Most working artists cannot afford agents or legal representation, so they have to handle their business transactions solo the best they can, and subsequently often find themselves at the mercy of their clients. And if I’m being honest, artists don’t typically make great administrators. But, come on, in an organization, you have whole departments of specialists dedicated to the nuts and bolts of running the business side of things! If you are a working artist, even part-time, chances are you have experienced the following scenario:
Client approaches artist about performing a service.
Artist agrees, usually for beneath what they're worth, because who are we kidding, a gig is a gig, and the lights don’t keep themselves on!
Client and artist work out details and artist delivers service.
Client takes weeks or months to pay artist.
Artist checks mail everyday because client does not respond further or gives the run-around.
Artist robs Peter to pay Paul.
I have been in this situation more times than I care to remember in fourteen years and hundreds of appearances. And no matter how much I have tried to circumvent hiccups in being communicated with and paid in a mutually convenient manner, or how comfortable I get because I’ve had a few good experiences in a row, there’s always somebody who reminds me why I have had to become increasingly selective about what I agree to take on. And why my prices will continue to rise. Because funny thing, I’m starting to learn that the more someone pays for your work, the more seriously they take you and paying you on time. And besides, selling that one big-ticket gig will make up for the fifteen small “sell-out” ones that keep you run ragged anyway.
The main problem is perception. An artist’s clients are 9-5’ers for the most part. They punch a clock. They get to leave their work at work when they go home. You know, civilians. Even if they’re arts enthusiasts, there is a pervasive perception that artists by contrast are glorified love children who waltz through the world on a song and a prayer and that we don't have bills to pay like they do. It’s also extremely competitive being a working artist. I am grateful for my gigs because I realize that mine is just one name on a long list that stood out for whatever reason. But just because I happen to enjoy what I do, that don’t mean it ain’t work. It’s times like these, I sympathize most with sex workers. Perception is everything.
Let me ask you something. If you have to get your hair cut, or your oil changed, or y’know, buy gas or go to a restaurant, do you tell the people you are paying a service for that you will have to pay them later once your contract gets processed through accounting which can take anywhere up to 6-8 weeks? Do you act annoyed when they email you to inquire about the status of services rendered if the payment date has passed? Do you tell them you’ve been “too busy” to communicate more effectively about the status of their payment because your life is clearly more important than theirs? Of course not, because they offer services that people “value.” And when I say that most working artists are underpaid, for every paid gig we do, there are probably ten where we do something for free for “exposure” or at a very reduced rate as a favor to someone or for someone “doesn’t have the budget but they just love your work so much and it would make such an impact.” Okay, well, tell you what, from now on, how about I only cut the hair on half your head then? How about I get up and read poems and stop in the middle of one and walk offstage because you only paid up to so much?
The ugly truth is that the arts are not valued the same as other occupations because what artists do is not seen as a service. It’s seen as a luxury. I wish someone had told me that before I got a degree in it because Sallie Mae sho’ considers my education in the arts worth the same as everyone else who is paying back a student loan right now. I probably sound a bit bitter. It’s hard not to be jaded and dread every administrative moment attached to being a working artist. But as I said, fourteen years later, I’m still being schooled by clients as to how little they value the artistic service I provide them compared to their own professions. All my years invested into my art and I constantly have to put up with folks who are astonished that I don’t want to do an hour-long reading for peanuts (or free), pay my own gas money and hotel to travel to a gig eight hours away, and bring down a bunch of books no one can guarantee will be sold.
I have been in so many situations where I show up, expecting to be paid for a gig, and my client informs me that there was a mix-up in paperwork, or they have me fill the paperwork out on the spot which means I don’t see a check for another month, but still expect me to perform above and beyond. The first few times this happened as a burgeoning artist, I just kind of went with the flow because I was happy that anyone wanted to pay me at all. But in 2011, when I decided to take the leap and become a full-time artist because I was miserable and depressed in my day job, and had to start supplementing my measly adjunct income with gig money, the inconvenience of getting paid a month or more after a gig and having unsympathetic clients who backpedaled, stammered, made excuses, just showed me that I was wrong wrong wrong for expecting so-called professionals to be as professional as I tried to conduct my own behavior throughout a transaction. You know, like meeting deadlines for writing assignments and showing up for events. Needless to say, I inquire about expected payment dates, paperwork, etc. very early in the communication now. It still doesn’t always work.
So, my fellow working artists, here are a few tips to help you (and me!) protect ya neck out there when confronted with scenarios that in the real world would illicit threats from creditors and mafia members, but artists are forced to take what they’re given and like it on a regular basis.
* KEEP. A. PAPER. TRAIL. Save every email, every date, every contract, every form, ever xerox, every receipt, every bit of correspondence between you and a client. Not only will your accountant sing your praises every April, but if something goes wrong, you have a record of all communication (and in most cases, lack thereof). So try and keep it all somewhat organized. I basically just have a folder on my desktop that I dump all this stuff and can do a search through it if I need it.
* Keep an updated calendar. Make sure you meet all the deadlines your client requests for filling out said paperwork, but this will help you make sure they meet their end of the bargain too.
* Keep your rates and pricing consistent for everyone. If you are giving someone a discount, make sure they KNOW they’re getting a discount. If you make any exceptions, document this fact in the invoice.
* Invoice. Even if it’s not required, invoice. Even if you’re doing the work gratis. Still show that in an itemized invoice. That way you have documentation that you have delivered services rendered and the transaction is complete.
* Create your own simple contract that clearly outlines what you expect from your client. Everything from payment to what sorts of conditions should be present upon delivery. If you’re a performer, do you expect to have a mic and bottle of water? If it’s a piece of art, who’s handling the shipping costs? See what I mean? May want a lawyer to help you out with this. And if you feel weird about a contract, at least have them address all these issues in an email so you have a record of the arrangements.
* Request a nonrefundable downpayment by the conclusion of your initial arrangements. Consider your services pending layaway. And if they don’t deliver on their end, you don’t have to deliver. Yes, this is real. You can do this. And request payment upon delivery. Let them know either you see a check or you don’t deliver. Yup. You can do this too! Obviously, communicate this term early on.
* Oh yeah. Communicate. Initiate contact when necessary. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and not in a passive aggressive, snarky way. You are allowed to demand professionalism from your clients. They may be busy, but guess what, so are you. You have just as impending bills to pay and take your work just as seriously. This ain’t some Oliver Twist type of deal. You are doing them a SERVICE. Right now, you have to think of your art as your business. If you don’t, how can we expect them to? And listen, if they didn’t want your services, they wouldn’t have asked you in the first place. We’ll never change the atmosphere of shorting our artists until our artists start demanding more respect and change the playing field of professionalism and how we’re treated in a business sense. You don’t have to go off on someone who is delivering a payment late or not communicating well. Remain as professional as possible, but reveal that you are concerned about the way the arrangement has proceeded and start CCin’g people’s bosses. I haven’t been out of the 9-5 game so long that I don’t remember nothing gets someone’s attention like having your supervisor CC’d on an email.
* Do unto others. If you ever employ the services of a fellow working artist, be professional with them. Pay them. Be up front about what you can afford, of course, but pay something unless they offer to barter or to do it gratis. And if you pay them, pay them on time. Break them off a downpayment if you can afford it. And make sure you communicate at all times the same way you would appreciate communication. This is not only going to ensure you will have a continued collaborator, as well as place a few stacks of good karma in your cosmic piggy bank, but this gesture makes a working artist feel valued and better about the risk they took to empower their art and make their dreams come true in the first place.