to be average. A median is a middle point of a range and you can be higher or lower than the median. To go back to Crystal’s example; no one is wondering why Morton’s charges more than McDonald’s. No one is wondering why the Ritz Carlton costs more than Motel 6. They provide different levels of service and are in service to a different clientele base. If you find that people are not booking you at your desired rate you might be too far out in left field, however chances are there are holes in your business that you need to go back and re-work in order to prove your worth.

5 ) You May Have To Lose Work to Get Work
As I mentioned in my previous article on rate negotiation, you may have to let certain jobs go. Speaking for myself, I just have a rate threshold that I just do not go below. Not only because I believe that I am worth more (and I do get my rates), but because low-tier jobs have proven over and over to be more trouble than they are worth. A bride who wants herself and her 6 bridesmaids done in 3 hours for $500 total is going to be a Nightmare Client straight up. Let Mr./Mrs. $5 Artist deal with that client, you have bigger fish to fry.

6 ) Make Friends Not War
Of course there is a certain amount of reality that artists do compete for work, and that in any given market there is only so much work, particularly for certain types of jobs (i.e. in most markets there will always be more Bridal than there is media work, etc.). That said, in the creative industries, love is not a battlefield, folks. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, by far my BEST allies in this business have been other makeup artists. When I encounter one of these aggro-undercutters – which is frankly rare because they usually are not usually playing on the same field as me and my artist friends – they seem like sad, lonely, desperate people who need a hug. The field where me and my artist friends play is one of encouragement, sharing resources, job referrals, fun pal times at Trade Shows and industry events, and being genuinely happy for someone else’s successes. Look at it this way: There are artists who have been in the biz 30, 40, and even 50 years. Do you really want to work in an industry where you have to be angry and have a chip on your shoulder for 20+ years? No. No one in their right mind does. A career is not meant to be an endless episode of Survivor and trying to “bump people off the island”. I do not know about you, but I have ZERO interest in living like that.

Let’s face it’s easy to have a “cash flow situation” as a freelancer of any kind. A slow work month coupled with a slow paying client can make any work that will actually pay you start to look good. And for artists in the early stages of your career where paid work is more catch as catch-can I’m not even saying “don’t ever take those jobs”**. What I am saying, what Crystal is saying, and what Kendall was saying lo those many years ago is this: You have the capability to control where your career goes. If you plan well and work accordingly you can put yourself in a position where low-rent artists vying for low-rent jobs will have a minimal effect on your business and career.

**To More Experienced Artists, I AM saying “don’t ever take those jobs”. Undercutting becomes real when we as artists make it real out of desperation…

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