How To Be an Artist in an Ever-changing Marketplace

How To Be an Artist in an Ever-changing Marketplace

The things that help us survive in life are often the same as those which help us survive in business. And when you make your living from your art, survival in business can feel a lot like life or death.

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, in broad strokes, is fairly simple to understand. Over time, organisms adapt to their environment in such a way as to achieve a form that allows the species the best chance to survive. Giraffes, for example, developed long necks because it allows them the best access to food atop trees that other species won’t have access to. It gives them a competitive advantage in finding food and thus helps them survive. An elephant’s long trunk helps them to not only reach more food and drink, but also to consume it in a shorter amount of time. Whereas the human body has about 700 muscles, an elephant has more than 40,000 muscles in its trunk alone. This makes the trunk both endearingly cute for animal lovers like myself to see, and, more importantly, makes it extremely practical to the survival of the species.

Adaptations like this develop over thousands of years and continue to adapt with time and constantly changing conditions. Those species which can no longer adapt will eventually die off and become extinct. Those who prove themselves to be particularly adaptable, human beings, for example, can often thrive and actually better their position in relation to other competitors for similar resources.

Yes, this is still an essay about the photography business. And, no, you haven’t accidentally wandered onto the National Geographic website. Rather, I use the overly simplified examples above to illustrate a point that resonates beyond just the Serengeti. To put it in the most condensed form, only the strong survive. This is as true in business as it is in the jungle (if we are assuming that business isn’t just another form of the jungle in the first place).

Elements in the photography business landscape are constantly changing. And finding a way to adapt is absolutely essential if you have hopes of sustaining your business over time. Some environmental changes may benefit your business, catapulting you to the top. Others might work exactly contrary to your strategy, putting you at a distinct disadvantage. But rarely can you afford to ignore either of these changes, as your next move can prove critical to your advancement.

Here are a couple of simple examples from my own experience. I have a rather diverse career. I am an advertising photographer creating higher budget campaigns through a variety of stakeholders, from brands, to ad agencies, to production companies. I am also a director and cinematographer creating commercials and other branded motion assets for those same clients, as well as a host of others.

But all of it, still and motion, began with my love of movies. Nothing in my life ever gave me as much joy as sitting in a darkened movie theatre and watching a great story unfold. Going on an emotional journey with a character from start to finish. Seeing that character develop through a multi-level script, touch upon universal emotions shared by all, yet speak with an indelibly unique voice that sets them apart and imprints a memory on your brain that still resonates decades after the initial viewing. I was fascinated by the unique approaches to storytelling each director brought to each project. Every cinematographer seemed to have their own special sauce and an intentional way, they would try to make this particular film stand apart from everything that came before was jaw dropping. Every trip to the movies was a chance to tell a brand-new story that had never been told before. A chance to put an artistic stake in the ground that would remain planted in the collective memory for generations. This chance at creative immortality is a large reason why I was drawn to becoming a filmmaker.

And I’m still a filmmaker. I won’t tell you how long I’ve been doing it because trying to fathom that many years might overload one’s abacus, but I still wake up every morning with a dream of creating one standalone piece of art that will stand the test of time. One beautiful film, like "Casablanca" or "The Apartment," that can grow old without getting old. Something that will outlive me and can be rediscovered anew with each new generation of film lovers.

Of course, there’s a problem. The world I wake up into now is very different from the world I woke up into when I first set off on my career to make great films. I now wake up into a world where story seems to be no longer valued. Only spectacle. I wake up into a world where sequels and remakes are no longer occasional tentpoles specifically designed for summer months, but are instead seemingly the entire output of every major studio. Apparently, if there isn’t a cape or some kind of superhero involved, a film doesn’t qualify for theatres anymore.  

That’s not to say that great non-franchise laden storytelling isn’t still happening. There are great stories being made every day. Perhaps more of them as the explosion of streaming services has provided filmmakers with more outlets than ever before. So, that, on its face, is a good thing. But, of course, that comes in a time when the world has marginalized art in favor of “content.” There are great films being made, but the odds of you finding it on Netflix, or wherever else you like to stream your films, is compromised by the fact that an overload of content means it’s harder than ever to compete for an audience’s attention. Not only does that great film have to battle against other movies being released at the same time, it now has to battle against YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, podcasts, and everything else now readily available with the click of the mouse or the tap of a finger on a five-inch screen. These alternatives might not have anywhere near the aesthetic quality of a feature film, but it’s just as easy to get sucked into an hour and a half long vortex of scrolling TikTok as it is to watch a feature film. Both activities take the same amount of time. And for many viewers who grew up with streaming and social media as the norm, the differentiation between mediums is not as stark for them as it is for those of us who grew up in a world where brick and mortar movie theatres were often the only way to see a new release.

I don’t mean to go off on an old-man screed. Technology changes. Markets change. And spending too much time trying to put the genie back into the bottle is nothing but mental masturbation (name the movie reference in the comments). Our job as artists is not to fight against the currents of change but to find a way to ride the wave. We have to figure out how our skill set fits into the environment we live in today. We have to keep an eye out for coming changes that will affect the environment we will likely live in tomorrow. And we need to adapt to make sure that we aren’t one of the species left behind.

Now, exactly how we choose to adapt is not quite so cut and dry. Nor is it so easy to determine whether choosing to adapt is even worth the trouble. Those are extremely personal questions which each artist has to answer for his or herself.

I may have used the filmmaking side of my career as an example simply because once I start on a film tangent, it’s hard to stop me. But the exact same sort of changes apply on the still side. As I mentioned before, the majority of my still work consists of large campaigns for large companies. Standalone campaigns with a lot of stakeholders and mission critical images with every chosen frame. But, as I mentioned in my movie tirade, the move from social media as an additional way for marketers to reach their customers to the primary way many chose to spread the word has had monumental effects on the world of advertising as well. Yes, there are more outlets to have your work seen by end consumers. But advertisers' dollars are now spread thin trying to account for every outlet and social media platform. The “content” hungry world we live in means that advertisers need more assets than ever. But that doesn’t mean they have more money. In fact, this increase in demand for assets is coming at a time of shrinking budgets. Long story short, this means that clients are demanding more assets for less money while photographers’ cost of doing business and workload has increased.

If you are relatively new to the business and are still trying to figure out how to price your work or establish your rate, this shift might not seem like such a big deal. In fact, it can even seem like an opportunity. If you can price your “content” less than the competition, you might be able to peel off a few extra clients. But as you gain more experience, you will learn that everyone loses when photography rates become a race to the bottom. Sure, you might win a few impressive clients, but what good does that do if rates go so low that photography is no longer sustainable as a career?

Not that I’m trying to single out newer photographers. Newer photographers, veteran photographers, consumers, and clients are only doing what human beings have done since the beginning of time: surveying the landscape and finding a way to adapt.  

I was rewatching Francis Ford Coppola’s "The Godfather" the other day. Like anyone serious about film, I’ve seen that movie dozens of times before. And, each time, it only gets better. The level of storytelling, performance, and visual technique on display in that film is a perfect balance of independent artistry and commercial appeal. Literally, almost every single scene has become iconic in one way or another. For a particular line, or a shot, or plot twist. It’s no surprise that 50 years after its initial release, it remains nearly universally hailed by both critics and audiences alike.

But whenever I rewatch the film, I am always struck by a certain sad feeling. No, I don’t feel sad because of the fate of the movie producer’s horse. Although, as an animal lover, I do tend to turn away at that moment. Rather my sadness when watching the film is far more practical.  Simply put, I realize that even a film as great as "The Godfather" would never be made today. A three-hour epic without superheroes or extensive special effects about an immigrant family in the postwar years? No studio would put up the money. And it’s a gangster film. People have always loved gangster films. But where is the corporate tie-in potential? What is the spinoff potential? Can they make money off Vito Corleone action figures?  

I suppose "The Godfather" did at least spawn sequels. So that would help it appeal to studios. But, more than likely, a couple things would happen were it to be made now. One, they would make it, but they’d make twenty of them instead of three and water down to characters and story to the point where they are so desperately clawing for spectacle in a future sequel that they have the side characters literally taking a car to the moon (again, let me know if you catch the reference in the comments). Or, more likely, if made today, "The Godfather" would be a limited series on HBO rather than a theatrical release. That’s no insult. We live in a golden age of television right now and streaming services have long since taken the place of movie theatres for serious adult storytelling. But, as a streaming series, "The Godfather" would more than likely just get lost among the sea of other great streaming material and online content. And, while it might still be amazingly made, it’s unlikely that 50 years from now people would still be telling their friends to “leave the gun, take the canolli.” Instead, it would just be another of the overwhelming plethora of choices you would scroll past on Friday night trying to decide what material is worth your time, before ultimately falling asleep on the couch before you ever make an actual choice.

As I reread this essay prior to publication, I realize that some of it may seem to indicate doom and gloom. This is not my objective. I do believe that it is still possible to create great art and that there will always be a segment of the market and audience hungry to see work that exceeds the level of basic “content.” The challenge is not to fight against modernity, but to constantly re-evaluate your position within it.

Being able to float with the changes in the marketplace while still maintaining your purpose as an artist is one of the hardest things you will be tasked with doing. Your artistic career depends on your ability to stand out from the crowd. To find a way to fit that individuality into a constantly changing marketplace is a lot harder than trying to figure out how to properly achieve the right lighting ratio.

But continuing to read the environment in front of us and find ways to adapt is how we ensure our survival. It may be painful. But, just ask the dinosaurs, it is necessary.

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